Italy’s World Cup failure could be the latest in a long line of major national shocks

Rewind to March and Roberto Mancini sounded optimistic. “The aim is not to go to the World Cup, but to win it,” explained the Euro 2020 winner. Then came North Macedonia. A play-off semi-final in which Italy had 32 shots, failed to score and conceded in added time meant Mancini was only expected to go to the World Cup as an observer.

For the first time in its long history, Italy will sit out consecutive World Cups. Maybe also for the last one. If their recent lackluster performances reflect a crazy game against North Macedonia, Jorginho’s crucial missed penalties in a group they control and four years earlier the disastrous reign of Giampiero Ventura, there is a bigger picture than just Italy’s ability to vacillate between triumph and disaster .

48 teams will take part in the 2026 World Cup. If enlargement brings far greater representation from the African and Asian contingents, the European delegation will increase from 13 to 16. There is an argument that at a 32-team World Cup, Europe had too many teams. There is another that they had too little. Both are correct for different reasons. Europe provided all four semi-finalists and six of the eight quarter-finalists in 2018. Thirteen of the last 16 semi-finalists come from Uefa, which is a dominance even considering the tendency of European sides to do better on their own continents.

The FIFA World Ranking is an inaccurate guide, but nine of the top 11 are European. The same goes for 13 of the top 20, 16 of the top 27 and 21 – if you count Russia – of the top 37. All of this points to pressure for places, meaning some high-profile absentees may be absent. The Netherlands finished third in 2014 and didn’t qualify for 2018. Nor did Wales, semi-finalists at Euro 2016.

It’s probably important at this stage to add the caveat that this time Italy weren’t even among the top 16 European teams in qualifying: the three losers of the play-off final, who could have taken the continent’s quota to 16, were Ukraine and Sweden and North Macedonia.

But even with the last World Cup growth, it’s worth thinking about a change. The last 24-team tournament was in 1994 and those 24 teams did not include either England or France, both of whom found ways to fail to qualify. In the 32-team era, the five economic powerhouses of Western Europe – Germany, Spain, Italy, England and France – became ubiquitous in a way that almost certainly pleased Fifa accountants, whose ideal line-up includes the Big Five every four years would.

But then Ventura’s mistakes were compounded by Fifa’s: they were only able to sell the broadcasting rights for the Italian market after their 2017 play-off defeat by Sweden. Mediaset then snapped up the rights at a bargain price, reportedly costing Fifa around $100 million. Meanwhile, television rights are notoriously lucrative for the United States, but they too missed out on the 2018 tournament. There was a romantic element to Panama’s progression in their place, but the governing body probably didn’t appreciate it.

A 48-team competition offers greater certainty against a repeat, and not just because co-host USA don’t have to qualify for the 2026 edition.

But if there’s a financial aspect to trying to shield the game from World Cups that aren’t attended by the economic superpowers, there’s also a footballing side. Not only the Italians are now among the notable absentees: Mohamed Salah tops the list of missing superstars and a play-off meant a departure to Qatar would have come at the expense of Sadio Mane. As George Best could attest, the big guys who aren’t eligible for world championships were a bigger gang in the past. The move from 16 countries to 24 to 32 has already reduced their numbers.

The desire to have all the world’s best players could help jeopardize much of the qualification process.

Or maybe Italy will continue to offer it, having created their own special momentum by winning Euro 2020 and the 2006 World Cup, alternating between boom and bust. Giorgio Chiellini had an 18-year international career behind him, reaching the finals of two European Championships but never playing in the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini (left) has never played in the knockout stages of the World Cup

(Getty)

The Euro 2020 winners could be a lost generation for the World Cup: Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile were young members of the 2014 squad.

Jorginho, Leonardo Spinazzola, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Federico Bernadeschi and Alessandro Florenzi have never played there and age suggests they may not do so in 2026. For Nicolo Barella and Federico Chiesa, an injury in four years could be fatal. They can stand out as outliers, outstanding players who have never been to a World Cup, with company from previous generations but not those to come.

Rather than refine his squad for Qatar, Mancini meets England with a group led by Leonardo Bonucci, who will remain unfulfilled on the global stage but will be joined by futuristic players barely half his age, like Wilfried gnoto. Bonucci called it “a rebirth.” Mancini is building for a World Cup. Just not this one.

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