(PhatzRadio Sports / AP) — Gianluigi Buffon had the perfect farewell planned: Concluding his glorious international career exactly where it started, in Russia.
In a bonus sixth World Cup.
It wasn’t mean to be, though.
Two decades after making his Italy debut on a snowy field in Moscow in a World Cup playoff, Buffon was in the jersey in Milan on Monday in another playoff. But the Italians drew the game with Sweden and lost the playoff 1-0. Buffon, the captain, wore the hurt on his face.
“It is upsetting that my last match decided we didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” he said, wiping away tears.
In his record 175th appearance for Italy, Buffon was hardly tested and even ventured forward in a desperate attempt to score on two corners late in the match at San Siro. But four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Not for me, though, but for (Italy),” Buffon said. “I’m sorry that we failed at something that could have also been important on a social level. That’s the only regret I have.
“We didn’t leave anything out on the pitch.”
If Italy had qualified, Buffon, who will turn 40 in January, would have become the first player to travel to six World Cups.
Buffon’s first was in 1998 in France, and he was the second-choice goalkeeper behind Gianluca Pagliuca and didn’t play. Germany great Lothar Matthaus and former Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal played in five World Cups.
Buffon will also miss out on a chance to become football’s most capped player. He ends his career fourth on the all-time list behind record-holder Ahmed Hassan’s 184 appearances for Egypt, Mohamed al-Deayea’s 178 for Saudi Arabia, and Claudio Suarez’s 177 for Mexico.
Buffon was one of the driving forces behind Italy’s run to the 2006 World Cup title, where he didn’t concede a single goal to opponents in regulation time over the course of seven matches — letting in only an own-goal by Cristian Zaccardo and a penalty by Zinedine Zidane in the final against France.
He helped Parma to the UEFA Cup title way back in 1999 and has since won eight Serie A titles with Juventus, including the last six.
Buffon has also been on the losing side in three Champions League finals with Juventus, the first in 2003 and the other two over the last three seasons.
Buffon announced in June that this season will be his last unless Juventus wins the elusive Champions League, in which case he would continue for one more season to try and also win the Club World Cup and other trophies.
After all, he’s still at the top of his game. Three weeks ago, Buffon was named UEFA club goalkeeper of the year.
Fortunately for Italy, another Gianluigi is ready to replace Buffon. At 18, Gianluigi Donnarumma has a similar stature to Buffon — he’s even a bit taller — and is already in his third season as the starter at AC Milan.
“A lot of these kids are talented, including Donnarumma and (reserve goalkeeper Mattia) Perin,” Buffon told RAI state TV. “I wish these kids a lot of luck.”
Veteran midfielder Daniele De Rossi could have taken over as Italy captain but he also announced he was retiring after the playoff, as did the 36-year-old Barzagli.
“There’s definitely a future, because we have pride and strength,” Buffon said. “We’re stubborn and hard-headed. After ugly falls we find a way to rise back up.”
ROME (AP) — The best players in the world go elsewhere. The best coaches in Italy emigrate. The stadiums around the country are falling apart.
The lingering problems affecting Italy’s domestic league might just be the reason for the country’s failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup.
“It’s time to make choices that perhaps in the past people didn’t have the courage to make,” Italian Sports Minister Luca Lotti said. “This world needs to be revised from the youth levels on up to Serie A.”
The Italian league was once where the likes of Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit came to play in the primes of their careers. It’s where Kaka won the Ballon d’Or award with AC Milan in 2007 — the last time anyone besides Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo claimed the honor.
Paradoxically, the start of Italy’s decline can be traced back to 2006 — the year Italy won its fourth World Cup. That was also the year of the “Calciopoli” refereeing scandal that saw Juventus stripped of two Serie A titles and relegated to the second division as punishment.
A number of top players left Juventus after the scandal and the “Old Lady” of Italian soccer required half a dozen years to recover.
In the meantime, the Premier League emerged as the sport’s richest domestic competition while Italy was eliminated in the first round of the last two World Cups.
The Premier League is where former Italy coach Antonio Conte now manages at Chelsea, having won the league in his first season. It’s where Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini also won titles at Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively.
Fabio Capello coached England from 2008-12 and said he would never be interested in leading Italy’s national team.
WORLD SCORES: COURTESY OF LIVESCORE.COM
Any Italian coach who moves to England raves about the facilities there and the packed stadiums. It’s the complete opposite of Serie A, where most of the big squads play in dilapidated stadiums that were last renovated for the 1990 World Cup — the last major tournament that Italy hosted.
Of Italy’s six biggest clubs — Juventus, Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, Lazio and Napoli — only Juventus has a new stadium that it operates on its own.
Milan and Inter play in the city-run San Siro, Roma and Lazio play in the Stadio Olimpico run by the Olympic committee and Napoli plays in the crumbling San Paolo Stadium.
Complicated laws and a lack of funding have prevented clubs from building new stadiums. In 2014, the American owners of Roma presented plans for a new stadium but haven’t been able to break ground yet due to a series of bureaucratic delays.
“In the years of the fat cows, when the big results were coming in, if there had been attention, foresight and logic, probably all of the clubs would have a stadium of their own,” said Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago, who oversees all sports in the country.
Although Italy is no longer the draw it was once for the best in the world, it still has a large contingent of foreign-born players. And that is stunting the development of the country’s talent.
Juventus has been the Champions League runner-up in two of the past three seasons, but the Turin squad has heavily relied on Argentine forwards for its success: Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.
Federico Bernardeschi, one of Italy’s most talented young forwards, joined Juventus in a 40 million euro ($47 million) transfer this season but has been largely relegated to the bench. So it’s no wonder that Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura used Bernardeschi only in a bench role in the playoff loss to Sweden on Monday.
The only Italian who starts for Serie A leader Napoli is winger Lorenzo Insigne, who was also reduced to a bench role under Ventura in a widely criticized decision.
Meanwhile, Napoli’s Brazilian-born midfielder Jorginho was given his first competitive start for Italy in the second leg of the playoff. Eder, another Brazilian-born player, appeared in the first leg.
With captain Gianluigi Buffon, defender Andrea Barzagli and midfielder Daniele De Rossi having announced their international retirements, Italy needs a new generation of Azzurri to step up.
And the younger players need space in an improved Serie A to become competitive.