Rewind to March and Roberto Mancini sounded optimistic. “The goal is not to go to the World Cup, but to win it,” said the Euro 2020 winner. Then came North Macedonia. A play-off semi-final when Italy managed 32 shots, failed to score and conceded in injury time meant that if Mancini were to make it to the World Cup, it would only be as a ‘observer.
For the first time in their history, Italy will not participate in consecutive World Cups. For the last too, perhaps. If their recent underperformance 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’s a bigger picture. than Italy’s ability to oscillate between triumph and disaster.
The 2026 World Cup will feature 48 teams. If the expansion brings much greater representation from the African and Asian contingents, the European delegation will increase from 13 to 16. There is an argument that, in a 32-team World Cup, Europe had too many teams. There’s another one they got too little. For different reasons, both are correct. Europe provided all four semi-finalists and six of eight quarter-finalists in 2018. Thirteen of the last 16 semi-finalists have come from UEFA, which even taking into account the tendency for European teams to do better on their own continent, indicates domination.
The Fifa world rankings are an imprecise guide but nine of the top 11 are European. The same goes for 13 of the top 20, 16 of the top 27 and 21 – if Russia is included – of the top 37. Everything points to pressure for places, which means there may be high-level absentees. The Netherlands finished third in 2014 and failed to qualify for 2018. Neither did Wales, semi-finalists at Euro 2016.
At what point, it’s probably important to insert the caveat that Italy weren’t even among Europe’s top 16 teams in qualifying this time around: the three losers of the play-off final, who could have carried the Continental contingent at 16, were Ukraine, Sweden and North Macedonia.
But it’s also worth considering a change the last time the World Cup grew. The last 24-team tournament was in 1994 and those 24 teams did not include England or France, who both found ways not to qualify. In the era of 32 teams, Western Europe’s five economic powerhouses – Germany, Spain, Italy, England and France – have become ubiquitous in a way that has almost certainly pleased accountants. FIFA, whose ideal cast list would feature the big five every four years.
But then Ventura’s failures were compounded by those of Fifa: they only sold broadcast rights for the Italian market after their 2017 play-off loss to Sweden. Mediaset then scooped up the rights on the cheap, which would have cost Fifa some $100 million. Meanwhile, television rights for the United States are said to be lucrative, but they too missed out on the 2018 tournament. There was a romantic element to Panama’s progress in their place, but the board didn’t l probably didn’t like it.
A 48-team competition offers greater insurance against a repeat, and not just because, as co-hosts, the United States won’t have to qualify for the 2026 edition.
But if there is a financial aspect, to try to remove the game from World Cups that do not feature the economic superpowers, there is also a football aspect. The Italians are no longer alone among the notable absentees: Mohamed Salah tops the list of missing superstars and a play-off meant that had he been in Qatar it would have been at the expense of Sadio Mane. As George Best could attest, the big guys ineligible for the World Cups were a bigger group 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 could help eliminate a lot of the qualifying process.
Or maybe Italy will continue to provide it after creating their own particular momentum, winning Euro 2020 and the 2006 World Cup, alternating between boom and bust. Giorgio Chiellini had an 18-year international career, appeared in the final of two European championships but never appeared 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 squad.
Jorginho, Leonardo Spinazzola, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Federico Bernadeschi and Alessandro Florenzi have never played there and age suggests they couldn’t 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 played in a World Cup, with the company of previous generations but not those to come.
And so, rather than fine-tuning his squad for Qatar, Mancini faces England with a squad led by a stalwart who will go down in dissatisfaction on the world stage, Leonardo Bonucci, but accompanied by futuristic picks barely half his age, like Wilfried Gnonto. Bonucci called it a “rebirth”. Mancini is preparing for a World Cup. But not this one.