Well, well, so much for history and tradition in football, or calcio ! Who would have imagined that Italy would not score in the return leg in San Siro, and bow out to the only goal of the two legged tie with the only goal at Friends Arena in Solna outside Stockholm three nights earlier?
Only twice before has the Azzuri failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals. They did not enter in the first event in Uruguay in 1930, but won the next two cups in 1934 in Italy and 1938 in France. I vivadly remember in January 1958 when they were eliminated in Belfast in front of 50,000 fans at Windsor Park by 2-1. I listened on the radio. It was a 2.00 pm kick off due to no floodlights. Jimmy McIlroy and Wilbur Cush, then at Leeds United, scored first half goals and Dino da Costa reduced the arrears in the second half.
Five weeks earlier in December 1957, the original date, referee Istvan Zolt, manager of the Budapest Opera House, had been delayed by fog at London's Heathrow Airport. Arthur Ellis from Yorkshire was asked to go by ferry from Stranraer to Larne. I had been on the boat Princess Victoria a few years earlier in rough seas. 4 months later it sank with many drowned when the car ferry doors were breached. Ellis never made it and 40,000 fans showed up for what FIFA made a 'friendly' because they could only find a local referee. It was bad tempered with fights and a pitch invasion and finished 2-2. If it had been official, a drawn would have sent Italy to Sweden for the final 16.
Very sad to see the popular 39 year old goalkeeper Gianliugi Buffon retire from international football after 5 World Cups and 175 appearances. Italy had played in 14 previous finals. Incidentally, another 5 time World Cup goalkeeper was Ignacio Carabajal of Mexico. I went to his retirement party at his spacious home in Mexico City with my FIFA referee friend Marco Antionia Dorantes, with whom I was staying with at the time. Besides Buffon, his Juventus teammate Andrea Barzagli and Roma's Daniele de Rossi also bowed out. Twice in the dying minutes Buffon left his goal and went up for corner kicks, to no avail. The four time champions will not be at Russia 2018.
The Italians had claimed that the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir had favoured Sweden in Solna, and the Spanish referee in the Milan return Antonia Mateu Lohoz, was just as controversial, but fair in my opinion. Four first half penalty claims, two for either side for fouls and hand balls were waved away. Midfielder Jakob Johansson's deflected strike in the first leg was the only goal. Manager Jan Andersson's team reach the finals after missing out in 2010 and 2014. They were losing finalists to Brazil in 1958 and third place finishers at USA 1994. An enormous defensive effort for the Blagult ( blue yellow) , including keeper Robin Olsen, and have played in 12 finals since 1938.
We still have three more places to fill - Ireland/Denmark; Honduras/Australia; New Zealand/Peru. One federation that has spent big time to gain an advantage is the Football Federation of Australia (FFA). They chartered a luxury jet at a cost of AUS $1million (£580,000) to wisk the Soccerros back after the 0-0 tie at Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula. The back of the plane was turned into a makeshift treatment room with massage tables and such, supervised by sports scientist Craig Duncan. Auto fatigue glasses with projected light to help fight jet lag were replaced by orange shades to help sleep after the stoppover in Honolulu on the 19 hour journey, across 17 time zones. In Honolulu the team got out for a short stretch your legs session.
They arrived in Sydney fully 24 hours before the Hondurans who travelled economy class with two stops at USA airports. Well done FFA.