“Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood, for nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Being in London the morning after a particularly poor Sweden team had managed to eliminate Gli Azzurri should have been a different experience...especially when your work agenda that day involved meeting Italians based in Covent Garden.
The hand gestures, the melodrama, the tears.
It is of course true, tragically so, that a World Cup without Italy doesn’t make any sense, and for all football fans represents a true glitch-in-the-matrix type moment. Italy has been in six World Cup finals, and they have defined the tournament in every way possible. They represent one of the true “schools” of football culture.
It’s like not inviting the coolest kids to the party. That national anthem, those elegant kits, the fear that whilst notoriously slow starters, they know how to win a tournament; the further they go, the more of a protagonist they always become.
This is an undeniable disaster for football, and FIFA, who itself has probably lost £80m in commercials rights.
But today there was no anger at the Ivy. Italian heads with stylish haircuts were shaken in resignation, confirmation of impending doom that had been merely confirmed. You don’t get so upset at inevitability.
This has been coming ragazzi. And we all knew it.
Since 2006, Italy have performed awfully in World Cups, disturbing the stats and almanac guys only briefly, before being eliminated from mediocre groups.
So now, in what flippantly could be interpreted as a fit of pique, they’ve apparently decided not to attend the celebrations at all this year.
But yes, this has been coming. The peninsula stopped producing “i talenti” many years ago. Bruno Conti, Giuseppe Giannini, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Mancini, Antonio Cassano, Andrea Pirlo. Players to seduce the most diffident and envious anti-Italian. Players to make you ignore some playacting, cynical defense, and extravagant time wasting. (By the way, anyone thinking those vices are exclusive to Italy have not been watching). Those players were beautiful. They were iconic. They became a global brand. No Totti no party, Pirlo is not impressed. Italian football was always forgiven and secretly admired because it was “Bello”. Simply “Bello”.
But they are gone.
A bunch of hard-nosed juventini in front of the greatest goalie in world history, lead by some astute Italian coaching from Cesare Prandelli and Antonio Conte, in 2012 and 2016 respectively, have hidden a pretty dramatic decline. Where in hindsight it is now clear that Fabio Grosso in Berlin was the equivalent of the 1968 Elvis special. One last display of outrageous talent before kissing ladies with blue hair in Vegas.
Well, Carlo Tavecchio has finally taken us to Vegas, with the part of Fredo Corleone played by a coach called Gian Piero Ventura.
Yes, we all have seen this coming.
Logic is never so prevalent in football at the best of times, otherwise Claudio Ranieri would still be at Leicester, and Rickie Lambert would not have an England cap. But even in this context, what makes one think that a guy (Ventura) that has won nothing, and managed no team of status, could lead Italy?
There is an expression in Italian, “the fish rots from the head down”, and never has it been so apposite.
You say in business, A class people hire A+ recruits. B class people hire Cs and Ds. Look at any photos of Tavecchio, his racism, his sexism, and then the CV of Ventura, and it’s all clear.
Yes we all saw it coming, but why didn’t others, those that matter, the blazers. The expense account bureaucrats. The nominal leaders?
Italian football, from winning the World Cup in 1982, and for more than a generation to the all-Italian Champions League Final in 2003, was undoubtedly the leading expression of the sport globally. Serie A was nirvana for every top player, whether established or developing. One need only remember the shoulder content documentary following a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Sweden. “English football is s**t, my ambition is italy!”
So it was for them all. Goodness sake, Zico played in Udinese, Socrates in Fiorentina; such was the desire just to say you played in Italy.
And in the UK, no football fan worth his salt has avoided the time stamp memory imprint of “Golasso” on a Saturday morning.
Such was the dominance in 1992, when a small team from Genoa nearly won the European Cup, and the list of leading scorers in Serie A would make your eyes water, that no one noticed a pretty significant development across the Channel. The ripples from the introduction of the Premier League would ultimately take the stars of that Sampdoria team, Gianluca Vialli and the aforementioned Mancini, to England, followed by many others like Zola.
Things would never have been the same although, to their eternal shame, no one running the game in nirvana even noticed.
22 clubs in England had crossed the Rubicon and were no longer going to accept football run like a bowling club. That paradigm-shift had found its momentum from the disasters of Bradford and Hillsborough, forcing investment in modern fan friendly stadia, dictated by the government, in the Taylor Report.
The Premiership used that to rid themselves of hooligans, and led a revolution in sports marketing and globalization. Where old and new fans alike would be given choice from different leagues. Where success would breed more investment, and more competitive advantage.
Italian football from that moment was in decline.
Revenues from modern stadia, full to the rafters, stuffed with corporate boxes, offered a broadcast product that sold everywhere, making short work of competitor leagues with old half empty facilities, and pitches miles away from the stands, occupied by the hooligan ultras, and offering no merchandise. No contest.
And still no one noticed.
2006 glory convinced them they had nothing to worry about. Calciopoli was not grasped as the new broom it should have been.
Italian football for the first time couldn’t compete financially. The traditional rich families were outgunned.
Cheap inferior foreign talent was brought in, and youth development was de-prioritised. The average age of players in serie A began to rise. Not helped by a very prevalent bung culture between player agents and club sporting directors. Guaranteeing contracts and game time across all Italian leagues to old players well past their best. Further stifling opportunity for young emerging talent.
The vicious circle of lower monies, lower quality foreigners, less space for youth, less attractive league, less money, was well and truly in place by about 2000.
So yes, we all knew what was coming.
Indeed, many Italian fans are today relieved by the elimination, in the eternal optimism that this will shake the whole system. “Look what the Germans did in 1994 after losing to Bulgaria?”, said in hopeless optimism rather than conviction. Coz they all know Italy and politics. Nothing changes. Ever!
Ventura has now been sacked and Tavecchio will survive by selling political favours. The Italian parliament will bring motions of no confidence in the Figc (Italian FA).
And then it will pass into yesterday’s problem in a way described beautifully in that wonderful expression, “taralucci e vino”. Over some biscuits and wine.
Nothing will change.
So enjoy Russia. And mourn a fallen giant.
Italian football will find again its “talenti” in the way that mother nature always prevails over winter. That Springtime will come, for a simple reason.
In Italy, they know how to play football really well.