ROME (AP) — Loved and admired around the world for producing players like Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s national team struggles for respect at home.
In a country where club teams rule and provincialism stretching back to medieval times still prevails, the Azzurri are often considered an afterthought — or even an inconvenience.
Italian clubs often prefer to keep their prized players away from the national team rather than risk injury. There are no organized hard-core “ultra” fans for Italy like there are for every club team in Serie A, B and C.
Italy doesn’t even have a home stadium like England does with Wembley. Instead it barnstorms around the country, often playing games in small stadiums and cities — appearing at the San Siro in Milan and the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for only the biggest of matches.
Dragged down by a dearth of top young players and the demise of the Italian league over the last decade, four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.
Winners of the European Championship last year, Italy were beaten at home by North Macedonia in a qualifying playoff in March.
Four years earlier, it was a playoff loss at home to Sweden that kept the Azzurri from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
And at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Italy were eliminated in the group phase.
Serie A refused the Italian soccer federation’s request to amend its calendar and move the league matches from the weekend before the playoffs, which would have allowed coach Roberto Mancini more time with his players.