A World Cup without Italy will have a decidedly strange feel to it this summer in Russia, even for the neutral supporter.
The Azzurri have been a vitally important part of this tournament since its inception, winning the second and third editions in 1934 and 1938 with ease. Those early triumphs were assisted by the will of Benito Mussolini, but the side would take years to recover following the Superga air disaster in 1949, a crash that wiped out the entire “Grande Torino” side and all but one of the regular starting Italy XI.
They would not win again until 1982, a tournament that gave us an unlikely Paolo Rossi hat-trick in a thrilling 3-2 win over reigning champions Brazil, and the famous scream from midfielder Marco Tardelli, as he sealed the victory over West Germany in the final.
Even those who cannot remember as far back as then will recall the moment when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the 2006 final, but there was also a simply brilliant save from Gianluigi Buffon on the aforementioned Frenchman earlier in the match as he tipped a bullet header over the bar.
It was the legendary goalkeeper who wept when Italy failed to reach the World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years, the 40-year-old having understood that his last chance to play in the tournament was gone. It was a terrible shame that he – along with Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, who play in front of him as part of the “BBC” defence – would not have another chance to prove themselves on the highest stage, but the incompetent boss Giampiero Ventura had failed them all.
The veteran coach had ignored the talented crop of youngsters at his disposal, selecting no less than six players over the age of 30 in the starting line-up in the decisive yet fateful playoff second leg versus Sweden. “In football terms, it’s the biggest disappointment of my life,” said Barzagli to reporters after the match. “I hope the younger players can take the situation in hand and do better than us. The era of four or five veterans comes to a close and the one of the hungry young players coming through begins. That’s how it should be.”
While the Azzurri are still to appoint a replacement for Ventura, Under-21 boss Gigi Di Biagio has taken temporary charge of the team with the full intention of doing exactly that. It is only fitting that Buffon has been recalled to the squad for friendlies in the next seven days, versus Argentina and England, in order that he bid a fitting farewell to an international career that has seen him capped 175 times for his country.
However, Di Biagio fully intends to show the world what they will sorely miss in Russia, showcasing some of Italy’s brightest young talent that undoubtedly should have been better utilised under Ventura. If the veteran boss had done so, we would surely have seen those blue shirts on our television screens this summer, the tournament ultimately worse off without one of football’s traditional superpower nations.
Yet we will have to be content with a duo of friendly matches that should serve to delight the neutral, and give Italy a platform upon which to prove that the qualifying farce was not indicative of the level of talent the peninsula has to pick from.
Into the squad for games at the Etihad and Wembley comes the likes of Jorginho – a man who topped Europe’s top-five leagues in terms of number of passes per 90minutes (98) in 2016/17 and continues to do so this season with 97.3 – yet was consistently ignored by Ventura. This is the man who is the driving force behind Napoli’s slick passing game, the Partenopei described as “perhaps the best side I have faced in my career” by Pep Guardiola earlier this season.
“I have no regrets, this country gave me the opportunity to realize my dream, to become a footballer,” said Brazilian-born Jorginho. “I really wanted it, and then the call never came . . . then there was some talk about Brazil, and I did think about it a bit, but I have no regrets.”
Veteran Daniele De Rossi publicly slammed Ventura when asked to warm up as a substitute, rather than talented winger Lorenzo Insigne, during that fateful match with Sweden. However, there will be no such mistake this time around, with the latter set to pair up with Jorginho in a familiar 4-3-3 setup that they always play in their domestic set-up.
Di Biagio has also called 20-year-old duo Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone, the attacking pair both having showcased their clear talent for Fiorentina and AC Milan respectively this term. With Juventus defender Daniele Rugani, Alessandro Florenzi of Roma and highly rated Atalanta left-back Leonardo Spinazzola likely to join more seasoned Italy professional Leonardo Bonucci in defence, we will start to see the future of the Italian national side emerge.
The choice to field a 4-3-3 seems obvious – as indeed does the squad selection – with the wealth of talent that the Azzurri have available. The man in temporary charge of the side has stepped up to the mark in this respect, but his unimpressive record in the under-21 dugout shows that he may not have the game-management skills to earn the job permanently.
However, the upcoming friendlies provide a chance for him and his team to show what they are made of, handing those usually sterile encounters just that little bit of added spice.