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Italy on tenterhooks ahead of World Cup showdown

Italy is anxiously counting down to kick-off in a showdown with Sweden that will determine whether the football superpower misses the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.

Italy on tenterhooks ahead of World Cup showdown
Fans arriving at San Siro stadium in Milan, where Italy's World Cup fate will be decided. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP.

The four-times winners of sport's greatest prize have not suffered the agony of missing the finals since the 1958 edition in Sweden.

But sitting out next year's tournament in Russia is a real possibility after a 1-0 defeat in their play-off first leg in Stockholm on Friday.

Under-fire coach Gian Piero Ventura insists the Azzurri have sufficient quality to turn the tie around – a view that seemed to be shared by fans strolling around central Rome on Monday afternoon.

“It is not as if Sweden are that strong a team,” said Fabio Votano, a Roman who was only a toddler when Italy last missed out on a World Cup finals.

“Not winning is completely unthinkable, basically something that has never happened before. For Italy, getting to the World Cup finals is almost a duty.

“Of course there are many more important things going on in Italy, but, certainly, in sporting terms it will be a big drama because in the past we have always qualified and we have often won.”

Italy ended up in the play-offs as a result of finishing second in their qualifying group behind Spain and a sluggish performance in Stockholm has compounded the task of reaching next year's finals in Russia.

The first leg was a scrappy, physical affair with Sweden edging it thanks to substitute Jakob Johansson's deflected shot just after the hour mark.

“They're playing miserably at the moment but Italy still has a good set of players in my opinion,” said another Rome resident, Enrico Doddi.

“It is all down to mentality: if Italy can convince itself it has strong players it can make an impact at the World Cup. And we have to start tonight.

“You cannot have a good World Cup without Italy.”

Another fan, Manuel Sanna, said failure would be a massive blow to the country's morale, extending beyond the confines of sport.

“It'd be a defeat for a whole people, not just Italian football.

“Football is very important to us, we are brought up with the passion for it. I'm hoping for an Italian football renaissance along with an economic one.”

Amid the prevailing anxiety, Turin mayor Chiara Appendino struck a lighter note by tweeting a picture of herself in an Italy top and “Losing is not allowed” emblazoned across the image.

In a reference to Sweden's most famous export, IKEA, the mayor tweeted: “They're famous for making their homes welcoming, it would be a shame not to send them back to them.”

Enrico Addati, a teenager from Bari in southern Italy, told AFP: “We are all very anxious. I just hope that the squad can produce the sense of honour and especially the heart they will need.

“The prospect of failure is really not very nice. Italy can't not be at the World Cup.

“For sure there will have to be resignations if that happens. But we don't want to get to that point. We have to be at the World Cup and fighting to win it.”

Neapolitan schoolteacher Laura Sobrero said coach Ventura had to accept responsibility for Italy having been left sweating until the last minute.

“I don't think you can blame the squad because we have some really good players who are not having the impact they should have, maybe because they are not being played in the right roles,” she said.

“It will be awful if we don't get to the World Cup because we are so used to being there and it being a very intense experience for the whole country.

“Italy not being there will almost be like an offence to the fans, so let's hope we can do it. Football is in our blood.”

 

FOOTBALL

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players’ ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome

Italy’s national football team reportedly insisted on taking an open-top bus tour through Rome to show off their European Championship trophy to crowds of fans - despite city authorities forbidding it amid concern about the spread of coronavirus.

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players' ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The team’s bus parade through the city on Monday night following their Euro 2020 triumph “was not authorised”, according to Matteo Piantedosi the head of Rome’s prefettura (the public safety authority).

Thousands of fans packed the streets of central Rome to see the team celebrate their cup win after beating England on penalties in the final.

READ ALSO: ‘Football came home’: Italy celebrates Euro 2020 victory over England

Piantedosi told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday: “We had denied permission to celebrate Italy’s victory in the European Championships on the open bus, but the pact was not respected.”

Piantedosi, who is Rome’s top public security official, said police had “no choice” but to let the parade go ahead after players Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci insisted on it.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

A meeting had been held on Friday with the Italian football federation (FIGC) to discuss plans for the celebrations if Italy won, said Piantedosi.

“I had agreed the line with Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Chief of Police Lamberto Giannini,” he said.

“It was clearly explained that [the parade] was not possible. We said we could not authorize it.”

Piantedosi said the Italian football federation (FIGC) initially agreed to hold a “controlled” ceremony in Rome’s central Piazza del Popolo instead of the parade.

After players insisted on the bus tour on Monday however, Piantedosi said, authorities reluctantly let them go ahead due to fears of sparking public disorder.

“At that point we had no choice but to acknowledge the situation and handle it in the best way we could,” he said.

READ ALSO: Covid cases on the rise in Europe once again as WHO warns of Euro 2020 risk

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In a statement on Wednesday, the FIGC said it had acted responsibly but decided not to disappoint fans who had come to celebrate with the team.

Footage of large crowds thronging the bus carrying the ‘Azzurri’ and the European Championship trophy through the capital however fuelled concerns about new outbreaks of coronavirus, after Italy’s infection rate began to rise again last week.

The World Health Organization warned earlier this month that crowds and gatherings connected to football matches will fuel a new rise in cases across Europe this summer.

READ ALSO: Delta variant in Italy will be ‘prevalent within 10 days’: health official

Italy’s health minister Roberto Speranza also voiced concerns on Monday about the consequences of people gathering to watch sporting events.

He said the European football championship win was “a great joy after terrible months,” but “even in these moments of national pride we can’t forget that our ‘game’ to defeat Covid is not yet won.”

There are currently minimal health restrictions in place across Italy, however masks are supposed to be worn in crowded public places, including outdoors.

“Footage shows that police were virtually the only ones [in the crowd] wearing masks,” said Piantedosi.

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