There was a time when Serie A and the Italian national team took centre stage in world football.
Not only were the world’s mightiest players honing their skills in the boot-looking country but the Squadra Azzurra’s wealth of talent, unique way of defending and tactical intelligence were impossible to ignore.
But things have soured in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup triumph. Where the football academies once produced a healthy dose of great talents such as Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro, mixed with many other good players such as Luigi Di Biagio and Gianluca Zambrotta, it’s now churning out decent players at best. As a result, instead of looking like a challenging side, Italy now look challenged.
If your football schools go from producing Francesco Totti to Ciro Immobile you have a serious problem. It’s true, there have been a few potential greats coming through in recent years but those few have all run into rotten. The talk is about Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Daniele Rugani, who after brilliantly bursting onto the scene at a tender age, have all struggled to live up to expectations. Some might wonder why. And the answer is : they simply couldn’t take the media and the fans’ criticism when the first footballing crisis came their way. Going from adulation and compliments to pressure and stick in the blink of an eye is tough.
Not everyone can take it. Unless you have Christian Vieri’s ‘broad shoulders’ as he himself once pointed out, you won’t overcome it. There is an absence of work rate and strong characters. The talent might still be there but Italian football clearly lack players with personality.Leaders like Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Rino Gattuso and Marco Materazzi. Players who didn’t struggle under the spotlight. Players who could handle criticism. But first and foremost, real men who didn’t get carried away after winning big trophies.
And that’s exactly what happened to El Shaarawy, the man who better than any other epitomises the demise of Italian football.
El Shaarawy hit the ground running during the 2012-2013 season when his goals played a pivotal role in AC Milan’s rise from the ashes following the departures of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain that previous summer.
His sparkling form carried on until January, but it was Balotelli’s arrival from Manchester City that saw him enter a dark tunnel. No longer was he the main man, no longer was he the Rossoneri’s fulcrum and talisman which wrecked his confidence. Ultimately a run of six goalless matches and the burden of expectations on his young shoulders led to his personal fall. The fans and the media expected big things but El Shaarawy didn’t deliver. He lost his hunger.Off the boil he went. A dead-man walking he became. He paid the price for other people’s fault in the end. Talk about wasted potential has been ongoing ever since. And even worse: some pundits were totally convinced that he only played for AC Milan because of the team’s lack of financial means in those days.
If to that we add the fact that way too many foreigners ply their trade in Serie A , the crash is complete. You might rightly point to the fact that in recent years Italian football has produced outstanding talents such as Alessio Romagnoli, Manolo Gabbiadini, Andrea Belotti, Davide Zappacosta, Daniele Benassi and Gianluigi Donnarumma. But actually how many of them play for the big guns? How many of them regularly play Champions League football? How many of them could play for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich How many of them are household names in football? You know the answer. And therein lies the problem.
A decade ago, when AC Milan dominated the European scene, no fewer than half a dozen were involved month-in month-out in the knock-out stages of the Champions League and it was, of course, in those days that Italy upset the odds by winning the World Cup in Germany .
Yet, to get a measure of how much things have changed, these days Italy’s best striker Belotti plays for an average Italian side such as FC Turin who struggle to even qualify for the Europa League.
On top of that, the country’s top sides field fewer than four Italian players in their starting XI. Juve have four, AC Milan three, Napoli two, AS Roma one and Lazio two. Yet, the consequences for the national team have been atrocious.
Italy were unable to get out of the group stages at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups while miserably failing to even qualify for the next installment in Russia after failing to overcome Sweden in the playoffs. Yes, Sweden – not Spain, not Germany, not France.
Thus, all of Antonio Conte’s superb work at Euro 2016 has arguably been undone by Giampiero Ventura whose lack of experience at the highest level was detrimental.
Making things worse is that the country’s best managers such as Roberto Mancini, Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte preferred walking away from the declining league to teach their footballing gospel abroad, while Marco Verratti was also snapped up by PSG at the age of 20 in 2012.
The fact that the so-called best Italian player doesn’t even ply his trade in Serie A, but in the French division, not La Liga or the Premier League, speaks volumes. Besides, top teams such as Inter Milan and AC Milan haven’t qualified for the Champions League since 2011 and 2013 respectively, while the last Italian club going all the way in that competition were the Nerazzurri in 2010, almost eight years ago. Juventus are the only remaining side with world-class status in Italian football. AS Roma might have shown symptoms of revival after overcoming FC Chelsea 3-0 in the Champions League last month but that isn’t sufficient to make it a great team. Consistency is what FC Naples, who are regularly forced to sell their best players, lack as well.
Having to watch the next World Cup on television is the final straw. But that’s the price you pay for replacing Baresi with Rugani; Roberto Donadoni with Antonio Candreva, Gennaro Gattuso with Marco Parolo, and Roberto Baggio with Immobile, with all due respect. Gone are the days when two between Filippo Inzaghi, Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero and Totti had to take a seat on the bench given the abundance of superstars.
Let’s not forget that Italy are joint-second alongside Germany and behind Brazil in terms of World Cup victories with four prizes to their name. Let’s also not forget that in the 90’s the Squadra Azzurra reached the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup on home turf and were only a penalty away from seeing off Brazil in the 1994 shoot-out in Pasadena. Back then the divine ponytail Baggio skied the decisive penalty while four years later another victory on penalties eluded the Italians as a quarter-final defeat against hosts France spelled the end of their World Cup hopes.
But unlike then, the lack of quality and creativity is evident. With legends Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli calling time on international duty the future looks even grimmer. Milan’s prodigy keeper Donnarumma will make the goalkeeping position his for years to come but there is no guarantee that he will successfully follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. The same goes for the other youngsters. Can Rugani and Romagnoli with the help of Leonardo Bonucci grow into the new BBC that consisted of Barzagli, Chiellini and the new Milan defender himself? Will Belotti and Verratti rise to the challenge and take Italy forward in the same way Christian Vieri and Andrea Pirlo did in the past?
Thus, the fans are disillusioned and worried while the media is as busy as ever reflecting on the sources of the decline by figuring out how to turn things around. What system should be deployed? What manager will be appointed? What went wrong? Why do some blossom for their clubs and yet struggle for Italy?
Manager Ancelotti has emerged as a surprise candidate to take over and, according to Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport, he is believed to be interested in the job but has set his own conditions. Unless the president of the Italian federation Giancarlo Tavecchio, a hated figure whose racist comments last year made made headlines around the world, resists any attempts to step down from his role, he won’t accept the opportunity to become the new commissario tecnico.
There is no doubt that, with a shortage of jewels coming through, the need for a world-class manager is as strong as ever. Otherwise the risk of emulating the Netherlands and miss back-to-back tournaments is huge.
Featured photograph: Wikipedia