Friday,28 Feb 2020
A month ago, when Holland failed to make it to the 2018 FIFA World Cupin Russia, there was none of the shocked despair that hangs over Italy’s non-qualification following its defeat to Sweden in the two-legged play-off. Football in the Netherlands is facing its worst crisis and its fans have perhaps become used to under-performance. Since 1982, the team has failed to make it to the quadrennial extravaganza on four different occasions. Dutch footballers were always expected to thrill but not necessarily to win. Even the legendary Johan Cruyff didn’t bag football’s most coveted prize. But Italy is different. The Azzurri have always found a way, regardless of the circumstances. Italy went into the 2006 World Cup with a match-fixing scandal raging back home; it ended up lifting the trophy. Another scandal erupted ahead of the 2012 European Championship, but Italy emerged a worthy runner-up to Spain. Four years later, Italy went in with arguably its weakest squad ever but still outwitted reigning champion Spain and lost to Germany in the quarter-finals only on penalties. This is what makes the four-time champion missing out on the World Cup, for the first time since 1958, astounding. It is true that the qualification process left very little margin for error, with only the group topper earning a direct entry. Clubbed alongside Spain, Italy was always expected to come second and be in the playoff. Once there, it was unlucky to draw Sweden, the toughest of opponents. But even so, its performances have been truly worrying.