A calamity is a disaster, and what happened in Palermo, in Sicily, Italy on March 24, 2022, is a disaster of grand proportions in the eyes of the Italian public. After being declared football’s champions of Europe just under one year ago, Italy has crashed out of the 2022 World Cup before it has even begun.
The First Failure
Football is taken very seriously in the country of Italy, and in Europe in general. And, for Italy, being one of Europe’s biggest countries means they expect greatness.
The First World Cup was hosted by Uruguay in 1930, which Italy took part in. Ever since, Italy has been a key team to watch in every World Cup except for two, one of them being four years ago in Russia.
Then, Italy placed second in their difficult qualifying group behind Spain and was then forced into a playoff with top Scandanavian side, Sweden. Sweden won the two-legged match one-nil and won qualification to the World Cup.
Italy was shocked, and the public went into outrage. They complained about being in the same first-round group as the Spaniards and having to draw Sweden next instead of the likes of the weaker sides available, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Greece. They also called for the Italian Football Federation to restart. Italy wanted everyone gone; they wanted a reboot.
And a reboot is what they got. Italy was successful. They actually went about three years without losing a game until losing to Spain in the Nations League semifinals. So with that great run, how did Italy not win their group this time around?
Well as we examine their results, we can see how that was possible. Italy was placed in one of the five-team qualifying groups, meaning they play eight games, twice against every other country.
Their group consisted of Italy, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, and Lithuania. Both Bulgaria and Lithuania were easy wins for the Italians in their eyes, while Northern Ireland posed very little trouble. Switzerland was a big competition, but with their apparent star player Xherdan Shaqiri reaching the end of his prime, it looked like Italy would have one of the easier routes to the World Cup. It was a celebrated group draw in Italy.
Beginning of 2022 Qualifying
It began well for the Italians as in the first window of three games, they handled Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, and Lithuania in successive two-nil victories, the latter of the two being played away.
After that, they went on to win seven consecutive games and win Euro 2020.
Post-Euro Championship Games
After returning from the Euros though, Italy was humbled. They drew one-one to Bulgaria at home, dropping a key two points that they had likely penciled in as theirs. Then, in their game in Basel vs the Swiss, they drew again, failing to score.
But they bounced back just three days later, and manhandled Lithuania five to zero, meaning they had won 14 points from a possible 18.
Switzerland meanwhile won their opening matches vs Bulgaria and Lithuania. They then drew with Italy as mentioned previously, and dropped two points vs Northern Ireland as well until beating them just a month later at home. They also dismantled the Lithuanian squad 4-0.
With two games remaining, the Italians and the Swiss were tied on 14 points, no other team really in sight. Both had taken care of the teams they were supposed to beat, with one slip up for each. The concerning fact though, is that Switzerland’s slip-up came at Northern Ireland while Italy failed to pick up three points at home to Bulgaria.
In Roma, Italy hosted Switzerland on November 12th, 2021. Switzerland scored an early goal, and Italy quickly responded with a goal from Di Lorenzo. But in a game where Italy dominated possession 64-36%, they couldn’t find a second goal.
That meant headed into the final round of qualifying, each squad had 15 points, while Italy held the goal differential tiebreaker. Switzerland later easily won their final game 4-0 while Italy was struggling to score at Northern Ireland, the same game where the Swiss had dropped points earlier in the campaign.
Italy had 71% possession, but the Northern Irish, playing for nothing, held them to just six shots on goal, and no goals. The game ended 0-0, and Switzerland won the group on 18 points while Italy suffered in second with 16 points.
How Switzerland Did It
Italy had blown their chances by dropping points to Bulgaria early on, and Northern Ireland when they needed a win the most. They also failed to capitalize on their opportunities, drawing the Swiss twice.
Switzerland knew they didn’t have to beat Italy to top the group, they just had to beat everyone else, and they did just that.
Italy’s biggest problem was their goal-scoring. They have no reliable goal-scorer as their forwards begin to age. Insigne and Immobile, though passionate, failed to hit the target on numerous simple occasions. Beradi had a lot of difficulty proving himself, and Belotti was helpless.
Chiesa, before picking up injuries, was solid, but he couldn’t do everything by himself. The Midfielders were great, but they can’t put the ball in the back of the net enough to stabilize the Italian squad.
For a team that lost no games in qualifying, Italy would go to a four-team playoff to determine which one team would qualify for the World Cup, a similar position they were in just four years ago in their devastating loss to the Swedes.
Italy got quite the unlucky draw, as Portugal, who failed to top Serbia in their group in an astonishing, Tottenham-like bottling effort, were drawn into the other side of their playoff path. Italy would play Macedonia at home, with Portugal hosting Turkey and the winners of the two games playing one another with a spot in the 2022 World Cup on the line.
Italy v North Macedonia
Portugal beat Turkey at home to move on at the same time as Italy was playing Macedonia. Macedonia has been known as the upsetters as they found their way into the Euros in 2021, but nobody thought they’d have a shot at beating Italy, as a draw would not suffice and would just send them to extra time.
And, watching the game, it turned out how you’d think. Italy had a whopping 32 shots to Macedonia’s lowly four, and they commanded 66% of the possession. But with all those attacks, they managed just five shots at the Macedonian goalkeeper. Even with Italy playing one of their more attacking lineups, and making substitutes to put fresh legs on the field in attack, they just couldn’t score.
Their original attack of Insigne-Immobile-Beradi was straight swapped for Raspadori-Pellegrini-Pedro by the 89th minute. It was a shift in generation for the Italians as they saw the same players who had won them the Euros and had disappointed four years ago be subbed off for the younger players in an effort to find a goal.
As extra-time loomed, with Macedonia’s just one shot on target, it was expected the only chance they would have would be to hold Italy for another 30 minutes and win the game in penalties. Though the Macedonian goalkeeper had earlier tried to hand Italy a goal on a silver platter, he shaped up for the final ten minutes and held them to a stalemate.
A few minutes of added time were added on, and the game would be going to extra time.
How it All Ended
But Macedonian forward Aleksander Trajkovski had different plans. As a time-wasting kick from the goalkeeper was sent long, it fell to his feet in the 92nd minute, as he instinctually swung his right boot at the ball from 25 yards out and watched it roll past PSG’s GK Gianluigi Donnarumma into the bottom left corner. The Macedonian team went bonkers, flooding the field in celebration as the stadium in Palermo fell into shock.
The Al-Fayha striker had beaten the PSG shot-stopper, sending Italy home for the second straight World Cup, their third miss ever.
Italy went from European Champions to sitting on their couches wondering where it all went wrong. The answer is too many places, and the public has already begun talks of restarting all over again. And, when you are beaten by North Macedonia before even thinking about beating Portugal, that’ll happen.
It’s likely we have seen the last of many of Italy’s top players from the last decade in an Italian shirt in World Cup Qualifying. They have to look at themselves in the mirror real long and determine how they are going to make up for disappointing a country of 60 million people praying for their country’s success.