Heartbroken Italians prepare for World Cup without Azzurri

Rome (AFP) –


For the first time since 1958, football-mad Italy will follow a World Cup finals from the sidelines without their national team.

Four-time winners Italy have been in chaos since their shock elimination in the play-offs last November to Sweden.

But on a club level Italy have had a good season, with Roma reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League and Juventus the quarter-finals, with Lazio going as far as the Europa League last eight.

In Serie A, there was a gripping battle until the end for the title with Juventus securing a seventh Scudetto in succession on Sunday.

But as the season draws to a close, Italy will be braced for a sad run up to a World Cup from June 14 to July 15 in which they will have no role.

Over the next four weeks, while the world of football will be buzzing with news of pre-tournament friendlies, team selections and training camps, Italy will be just a sparring partner, playing pre-tournament warm-ups against France and Saudi Arabia.

"I'm going to regret it all my life," said heartbroken goalkeeping star Gianluigi Buffon.

"We've deprived children of having a heart which beats for the World Cup."

On football pitches in Rome and throughout the peninsula, Italian children now say they want to support Argentina, "because (Juventus's Paulo) Dybala is so strong," or Belgium, "where Roma's (Radja) Nainggolan plays."

- 'Tough to watch' -

Goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff, however, believes enthusiasm for the World Cup will be undiminished among his compatriots.

"It doesn't feel like a World Cup but the fans will be there. Where there will be less will be in Russia. But Italians will watch it on television," said the 1982 World Cup winner.

"People in Italy are very attached to football and they will still follow it. But it might be tough to watch a little-known side play while our team, which has carved its name into footballing history with four World Cup titles, stays at home."

For Roberto Gandolfi, vice-president of Italian sportswear group Errea, who will be present in Russia as the kit supplier of Iceland, Italy's absence will have above all a financial cost.

"We have Iceland and it's very positive but when you think of TV, that sort of thing obviously there will be harm. It probably won't be fully realised until after the tournament," Gandolfi told AFP.

More than six months after their elimination Italy still do not have a permanent national coach, nor a federation president, and have slipped to an historic low of 20th in the world rankings.

"We have to wait for the young players. They are there. I think we have a group of 20-25 players who can succeed with a bit of experience," said Zoff.

But under which coach? Carlo Ancelotti has said "no", and the choice should finally be Roberto Mancini who left Zenit Saint-Petersburg on Sunday.

"Not seeing the Azzurri won't be nice for us, it won't be the same World Cup," said former Manchester City boss Mancini. "We need to believe the national side can return to among the best in the world."

For Mancini, Italy "does not have the great champions that they always had, but they have good players because good players are always being born in Italy".

While awaiting this future generation, the country will follow the World Cup as outsiders, where they will be best represented among the referees, with four including three in charge of video assistant replay (VAR) among the 13 selected by Pierluigi Collina, another Italian.