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No Italy: Azzurri pay for lack of national pride

The moment when Italy’s participation in a World Cup was ruled out for a second successive tournament, this time while European champions (Photograph by Antonio Calanni/AP)

Loved and admired around the world for producing players such as Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s national team struggles for respect at home.

In a country where club teams rule and provincialism stretching back to medieval times still prevails, the Azzurri are often considered an afterthought — or even an inconvenience.

Italian clubs often prefer to keep their prized players away from the national team rather than risk injury. There are no organised hardcore “ultra” fans for Italy like there are for every club team in Serie A, B and C.

Italy doesn’t even have a home stadium like England does with Wembley. Instead it barnstorms around the country, often playing games in small stadiums and cities — appearing at the San Siro in Milan and the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for only the biggest of matches.

Dragged down by a dearth of top young players and the demise of the Italian league over the past decade, four-times champion Italy failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.

Winners of the European Championship last year, Italy were beaten at home by North Macedonia in a qualifying play-off in March.

Four years earlier, it was a play-off loss at home to Sweden that kept the Azzurri from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

And at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Italy were eliminated in the group phase.

Serie A refused the Italian football federation’s request to amend its calendar and move the league matches from the weekend before the play-offs, which would have allowed coach Roberto Mancini more time with his players.

“There is always great resistance from the clubs towards the national team,” federation president Gabriele Gravina said after the play-off loss. “The national team is seen more as an annoyance than something that unites an entire country.”

More recently, centre forward Ciro Immobile was held back from boarding the team plane to a Nations League game in Hungary amid disagreement about his injury status between the national team and his club, Lazio.

And on Sunday, a couple of hours after Qatar faces Ecuador in the opening match of the World Cup, Italy will play a mostly meaningless friendly against Austria in Vienna.

The Italian football federation wanted to move the friendly with Austria up a day to Saturday to avoid the conflict with the World Cup but state broadcaster RAI reportedly refused because it preferred to air Dancing with the Stars on Saturday night.

With modern Italy having been unified in 1861, historically bitter rivalries persist between north and south and even cities in the same region.

“Provincialism has been an issue,” RAI national team analyst Antonio Di Gennaro said in an interview. “And as far as players sometimes not wanting to go to the national team because of injury problems, those are situations that regard the clubs.”

When Roma won the inaugural edition of the third-tier Europa Conference League last season, it was the first European title for an Italian club since Inter Milan lifted the Champions League trophy in 2010.

Failures to renovate and build new stadiums, match-fixing scandals and poor financial decisions have all contributed to the demise of the Italian league — and consequently the national team.

Italian clubs have also been hesitant to use young Italians, forcing Mancini to sometimes rely on players with little experience — like when he called up a 19-year-old Nicolo Zaniolo in 2018 before Zaniolo had ever appeared in Serie A.

Zaniolo is now considered one of Serie A’s top players.

“Our clubs lack courage in this department,” said Di Gennaro, who played on the Hellas Verona team that won Serie A in 1985. “It’s a mentality issue.”

Two failed penalty attempts from Jorginho in the qualifying matches against Switzerland ended up being decisive. One match ended 0-0, the other 1-1.

If Italy had won either of those two matches, they would have finished ahead of Switzerland and gained automatic qualification to the tournament in Qatar.

“Let’s not persecute Jorginho. But if you miss two penalties, you end up staying home,” Di Gennaro said.

Unlike after Gian Piero Ventura lost the players’ support and was fired after the failed qualification for 2018, Mancini kept his job and is already working on a revival.

The Azzurri qualified for the Nations League final four in June with Croatia, Spain and Holland. And Italy is bidding to host the 2032 European Championship, which would represent a prime opportunity to rebuild the country’s crumbling stadiums.

Mancini can count on a core of young players like goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and forwards Zaniolo, Federico Chiesa, Giacomo Raspadori and Gianluca Scamacca to turn things around.

Unheralded Wilfried Gnonto has also impressed for Italy recently.

Serbia and Poland each called up 11 players from Serie A to their World Cup squads. And Juventus are sending 11 players to Qatar.

So who will Italian fans support? They will root for the players on their club teams.

Juventus supporters will cheer Dusan Vlahovic and Filip Kostic with Serbia; Inter Milan fans will follow Romelu Lukaku’s Belgium; and AC Milan “tifosi” will keep an eye on Rafael Leao with Portugal.

It’s all about the club teams — not Italy.

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Published November 18, 2022 at 12:06 pm (Updated November 18, 2022 at 12:06 pm)

No Italy: Azzurri pay for lack of national pride

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