Italy have failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup after somehow contriving to lose 1-0 to North Macedonia on Thursday night. After also failing to reach the 2018 edition, Italy now find themselves in what will be at least a 12-year World Cup wilderness. And they were also pretty crap at the last two World Cups they did qualify for in 2010 and 2014.
All feels very strange, but they’re not the first European heavyweight to endure such a spell without a World Cup summer/winter to get all overexcited about…
For all their propensity for banter and self-destruction, England’s World Cup qualifying record is actually very solid. Since deigning to bother competing against all the other, demonstrably inferior footballing nations in 1950, England have only failed to qualify three times. Two of those, though, came in successive tournaments as The Inventors Of The Game went 12 years without attending its showpiece event, which gave them plenty of time to stew on that decision to sub off Bobby Charlton in the 1970 quarter-final.
Failure to reach the 1974 tournament famously came from the failure to find a winning goal at Wembley against Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, memorably described as a “clown” by Brian Clough. When discussed now, perhaps largely due to Clough’s infamous remarks, this 1-1 draw is always painted as an abject embarrassment for England. The shock at a first failure to qualify for the World Cup was understandable, but the disrespect for Poland is a bit much. They were Olympic champions (I know, I know) and would go on to finish third in West Germany.
Four years later it was current World Cup qualification mischief-makers Italy who denied England, although it was tight as a cat’s arse. Both England and Italy made short work of the minnows in their four-team group, Finland and Luxembourg, but Italy did so slightly more decisively. With England and Italy each beating the other 2-0 at home and only top spot good enough to progress, that made all the difference. England, despite a record of five wins from six games, were out.
Another quirky one, really. The legendary Cruyff-powered finalists of 1974 and 1978 sit as a strange almost-successful island in a sea of failure. The Netherlands failed to qualify for six World Cups between 1938 and 1974 and then missed out on both 1982 and 1986 before limping out at the last-16 stage of Italia 90 without a win to their name despite their awesome brilliance at the Euros two years earlier.
More recent Dutch teams have remained true to those baffling, consistently inconsistent traditions, having reached two semi-finals and a final within the last six World Cup tournaments despite failing to qualify for two of the other three. They’ve made it to Qatar, though. So, you know, watch out.
It’s almost like the strength of international football teams is quite cyclical. From the great Platini, Battiston, Tigana team that finished fourth in 82 and went one better in Mexico four years later, France then endured their own 12-year wait to qualify again. And they only managed that by hosting the thing, which is basically cheating. They did win it with a team that contained legends like Desailly, Henry and Guivarc’h, mind, so they’d probably have been fine. But your Deschampses, your Cantonas and – most infamously – your Ginolas couldn’t get France there in the first two tournaments of the 1990s.
They finished behind Scotland in qualification for Italia 90 for goodness’ sake, yet managed to exceed even that humiliation four years later when tumbling out of contention for USA 94. France had been almost there, the job pretty much done. Then they suffered a shock home defeat to Israel. This left things a bit dicey but really it should still have been fine. They only had to avoid defeat to Bulgaria at the Parc des Princes and everything would still be okay. Cantona gave them a nerve-steadying lead on the half-hour and although Bulgaria equalised, France were still on track until the 90th minute when Ginola, on as a late sub, had the ball near the corner flag. Keep it down there, and France were in. He crossed it instead, and Bulgaria launched a counter-attack that ended with Emil Kostadinov lashing home his second to turn qualification on its head. We all remember the legendary quotes generated by England’s failure to reach that World Cup, but France’s failure is arguably more quotable still. Here are some.
Hristo Stoichkov reckoned France bottled it: “The French were so scared. We knew that’s how they would be. They didn’t deserve to qualify and we hit them where it hurt most.”
Didier Deschamps saw a collective failure: “We’ve made real asses of ourselves.”
Gerard Houllier saw it differently, memorably singling out Ginola for calm and measured criticism: “It is the most catastrophic scenario imaginable. He sent an Exocet missiles through the heart of French football and committed a crime against the team.”
Great hair, though.
You’ve got to hand it to Italy, who have spent the last 20-odd years as a thoroughly, gloriously ridiculous feast-or-famine of a football team. Their official finishing positions at the six World Cups of the 21st century are 15th, 1st, 26th, 22nd, DNQ and DNQ. And they reached the final of Euro 2012 between those two group-stage World Cup exits and, you might remember, won Euro 2020 between their two failures to even qualify for the World Cup.
It is a magnificent way to behave and we’re huge fans of the daft bits of fun it creates. Like, for instance, the fact that Italy haven’t played a World Cup knockout game since the 2006 final and it will now be at least 20 years since that game before they next get a chance (the good news for Italy is that absolutely everyone will qualify for 2026 when the number of participants goes up to 183 or some such thing). Or the fact Italy will now go those same 20 long years since lifting the trophy winning precisely one game at a World Cup, and that game being against England. Or that this effort prompted one article to describe them as ‘only the fourth’ European champion not to reach the subsequent World Cup, to which our immediate reaction was ‘only’?! That’s a quarter! A quarter of teams crowned the best team in Europe can’t even qualify for the World Cup a year later?! That’s not ‘only’ – that’s practically a curse. Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Greece if you’re wondering. Italy’s shock defeat to North Macedonia also caused The Sun to lose its entire head, which is another bonus.
The other, final thing we should note about Italy losing to North Macedonia and missing out on successive World Cups having not missed a single one since 1958, is that it’s very, very funny.
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