Italy’s failure in World Cup qualifying and the real shame of the Azzurri
The word “vergogna” is not the one you see or hear often in Italy, but you wouldn’t know it from the last 24 hours.
Headed for the Italian men’s national team, he was shouted out by the crowd in Palermo on Thursday night. It was written with venom on the front pages of the Friday morning paper. It was spelled out in all caps in WhatsApp group chats and it was discussed over mid-morning cappuccino. Frankly, it means “shame”. More colloquially, it means “disgrace”. It is a word loaded with such contempt and spite that one should think twice before using it in this country.
So using it twice in five years, and directing it towards an entity that has little impact on daily life, is a “vergogna” in itself. But in a country as calcio-crazy as Italy, there are few other things that warrant such frequent use besides other disturbing abominations like fettuccine Alfredo and the infamous bureaucracy.
But for the second consecutive World Cup, Italy failed to qualify, and whatever the circumstances, it’s both a disgrace and a disgrace when you feel entitled to something.
There are some things in Italy that feel like a birthright: the right to the best food and wine in the world, the right to complain about anything while you wait in line for an hour at the post office. and the occasional right to fame (but never shame) from the Italian national team. It is this very sense of entitlement that leads a crowd to shout “vergogna” at the same players who, less than a year ago, were crowned European champions.
The irony of Italy’s disgrace in World Cup qualifying is that they fell victim to the very justified pride that plagued their Euro rivals while continuing to walk the tightrope of the rope steep. Italy weren’t the best team, or even a favourite, at the Euros; it simply managed to survive three overtime games in the knockout stages, while other teams struggled with the hubris that comes with entitlement.
With no other clear favorites, 2018 World Cup winners France were the powerhouse that looked set to win Euro 2020 before losing in the round of 16. And it may have been that right that led English fans to chant “It’s Coming Home” ahead of the final. at Wembley against Italy, especially after Luke Shaw’s goal in the second minute. The fans of Italy and Azzurri took advantage of this pride, to drink a glass of this poisonous chalice when the qualifying for the World Cup began.
It is this very sense of entitlement that has permeated the landscape of world – and Italian – football over the past year, reflecting a disturbing trend of privilege and greed, even at the organizational level.
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Before the European Super League, the only thing that seemed to unite Juventus fans with AC Milan and Inter fans was the Italian national team. But when the Super League fell like a meteor from the sky, it was the law-based closed shop concept of wealthy and ‘legendary’ clubs that united supporters against it. In the end, securing places for teams in an elite tournament proved too revolting for the spirit of competition and fair play, even though there were other insidious ways to ensure that the playing field was anything but level.
So ask the question: “How did Italy lose to a team like North Macedonia?” not only discredits the spirit of competition and fair play that fans have fought so hard to protect over the past year, but only adds to the sense of entitlement that has plagued the sport. This is not where the “vergogna” should reside, nor take away the greatest victory of a flourishing nation.
Rather, the shame comes from the realization that Italy must go at least 12 years without a World Cup appearance, years that essentially constitute a generation. Several players took part in the disgrace of the 2018 World Cup, won the Euros last summer and were on the list Thursday in Palermo.
Besides Marco Verratti, the core of this generation – players such as Wembley hero Leonardo Bonucci, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile – have only played a few minutes in a World Cup as substitutes and injury substitutes. Others like Alessandro Florenzi and Jorginho may never take part in a World Cup. And then there’s Giorgio Chiellini, the beloved 37-year-old captain who bridged the generations, and whose last memory of playing in a World Cup will be of Luis Suárez sinking his teeth into the shoulder of the legend of Juventus.
The unknown repercussions of what he does on the next generation of players and fans who don’t see themselves represented at the World Cup is where the shame really lies. Because watching Italy win the 2006 World Cup brought memories to generations while inspiring today’s group of players. Paying this experience forward, providing just the slim chance of a lifetime memory to your countrymen with whom more unites than divides, is always something to work for. The fact that this team hasn’t been able to do that for their country twice in a row is ‘vergogna’. And it is this duality that can label this generation “the Heroes of Wembley” during the summer and “the Disgraces of Palermo” in the spring.
There’s no silver lining here, except that life will go on as it so often does. The anxiety of not qualifying again for the World Cup will fade. But that angst will never erase the memory of the millions of people who took to the streets to celebrate the euro, just a year after Italy was the ground zero of the pandemic in Europe. It will never erase the feeling of hugging neighbors, friends and strangers when we once lived in fear of contact with someone outside of our self-imposed, state-enforced bubbles.
If there’s anything to fall back on, it’s that the sports narrative is simply a revolving door of redemption and shame. Shame needs the hope of redemption and triumph to pierce our hearts, and redemption needs the memory of shame to make victory all the sweeter. “Vergogna” is sometimes worth shouting about, but it’s always worth thinking about. Now Italy will have to wait four more years for a chance of redemption, while an entire generation continues to know only the shame of the World Cup.
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