The last time Italy didn’t feature in a World Cup, for the 1958 edition in Sweden, Pele was just a Santos sensation, not the legend he was to become. Diego Maradona was not even born. Total football and tiki taka were just fantasies. A span of 56 years, after all, is a lifetime. Thus the utter disbelief of watching the World Cup in Russia without the Azzurri, the famed catenaccio artistes in blue, the blue-eyed alpha males who suddenly turn on their game astride the biggest stage.
Back in Italy, it’s apocalypse. It’s a storm that has been brewing for several years. After their 2006 high, Italy was knocked out in the group stages of the next two editions of the World Cup, the glamour of their league has worn off, they didn’t churn out the Maldinis or Pirlos or Vieris in abundance, stopped winning the U-21 World Cup after 2004. If they still managed to reach the Euro 2012 final and the quarterfinals in 2016, the credit went to two clever managers, a once-in-a-generation midfield virtuoso and a highly proficient back-three. But the best of Italian teams can gloss over such deficiencies with their sheer will, allied with the tactical brilliance of their coaches. Seventy-year-old Giampiero Ventura, the oldest among his European counterparts, doesn’t have the reputation of a tactical master, unlike his predecessors, Antonio Conte or Cesare Prandelli, under whom Italy played their most attacking football. Several of his tactics will be dissected and ridiculed, not least the decision to overlook Lorenzo Insigne.
Italian football, though, is far from dead. History shows that they recover fast. Ask Pele. By the time he played his last World Cup, in 1970, they had recovered briskly enough to reach the finals, and the Brazilian maestro and his colleagues had to be at their most destructive best to beat them. In another 12 years, they won the World Cup, beating en route what is deemed to be the best Brazilian team to have never won a World Cup. As Gianluigi Buffon, who drew the curtains on his glittering 20-year-old career, said, tears rolling down his cheeks, “the next generation of Italian players can turn this catastrophe around.”