Italy World Cup hopes over: From European champions to the second apocalypse in nine months – what happened?

Italy vs North Macedonia
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The referee blows the full-time whistle. Distraught Italy players crumple to the turf as boos tumble down from the stands of their home stadium. The Azzurri have failed to qualify for the World Cup through the play-offs.   

Astonishingly, this paragraph now describes two qualification campaigns in a row.   

The four-time World Cup winners – and reigning European champions - aren’t going to the Qatar World Cup 2022.

But this time they weren’t beaten over two legs by a solid Sweden side, as in 2017, but knocked out in a one-off game, at home, by a North Macedonia team ranked 67th in the world.

For a country that prides itself in the glorious history of its national team, it’s difficult to accept. 

They haven’t played a World Cup knockout game since winning the 2006 final, meaning at least 20 years will have passed before the next one. 

The staggering fact of the matter was hard for the Palermo crowd to compute.

On Thursday, the Sicilian city was buzzing with anticipation of the coming match, with visiting fans from North Macedonia mingling happily with the locals in the winding streets of the old town.

The scenes around the Stadio Renzo Barbera before kick-off were jubilant too. Flags were waved, beers flowed freely, and songs were sung in anticipation of a comfortable victory.

This was supposed to be a festival, not a funeral.   

A couple of hours later, insults were being hurled from every corner of the stadium towards a group of players that has somehow transformed from the slick-passing, defensively devilish side that won Euro 2020 during a 37-game unbeaten run to, well, this.    

After the initial barrage of whistles came a mixed response. Some fans stormed out straight away, some continued to heckle.

But others just stood there, clearly wrestling with the question: how on earth did this happen?

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My kingdom for a goal

Cracks in the Italian armour appeared as soon as they won the Euros and have widened ever since.

Italy’s attack has been a constant point of debate for years, particularly who should be picked as the central striker, but the performance against North Macedonia was the most extreme version yet of Roberto Mancini’s side at their wasteful worst. 

The Azzurri had 32 attempts to Macedonia’s four, and 65 per cent possession.

But Ciro Immobile, Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne rarely tested goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski, and the front three that replaced them of Giacomo Raspadori, Joao Pedro and Lorenzo Pellegrini had no more luck.  

Mancini has tinkered with his attack time and again, but always with the same results. 

He’s tried all sorts of combinations, he’s tried a false nine, and on Thursday, he tried handing Immobile the captaincy in a show of faith to the man who shoulders much of the criticism when it comes to Italy’s problems in front of goal. To no avail. 

But it isn’t just a clinical striker they need, but a free-scoring winger, a creative spark between the lines and a goal threat from midfield. They've had none of these things and it has cost them.

Italy’s first games after the Euros were a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria and 0-0 draw in Switzerland. They scored one goal from a combined 38 shots, using four different forwards from the start and another four from the bench.

After brushing aside Lithuania, qualification was still in Italy’s hands if they could win their final two games, but instead – you guessed it – they drew twice.

This time, they required 24 attempts to get one goal in a 1-1 with Switzerland and 0-0 in Northern Ireland.  

Jorginho missed penalties in both games against the Swiss, spot kicks that would’ve sent Italy through. He said after Thursday’s defeat that they would “haunt me for the rest of my life”.

Perhaps those uncharacteristic misses were a symptom of a collective presumptuousness that has crept in since the Euros, an attitude of superiority that couldn't be further from the humility and team spirit that took them to Wembley glory in the first place.

Mancini's legacy tarnished

Either way, the fault doesn’t lie with the Chelsea (opens in new tab) playmaker, but with a collective inability to translate pressure into points, and here the finger has been pointed at Mancini for failing to find an answer. 

The overall state of Italian football will be microscopically analysed now, as it was when La Nazionale went out to Sweden. 

It’s true that systemic, financial, organisational and infrastructural problems have held Serie A back for years. 

Zero European trophies won since 2010, and no teams reaching the Champions League quarter-finals in the last two years, aren't a coincidence. 

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be fair to write off the Euros win as a flash in the pan. 

Italy deserved their victory, played some great football along the way, and took three major scalps in Belgium, Spain and England. The 37-match run can’t be downplayed either. 

However, that was Italy at their absolute best, while Thursday night was their dreadful worst. The truth possibly lies somewhere in between.

Mancini’s legacy is now divided. He did a superb job in rebuilding a dilapidated national team after a play-off defeat to Sweden that was described as the apocalypse.

But after winning a major trophy, they’re back to where they started. The apocalypse part two. 

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Alasdair Mackenzie is a freelance journalist based in Rome, and a FourFourTwo contributor since 2015. When not pulling on the FFT shirt, he can be found at Reuters, The Times and the i. An Italophile since growing up on a diet of Football Italia on Channel 4, he now counts himself among thousands of fans sharing a passion for Ross County and Lazio.