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Italy in the mourning

Opinions / Analysis

Many tragedies have befallen Italy in the last 60 years. Dozens of governments have collapsed. Earthquakes and terrorism have shaken cities. The French started adding cream to carbonara.

But the failure of the national soccer team on Monday night to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958 seems to be taking a place in the pantheon of Italian disasters.

Italy, a soccer-crazed nation that has won the World Cup four times, had already lost the first match against Sweden in a two-leg playoff and needed more than Monday’s 0-0 tie in the return match to qualify for soccer’s premier tournament for national teams, which will be held in Russia in 2018.

Italy exited the last World Cup in the first round, a setback that had already prompted anxiety about the future of Italian soccer. But for a country that puts the game so central to its national identity, Monday night’s humiliation prompted an existential crisis.

Cultural commentators said the result at the San Siro stadium in Milan reflected the failure of Italian society to move forward into modernity. It resulted from the rot and corruption in the Italian Football Federation, they said. Some politicians blamed immigration.

Most of the front pages used the anguished expression of the 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who looked up to the sky with Job-like woe as the final whistle blew, to illustrate the nation’s pain. The legendary keeper, who played a central role in Italy’s World Cup victory in 2006, retired from the national team after the match, his 175th appearance in 20 years.

“Time goes by, and it’s cruel, but that’s how it is,” he said as he fought back tears in remarks after the game. In a subsequent interview to the Italian state broadcaster RAI, the Juventus captain said he had sought not to cry in front of Italian children watching at home because he wanted them to dream about playing for the national team.

“I’m sorry,” he said, adding, “We failed at something that also means something on a social level.”

The coach of Italy, Gian Piero Ventura, whose job looks precarious with officials and most of the country already calling for his head, reflected what many see as a national allergy to accountability. “The apocalypse is not a child only of tonight,” he said after the game, declining to resign.

As Italian websites exploded with Ikea-inspired Sweden jokes, including step-by-step instructions for Italians on how to make a “göl,” some politicians tried to exploit the frustration.

“Too many foreigners on the field,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, wrote on Twitter. “#StopInvasion, and more space for Italian guys, also on the soccer field.”

Financial analysts projected a loss of revenue to the national team of 100 million euros, or about $116 million, because of the failure to qualify for the World Cup.

“There will be economic consequences to this defeat,” Elisa Simoni, a left-leaning member of Parliament, told the news channel Sky TG24. Others suggested that Italy’s victory at the World Cup in 2006 had contributed to a spike in employment and in the country’s gross domestic product.

Those days now seem far away.

In a video, Alessandro Vocalelli, the editor of Corriere dello Sport, said that the failure would create a new description for national humiliation: “It was ‘a Sweden.’ ” The failure to qualify, he said, was “a national shame without precedent.”

He added, with a statement characteristic of the day, that “entire generations have never known this tragic experience.”

Italian television offered blanket coverage of the debacle, sending reporters to Bari, Milan, Palermo, Rome and elsewhere to measure the impact of the national disaster.

On a masochistic loop, TV channels played the lowlights from the match, including Italy’s many missed chances and the players falling to the ground at the end. One commentator called it “the saddest night in the history of Italian soccer.”

On the radio, usually esoteric news programs dedicated time to Italy’s failure. It was not just about sport, expert after expert made clear, but about culture, and how Italy paled in comparison to Germany, “which follows the rules.”

Blame was also placed on the sketchy financing of Italian soccer teams and on the low culture of the fans, some of whom booed during the playing of Sweden’s national anthem.

Analysts noted that the Italian talent pool, once an ocean, had shrunk to a puddle because of competition from other sports. Maurizio Crosetti, a sportswriter for La Repubblica, said that the soccer disaster mirrored a crisis in Italian society. “This shows us anthropologically, culturally, how we have become, how we have been reduced,” he wrote.

The Italian government announced on Tuesday more growth in the economy this year, but that glimmer of good news was eclipsed by the prospect of a World Cup without Italy.

uca Lotti, the Italian sports minister, was among those seeking a silver lining. “We need to exploit this obviously negative occasion as an opportunity to rebuild Italian soccer,” he told reporters.


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