ROME (AP) — Loved and admired around the world for producing players like Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo, the Italian national team struggles for respect at home.
In a country where club teams rule and where provincialism dating back to medieval times still reigns, the Azzurri are often seen as an afterthought, if not an inconvenience.
Italian clubs often prefer to take their valuable players away from the national team rather than risk injury. There are no “ultra” organized supporters for Italy like there are for all club teams in Serie A, B and C.
Italy doesn’t even have a home stadium like England has with Wembley. Instead, he storms across the country, often playing matches in smaller stadiums and towns – appearing at the San Siro in Milan and the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for only the biggest games.
Dragged down by a shortage of top young players and the demise of the Italian league over the past decade, four-time champions Italy have failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.
Winners of the European Championship last year, Italy were beaten at home by North Macedonia in the qualifying playoffs in March.
Four years earlier, it was a home playoff loss to Sweden that kept the Azzurri out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
And in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Italy was knocked out in the group stage.
Serie A has refused a request from the Italian football federation to change its schedule and move the weekend’s league games before the qualifiers, which would have allowed coach Roberto Mancini to spend more time with his players .
“There is still great resistance from clubs towards the national team,” said federation president Gabriele Gravina after the playoff defeat. “The national team is seen more as an annoyance than as something that unites a whole country.”
Most recently, centre-forward Ciro Immobile was barred from boarding the team’s plane for a Nations League game in Hungary due to a disagreement over his injury status between the team. national and its club, Lazio.
And on Sunday, hours after Qatar faced Ecuador in the World Cup opener, Italy will play a mostly meaningless friendly against Austria in Vienna.
The Italian football federation wanted to move the friendly match with Austria from one day to Saturday to avoid the clash with the World Cup, but the public television channel RAI reportedly refused because it preferred to broadcast ‘Dancing with the Stars’ on Saturday evening.
With modern Italy having been unified in 1861, historically bitter rivalries persist between north and south and even cities in the same region.
“Provincialism has been a problem,” RAI national team analyst Antonio Di Gennaro said in an interview. “And as for players who sometimes don’t want to go to the national team because of injury problems, those are situations that concern the clubs.”
THE END OF SERIES A
When Roma won the inaugural edition of the third-tier Europa Conference League last season, it was the first European title for an Italian club since Inter Milan lifted the Champions League trophy in 2010.
Failed renovations and construction of new stadiums, match-fixing scandals and bad financial decisions have all contributed to the demise of the Italian league – and therefore the national team.
Italian clubs have also been reluctant to use young Italians, forcing Mancini to sometimes rely on inexperienced players – such as when he called up then 19-year-old Nicolò Zaniolo in 2018 before Zaniolo appeared in Serie A.
Zaniolo is now considered one of the best players in Serie A.
“Our clubs lack courage in this department,” said Di Gennaro, who played in the Hellas Verona team that won Serie A in 1985. “It’s a matter of mentality.”
Two failed penalty attempts by Jorginho in the qualifying matches against Switzerland ended up being decisive. One match ended 0-0, the other 1-1.
Had Italy won either of those two matches, they would have finished ahead of Switzerland and secured automatic qualification for the tournament in Qatar.
“Let’s not persecute Jorginho. But if you miss two penalties, you end up staying at home,” Di Gennaro said.
Unlike after Gian Piero Ventura lost player support and was fired after failing to qualify for 2018, Mancini has kept his job and is already working on a revival.
The Azzurri qualified for the last four of the Nations League in June with Croatia, Spain and the Netherlands. And Italy is a bid to host the 2032 European Championship, which would represent a great opportunity to rebuild the country’s crumbling stadiums.
Mancini can count on a core of young players like goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and strikers Zaniolo, Federico Chiesa, Giacomo Raspadori and Gianluca Scamacca to turn the tide.
Unsung Wilfried Gnonto has also impressed for Italy recently.
SERIES A REPRESENTED
Serbia and Poland have each called up 11 Serie A players to their World Cup squads. And Juventus are sending 11 players to Qatar.
So who will the Italian fans support? They will support the players of their club teams.
Juventus fans will cheer on Dušan Vlahović and Filip Kostić with Serbia; Inter Milan fans will follow Romelu Lukaku’s Belgium; and the AC Milan ‘tifosi’ will be keeping tabs on Rafael Leão with Portugal.
It’s all about club teams, not Italy.
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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf