When a country bows out of consecutive World Cups at the group stage, there’s usually a problem on the home front. But Italy is so complex, so hard to explain—a “crazy” and “beautiful” country at the same time, said director Paolo Sorrentino in his Oscar acceptance speech—that there is no easy answer.
The economy is struggling, Italy’s youth unemployment rate hovers over 40 percent and the country’s stadiums are crumbling. Serie A itself is not the league it once was. But here’s the wrench: 81 players from the Italian league competed in the group stages in Brazil—the second-highest total of any league, per Goal.com.
Of course, most of the Italians themselves played at home last season, but three of them—all at Paris Saint-Germain—began the year abroad.
But what does that tell us? Are the Italian players not good enough? Is the Italian league producing a bunch of international duds? That is certainly a risky point to make. Italy have a great stable of young players, and the 2014 World Cup just happened to interrupt an important transition for them.
Ciro Immobile, who scored 22 goals with Torino to lead Serie A, only made his second start for Italy as a 24-year-old in the competition. Salvatore Sirigu only collected his second competitive cap while playing in relief of Gianluigi Buffon against England, and Sirigu fared extremely well in that game (it says a lot that a team like PSG, with all the money in the world, elects to keep Sirigu as their goalkeeper).
Others, like Matteo Darmian and Lorenzo Insigne, only recently made their debuts.
There is a lot of potential here, and Italy have a strong chance to redeem themselves at the 2018 World Cup. But aren’t they always trying to redeem themselves? Italy have won World Cups without being a favourite, so maybe they would rather have it this way, always with a point to prove.
Coach Cesare Prandelli did a good job during his four years as manager of the Azzurri to strike some sort of balance, to impose a code of ethics and ban those players who committed red-card offences from participating in games.
But Prandelli flipped formations and never settled on a game plan in Brazil. His Italian team played some free-flowing football in the Confederations Cup and in qualifiers, but all of that was abandoned.
Italy came out looking conservative against Costa Rica, which led to one of their worst World Cup defeats since 1966 against North Korea. It was a combination of tactical naivety and tension among the team, with La Repubblica (h/t Football Italia) suggesting a row between Gianluigi Buffon and Antonio Cassano, who represented the old and the young factions, respectively.
And then there is the domestic football itself. Usually, a strong Juventus means a strong Italy, and they sent 12 players to the tournament—the third-most of any club, along with Napoli. Juventus won their third consecutive Scudetto, and they last did that in the 1930s.
History suggests that this Juventus squad is one of the best, but they have failed dramatically in Europe. It is almost a case of homesickness, an inability to play abroad.
Maybe the league is too easy for Juventus, who recorded a record 102 points last season. Maybe the numbers are inflated. But maybe there is a troubling mentality among Italian players, a result of poor coaching.
Even Milan, the European performers of the past century, took beating after beating in the Champions League. Things have slipped, and Italian clubs no longer have a hold on the international scene.
Of course, the Italian national team made it to the 2012 Euro Cup final, but there they were brushed aside by a Spanish team that also blew apart in Brazil. There is a problem here, but it’s not so easy to identify and explain—just like the country itself.