Italy Misses World Cup Qualifier For First Time Since 1958

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 14, 2017 7:13 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ELISE HU, HOST:

Italy lost a playoff to Sweden last night. La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote this about the loss - Italy, this is the apocalypse - because it means the Italian men's national soccer team will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1958. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who played in his last international game, was in tears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIANLUIGI BUFFON: (Speaking Italian).

HU: He's apologizing there and knows this loss was much bigger than him. The tears have been flowing all over Italy today. So what happened? Let's ask Paolo Bandini. He's a European soccer writer and joins us via Skype. Paolo, thanks for being with us.

PAOLO BANDINI: No problem.

HU: So what happened? This was obviously a historic loss. But was it a surprising one, too?

BANDINI: Yeah. I mean, I suppose because the game is played over two legs. Italy had lost the first leg. There was some anxiety that we're in a tough spot now and that things could go wrong from here. But I think even despite that there was still a lot of expectation that Italy would go through. Italy are historically and traditionally a stronger soccer nation than Sweden. But there has been a sense of unease about this Italy side for a long time.

HU: How would you say Italy got to this point?

BANDINI: Well, I think the manager is a huge part of it. Gian Piero Ventura is an older manager - he's now 69, he was 68 already when he took the job - who has never really managed at the top, top level of club soccer. He never competed in the Champions League. He never competed for trophies. And I think that the reality was he wasn't up to this job.

HU: Now, when the U.S. team was eliminated from the World Cup last month, there was a lot of hair pulling over here and finger pointing. But we're talking about Italy here. Italy, which has - what? - four World Cups. How are people in Italy dealing with this at this point?

BANDINI: Terribly, obviously. It's - you know, it's - this is - it's a national crisis. You know, it's something that generations and generations, including myself, of Italians have never experienced in our lifetime. You know, I think people looking from the outside sometimes imagine that Italians don't love soccer like they used to because the crowds in the stadiums have gone down a little bit. There'd been some trouble with sort of violence in some of the stadiums.

But actually it's just not true. I mean, soccer is still everything in Italy. And you see it in the streets everywhere you go. You feel it in the conversations you have with everybody. Every little bar you go into will have a copy of Gazzetta dello Sport on the table, which is the - you know, the national sports paper. It's everything in Italy, soccer. And I think that it's a huge blow to the national psyche to not be part of the World Cup, the one tournament that matters most.

HU: What about you? How are you doing?

BANDINI: It's been a bit of a whirlwind today, to be honest with you. It's one of those things - someone on a purely professional level had asked me earlier, oh, this is going to mean less work for you next summer, isn't it? And I'm like, yeah, but today it seems to mean a lot more. But, yeah, it's one of those things, I guess, being a journalist sometimes you slightly lose the sense in a moment. But last night I was pretty cut up about it, and today I'm just trying to get on with it.

HU: Paolo Bandini, we hope the shock wears off soon. Paolo writes about soccer for The Guardian, ESPN and other outlets. Paolo, thanks.

BANDINI: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.