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XINHUA NEWS SERVICE REPORTS FROM THE AFRICAN CONTINENT

 

With soccer crazy Italy out of World Cup,
country’s deep divisions on display       

By Eric J. Lyman ROME (Xinhua) -- At a time when Italians may be split more than ever over the direction the country is taking, the only event that manages to unite the country every couple of years—a major soccer championship—has instead left Italians on the outside looking in.

A total of 32 teams are participating in this year’s edition of the World Cup of soccer in Russia. But—for only the third time in the history of the 88-year-old event, and for the first time since 1958 -- Italy is not participating.

“Italy is a country without a real national identity,” Paddy Agnew, author of two books about Italian soccer, told Xinhua. “But that changes every two years when there’s a major soccer championship like the World Cup or the European Championship. Then, most Italians, regardless of age or location or political views, rally behind the national team.”

Italy is one of the most successful countries in the history of the World Cup. It is one of only two countries (the other is Brazil) to have won the event two times in a row, and it has four championships total—a sum equaled only by Germany and bested only by Brazil, which has five.

But when the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup last year, it sparked a period of national soul searching. Soon after, Gian Piero Ventura was fired as manager and several of the most high-profile players, including the last ties to the 2006 team that won the World Cup, announced their retirement.

That all came during a particularly devise political season that ended with turbulent elections in March and the installation of the country’s first populist government on June 1.

“Today, Italians are divided on so many issues: on the European Union, migrants, the economy, politics,” political affairs consultant Gian Franco Gallo said in an interview. “It would have been a convenient time to have something to draw those with rival views together. But it was not in the cards.”

The Italian national team’s last chance to qualify was dashed when it failed to best Sweden in Milan last November, propelling the Swedes to the World Cup for the first time in a dozen years—Sweden beat South Korea 1-0 in their opening game Monday—and keeping the Italians at home.

At the time, many Italians were stunned in disbelief. Seven months later, fans appear to have accepted their unusual circumstances.

“I’m much less interested in watching the World Cup without the Italian team involved,” Marco Maselli, a 34-year-old supermarket employee, told Xinhua. “Even when Italy had a bad team, it made the tournament more interesting. I hope we will rebuild with the new generation and be strong for the European Championships in 2020.”

Antonio Giaritelli, 46, a tobacco shop owner, said that amid the criticism from other European countries about Italy’s handling of migrants and its internal finances and politics, the country’s absence from the World Cup seems to fit in.

“Maybe we’re going through one of those phases where the country seems to do everything wrong,” Giaritelli said in an interview.

           

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