It’s hard to imagine any international football manager envying Sam Allardyce but, given Italy’s fate, Giampiero Ventura might just be one. After receiving a two year contract, Big Sam lasted just 67 days (and wags still delight in reminding all that he achieved a 100% win record) before his ignominious exit. Ventura had been in charge of Italy for seventeen months before they failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
He was fired two days after the goalless draw that saw Italy fall just short and, in his homeland, Ventura’s name is mud with every decision not just questioned but now seen as an error and the tears of Gianluigi Buffon washing away any attempt to explain himself. Buffon, a genuine footballing hero home and abroad, faced the cameras on the pitch while Ventura went missing. Speaking as someone who has always felt a little queasy about the media chasing down players and managers as soon as the final whistle has gone, I can’t say I hold that against him but, as a lover of football (and excluding any Peruvian shenanigans that may disqualify them), I will miss Italy next year.
Of the home nations only England will be getting on a plane to Russia. Northern Ireland fell at the final hurdle but at least managed second place (more than the Netherlands another big omission). Scotland and Wales could both only manage third with Wales being beaten into that runner-up, play-off qualifying spot by the Republic of Ireland. Chris Coleman remained in-situ for a couple of weeks while Gordon Strachan stood down immediately with a final address of muddled musings that may well overshadow his already underwhelming tenue.
Coleman has been welcomed back into club football at Sunderland in the English Premier League and there are rumours that Michael O'Neill, Northern Ireland’s manager is being sounded out by clubs. Strachan looked like he needed a holiday and who can blame him.
Across the border in Ireland, the Republic also made it to the play-offs and had high hopes of getting on that plane. With Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane’s bad-cop and worse-cop team, many, me included, believed that they had hit upon that crucial balance of tactical nous and ruthless commitment all winning sides need. The professional-arse-kicking handed to them by Denmark has certainly shaken that belief but a management team like this duo deserves more time.
All-in-all it is a shame there won’t be more British sides to watch next year. Some may think that it is only the minor nation football supporter that likes a back-up team (although among the home nations only English fans seem secure enough in their love to cheer for another when their side goes out). Not so; during the years of pain watching England the ‘decompression’ like effect of following a second side has helped to keep me sane. Yes I will enjoy a Germany vs Mexico or a Nigeria vs Brazil but swap out any one of those names for Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales and, for me, there’s a match I can build an evening around.
On a shallower level, Russia itself promises some vague advantage to sides from our wet and windy corner of the world. With Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and the like, there are a lot of hot countries coming to play in Moscow and Yekaterinburg (no me neither). Some might say that hoping for such an advantage is foolish at this level of the game - to which I would reply: this is football, let me hope. Others might assert that even desiring such an edge over your opponents is not in the spirit of the game - to which I would then reply: sod off, I want to win something.