When a big nation fails to qualify for the World Cup, football can get a bit Smashie & Nicey. You’ll remember the scene at the end of that comedy when Radio 1 was about to sack the dimwit DJ duo only for the clowns to race to another part of the station and attempt to seize the news agenda by announcing: “We quit!” With their long hair billowing, with their satin bomber jackets billowing, it was all a bit tawdry.
There was none of this from Gianluigi Buffon, possessor of a classic slick-backed mane and, I’m pretty confident about this, no naff jerkins anywhere in his wardrobe. As soon as Italy’s fate was sealed the goalie was gone. It was the Azzurri’s manager, Gian Piero Ventura, who hung on grimly to his post for a couple of days while the country tore itself to shreds until eventually he was sacked.
What do we think of a World Cup which will now be missing Italy as well as the Netherlands and swashbuckling Chile to say nothing of dear old Scotland? Is it devalued? Will we huffily refuse to watch? Should we, instead of Smashie & Nicey, quote Groucho Marx and decide that in future if any club, or in this case tournament, deems us suitable candidates for the qualification groups, we should decline to go along with their silly procedures, just for the sheer hell of it?
One thing is for sure: the great Gianluigi bid Arrivederci with dignity. He didn’t want to cry, for fear it would frighten children watching at home, causing them to think twice about wanting to wear the famous blue. But he couldn’t stop the tears as he voiced concern about the “social” impact of his country missing the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
Before the play-off with Sweden he had applauded the opposition’s anthem as a riposte to the Milan crowd jeering it. A great sportsman, he often did this. And he always sang his anthem louder than any of his team-mates. Really, given that Gina Lollobrigida hasn’t been seen in movies for a while, and hasn’t caused a Vespa pile-up with her beachfront wiggle for even longer, he has become everyone’s favourite Italian.
It is sad that Buffon won’t have the chance to emulate Dino Zoff and win the World Cup in his 40s. Sad, too, that he won’t become the first player to represent his country at six World Cups. But Italy’s task was to overcome Sweden. If they weren’t able to do that, football superpower that they are supposed to be, then they don’t deserve to be in Russia.
The truth is that like the Dutch they had been faded aristocrats of the game for a while now. Since lifting the World Cup in 2006 they have won just one game in the tournament. As they stumbled into the play-offs for this one they managed just three goals in six competitive matches. Tactically they were a mess – surely a crime in that country.
There was a moment when the nation which gave the world the Renaissance seemed on the brink of a great footballing revival. It came in the 2012 Euros when Cesare Prandelli’s team beat Germany on the way to the final. Prandelli was a fascinating character: highly moral, anti-bling and very likely to cancel training to take his players on tours of prisons to remind them how lucky they were.
They included Mario Balotelli, perfectly capable of visiting jails by himself, even though these tended to be women’s jails and he lacked an official invite. Pondering his line-up, Prandelli would take himself off to a Polish monastery – walking the 20 kilometres there at three in the morning. Balotelli repaid the faith shown in him with the goals against the coming men of Germany but Italy’s new-found boldness blew up against Spain.
The heartbeat of that side was Andrea Pirlo who finally retired before the play-off with the Swedes, which now seems prophetic.
“The End” proclaimed the headline in La Gazzetta dello Sport, which reminds me of the Scottish Daily Express’s “The end of the World” in the immediate aftermath of our Argentine debacle. Now we could play Italy, both teams with new coaches, in what’s been billed as a “World Cup of losers”. If it happens, the tournament would be an eight-team affair taking place in America before the real World Cup. I suppose we’d be like warm-up comics for the main event, or its fluffers. Though it will need Fifa’s blessing, there would still be a whiff of the crazy pirate league about the fringe event. Maybe “Not the World Cup” sounds like another comedy but beggars can’t be choosers. I definitely think we should play. And win the thing, of course.
Regarding the actual World Cup, Buffon will be missed but Italy won’t be. They always have the coolest strips and fight it out with France for the best anthem but boldness has never been their traditional calling card. Admired more than loved, they were positively hated beyond Italy for dashing the dreams of everyone’s favourite team in 1982 (Socrates’ Brazil) and 2006 (Zinedine Zidane’s France). Italy also gave the world Machiavelli and I suppose you would say that Marco Materazzi was Machiavellian in his goading of Zizou but the football purist won’t miss such low-down dirty tricks next year.
The truth is that none of the losers will be missed. Already corking teams have been assembled from the failed nations, including the likes of Chile’s Alexis Sanchez. I loved Sanchez, pictured inset, and Chile in the last World Cup but the South Americans’ talisman has become less endearing as his time with Arsenal nears its end. Maybe the Chileans, if they’d got there, would have been mean and nasty this time, like the Brazil we encountered in 1974. New heroes and new teams will emerge. They always do; that’s the nature of football. Your new favourite superstar has yet to show himself.
Have you noticed how no one is saying any more that Russia is the World Cup to avoid? Too much corruption, too much geography – these were insurmountable issues, or so it seemed. The tournament is happening, it’s getting close, and great and dignified men such as Gianluigi Buffon are inconsolable because they won’t be there.
After that it’s Qatar in 2022. That will definitely be the World Cup to avoid. Unless we go and bloody well qualify, of course.