MILAN, Nov 14: Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades after losing its playoff to Sweden 1-0 on aggregate.
They played to a goalless draw in the second leg at San Siro on Monday.
Sweden advanced to its first World Cup since 2006.
It could have been worse for Italy, as Sweden was denied what looked like two clear-cut penalties for handballs, first by Matteo Darmian and then Andrea Barzagli.
Italy had a penalty appeal of its own waved off by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz when Marco Parolo was tripped from behind by Ludwig Augsustinsson.
But the Azzurri struggled to carve out clear chances against a solid Sweden side, and really tested goalkeeper Robin Olsen only once.
This will be only the second World Cup missed by Italy. The first was in 1958.
The last major competitions Italy failed to qualify for were the 1984 and 1992 European Championships.
It would be easy to lay the blame squarely on Gian Piero Ventura. The Italy coach will naturally take the lion’s share but the Azzurri’s problems run much deeper.
The rot started long before Ventura took charge.
After winning the World Cup in 2006 for a fourth time, Italy went out at the group stage of the next two editions. It fared somewhat better at the European Championship, reaching the final in 2012 and going out in the quarterfinals in 2008 and 2016.
However, Antonio Conte’s Italy side overachieved in France last year, when it surprisingly beat Spain in the round of 16 before losing on penalties to world champion Germany.
For a long time, Italy has lacked a creative force. The likes of Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti of the 2006 side could change a match with one moment of magic.
Both are long retired.
Mario Balotelli was the star of Euro 2012 but fell out of favor after Italy’s woeful showing at the last World Cup, and hasn’t been called up by Ventura, while Conte selected him in only one squad.
The lack of stars in the Italy team is reflected in the Italian league.
Juventus has been a force to be reckoned with in recent years in Europe, where it has reached two out of the past three Champions League finals. But while its defense forms the backbone of the Italy team, its midfield and attack are made up mainly of foreign players.
The Brazilian-born Jorginho was finally handed his competitive debut by Ventura, and the midfielder impressed with some deft passing.
Jorginho created Italy’s best opportunities with two throughballs for Ciro Immobile, who hit the netting from a tight angle from one. Immbobile beat Olsen with another but Andreas Granqvist got back for a decisive goal-line clearance.
Alessandro Florenzi was also back following a year out after twice tearing a knee ligament, and the midfielder forced Olsen into his only real save, while a cross of his was also deflected onto the crossbar in the second half.
Meanwhile, the highly rated Lorenzo Insigne surprisingly played only 15 minutes of the playoff — and out of position.
Those three players are 26 or under and, along with forwards Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti, could form the spine of a rejuvenated Italy side for several years to come.
The 29 nations that have already booked their place for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after Sweden qualified on Monday:
Europe: Belgium, England, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Russia (as hosts), Serbia, Spain, France, Portugal, Switzerland, Croatia, Sweden
Africa: Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia
Asia: Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea
North, Central America and Caribbean: Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama
South America: Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia
The three remaining places will be decided by Wednesday, November 15. They will go to:
– The winner of the last European play-off: Denmark v Republic of Ireland
– The two winners of intercontinental play-offs: Peru v New Zealand, Australia v Honduras