Soccer Italy players go from heroes to zeros as World Cup dreams are shattered again

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Soccer Football - World Cup - UEFA Qualifiers - Play-Off Semi Final - Italy v North Macedonia - Stadio Renzo Barbera, Palermo, Italy - March 24, 2022 Italy's Giorgio Chiellini and teammates look dejected after the match REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

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ROME, March 25 (Reuters) - Eight months after winning the European Championship trophy and being feted as national heroes, Italy's soccer team have crashed back to earth, missing out on the World Cup finals for the second time running.

"To Hell," daily Corriere dello Sport said in its front-page headline, summing up the sense of horror after Italy lost 1-0 at home to little-fancied North Macedonia, ensuring they would not take part in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. read more

It was a shock repeat of four years ago, when Italy failed to reach soccer's global showpiece tournament for the first time since 1958. But after the team's victory in the European final against England last July, few people believed a repeat calamity was looming.

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"This is an epoch-making disaster. The shame is worse than ever," Il Messaggero wrote on Friday.

Italy have won the World Cup four times, most recently in 2006. However, they exited at the group stage in 2010 and 2014, and this latest setback suggested that the European triumph in 2021 was merely a blip in a prolonged period of decline.

"What can I say, we got too lucky at the Europeans and we paid for it. It is that simple," said Rome resident Carlo de Marchi.

Just like in 2018, Italy are the only former champions not to make it to the finals and newspapers saw the elimination as a reflection of wider problems in the national game.

For the last two seasons, no Italian teams have reached the quarter-finals of the prestigious Champions League, a trophy which has eluded Italy since 2010, with many domestic clubs weighed down by debt and unable to attract the top talent that once flocked to Serie A.

"The system, Italian soccer in its entirety, needs to be put on trial," Italy's top-selling sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, wrote in an editorial, blaming a "total lack of vision" among sport administrators.

The newly appointed head of the top-flight Serie A league acknowledged that a shake-up was needed.

"This failure... must lead everyone to serious reflection and profound change in our system," said Lorenzo Casini, without giving details of what needed doing.

After the last World Cup debacle, Italy laid the blame squarely on team coach Gian Piero Ventura and soccer federation chief Carlo Tavecchio, who both resigned shortly afterwards.

This time around there were no calls for the removal of coach Roberto Mancini, an urbane leader who still gets huge credit for masterminding the 2021 European Championship success. However, he himself has not ruled out stepping down.

"Let's see. The disappointment is too big at present to talk about the future," he said on Thursday when asked about his plans. "I just don't know what to say."

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Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino; Editing by Clare Fallon

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