World Cup failure an incredibly bitter pill for Italians to swallow

Arash Madani explains why Italy’s failure to make the 2018 World Cup will lead to departures.

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel.”

Gay Talese’s wonderfully whimsical turn of phrase from “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” his epic profile of the legendary crooner and movie star published in the April 1966 issue of Esquire magazine, is the first thing I thought about when the final whistle blew at Milan’s San Siro on Monday night.

A 0-0 draw between Italy and Sweden in the second leg meant the Azzurri not only lost the aggregate series, but also failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958 when, coincidentally enough, the Swedes hosted the tournament.

A World Cup without Italy is unimaginable – it is, to borrow Talese’s line, Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel.

Hyperbole? Not at all.

Italy has competed in 18 of the 20 World Cups that have been staged, winning it four times, and it was the first nation to repeat as champions. Other than 1958, the only time the Italians didn’t play at the World Cup was at the first one held in Uruguay in 1930 – they couldn’t be bothered, having turned down the invite from FIFA because they didn’t want to take the two-week boat ride to South America. Even in 1950, just a year after the horrific Superga air disaster in Torino that killed eight members of the national team, the Azzurri quickly rebuilt and fielded a side in Brazil.

Italy will be in mourning this failure for some time. The pain being felt by the entire country right now is very real, very deep, very personal. This shame will linger, and it won’t be easily forgotten. And it’s not because this collection of talented Italian players underachieved. Or that manager Gian Piero Ventura managed to get it spectacularly wrong with his tactics and player selections. There is a sense among Italians that, all things being equal, the Azzurri should be off to the World Cup in Russia next summer, but that’s not why they are hurting at this moment.

Italy is hurting because soccer is encoded in its DNA, it’s embedded in the very fabric of the country. The two biggest religions in Italy are Catholicism and calcio, the Italian word for soccer – and calcio, more than Catholicism, is the ultimate expression of what it is to be Italian.

Dating back to ancient Rome, the tradition of spectacle has always been valued by Italians. Spectacle matters in Italy, and by extension soccer matters because it is the great Italian spectacle.

Italy is also a culture where what goes on in public is critically important. La bella figura, literally “the beautiful figure,” is the quintessential Italian philosophy – how one looks, how one comports oneself, and the impression that one makes in public is of the utmost importance. Italy not qualifying for the World Cup is akin to walking around with a black eye, a dishevelled haircut, and your dress shirt not properly buttoned up.

There are other factors involved here that make this World Cup failure an incredibly bitter pill to swallow for Italians.

Italy is a divided country, along both cultural and geographic lines. A strong sense of regionalism permeates through the nation – people tend to think of themselves as Calabrese, Sicilian or Tuscan first, and Italian second. Northerners look down their noses on southerners, viewing them as uneducated peasants who drain the country’s welfare system. Southerners take pride in working their bountiful farm land, and point out that if it wasn’t for them that the uppity northerners wouldn’t be able to eat. And everybody doesn’t trust the Neapolitans because they’re crooks and cheats.

One of the few unifying forces in Italy is their beloved calcio. The Azzurri are the common tie that binds all Italians from every walk of life, no matter their economic and social status, or their political slant.

But why this failure really hurts is because qualifying for the World Cup has provided a sense of consistency and merit that is otherwise lacking in Italy.

Italy as a nation has been romanticized in movies and television. We’ve been barraged with images of sun-splashed piazzas where kids drink from glorious water fountains, gorgeous women zipping through the street on mopeds, young professionals sipping espresso at outdoor cafes, and families taking it easy at the beach on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The reality is quite different. Life in Italy is not easy. In fact, it’s quite hard. The bureaucracy is immense, and often impenetrable. The efficiency and transparency that we take for granted in Canada simply doesn’t exist in Italy.

Far from being a meritocracy, Italy is a nation bogged down by raccomandazione, a system whereby you only get ahead based on who you know, not what you know. In Italy, it’s all about connections, and if you don’t have someone pulling strings on your behalf, you’re going to have a very difficult time. Whether it’s getting your kid into pre-school, renting an apartment, applying for a job, getting a promotion, or buying a car, nothing comes easy in Italy.

Soccer offers a level of clarity to Italians that daily life simply can’t provide. The national team’s World Cup success over the decades didn’t just give Italians a valuable escape from their dreary lives, but it also gave them a window to the rest of the world, where achievement was duly and rightfully rewarded.

The Azzurri qualified for the World Cup every four years because they have routinely been one of the best soccer countries in the world. They got there on merit, and for a country long bedevilled by political and social corruption, it was the ultimate sense of pride for Italians seeing their heroes deservedly compete on the world’s biggest stage.

Now, Italians don’t even have that to look forward to next summer.