Mateu Lahoz and Juan Belmonte's banderillero
Italy will not be present at the World Cup. The Azzurri will be the only former champions absent from the tournament in Russia having failed to qualify for the first time since 1958 when they lost out in qualifying Group 8 to a Northern Ireland side led by the great Danny Blanchflower and keeper Harry Gregg, a survivor of the Munich air disaster who went back into the flames again and again to rescue his Manchester United teammates. Since then, Italy have never been knocked out in qualifying. Before 1958, they were only absent from one World Cup, the inaugural competition in 1930, for the same reason as Spain: disinclination to make the trip to Uruguay. Russia would have been Gianluigi Buffon’s sixth World Cup and his presence will be missed. It was painful to see him announce his retirement in the aftermath.
As for Sweden, I felt for them by putting myself in their shoes: it could have been Spain in the playoffs and if it fell to them to face Italy it was because of us. But over the course of the two legs they deserved to go through. They didn’t play particularly well but they enjoyed the rub of the green at home and won 1-0. Italy have for many years been living off 1-0 victories and selling a slender lead dearly but on this occasion it was the other way around and they didn’t know how to overcome it. Italy were not playing coherently from the first whistle and relied too heavily on Brazilian-born Jorginho while Lorenzo Insigne watched from the bench. But even so they created a few chances through sheer effort and the occasional decent move, but nothing would go in.
Even though there was little football on show the game was saved by its frantic pace, by what was at stake and for the blend of colours, so pure and contrasting and a throwback to the days when football shirts were spared from the wild palettes of today’s odd designs. Our very own Antonio Mateu Lahoz contributed to the spectacle with thespian arrogance (he waved away several players with an impudent push or a sneer and raced across half the pitch to scold the Italian bench) and yet he was blindfolded in the penalty areas. It reminded me of the tale of bullfighter Juan Belmonte’s banderillero, Joaquín Miranda, who when striding the platform at Sevilla train station towards his carriage when the locomotive emitted a sharp whistle and a jet of steam. Unperturbed, Miranda invited the vehicle to “try doing that when it matters.”*
*“Esos cojones, en Despeñaperros”, something along the lines of 'try being that bloody bold in Despeñaperros', a notoriously tough gorge passing from Andalucia to Castilla-LaMancha.
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