By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Italians, who consider a spot in the World Cup finals a virtual birthright, slumped into collective despair on Tuesday after the national team failed to win a place among soccer's elite for the first time in 60 years.
"Disaster", "nightmare", "humiliation", were just a few of the words splashed across the front pages of Italy's newspapers to describe the shock of the team's elimination at the hands of a little-fancied Sweden on Monday in Milan.
"Apocalypse Azzurra," said the headline of La Stampa newspaper, referring to the unofficial name of the team whose bright blue jerseys reflect the azure of the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy have played in the last 14 World Cup finals, winning two of them. In all, they have triumphed four times, a tally only exceeded by Brazil, who have won five times. Italy are the only former champions not to make it to next year's finals.
"This is disgusting, the World Cup can't exist without Italy. It just can't exist," said Francesco Macella, who had watched in the San Siro stadium as Italy drew 0-0 with Sweden to lose the two-leg clash 1-0 on aggregate.
Every four years, Italy has come together over the World Cup, putting aside its historic city-state rivalries to become a united nation for a brief moment in time, cheering on all the players regardless if they came from Milan, Rome or Naples.
"We have failed and at a social level this could have been so important," said Italy's storied goalkeeper, Gigi Buffon, in a tearful interview minutes after the final whistle on Monday, recognizing the broader significance of the national team.
While newspapers laid the blame squarely on team coach Gian Piero Ventura and soccer federation chief Carlo Tavecchio, some fans thought the failure reflected wider problems.
"This match mirrors our country which is falling apart," said a disappointed Stefano Martufello as he left the San Siro.
Italy is slowly recovering from a prolonged recession, but most people say they see no sign of the pick-up, with wages stagnant and unemployment stuck above 11 percent.
Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, looked to score quick political points, blaming Italy's upset on the large number of foreign players in domestic leagues.
"There are too many foreigners on (our) pitches, from youth teams to Serie A and this is the result. #STOPTHEINVASION." he said on Twitter. Transfermarkt website said 53.3 percent of Serie A players were foreigners compared with 42.8 percent in Spain's Lingam but 67.2 percent in England's Premier League.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who heads the ruling Democratic Party, dismissed Salvini as an opportunist, saying his argument was "ridiculous". But in a statement, he still urged that Italian soccer be "totally rebuilt".
"Not taking part in the Russia World Cup is an enormous slap in the face. Let's make sure this helps us undertake radical change, immediately," he said.
Newspapers estimated missing the Cup would cost Italy's soccer authorities and media companies some 100 million euros ($117.5 million) in lost revenues. Shares in RCS Mediagroup, which publishes sport daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, dropped 7 percent due to the fall in anticipated circulation next year.
Italy last won the World Cup in 2006, but exited at the group stage in 2010 and 2014. This latest setback showed how far the team has drifted from its peak, belying the widespread expectation that it would have eased past Sweden.
"For years I've had this feeling that Italian football is a little like Italy itself, which lives a lot in the past when the reality is that it finds itself dealing with things that are quite intense, even shocking," said Matteo Maragnano, peeling oranges in a cafe near Milan's gothic cathedral.
Grasping for silver linings, commentators recognized that the current Italian team would not have got very far in Russia.
"The only consolation is that we would have made utter fools of ourselves at the finals," La Stampa said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich in Milan; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Gavin Jones)