In a country that has won it four times, the World Cup doesn’t exist. Not this year …
TELFORD VICE in Florence
EIGHT of the first nine tabloid pages of the May 10 edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport were used to cover the previous evening’s Coppa Italia final between Juventus and Milan in Rome. The odd page out carried an ad.
There were plenty of weighty articles, striking photographs and pithy graphics in the famously pink pages analysing every which angle, and then some, of Juve’s 4-0 demolition job to claim the cup for the 13th time.
La Gazzetta is the heavyweight among of the three Italian newspapers devoted entirely to the games people play.
It’s 122 years old and the country’s biggest paper of any flavour with a daily circulation of more than 400 000 and a readership upwards of three million.
So far, so Italian. Bar taking tennis and cycling seriously — the Giro d’Italia ended a few weeks ago — and segueing into European basketball and bits and bobs of volleyball and golf, sport equals football in the press in these parts. Bellissimo, if you’re a fan.
But there was not a word on the biggest football story of all in La Gazzetta on May 10, and few have since been printed.
The paper weighed in at 64 pages a Friday or so ago. Only two featured the biggest football tournament of them all.
To read those pages you first had to get through 36 crammed with news and views on Serie A — which ended on May 20 — Serie B, and other, even lesser stuff.
It’s as if the World Cup doesn’t exist in Italy, which is bizarre considering they have won it four times: tied with Germany and one fewer than Brazil for the most triumphs.
And it’s true: the World Cup doesn’t exist in Italy. Not this year at least.
For the first time since 1958 — 60 years ago, when the nation was trying to recover from World War II — Italy are not part of football’s global showpiece.
Along with all their World Cup successes they have suffered strange exits. In 1974 they crashed out in the first round at the hands of Poland. That wasn’t as bad as the catastrophe in South Africa in 2010 when New Zealand sent them home, which was marginally more galling than what happened four years later, when Costa Rica decided their fate.
But this time it’s worse, much worse. In September, Italian football’s head suit, Carlo Tavecchio, said: “Us? Out of the World Cup? That would be the Apocalypse.”
In November, after Sweden beat Italy 1-0 on aggregate in a two-leg play-off, the Apocalypse was now.
Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s captain, failed to fight off the tears as he announced his international retirement on live television. Not for him the copout of a cheesy video on social media, a-la AB de Villiers.
“FINE”, ran the massive headline on La Gazzetta’s front page the next day under a photograph of Buffon flinging his hands into the air in despair. In English “FINE” would be, well, fine. In Italian it means “THE END”.
And here many Italians are, seven months later, still pretending there isn’t an elephant in Rome’s Colosseum, swimming through Venice’s canals, and perched atop Florence’s duomo.
For others, what happened in November wasn’t about elephants but about chickens — as in those that alighted in the 2006 “Calciopoli” matchfixing scandal that earned Juventus relegation while four other clubs were docked points — coming home to roost.
That Italy went on to win the World Cup that year fooled some of the people some of the time that the problem had been solved.
But the exposure of more matchfixing in 2011 led to the arrests of former Italy striker Giuseppe Signori and Lazio vice-captain Stefano Mauri.
That prompted foreign stars who would previously have put playing in Italy up there with a place on the staff of an English, German or Spanish club to pass on the pasta.
Serie A, lest we forget, is the league that provided both Champions League finalists in 2003, when Juventus and Milan clashed in front of a crowd 62 315 at Old Trafford. It was one of only six times in the 64 European finals played so far that both teams have been from the same country, and the only occasion the teams have been Italian.
Those days are gone. Whether they will return depends on several factors.
Will Italians ever again believe their football to be clean? Will foreigners, particularly quality foreign players, do the same?
Will Italians think it worth the bother to try to regain their lofty heights on the world stage, or content themselves with indulging in their still rich and enriching club culture?
For someone from a country like South Africa, where winning the cricket World Cup means far more than it should, winning the football World Cup is out of the question, and winning the rugby World Cup has been done, twice, Italy will be in a twilight zone all the way through the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
What’s real and what isn’t is difficult to fathom. At least, it is for Italians.