(Reuters) – Italy broke English hearts last July as they won the European Championship final but after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second straight tournament they have left fans thinking their Wembley triumph was a flash in the pan.
For a country who have won the World Cup four times, Italy’s recent record is a national embarrassment.
Since lifting their fourth World Cup trophy in 2006, they have not played a knockout game in the showpiece event, having only won one group stage match at the finals in that time.
Their recent World Cup record is even more distressing.
A shock 1-0 defeat at home to low ranking North Macedonia on Thursday in their World Cup playoff semi-final ensured they have not reached the finals of the tournament since 2014.
That is now two successive failures to reach the World Cup, either side of the Euro 2020 triumph.
Coming second to Switzerland in their qualifying group, consigning Italy to the playoffs, caused uproar at home. The reaction to the playoff loss will be vitriolic to say the least.
“It’s hard to say something right now, I don’t know what to say,” coach Roberto Mancini told reporters.
“Last summer was the most beautiful joy, now comes the greatest disappointment. It is not easy to think of other things, I am very sorry for the boys: I love them much more tonight than in July.
“I am the coach, I am the first responsible, the boys are not. They have a great future, they are strong players for the future of the national team. We did not deserve this defeat.”
Italy had 32 shots at goal to North Macedonia’s five but it was not as if visiting goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski had the game of his life. He did not have a difficult save to make and the home side not scoring was down to their own wastefulness.
North Macedonia coach Blagoja Milevski could see the irony of their last-gasp victory.
“We won Italian style against the Italians, a goal with two shots on target,” he told reporters. “I’m very happy for this victory, I’m proud for these guys.”
North Macedonia, who have never qualified for the World Cup, will face Portugal next Tuesday for a place in Qatar but, no matter what happens in that final playoff, they will always remember their trip to defeat the might of Italy in Palermo.
For the Azzurri, however, it is very much back to square one, 10 months on from one of their finest hours.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Ken Ferris)