“Italy, this is the apocalypse,” ran a headline on the website of sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. Some may argue that it was a bit of an exaggeration on their part, but ‘apocalypse’ was probably the perfect word to describe Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Placed in a group with two-time champions Spain, the Azzurris were unable to live up to their reputation and a 1-0 defeat on aggregate against Sweden in the play-offs meant that they will not be playing in a FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1958.

So, what went wrong for the mighty Italians in this qualification campaign?

Ventura’s controversial appointment

A major reason behind Italy’s disappointing run in the recent past has been the controversial decision-making of manager Gian Piero Ventura, something that has made him quite infamous in the Italian football fraternity. When Antonio Conte decided to leave the position to manage English club Chelsea in 2016, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) did not have a lot of options while appointing his successor. While former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini was one of the few choices, the job went to Ventura – a 67-year old whose biggest achievement till that point was winning the third division title with Italian side Leece.

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Insigne, El Shaarawy sidelined

The national team fans did not take the decision well and Ventura faced immense criticism from the start of his tenure. The Italian tactician’s preference towards the two forwards he had previously coached at Torino - Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti – irked many supporters. His two-striker policy meant that Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne and AS Roma star Stephan El Shaarawy were both forced to sit on the bench for the majorirty of their qualification campaign despite producing consistent performances in the Italian Serie A.

It was the case on Monday as well, with El Shaarawy and Insigne being left on the bench at a time when Italy were chasing the game and showing little creativity in their attacks. Late in the second half, veteran midfielder Danielle De Rossi was seen arguing with Ventura’s staff when they asked him to warm up. Cameras showed De Rossi gesturing towards Insigne, supposedly urging the coaching staff to send the winger to the field instead of him, but his demands at that crucial moment fell on deaf ears. “We showed few ideas and not much in the way of tactics,” the 34-year old fumed at the end of the game.

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Over-dependence on aging stars

The other major issue behind Italy’s dismal form in the qualifiers was the lack of squad depth. Despite winning the World Cup in 2006, the Azzurris have not gone past the group stages in the last two editions of the tournament. The side has been heavily dependent on aging players like Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele de Rossi in recent years and the fact that three of their starters were also part of the 2006 World Cup squad proves how little change the team has seen over the years.

With their FIFA World Cup exit, Italy on Monday said farewell to the quartet of veterans. While the upcoming phase will be a period of transition for Italy, it will also allow them to try out new strategies with their younger players. However, after missing out on FIFA World Cup qualification after 60 years, the onus will completely be on the mighty Azzurris to make sure that this ‘apocalypse’ never repeats itself.

(With agency inputs)