Italy fails to qualify, losing to North Macedonia


Domenico Berardi and Italy missed several chances in the World Cup qualifying play-off against North Macedonia and then lost to a late goal in Palermo. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Italy has been a fixture at the men’s World Cup for six decades, invariably qualifying for football’s premier tournament and winning their third and fourth titles. It has established itself culturally and competitively as one of the giants of the sport. It built a thriving domestic league and a feared national team that seemed immune to colossal failure.

And yet this team failed to qualify for the second World Cup in a row on Thursday in Palermo.

It lost to North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic that never qualified and hasn’t even come close until this year. Aleksandar Trajkovski scored an injury-time goal to sink the Italians. His teammates swarmed onto the pitch as a nation of 60 million emulated the Italian players, hands on heads, psyches stunned.

“We are desperate,” said Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.

The 1-0 defeat eliminated Italy from the European play-offs, as did a defeat by Sweden four years ago. But this failure had not been entirely unforeseen. That The Italian team had stumbled through a qualifying group that included Spain and lost to a eventual World Cup quarter-finalist. It promised never to let that happen again.

This had won a European Championship just eight months ago. It looked like a World Cup contender, a giant awakened from sleep. On the other side were Lorenzo Insigne, a magician, and Federico Chiesa, a relentless winger. It had Jorginho, the world’s preeminent conductor, and a rock-solid backline. It had Gianluigi Donnarumma, a sweeping shot stopper and more.

In the first six qualifying games, they conceded only once. Their plans for Qatar were obvious. They went into November with room for error in Europe’s final qualifying window. A home win against Switzerland in Rome at the vaunted Stadio Olimpico would confirm those plans.

But there, on November 12, everything began to unravel. Jorginho missed a penalty in the 90th minute that would have decided qualification. Italy decided with a draw against the Swiss. They went into the final day of group play knowing that a win against Northern Ireland would probably be enough, but then failed to score. frustration boiled. Nerves tightened.

“You are just like San Marino!” Northern Ireland fans sang as their side beat Italy 0-0. “Just like *** San Marino!”

Switzerland won their game that day and sent the Italians to the playoffs. A semi-random draw put them on a collision course with Portugal. The last two European champions would go head-to-head in a playoff final; one would go to the World Cup, the other wouldn’t.

But Italy never made it.

First it had to beat weak North Macedonia – population 2 million, GDP one 150th that of Italy.

Couldn’t do it on Thursday.

It ruled the game. It took 32 shots on North Macedonia’s four and 16 corners on North Macedonia’s zero. It stared at gaping webs but could not hit them.

It created one coincidence after another and caused roar after roar from 30,000 people in Sicily.

It converted no one, and that roar turned into a groan. The 30,000 grew restless.

Their fear for much of the second half was that the Italians had run out of ideas; that a 0-0 deadlock would not be broken; that extra time would come and go and that a terrifyingly random penalty shoot-out would decide the survival of the World Cup.

But again, Italy never made it. Trajkovski grabbed a second ball. His ricocheting ball caught Donnarumma on the wrong foot.

It flew past the Italian goalkeeper and players employed by clubs in Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova flew towards their top scorer, who himself plays for a Saudi club in a 7,000-seat stadium.

Players employed by clubs including PSG, Chelsea, Juventus and Inter Milan tore their shirts down their faces and banged heads on their hands.

Hundreds of visiting Macedonian fans raised their fists in the sky and waved flags in ecstasy. Thousands of Italians booed and whistled. Donnarumma stared at the lawn. Emerson Palmieri lay on it. Jorginho shook his head. Marco Verratti wiped away his tears. Some fans watched the scene from afar, their asses glued to the seats, their faces in shock.

The oldest among them had witnessed 14 consecutive men’s World Cup appearances, eight semi-finals and four titles dating back to the tournament’s pre-World War II origins.

As they stood still, paralyzed by fear and disbelief, they faced the unthinkable: that Italy, mighty Italy, would go a full 12 years without a men’s World Cup.

“It’s a nightmare,” Verratti said after the game. “We had the players to challenge for the tournament Italy fails to qualify, loses to North Macedoniabut we’re talking about a catastrophe here.”

Jorginho, who missed two costly penalties in the group game, said they would “haunt me for the rest of my life”.

The European Championship title run last summer was “the best experience of my life,” said head coach Roberto Mancini. “That was the biggest disappointment.”

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