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Why Italy Flopped

There are a number of theories for why Italy slinked out of the World Cup so shamefully. That the team was old; that coach Marcello Lippi could have picked better attackers; that the Juventus-based central defense with Cannavaro and Chiellini was shaky, and dismally proved it with their club all season long, and so on.

In my view, while these criticisms are all in some respects true, the real problems lie elsewhere, particularly in two places: tactically, the absence of anything we might call an effective midfield; and, more generally, the declining standard of Italian football.

Midfield first. If there was a turning point in the Italian game (albeit when the team went from cataleptic to comatose), it was when Pirlo came on. Passes were suddenly completed and the ball moved around. Italy’s difficulty in all the tournaments I can remember since 1998, World Cup or European, has been that it has a terrible time getting balls to its goal scorers. This has made it far too dependent on the long ball or sudden break, which well-disciplined teams can control.

In turn, short passes have gone out the window, principally because Italy hasn’t had what we used to call a midfield general. Perhaps this is because of excessive reliance on the left and right backs to organize attacks on the wings, which, in a way, has made midfielders hold back somewhat. Perhaps it’s because the team had depended on attackers playing between the midfield and striker position, like Alessandro Del Piero. Whatever the cause, too many Italian games are a story of a breakdown between a tight defense and a stranded front line.

The second problem is more general. Italian football is declining because the big teams are no longer developing and relying as heavily on homegrown talent. Part of the reason is that it costs more to develop young players, which can be a hit or miss enterprise, than to import tested players from abroad. This beef is not new, however it is justified. Worse, Italian players are not being exported very much either, because other European clubs prefer to buy outside Europe, not least in the cheaper markets of Latin America and Africa.

What this means, then, is that Italian players face a choke point. The big Italian clubs are going for more foreign players, so the Italians are by and large languishing, either given less time on the field in the big clubs or playing in second-tier clubs. The national team is suffering as a consequence. What’s the solution? Some have suggested re-imposing quotas on foreigners. But for both legal and market reasons that’s not easy. Nor do clubs or players care that much about the effectiveness of the national team, which they regard as a nuisance for making demands on players who can earn more playing for clubs.

Which leads me to an all-purpose conclusion on why Italy did so poorly. Lack of interest. This was not a team that seemed to care whether it retained the World Cup trophy. There was no imagination, no energy, no apparent understanding that football is about running and creating openings. In 32 years of watching Italy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an abysmal, gutless, insulting performance. The supporters will not soon forgive this embarrassment.

The market may come to the rescue. If Italy’s players are not circulating in Europe as much as they would like because they are seen as having lost their touch, that can only bring a further downward spiral in the quality of Italian football, therefore in their market value. This may provide the moment for players, perhaps in conjunction with the teams that have less money, to change the regulations and re-impose quotas, especially on the rich clubs.

For now the last word, sadly, must go to Luciano Moggi, the onetime director general of Juventus and the central figure in the match-fixing scandal of 2006. The old shark still has flair. This is what he said about Italy just as the finals were about to begin: “We can forget about getting to the quarter-finals, semis or final. Our best hope is to make a good impression. Italy needs to be completely revamped. We simply haven’t churned out champions for a long time.”