Italy won’t be at the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer.
Say that again, and see how weird it starts to sound in the mouth, on the tongue—in the heart, damnit.
Italy, the country that practically invented defending as an art, that gave the world one of soccer’s greatest-ever nicknames—“The Divine Ponytail”—to describe the blissful talents of Roberto Baggio; that lent us Andrea Pirlo and his sublime passing and equally sublime hair and an unfair amount of urbanity; that made us laugh and cry at the same time by doing hilarious things like torching itself with self-reproach for a match-fixing scandal then winning the 2006 World Cup a few weeks later; that hosted the World Cup, in 1990, that woke English football from its own period of introspection and torpor.
That inspired the stiff-lipped BBC to become dewy-eyed enough to meld opera and soccer and create this title sequence that won’t be beaten no matter how good special effects or virtual reality get…
The Italian soccer team of 2017 is a wispy imitation, though, of those in your memory. Sure, they wear the same, lovely Azzurri shirts, and they still have great clubs and good players to pick from even if the best, Juventus and Napoli, rely on foreign players for much of their success.
But something—or things—are missing. Hence the calamity, no less, of Monday night, when Sweden visited the San Siro in Milan for the second leg of a World Cup 2018 play-off and walked out with a 0-0 draw and a 1-0 win on aggregate, that of course, and shockingly, meant Italy will not be present at a World Cup for the first time since 1958.
"We will not be with you and you will not be with us. A love so great must be reserved for other things. Italy will not participate at the World Cup,” La Gazzetta Dello Sport, Italy’s famous pink-paged sports newspaper, wrote on the Tuesday morning after the night before.
"It is time to start thinking about what else we can do in June: concerts, cinema, village festivals. Anything but watching Sweden play at the World Cup—that would be too painful." It was a kind of death that presaged a series: Gianluigi Buffon, one of Italy’s greatest-ever goalkeepers, retired after the game. Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli, stalwarts both, both exited sheepishly, painfully.
Because Sweden—and here we invite hate-mail from Swedes the world over—is just okay at soccer. It has one, transcendent player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic who doesn’t even play international soccer anymore. Its best club teams would be humiliated by Juventus, Napoli, Roma and Lazio were they even good enough to get into the Champions League and yet…
Italy still lost. The 2018 World Cup was already U.S.A.-less. Now Italian-Americans don’t even have Italy to cheer on. It might be time to take Gazzetta’s advice and start making alternative plans for June and July next year.
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