The Slow Death of Italian Football


The Slow Death of Italian Football

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Pictures tell stories, and the one with Gigi Buffon crying in the post-match interview is a heartbreaking one. As fate would have it, it was a deflected goal that the Italian goalkeeper could do nothing about, which separated the two teams over 180 minutes of football. Italy created chances, but Buffon’s opposite number Robin Olsen had an outstanding game in the Swedish goal, while a couple of penalty shouts could have gone either way. The San Siro miracle that everyone was waiting for wasn’t to be, as Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

While the result on the night might be a surprising one, there is nothing shocking about Italy’s decline in the beautiful game. The writing has been on the wall for a while. The Azzurri, once feared giants of Europe, are no longer favourites to go far in tournaments. The 2006 World Cup win wasn’t predicted by many, as an ageing Italian squad beat the odds. After that night in Berlin, they have failed to go past the group stages in successive World Cups. Expectations have dropped, as even the 2016 Euro quarter-final finish by Conte’s men was seen as a successful campaign. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is perhaps the cruel end to a predictable horror movie.

As one generation bows out, Italy needs its next generation of wonderkids to step it up.

“Life imitates art more than art imitates life,” said Oscar Wilde. It couldn’t be truer for Italian football, which has seen the nation’s dip on the economic and political front being replicated on the field. As Italy  found itself in turmoil over the decades, we saw Europe’s former powerhouse falter on the big stage. Players started moving around to more attractive destinations, the crowds started dipping, and corruption and match-fixing allegations caused a massive reputation dent as the once thriving Serie A of the late ’80s and ’90s was reduced to a poor man’s alternative to Spain and England.

As world football pays its tribute to the great Gigi Buffon on calling it a day, the veteran trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele de Rossi, and Andrea Barzagli have also announced retirement. It is rather telling that so many players from Italy’s 2006 World Cup heroics were still in the squad, a decade later. The failure to find able replacements for some of these legends is what hurt Italy hard.

Today, Italy has lost its core, and while it is heart-breaking to see these heroes bow out in this manner, it was perhaps necessary, to rebuild the team. As one generation bows out, Italy needs its next generation of wonderkids to step it up. And the signs as there, as the likes of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Danielle Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli, and Federico Bernardeschi take over the reins. Italian football has fallen. But to quote the great Alfred Pennyworth “We fall so that we can pick ourselves up.” It would be football’s loss if we don’t see a strong Azzurri team soon, of the likes we saw in the ‘80s; solid at the back and clinical in the final third. Forza Azzurri!