Milan: Italy failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958 on Monday as they were held to a 0-0 draw in the second leg of their play-off at the San Siro by Sweden, who qualified with a 1-0 aggregate victory.
The four-time champions dominated possession but struggled to create enough clear-cut chances, as Sweden secured a first appearance at the finals since 2006 courtesy of Jakob Johansson’s first-leg strike in Stockholm.
Despite the support of 74,000 fans in a white-hot atmosphere at the San Siro the 2006 World Cup winners could not find a way through.
It is the third time that the Italians will not compete at the World Cup, after not going to the first edition in 1930 and not qualifying for the 1958 finals in Sweden.
It marks the end of an era for iconic goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who will not be able to compete in a record sixth World Cup.
“I’m so, so, so sorry,” he said after the game.
At 39, the 175-times capped Buffon had announced that the finals in Russia would be his last as a player for the national side.
Andrea Barzagli and 34-year-old midfielder Daniele de Rossi, the other two members of Italy’s squad on Monday who lifted the 2006 World Cup, also retired from internationals in the aftermath of the shock defeat.
“It’s the biggest disappointment of my life from a sporting point of view I can’t find my words,” said 36-year-old defender Barzagli.
Midfielder De Rossi, who won 117 caps, said: “To think that I took off this jersey for the last time, it hurts. After the match, there was a funeral-like atmosphere.”
During the game, there were chances for Italy. The hosts had a penalty appeal in the opening few minutes as Marco Parolo appeared to be tripped from behind by Ludwig Augustinsson, but the referee waved play on to the disgust of the crowd, and booked Giorgio Chiellini for dissent.
Brazilian-born Jorginho and Ciro Immobile both wasted chances, too, before Alessandro Florenzi thought he had scored on 53 minutes with a flying volley from Matteo Darmian’s cross, but it went wide.
As the clock ticked the crowd at the San Siro began to sing the national anthem and the players began to feel their urgency. The realisation that they may miss out on the global showpiece spurred them into action.
A Stephan El Shaarawy shot was kept out and Marco Parolo’s header went wide, then Buffon himself came up for a corner in a final desperate gamble.
But Italy fell short of reaching the World Cup for the first time in 60 years and closed Buffon’s chapter in Italian football.