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Last Updated Saturday March 24 2018 03:47 AM IST

Apocalypse now: The World crumbles for Italy

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Gianluigi Buffon An emotional Gianluigi Buffon waves to the fans after playing his final game for the Azzurri. Getty Images

The unthinkable has happened. Four-time champions and European powerhouse Italy have failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1958 as the Swedes held them to a goalless draw in the return leg of the play-off to win 1-0 on aggregate.

No doubt, it was a masterclass in defensive display by Janne Andersson's Sweden at the San Siro in Milan Monday night, but it was tough to comprehend the tactics of under-fire Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura in the crunch game. 

Ventura decided to keep Italy's best attacking player Lorenzo Insigne on the bench as a stunned crowd watched in disbelief. 

Daniele De Rossi, who refused to come on as a substitute in the second half, was furious at  Ventura's decision as he thought Insigne was the go-to man with the Azzurri desperately needing a goal. Italian captain Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Barzagli too retired from international football along with De Rossi after the shock result.

Buffon, arguably the greatest goalkeeper of his generation, would have become the first man in history to appear in six World Cup finals had Italy made it through. Instead, his glorious international career ended with a whimper. 

The last time Italy had to rely on a play-off  to seal a place in the finals in 1997, they had in their ranks the likes of Roberto Baggio, Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri. 

Dejected lot Italian players are crestfallen at the end of the game. Getty Images

Four world-class strikers, but sadly that was not the case this time around. The Azzurri clearly lacked firepower up front and creativity in midfield. Ever since Italy won the 2006 World Cup, it has been a downhill journey for them in the quadrennial showpiece. 

They failed to get past the group stage in both South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. However, Italy did well to make it to the Euro 2012 final, and the team played an attractive brand of football at last year's European Championships in France where they went down to Germany on penalties in the quarterfinals. 

The team managed by Antonio Conte combined attack and defense beautifully, but once Conte left to take over the reins of Chelsea it has been a struggle for them.

Agreed, they were in a tough group comprising Spain in the World Cup qualifying campaign. Ventura even went on to say that he was not surprised that they found themselves in the play-off. But he could not motivate his men to show the resilience on the big night and the spark was missing in the Italian camp. 

To say it's the end of an era will be an understatement. Italy are a proud footballing nation and they have shown tremendous fighting spirit in the past to emerge world champions in 1982 and 2006 when the Serie A was rocked by match-fixing scandals. One can only hope that the Azzurri will bounce back from this footballing apocalypse.

Paolo Rossi Paolo Rossi fired Italy to a memorable triumph in the 1982 World Cup. Getty Images

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The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.

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