The internet is full with World Cup previews either as videos or as blog posts. This posts looks at those teams who will not be there, some are shocking, others surprising.
When in a few days time the first match of the World Cup in Russia will be kicking off, some quite prestigious football nations will not be tuning in to support their heroes. The most glaring absence this is Italy.
The Azzurri have won all their qualifying matches except a rare draw at home against Macedonia, a draw and a defeat against Spain and finished second in their group behind winners Spain. This was nothing to worry about as Germany had to go through the play-offs for the 2002 World Cup and ended up runners-up behind Brazil. However, two matches against Sweden proved too much for this Italian side.
The easiest option is of course to blame the coach Gian Piero Ventura. His task was an ungrateful one and he is not the only one to blame. His predecessor in office, Antonio Conte failed to include talent into the senior squad, something that Ventura continued. Additionally, there was his tactical rigidity that made changes impossible.
To put Italy’s miss into perspective: the last time they did not qualify was in 1958, that is 60 years ago. Back then, the UK still had imperial measures, was not part of the EEC and Germany was a divided country. Something must have gone spectacularly wrong that this could have happened. Surely, the scandal of the early 2000s did play a part when the establishment was shocked by revelations that referees were systematically bought in favour of Juventus and other clubs. While in the immediate aftermath, Italy managed to win the World Cup, it was downhill from there onwards.
Performances at previous tournaments hinted that change was inevitable. On both occasions, 2010 in South Africa Italy as holders were knocked out after the group stage featuring Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. It takes some hard work not to get out of this group. Fast forward to 2014 and Italy would again not survive a group featuring Uruguay, England and Costa Rica who surprisingly went to the knock-out stages as group winners. This was more difficult to manage yet Italy could not get out of their group, finishing third.
A lot of soul searching needs to be done, that is for sure. The new manager Luigi di Baggio has a lot of work on his plate before qualification begins for Euro 2020. Surely, someone like Carlo Ancelotti would have equally been a first class choice. He has won many titles in different countries and is the elder statesman of Italian football. However, di Baggio has worked with the U21 and therefore will be able to bring young players to the senior squad and initiate a new beginning for Italy. This will not be easy but who said life is easy?
The men in Orange have been on a steady decline in the last years: they failed to qualify for the extended EURO 2016 in France, even though they have featured in the semi-finals in Brazil just two years previous. There was some bad luck along the way, however. First, Holland and Sweden finished both on 19 points with the Scandinavians having the better goal difference. Luxemburg, the tiny country between France and Germany manged to hold France to a 0-0 draw while Sweden walked to an 8-0 victory against them. In Sweden, they had a goal disallowed that was not offside nor a foul by Das Bost, the prevented goalscorer.
There used to be exciting players to watch each year and before each tournament, Holland were justifiably placed among the favourites. The players never won any silverware but their individual class was outstanding. Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben … these players were the faces of this team in recent years. They are on the way out and everyone is hoping for the new generation to step forward. However, this seems difficult. The system that brought out talent like a conveyor belt – The Ajax School – has failed and it is questionable whether or not the Dutch have deliberately stopped it. It was set up by none other than King Johan Cruyff. The highs of 2006 and 2010 are long gone and will be forgotten soon. Oranje have hit rock bottom and they need to build from scratch.
What has happened to Chile? The South America champions of 2015 and 2016 will not be playing in Russia this summer. As always the questions what went wrong provides a number of answers. The coach of 2015 Jorge Sampaoli left after the final win in 2015 and Juan Antonio Pizzi managed to win the Copa América Centenario but that was it. This alone does not bring any clues as to what has happened.
The qualification was close and Peru and Chile were neighbours in the table as they are geographically: Peru to the north on top of Chile; though they were level on points (26) after an 18 game qualifying marathon. Peru had the better goal difference and went into the inter-confederation play-off against New Zealand which they have comfortably won. An away defeat against Bolivia in La Paz was the dawning of the end; it came with a 3-0 defeat against Brazil. However, losses to Argentina at home and away as well as being beaten at home by Paraguay add to the Chilean misery.
The Black Stars one of the brightest teams from Africa in the early 2000s will not feature in Russia. It is eight years ago when they were blatantly robbed of their greatest moment in their footballing history in 2010 when in the dying seconds of the match Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty after Luis Suarez played a handball in the penalty box and Ghana the ensuing penalty shoot out against Uruguay. Never before and not since has any African team come further in the World Cup.
For the final qualification round Ghana were placed in a group with Egypt, Uganda and Congo. With the exception of Egypt this was manageable. However, after 6 games, Ghana were third, with one win, four draws and one defeat. This was not enough. No win was recorded at home!
It did not help that the Ghanaian FA and the sport ministry fought over the team and money instead of cooperating for the best of it. There are reports of dissent about paying bonuses to the players and a lack of focus as a friendly against South Africa seemed more important than a qualifying match. These off pitch troubles did not help an ageing squad which needed rejuvenation instead of trying to keep things together.
The problems for the US team are similar to those featured above: an ageing squad has not been refreshed with young players. This applied to Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey who were kept for too long. Although the USMNT were top of their group after the fourth round of qualification, it was the following round that proved too much for them.
There were two defeats against Costa Rica, an away draw with Honduras and Panama. Clearly, this was not going happen. The nail in the coffin was the 2-1 defeat in the last match away at Trinidad & Tobago.
Soccer as it is known in the US needs to work hard to become more than a sport for a few if the USMNT really want to get back to their previous track record of reaching the knock out stages in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
The pattern is too obvious: the US have a generation of players that are good or even very good and these players are kept for too long ignoring the urgent need to bring in young players who could learn and be prepared for the big stage. This did not happen, not only in the US but in many of the teams mentioned here. It seems shorttermism reigns supreme.
Last but no less, least
These teams mentioned here have qualified for at least two of the last World Cups. There are other teams such as Wales, who suffered a hangover from the EUros 2016 and therefore started slowly into the qualification. The Republic of Ireland lost in the play-off against Denmark and Northern Ireland who came second behind Germany and were outplayed by Switzerland in the play-off. Scotland have the players but could not get the best out of them. Hungary had no chance going into the group with Switzerland and Portugal. Turkey had too much internal fighting to distract them. South Africa disgraced themselves with match fixing allegations making the rounds.