Sweden beat Italy to a place in next year’s World Cup after a goalless draw in Milan in what turned out to be Buffon’s swansong.
There was a common consensus on a warm, Parisian evening back in June 2016 that the end of an era had approached. Italy had just beaten Spain by two goals to nil in the round of 16 in the European Championship and most of the Stade de France believed that that resembled the bringing down of the curtain on Spain’s most successful period in its international footballing history. There was also a sense that this Italian side – pragmatic and well-coached – had overtaken them. However, fast-forward eighteen months to a cold, blustery night in Milan and all seems imaginary. On Tuesday evening, Italy joined the Netherlands in missing out on the World Cup after they failed to score against Sweden, who will take their place in Russia next summer. Yet Spain – who won the qualifying group they shared with Italy – are one of the favourites to triumph in Russia. The absence of the Italians is the more momentous event, given that they have won the World Cup twice since the last time they failed to reach the tournament in 1958, and four times in total.
In the immediate aftermath, Gianluigi Buffon, the 39-year-old Italy goalkeeper, announced his international retirement – he will fully retire at the end of the season provided Juventus don’t win the Champions League – while there were several reports that coach Gian Piero Ventura had resigned although he refused to confirm it. “I am leaving a national team set-up that will know how to pick itself up again,” Buffon, who had just won his 175th cap, said. “The blame is divided equally among all of us – there must be no scapegoats.”
Beaten 1-0 in Stockholm on Friday, Ventura’s side had by far the better of the return leg but Robin Olsen kept them at bay in the Swedish goal. Italy have never lost at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium but there was no celebration at extending their run to 43 matches. Italy were twice given a lifeline in the first-half when they escaped punishment despite handling in their own penalty area – both Matteo Darmian and Andrea Barzagli appeared to move their arm deliberately to block the ball, yet Antonio Mateu Lahoz waved play on. The Spanish referee courted controversy at both ends and continued his run of dishing out cards as if they were going out of fashion. The match was bad-tempered – Chiellini received a booking for a challenge from behind on Marcus Berg whilst Barzagli, who struggled to execute the simplest of actions, was cautioned for cynically chopping down Berg.
Jorginho – who was making his first Italy appearance under Ventura – and Leonardo Bonucci caused danger by playing several incisive passes through the heart of the Sweden defence. Ciro Immobile was twice sent clear by Jorginho, hitting the side-netting from a tight angle and then having his effort blocked by the legs of Olsen, who also blocked a shot by Alessandro Florenzi. Italy’s dominance only increased in the second period. Florenzi’s acrobatic volley from Darmian’s cross curved narrowly side, and Antonio Candreva had a shot deflected past the post.
Stephan El Shaarawy – an Italian substitute – drew a foul from Mikael Lustig, who was yellow-carded in the process. Shortly afterwards, a Lustig header towards his own goal forced Olsen to back-pedal and tip the ball over the bar. Jan Andersson – the Swedish coach – admitted Italy were technically superior. “We had no weapons left,” he said. “We just had to sit there and hope that we could hang on. We couldn’t do it any other way, they are so skilful.” Sweden would have struggled to hold out if it hadn’t been for goalkeeper Olsen, along with centre-back duo Granqvist and Lindelof.
Yet despite Italy’s chances and possession there didn’t appear to be a clear plan of attack – the hopeful balls into the Swedish area weren’t quite met by the individual quality that was required. The match was comparable to many of Italy’s qualifiers in this campaign and a number of regular Azzurri watchers weren’t surprised by Italy’s failure. ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘The End’ adorned some of the Italian newspapers on Tuesday morning but the extent to which this Italian side will be missed must be questioned considering their only victory in the World Cup since their triumph in 2006 came against England in 2014.
However, upon which there is no doubt is that Gianluigi will be sorely missed – from the World Cup, international football, and soon to be football entirely. As San Siro whistled the Swedish anthem pre-match, Gigi applauded. As Ventura refused to speak to the media post-match and offer up answers, Gigi – even with tears in his eyes – spoke. In the face of adversity, Buffon – ever the leader – wanted to keep the hopes and dreams of the next generation alive. He didn’t want to cry in case it deterred the kids watching at home from wanting to play for the Azzurri in the future. Change is needed for the Italian national side – a new captain definitely, a new manager probably. Promising youth players will stake their claim to a starting position, however; they will miss their captain – their leader for the past two decades. Buffon is a complete one-off. Irreplaceable. On a night when the San Siro was frustrated and divided, all were in unison in saying, ‘Grazie Gigi!’