Incredible, unthinkable, unimaginable. For the first time in 60 years, the World Cup finals will be without four-time champions Italy after they were eliminated in the playoffs by Sweden on Monday.
Despite creating chance after chance, Italy couldn’t break through a resolute Swedish defence, sending an entire nation into shock and prompting headlines such as ‘the Apocalypse’ after a result that will be remembered as one of the greatest international upsets as well as one of the darkest nights in Italian football history.
To put the result into context, the Swedes’ starting line-up included only four players based with teams in Europe’s so-called big five leagues. Yet they, and not Italy, will take their place in the finals for the first time since 2006 courtesy of their 1-0 first-leg home win.
Italy have only failed to qualify for the tournament once before – missing out on the 1958 finals, ironically in Sweden. While they were unfortunate to have been drawn in a qualifying group including Spain and were always likely to finish runner-up, knockout football is a nerve-racking affair and the collective despair in Milan, which will give way to months of soul-searching, was there for all to see.
It was a particularly sad end to the career of 39-year-old goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon who made his Italy debut 20 years ago against Russia, the last occasion that Italy had to face a playoff for a World Cup place, and who has called time on his glittering international career.
“It’s upsetting that my last Italy game coincides with our elimination for the World Cup,” said Buffon, a World Cup winner in 2006. “That’s my only regret, because time goes by and its cruel but that’s how it is.”
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself but I’m sorry about the whole affair. We blew something that could have meant so much. The main regret is that it ended like this.”
Gian Piero Ventura, at 69 the oldest coach Italy has ever had, refused to confirm that he would step down after the humiliating 0-0 draw but several players are likely move into retirement.
Ventura made four changes to the team which lost 1-0 in Stockholm and although they were denied by Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen they were also let down by poor finishing.
“I absolutely apologise for the result but not for the effort we put in or our desire to win,” said Ventura while his opposite number Jan Andersson admitted his side had to defend for their lives.
“We had no weapons left. We just had to sit there and hope that we could hang on,” he said. “We couldn’t do it in any other way, they are so skilful.”
Inside World Football