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The World Cup will be without Italy for the second edition in a row following what has been described back home as a “humiliating” defeat to North Macedonia in the play-offs on Thursday night.
After stubborn defending repelled Italy for large spells of the contest in Palermo, the visitors capitalised in stoppage time thanks to Aleksandar Trajkovski’s strike to seal a 1-0 victory.
Latching on to a flick-on, Trajkovski got the ball out from under his feet before unleashing a stunning low drive from 25 yards out that beat the despairing dive of Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The goal sparked jubilation as players and coaches on the North Macedonia bench rushed on to the pitch as several Italian players were left with their head in their hands.
Nine months on from triumphing at Euro 2020, the Azzurri are left to reflect on a shock loss that means they will miss a second successive World Cup, having also been absent at the 2018 edition in Russia.
The Italian media did not hold back in their criticism of Roberto Mancini’s side, less than a year after they lifted the European Championship trophy by beating England on penalties at Wembley.
Tuttosport described it as a “Blue Nightmare” with Chelsea midfielder Jorginho labelled a “snail” for the slow tempo of his play – contributing to a rating of four out of 10.
Corriere dello Sport lead with the headline “To Hell”, reflecting on the “immense disappointment” of a second successive World Cup no-show following Italy’s shock elimination in Palermo.
Italy’s top-selling sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport describe the seismic result as “Out of this World” with Mancini “devastated” and considering his future.
After one of the greatest wins in their history, North Macedonia, who at 67th in the world were ranked 61 places below Italy, can look forward to a play-off final against Portugal, who defeated Turkey 3-1.
“This is an epoch-making disaster. The shame is worse than ever,” Il Messaggero wrote on Friday.
Italy have won the World Cup four times, most recently in 2006. However, they exited at the group stage in 2010 and 2014, and this latest setback suggested that the European triumph in 2021 was merely a blip in a prolonged period of decline.
“What can I say, we got too lucky at the Europeans and we paid for it. It is that simple,” said Rome resident Carlo de Marchi.
Just like in 2018, Italy are the only former champions not to make it to the finals and newspapers saw the elimination as a reflection of wider problems in the national game.
For the last two seasons, no Italian teams have reached the quarter-finals of the prestigious Champions League, a trophy which has eluded Italy since 2010, with many domestic clubs weighed down by debt and unable to attract the top talent that once flocked to Serie A.
“The system, Italian football in its entirety, needs to be put on trial,” La Gazzetta dello Sport, wrote in an editorial, blaming a “total lack of vision” among sport administrators.
The newly appointed head of the top-flight Serie A league acknowledged that a shake-up was needed.
“This failure must lead everyone to serious reflection and profound change in our system,” said Lorenzo Casini, without giving details of what needed doing.
After the last World Cup debacle, Italy laid the blame squarely on team coach Gian Piero Ventura and football federation chief Carlo Tavecchio, who both resigned shortly afterwards.
This time around there were no calls for the removal of coach Mancini, an urbane leader who still gets huge credit for masterminding the 2021 European Championship success. However, he himself has not ruled out stepping down.
Defender Giorgio Chiellini said he and his team-mates felt “destroyed and crushed” after missing out on the World Cup finals again.
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Italy have lost twice in 42 games, across three and a half years, to Spain and North Macedonia.
“I am proud of a team that has given everything, it is clear that we are destroyed and crushed, a great void will remain within us,” said Chiellini, who replaced Gianluca Mancini in the 90th minute.
“There is a great disappointment, even today we played a good game but we couldn’t score. From September to today we have made mistakes and we have paid for them.”
Midfielder Marco Verratti said North Macedonia’s goal in added time was a “real nightmare”.
“This group had a great chance at the World Cup, we came from the unbeaten record, so it is difficult to accept what happened tonight,” Verratti said.
“We all know that we have given everything, now surely it is time to ask ourselves some questions.”
Mancini’s Italy side had 32 efforts at goal in the match, but somehow fell short, with North Macedonia going on to play Portugal in the play-off final next week for a place in the Qatar World Cup which will not involve Italy once more.
“It is a huge disappointment,” Italy midfielder Jorginho told Rai Sport. “It hurts, it hurts so much.
“We have always created and dominated matches but we have not been able to finish teams off. It is not to blame anyone in particular but it is the reality.
“I don’t know why we haven’t been able to do this, I am also involved in this, and it hurts me to think about it.”
Mancini: Luck has abandoned us
Mancini was reluctant to discuss his future as Italy manager after branding failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup the biggest disappointment of his career.
Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina has backed Mancini to continue.
World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro is reported to be the leading candidate to take over, should former Manchester City boss Mancini resign in the wake of the monumental upset.
“In July, the Wembley victory was the best thing; this is the biggest disappointment of my career,” said Mancini, according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
“We did everything we could to try to win. Some games are like that, difficult to talk about. Incredible things happen in football.
“The success in the European Championship was deserved, then the luck that accompanied us turned into total bad luck. I am very sorry for the group. On a human level, I can say that I love the kids more now than in July.
“This national team has good players and a great future. Now I feel too disappointed to speak about my future, we will see.”
Italy inquest – but will Mancini stay on?
It was only in May 2021 – prior to the European Championships – that Mancini signed a four-year contract extension that will keep him in charge until June 2026. But Italian federation boss Gravina said Mancini was committed to the job and gave him his backing.
“We must accept these verdicts, I am embittered for our fans,” said Gravina. “The great joy of last summer remains, but also the disappointment for this unexpected elimination.
“Mancini? I hope he continues, he has a commitment to a project and I hope he can quickly dispose of the waste.
“Tonight’s defeat makes us understand that in our football there is something to do. I’m not just referring to various indices and parameters. We need to understand better what to do, for example, to solve the problem of our young players who do not play.
“Only 30 per cent of Italian players play in the Primavera [Italian football youth competition]. We have to analyse the problem and move on.”
According to reports, 73-year-old former Italy coach Marcello Lippi could join Cannavaro as the team’s technical director, should Mancini depart.
Lippi has had two spells as Azzurri boss, from 2004 to 2006 and 2008 to 2010, including overseeing the triumphant 2006 World Cup campaign in Germany when Cannavaro, 48, was captain.
‘I only just stopped partying!’
North Macedonia journalist Filip Mishov:
“I only stopped partying a few hours ago because I had to work. I’m answering thousands of calls now so I’m super busy but it was a tremendous night and an extraordinary performance from North Macedonia in Palermo. It’s one that will go down in history with golden layers.
“It could well be [our greatest-ever win] if it proves crucial in us reaching the World Cup. Don’t forget, we beat Germany away in the qualifiers while the victory over Georgia which took us to the European Championships was very significant. But I would put the win over Italy in first place.
“It is a dream to beat the reigning European champions. It’s such an amazing achievement. A lot of people have disrespected us and thought Italy would walk over us. We had a chance and we took it but Portugal are another former European champion.
“With Cristiano Ronaldo maybe playing for his last World Cup appearance, it will be a difficult night.”