The strange, sad mood in Italy as the national team misses the World Cup for the first time in 60 years
Supporters of Italy watch as its soccer team misses its chance to play in the 2018 World Cup after tying with Sweden in a qualifying match in November and losing on the aggregate score from the teamsâ two matches. (PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP/Getty Images) June 21 at 4:58 PM Email the author
ROME â" This is a year when much of Italy feels upside-down, and so itâs almost fitting that the usual markers of soccer obsession are suddenly nowhere to be found.
Sports bars in Rome are full at dinnertime, but this time, itâs the outdoor tables that are most crowded, the ones with no view of the televisions. Soccer continues as the background soundtrack of daily life â " but in one suburban neighborhood on a recent evening, the action was coming from 13-year-olds on a community field, and the stakes were low, the tricolor flags were nowhere, and the adults at a nearby cafe paid no attention to that game or any other.
âI havenât watched the World Cup, not a minute,â said Sabrina Battista, 37, a teacher sitting at the cafe. âIt doesnât exist this year.â
âWe lost a moment of sharing,â said Chiara Caporilli, 39, sharing the same table.
âWe lost a moment of beauty,â Battista said.
What Italy lost, of course, was the chance to feel sporting elation and torment and hope. Its national team â" like those of the United States, Chile, China, Ghana and the Netherlands â" failed to qualify for the World Cup. But in Italy, the absence cuts deeper.
Italian players are d ejected at the end of their FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier playoff. The second-leg match between Italy and Sweden at San Siro Stadium on Nov. 13, 2017, in Milan ended in a 0-0 draw. Sweden won the two-match encounter with an aggregate score of 1-0. (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
The beloved Azzurri hadnât missed a World Cup in 60 years. Four times, the team had won the whole tournament. Entire generations had grown up here considering soccer glory a birthright, a reflection of Italian creativity.
Italians have also relied on their national soccer team to help unify a country splintered by politics and closely held regional identities.
But this time, Italy is experiencing a most unusual kind of summer: one that is quieter, more subdued, and more partisan as well. As the World Cup kicked off this month, thousands in Rome were chanting in the streets â" but this time, instead of celebrating, they were protesting their new governmentâs hard-line policies toward migra nts.
âSoccer is no longer the dominating issue,â said Darwin Pastorin, a Turin-based journalist who has written many books about Italian soccer. âPeople in the sports bar talk a lot about the government, about migrants. They are more concerned by the quality of the government than that of their goalkeeper.â
When Italians do reach for an explanation of their soccer decline, their answers include some of the unnerving factors that have flipped this countryâs politics, enabling insurgents to charge in from obscurity and push establishment parties aside: economic rot, a failure to innovate. The Azzurri have seen their talent pool steadily dwindle since 2006, the year of their last World Cup title. The country has not kept pace with the Germans and Spanish in developing young talent.
Italian players inspect the pitch bef ore their match with Sweden at San Siro Stadium. (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
After Italy failed to beat Sweden in November and officially lost its chance at the 2018 World Cup, the initial reaction was seismic. The team parted ways with its coach. Several marquee players retired. One front-page headline called the loss a ânational shame.â Another paper called it the âapocalypse.â
More recently, when soccer has jumped to the forefront, it has been through the controversies of politics. The biggest soccer story in Italy now is about corruption in the construction of a major stadium in Rome. And the highest-profile politician in Italyâs new government, Matteo Salvini, got into a public argument this month with one of the countryâs most famous soccer players, Mario Balotelli, who suggested that Italy needed to do more to help migrants integrate.
Fans say they have taken the Azzurriâs absence, after the initial shock, with a dark resignation. Several days ago, the Corriere della Sera, a national daily, published a slide show depicting mock photos of Italyâs 2018 World Cup experience. One photograph shows 11 members of the Azzurri on the field, but they are standing still, watching television. Another image shows the Azzurriâs âofficialâ World Cup apparel, being worn by a fan. He is on a sofa, in loosefitting leisurewear.
The television ratings for the World Cup remain strong, but the enthusiasm is gone. The one place in Rome to find loud soccer-watching crowds is at the central piazzas thronged by tourists.
âItâs as if something is missing,â said Gino Mariani, 48, who helps run the Core de Roma sports restaurant in a southern suburb here.
âWhen the national team plays, that is the only time Italians are joined together,â said Dino Zoff, the goalkeeper on the 1982 team that won the World Cup.
That â82 title endures as one of Italyâs most binding experiences, coming on the heels of mor e than a decade of terrorist bombings and political strife. Zoff, along with his teammates, returned to Rome on the presidential plane, and as they entered the city, they were greeted by an uncountable number of fans.
âItâs an almost instinctive kind of passion,â Zoff said. âIt is the national team, not nationalism.â
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.
The retreat of rescue ships from the Mediterranean is a sign of changing odds for migrants
Italyâs new government sends immigration message by rejecting rescue ship
âThe good times for illegals are overâ: Trump finds allies in Europeâs anti-immigration movement
Todayâs coverage from Post correspondents around the world
Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign newsSource: Google News Italy | Netizen 24 Italy