[OP-ED]: Italy in danger
In the summer of 2006 Italy defeated France in penalty kicks, after drawing 1-1 in regulation, to claim the World Cup title for the fourth time, becoming at the moment the only European country to achieve such record.
More than 11 years have gone by and Italian soccer has shifted negatively 180 degrees in World competition.
The last two World Cups for the Italians were a complete disaster, failing to overcome the group round in South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. In both tournaments they suffered costly losses against teams that were considered much weaker, like Slovakia in 2010 and Costa Rica in 2014.
At the club level Italian soccer is also struggling after dominating Europe in the nineties with a powerhouse club like A.C. Milan, which was unbeatable. It is true Juventus has played in two of the last three Champion League finals, but in both was defeated with ease by Spain’s top clubs FC Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid in 2017. Since Inter de Milan’s championship run in 2010, led by Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, no Italian club has reached the Old Continent’s soccer summit.
In 2016 under the guidance of outspoken coach Antonio Conte, Italy had a good performance in the Euro Cup, being eliminated in the quarterfinals by Germany through penalty kicks. Sadly for the Italian fans, Conte was signed by Chelsea where he quickly led the London club to the English Premiership title, leaving a huge sense of emptiness in his native country’s bench.
Veteran coach Giampiero Ventura took over and led the Italians to a second place in the World Cup qualifying group behind Spain. Despite being destroyed in Madrid by the Spaniards (3-0) and failing to defeat weak Macedonia in Italy a fortnight ago (1-1), the second place earned the Italians a spot in the final wild card round, where they will face the Swedish.
European bids for Russia 2018 are the hardest to earn. In an area in which soccer is played at the highest level, only 13 countries will escort host Russia in the World Cup. Nine of them qualified by winning their respective groups: Spain, Germany, Belgium, France, Portugal, Serbia, Poland, England and the surprising Iceland, which will play in the tournament for the first time. Eight (Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Croatia, Greece, Denmark, Ireland, Italy and Sweden) will fight for the remaining four spots in the wild card round.
As mentioned before Sweden will be in Italy’s way. The Swedish finished in second place in Group A behind France and ahead of The Netherlands, which was eliminated. There is no doubt Italy’s participation in the World Cup is in danger. The Italians have not missed the big tournament since 1958. Sixty years later the tragedy could be repeated. Anyway, Italians are optimistic. They trust a strong midfield led by Paris Saint-Germain’s star Marco Verrati, a tough defense headed by Juventus’ center back Giorgio Chiellini and veteran goalkeeper Gianluig Buffon who is considered by many the best ever at the position. The huge soccer Italian fans are called tifossi. They all dream that, after beating Sweden, Italy’s participation in Russia 2018 will be the turning point that will get this historical soccer country back to the elite of the sports world.