Italy will host Sweden tonight in what will either be a monumental game for the Azzurri or just another qualifier, depending on the outcome.
If Gian Piero Ventura’s team fail to overturn a 1-0 play-off deficit, they will miss a World Cup for the first time in more than half a century and deny Gianluigi Buffon the international send-off he surely deserves.
Victory over the two legs, however, would make this just another campaign to add to the list of stumbles-over-the-line from the Italians, many of which have been precursors to strong showings when it matters.
If we’re told to Never Write Off The Germans, the closest to an underestimation of Die Mannschaft is the suggestion that Italy will perform poorly purely because they barely made the tournament at all.
In 1994, after needing a late Dino Baggio goal in their final qualifier against Portugal to guarantee qualification, they went on to reach the final.
Their next run to a final, at Euro 2000, was preceded by home and away qualifying draws with Belarus as they finished just a point clear at the top of their group, while their 2006 World Cup victory came after unconvincing single-goal wins at home to Slovenia and Moldova to guarantee their place on the plane to Germany.
So perhaps we should have known what to expect when their qualification for the 2010 tournament went off without a hitch, Marcello Lippi’s team dropping just six points and conceding just seven goals in their 10 group matches.
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A number of the victorious 2006 squad were on the plane four years later, but one of the new faces was Napoli forward Fabio Quagliarella.
The 27-year-old was coming off the back of a relatively successful first season with his hometown club after impressing with Udinese. It was also a season which, unbeknown to us at the time, saw him battling a terrifying stalker situation which only recently came to light.
Performing to a high level despite having every excuse not to do so, Quagliarella showed talent that would make him an asset to any World Cup squad, especially at a time when he ought to have been reaching his peak – but Lippi felt he could do without him.
Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino were preferred up front in the first two group games, with Toto Di Natale and Giampaolo Pazzini both getting minutes from the bench as Quagliarella was forced to watch on as all four failed to score from open play through 225 minutes of group stage football.
It was only at half-time in the final game, with Italy trailing to Slovakia after draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, that a player capable of magic with both feet was given his chance.
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To say he made an instant impact would be rewriting history a little bit, but the impact he did make – while ultimately in vain – made for one of the most satisfying goals in the World Cup’s recent history.
Róbert Vittek scored his second of the game, Di Natale pulled one back, Kamil Kopúnek scored Slovakia’s third, and then – when all seemed lost – Quagliarella sent an inch-perfect chip over the head of Ján Mucha.
The issue with all seeming lost, however, is that it isn’t always the precursor to a fairytale comeback. Sometimes all seems lost because all is lost, and so it proved here.
Quagliarella’s goal came too late, though a goalless draw in the group’s other game meant an equaliser would have seen Italy into the second round. And we all know how dangerous they can be after sneaking through.
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The glorious consolation isn’t quite in the same ballpark as the clutch equaliser or winner. To pull off such a deft finish at 3-2 down, rather than 3-1 down, might be more impressive, but that’s ignoring how impressive it is to simply care enough to pull off something of that quality in a game that is almost certainly already lost.
One of football’s favourite clichés surrounds the post-match interview with the scorer of the winning goal, who invariably says it’s nice to be among the goals, but the most important thing is the team getting the three points.
That’s all well and good, but there comes a point in some games where the time to make a positive impact for your team has been and gone, and you can take a moment to do something for yourself.
Quagliarella’s goal is like ending a difficult day by ordering yourself a present to arrive the next time you’re feeling low, or getting stood up on a date and responding by spending the money on a really expensive bottle of fine wine.
It is, just like Elano’s stunner in Manchester City’s famous 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, the one point in a game where you can give yourself some victimless me-time and privately enjoy it, even if it feels a bit much to get publicly pumped up about your achievement.
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When Sweden visit the San Siro tonight, Italian fans will hope their own team is not in a position where they need two goals in stoppage time to make it to Russia, but they’ll be well aware they have the quality to produce another goal like Quagliarella’s if they need it.
The problem with glorious goals scored in vain is you don’t want to make a habit of scoring them: eventually you tire of their beauty and long for a scrappy effort that barely deserves to be called by the same name.
Perhaps they’ll prefer to save those for when they’re 3-1 up, not 3-1 down, and it’s the right kind of meaningless.
By Tom Victor
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