Italy will not be at the World Cup. If that felt strange to say in 2018, it was from the shock of seeing one of soccer’s most decorated countries miss out on soccer’s premier tournament. To say it again, in 2022, feels different. It feels like a fever dream.
Thanks to Italy’s initially dominant and eventually nail-biting title-winning run at the 2021 Euros last summer, Thursday’s qualifying collapse is on another level of unbelievable. It’s true, though, so let’s say it again: After losing 1–0 to North Macedonia in the first match of the World Cup qualifying playoff, Italy will not be playing at the World Cup for the second time in a row.
The new playoff format in UEFA played a big part in Italy’s misery. In World Cup cycles past, the second-place teams in each group would get drawn together and play a two-legged tie, home and away. Usually, that meant the better teams would qualify, as quality is easier to impose on a result over two legs. Under the new system, there is a complicated draw involving the ten second place teams and the two Nations League qualifiers. Those teams then play a one-match semifinal and a one-match final for the last three qualifying spots.
One-off games are inherently more variable across all sports—see the difference in upsets between the NCAA Tournament and the NBA Playoffs for another example—and that propensity for variance is exactly what took out Italy. North Macedonia followed the well-worn script for big underdogs: it hunkered down, played defense for two-thirds of the match, and held on for dear life in search of either a fluky winner or a penalty shootout.
It got the former in the most dramatic fashion. In the 92nd minute, after surviving a barrage of 32 Italian shots—only five of those went on target, but more on this in a bit—Macedonian goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski blasted a goal kick deep into Italy’s half, where it was headed down to Aleksandar Trajkovski. The 29-year-old winger, who plies his craft at Saudi Arabia’s Al-Fayha, took a couple touches before whipping a low screamer just past Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma. After not playing a particularly good game, North Macedonia turned a not particularly good chance into the winner:
I want to go back to those 32 shots, though. Not to take anything away from North Macedonia, but this should have never been that close. Under Roberto Mancini, Italy shed its reputation for stalwart defense in exchange for a more free-flowing attacking philosophy that relied on its strongest sector, the midfield, to suffocate opponents with passes and chances created. It worked last summer, and in every phase of the match except where it matters most, it worked again on Thursday.
Unfortunately, Italy had the same problem it did in both the semifinal and final of the Euros, and throughout the World Cup qualifying group stage as well: the team struggled to come up with goals when it needed them. Just to pick one of the many examples against North Macedonia, how does Domenico Berardi miss this open goal?
Italy has no real excuse for letting it come to this. Sure, the Azzurri were missing Federico Chiesa, their most exciting and dynamic attacking talent, but the starting frontline of Berardi, Toronto-bound Lorenzo Insigne, and Serie A joint-top-scorer Ciro Immobile should have been enough to overwhelm Macedonia’s low block. The same goes for qualifying—Italy had more than enough chances, and more than enough support from Mancini’s control-granting playing style, to win its group and qualify directly. They didn’t, and more than anything, even more than Donnarumma’s shaky positioning on the Macedonian goal, that scoring impotence is why Italy is missing out on World Cup soccer once again.
As hard as it is to fathom how such a good team can fail to make it to the World Cup, it’s similarly difficult to place the failure in context. If you had offered Italians the chance to guarantee the national team a title at the Euros in exchange for missing the sandwiching World Cups, I bet a lot of them would’ve taken the deal. Still, last summer’s glory doesn’t make Thursday’s collapse any less embarrassing. Everyone was already preparing for a shiny Italy-Portugal playoff final, but under this new qualifying method, Portugal will instead have to contend with the same Macedonian defense that kept out the Italians. Unlike the team going home, though, Portugal can actually score, so this might not be close. Then again, no one probably expected to see the small contingent of Macedonian fans celebrating in Palermo, while Italian players left the field in tears, with no one to blame but themselves for blowing it.