The big names missing from this year’s World Cup

Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup after losing to Sweden in a two-legged play-off for the ri

Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup after losing to Sweden in a two-legged play-off for the right to a place in Russia this summer. Photo: PA/Martin Rickett - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

It’s a who’s who of world football, a smorgasbord of the world’s best footballing talent. Almost…

This year’s World Cup is missing two of the more familiar names, after Italy and the Netherlands failed to qualify.

Both are dripping in World Cup history, particularly Italy: a World Cup finals without them was surely incomprehensible, but the four-time winners will be staying at home.

Ditto the Orange Army: they may not have won the golden trophy, but they have left their mark, perhaps none more so than in 2010 where they reached the final and played out a battle royale against Spain, only to lose 1-0 after extra-time. It was a bloodbath, quite unlike the Holland side which had brought us Cruyff, Bergkamp, Van Basten, Gullit et al.

Anyway, Italy first, given their record – winners in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, runners-up in 1970 and 1994, third in 1990.

Their demise may have started at the 2016 European Championship, when Antonio Conte was in charge, although it was made public that he would move on to coach Chelsea once the tournament had finished. The Italians did well enough, beating reigning champions Spain before coming up against world champions Germany in the quarter-finals. eventually losing 6-5 in a penalty shoot-out.

Conte duly departed and Gian Piero Ventura took over an ageing team. Italy finished second behind Spain in their qualifying group and had to meet Sweden in a two-legged play-off for the right to a place in Russia this summer. They lost 1-0 in Sweden and then were held to a 0-0 draw in Milan in the second leg.

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That defeat prompted the international retirement of veterans Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi and captain Gianluigi Buffon. And, with Italy having failed to qualify for the first time since 1958, the inevitable happened on November 15 when Ventura was sacked, followed a few days later by the resignation of Carlo Tavecchio as president of the Italian Football Federation.

Where did it go wrong?

Well, Ventura’s tactics were under scrutiny within his own dressing room, with rumours of meetings between unsettled players. His tactics didn’t find a place for striker Lorenzo Insigne, arguably the country’s best talent.

When Daniele De Rossi was asked to warm up in the San Siro as Italy struggled he looked at the coach, pointed at Insigne, and said: “Why the hell should I go on? We don’t need to draw here, we need to win!”

The Swedes were content in that second leg to head away all the crosses that were pumped into their box - Italy, meanwhile, had three centre halves at the other end.

As the dust settled the whole of Italy was stunned. Players cried, fans cried. There was disbelief all around.

The rest of the footballing world was probably just as puzzled:

Il Corriere della Sera’s Massimo Gramellini wrote: “It’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of a World Cup.”

It added: “A World Cup without Italy. But above all, an Italy without the World Cup – goodbye to magical nights eating slices of pizza and drinking ice-cold beer, and illusions of still counting for something, at least in football.”

La Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline was simply FINE... “The End”.

If there is a case of schadenfreude towards a nation that built a reputation for defensive football – catenaccio – at its best/worst, then spare a thought for one man: goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, the most capped player in Italian history with 175 appearances and one of world football’s most respected players.

As a nation mourned, a tearful Buffon said: “I’m sorry. Not for me, but for Italy. We blew something that could have meant so much. The only regret is that it ended like this. The blame is divided equally among us all. There must be no scapegoats.”

Gary Lineker tweeted: “It appears Gianluigi Buffon has played his final game for Italy. He will be much missed. A mountain of a man. A Giant of a goalkeeper. A credit to his sport.”

And the Dutch?

Their ability to self-implode at major tournaments and a perceived arrogance among its players didn’t always endear them to the football fan. The shockwaves from Milan were much bigger than those that came out of Amsterdam.

The Dutch have lost more World Cup finals than any other nation: 1974, 1978 and 2010, losing to West Germany, Argentina and Spain respectively.

Holland have a different way of looking at football: they’d be much happier than other nations by losing the ‘right way’. Winning is not the be all and end all; playing how the coaches envisage a performance, even if the end result is not as planned, is more acceptable.

Their tactical innovations have been picked up by others, improved upon and left the Dutch behind.

The Swedes were also involved in the other non-qualification shock: they beat Luxembourg 8-0, leaving the Dutch having to beat the Swedes 7-0 to claim the play-off spot.

Holland were World Under-21 champions in 2007, but of that team, only one player from that squad was in the squad to face Sweden – and that was former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel, not the first man on your team sheet if you were facing a night in the trenches.

The Dutch used to be a combination of footballing artistry and geometry and beauty; now, there is a generation of under-achievers. Players like Memphis Depay, who took a huge reputation with him when he joined Manchester United but, while he looked the part, he never played the part. Their coaches have come to the Premier League and gone - Van Gaal, Koeman, Frank de Boer and the last Dutch national coach Dick Advocaat. Total football and the beautiful game was never that evident.

Advocaat didn’t seem to fit in with the vibrant young things of years ago, and now Holland has to face up to the fact that declining stars like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar all have to be replaced.

In an interview with Goal, Ronald de Boer said: “We are in a phase where we don’t have top, top players. The top players are getting older and the young players are basically too young to fill in the gap. We have a lot of talent, but it is talent, they have not arrived yet.”

Of course, one of the issues is that Dutch league football is not strong and many players choose to earn their living overseas – they leave at a young age, they learn different ways of playing and then when they get together, their parts are 11, not one.

As is standard form, Advocaat resigned after the World cup failure and in February, Koeman was appointed manager on a four-and-half-year contract, which includes the 2022 World Cup. By then, the Dutch may have solved their succession crisis. Perhaps.

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