Updated at 12:58 p.m. ET on March 25, 2022.
The apocalypse has come again for the Italian national soccer team. Italy has won more World Cups than any other nation save Brazil and Germany, but for the second time in a row, it has failed to qualify for the Mondiale, after Aleksandar Trajkovski, of North Macedonia, scored at the 92nd minute to end the contest 0–1.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Last year the Azzurri won the European championship, defeating the likes of Spain and England, a victory that promised to usher in a renaissance for a squad that had been struggling since its last World Cup victory, in 2006. The legends of that era—Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon—are long gone from the national team.
Despite having won four World Cups, Italy is an awkward fit for football giants. Lacking the unending creativity of Brazil, the tactical brilliance of Spain and Germany, the offensive firepower of England, and the standout talent of France and Argentina, Italian teams have developed a reputation for mastering the more prosaic arts of football: strategic cleverness, team cohesion, defensive ruthlessness, and its darker ones, including psychological warfare and yes, diving.
Some fans see this as cynicism—and that’s true, but it’s hardly the whole story of Italian soccer. I learned to love the beautiful game as a kid in Rome, where I saw a reverence for the sport unmatched by anything I had seen before or since. My first professional sports memory is of Mark Rypien, Gary Clark, and Art Monk leading Washington, D.C.’s football team to victory in the Super Bowl in 1992. But the first sports heartbreak I can remember was watching Roberto Baggio, the star of the Italian national team, boot his penalty kick into the sky during the penalty shoot-out after a 120-minute scoreless draw with Brazil in the 1994 World Cup Final. I’m not the only one—Netflix’s biopic of Baggio is built around that moment, and around his childhood promise to his father to win the World Cup against Brazil after his father’s own heartbreak seeing Italy lose to Brazil in the 1970 final. The losses, even more than the victories, hook you for life.
I had never experienced anything like that 1994 World Cup. Every game, every goal, it seemed like the city lit up—people screaming out the windows of their apartments with joy at other complete strangers. The whole city, the whole country, seemed to be glued to their television sets watching the matches, sharing every moment of anxiety and exultation. I was used to playing soccer with other kids on pitches divided into Romanisti and Laziali. But it was this feeling of unity that taught me to love the sport. The passion of Italy’s tifosi I saw as a kid was … well, it was as beautiful as the game.
I later learned that Italy’s regional divides, which still linger long after its 19th-century unification, meant that this reverence for the Azzurri is not shared everywhere. When Argentina played Italy in Naples in 1990, it was arguably a home game for Argentina, whose team was led by Diego Maradona, the city’s once and forever hero. Many fans dread the international break, fearing that their club’s key players will get injured playing for their national team. I also learned about the dark sides of soccer—the violence, the racism, the corruption. But even with that knowledge, and the disgust for those elements of the sport, the warmth and wonder I felt as a kid stayed with me. To this day, I prefer to watch the Italian Serie A over more wealthy and prestigious European leagues—these are the histories, rivalries, and fandoms I know and understand.
Over the past few years, the accomplished Italian coach Roberto Mancini led the nazionale to its first European cup in decades and the longest unbeaten streak of any national team: 37 matches. This generation of Azzurri was different—gone was the coldly defensive play of some previous Italian champions, popularly known as catenaccio. The new Azzurri relied on a creative, flowing attack, more like the aggressive play of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli than the defensive efficiency of Massimo Allegri’s Juventus. This was not a team content to score one goal and sit back and absorb pressure until the triple whistle.
But after Italy won the 2020 Euros, there were too many mistakes—missed penalties, missed chances, an absence of what Italians call cattiveria, perhaps best translated as “wickedness,” in front of their opponents’ goals. There were draws that should have been wins, before Spain snapped Italy’s winning streak in the Nations League semifinal last year. Then there were the injuries to key players, like the wingback Leonardo Spinazzola in the Euro quarterfinal, the striker Ciro Immobile during the World Cup qualifiers, and the forward Federico Chiesa in January. After a missed penalty cost them a victory against Switzerland last November, Italy failed to qualify outright for the World Cup, and was forced into further qualifying rounds, first against North Macedonia, and if they won, against the winner of the contest between Portugal and Turkey.
Despite these struggles, some Italian commentators and Azzurri fans seemed to be already looking ahead to a showdown with Portugal, whose roster boasts talent from some of the greatest clubs in Europe, implicitly dismissing North Macedonia entirely. It must have been inconceivable that the European champions would miss out on the World Cup. But in soccer, when a storied side underestimates the hunger and drive of a smaller one, it often leads to upsets that live forever in the hearts and minds of the fans, as heartbreak or triumph. As they say in Italy, “il calcio è questo.” This is football.
When Mancini’s lineup was released on match day, it was very similar to the team that had won the Euros, but—aside from a recovered Immobile, who has always had an easier time scoring for club than country—without some of its game changers. Mancini’s choices were understandably conservative, but also worrisome, given that this same side had been unable to qualify outright in the first place. Volatile but unpredictable talents like Nicolò Zaniolo and Mario Balotelli were left out, while Gianluca Scamacca—considered by many to be Italy’s next great striker—was unavailable.
Then, when the match started, North Macedonia seemed to be beating Italy at its own abandoned game. Content to absorb pressure and counterattack, North Macedonia held the line even as the Azzurri seemed to be on the verge of scoring the entire match. But for 90 minutes, Italy failed to find the perfect touch in the final third. Then the Azzurri’s hopes were crushed when Trajkovski fired an awkward ball from outside the box that seemed almost magnetically guided to the goal, knocking the European champs out of the 2023 World Cup. It was a strategy executed to perfection, one that soccer’s Davids have long used to slay Goliaths. Some Azzurri fans on social media joked that given the human-rights issues surrounding the World Cup host, Qatar, Italy was taking a principled stand by not participating.
The Azzurri’s loss will have dire financial consequences for Italy, the Italian Football Federation, and likely also for Mancini, as well as for a generation of players who will lose their only chance to represent their country at the World Cup. But those I pity the most are the kids who will miss out on the experience I had in 1994, of learning to love the game for the first time alongside an entire country. Their heartbreak came too soon.
This article previously misstated the year that Argentina played Italy in Naples. It was 1990, not 1986.