Thursday, April 18

Italy Will Miss the World Cup—Again—After Stunning Loss to North Macedonia


Four years ago, in the tearful aftermath of one of its most painful soccer defeats, Italy vowed never to let such a disaster happen again. They had failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 60 years. This was not merely a soccer crisis, the players said then, it was a generational catastrophe.

On Thursday night, that Italian generation broke its promise. In one of the most stunning upsets in qualifying history, the defending European champions cost themselves a trip to the 2022 World Cup by losing 1-0 to North Macedonia in Palermo.

The greatest soccer tournament in the world will kick off this November in Qatar — and four-time winner Italy will be staying home.

“We are destroyed,” said veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini.

As for North Macedonia, the country that only gained independence in 1991 hasn’t punched its ticket to Qatar quite yet. The European qualifying playoffs meant that Thursday was only a semifinal for this four-team bracket. North Macedonia now has to go on the road to face Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, which defeated Turkey 3-1 in Porto. This mini-bracket had been widely expected to deliver a titanic clash between two heavyweights — the 2016 and 2020 European champions, Portugal and Italy. Instead, it now has the potential to deliver a World Cup Cinderella.

Aleksandar Trajkovski, left, of North Macedonia celebrates after scoring the only goal in a shocking 1-0 win over Italy.


Photos:

carmelo imbesi/Shutterstock

All it took was an evening of unbreakable defense to weather Italy’s 32 increasingly desperate attempts. North Macedonia had only produced three shots all night, but when the fourth came in the second minute of stoppage time, it was enough. Aleksandar Trajkovski barreled into the Italian defense and took a speculative potshot from 20 yards, only to find the bottom corner of the Italian goal.

Ranked 67th in the world by FIFA, between the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa, North Macedonia had never qualified for a major event of any sort before the European Championship last summer. When it got there, the team’s most notable contribution to the tournament was a controversy at home over jerseys that were the wrong shade of red. It lost all three of its games.

Italy, meanwhile, spent last summer on a romp.

On the hostile ground of London’s Wembley Stadium, it sent out a defiant message to world soccer. This team didn’t need superstars. It had unity, belief, and a system that worked. These weren’t the Azzurri anyone was used to, but here they were playing vibrant soccer that was good enough to knock off Belgium, Spain, and England on home turf. Italy was back. Now Italy is back to square one.

“The European Championship was my greatest joy on a professional level, what happened tonight is my biggest disappointment,” manager Roberto Mancini said.

Never in the history of the World Cup has Italy missed the tournament twice in a row. And this latest catastrophe has landed the team deep into an operatic paradox: the Azzurri won the Euros, yet the past 15 years have clearly been some of the darkest in their soccer-playing history. Since lifting the World Cup in 2006, Italy has exited the tournament at the group stage in 2010 and 2014 and been dumped out of the qualifiers for 2018 and 2022.

That the team was even in this position was Italy’s own fault. Though it went undefeated in its first eight games of qualifying, its four victories and four tepid draws weren’t good enough to secure an automatic berth to the World Cup. That spot went to Switzerland instead, leaving Italy to settle for the playoff route.

The Azzurri would have to win twice knowing that the slightest slip-up could mean the end. That slip-up was named Aleksandar Trajkovski, a 29-year-old journeyman striker from Skopje. Over the years, he has bounced around Croatia, Belgium, and Denmark, and plies his trade these days in the Saudi Arabian league.

But that didn’t mean the stage in Sicily was foreign to him. The most successful stop of Trajkovski’s career came at Palermo. I have played home games and scored goals in the Renzo Barbera Stadium. And on Thursday, it’s where he felt Italy on the short trip home and out of the World Cup.

Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

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