Go back to March and Roberto Mancini looked optimistic. “The objective is not to go to the World Cup, but to win it,” declared the Euro 2020 winner. Then came North Macedonia. A play-off semi-final, when Italy had 32 shots, failed to score and suffered in injury time, meant that if Mancini goes to the World Cup, it will only be as an observer.
For the first time in its history, Italy will be excluded from consecutive World Cups. For the latter, too, perhaps. If their recent failure reflects a bizarre game against North Macedonia, Jorginho’s crucial missed penalties in a group they controlled and, four years earlier, the disastrous reign of Giampiero Ventura, there is a bigger picture than just Italy’s ability. oscillating between triumph and disaster.
The 2026 World Cup will feature 48 teams. If the expansion brings much greater representation to the African and Asian contingents, the European delegation will increase from 13 to 16. There is an argument that, in a World Cup with 32 teams, Europe already had too many teams. There is another that they had very few. For different reasons, both are correct. Europe featured all four semi-finalists and six of the eight quarter-finalists in 2018. Thirteen of the last 16 semi-finalists come from UEFA which, even taking into account European teams’ tendency to do better on their own continents, points to dominance.
FIFA’s world rankings are an imprecise guide, but nine of the top 11 are European. As well as 13 out of the top 20, 16 out of the top 27 and 21 – if Russia is included – out of the top 37. Everything points to pressure for places, which means there could be some high-profile absentees. The Netherlands finished third in 2014 and did not qualify for 2018. Neither did Wales, semi-finalists at Euro 2016.
At this stage, it is probably important to insert the caveat that Italy were not even in the top 16 European teams in qualifying this time around: the three losers of the play-off final, who could have increased the continent’s contingent to 16, were Ukraine. , Sweden and North Macedonia.
But it’s also worth considering a change from the last time the World Cup grew. The last 24-team tournament was in 1994 and those 24 teams did not include either England or France, who found ways not to qualify. In the 32-team era, the five economic powerhouses of Western Europe – Germany, Spain, Italy, England and France – became ever-present in a way that almost certainly pleased FIFA accountants, whose ideal squad list would feature the big five. every four years.
But then, Ventura’s failings were compounded by FIFA’s: they failed to sell the broadcasting rights to the Italian market until after their 2017 play-off defeat to Sweden. Mediaset then acquired the rights cheaply, reportedly costing FIFA around $100 million. Meanwhile, television rights for the United States are notoriously lucrative, but they also lost the 2018 tournament. There was a romantic element to Panama’s progress instead, but the governing body probably didn’t like that.
A 48-team competition offers greater security against a replay, and not just because, as co-hosts, the US won’t have to qualify for the 2026 edition.
But if there’s a financial aspect to trying to protect the World Cup game without the economic superpowers, there’s also a footballing side. The Italians are not alone among the notable absences now: Mohamed Salah tops the list of absentees and a play-off meant that if he had gone to Qatar it would have been at the expense of Sadio Mane. As George Best could testify, the big names ineligible for World Cups were a bigger band in the past. Going from 16 countries to 24 to 32 has already reduced their number.
The desire to have all the best players in the world can help take much of the risk out of the qualification process.
Or perhaps Italy will continue to provide it after creating its own peculiar dynamic, winning Euro 2020 and the 2006 World Cup, alternating between highs and lows. Giorgio Chiellini had an 18-year international career, played in the final of two European Championships, but never played in the round of 16 of the World Cup.
Euro 2020 winners could be a lost generation for the World Cup: Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile were young members of the 2014 team.
Jorginho, Leonardo Spinazzola, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Federico Bernadeschi and Alessandro Florenzi have never played for him and age suggests maybe not in 2026. For Nicolo Barella and Federico Chiesa, an injury in four years could be fatal. They can stand out as outliers, exceptional players who have never been to a World Cup, with the company of previous generations but not those to come.
And so, rather than perfecting his squad for Qatar, Mancini takes on England with a group led by an ace who will remain unsatisfied on the global stage, Leonardo Bonucci, but accompanied by futuristic picks only half his age, like Wilfried Gnonto. Bonucci called it “a renaissance”. Mancini is preparing for a World Cup. Just not this one.