On Tuesday night, Udinese, the third best team in Italy, lost their Champions League qualifier to Braga on penalties. The result leaves just two Italian teams, AC Milan and Juventus, in the 32-club pool that kicks off Europe’s premier competition next month. Ironically, the penalty miss that effectively eliminated Udinese was a failed “Panenka,” a disastrous rendition of the technique that Andrea Pirlo executed perfectly in Italy’s penalty-shootout win over England at Euro 2012. Italy’s sweetest international moment since the 2006 World Cup resurfaced only to underline the symbolic culmination of years of domestic decline.
Of course, decline is a relative term. If you offered the current state of the Serie A (millions of viewers, still producing top-class players) to even the most fiercely optimistic fan of MLS (thousands of viewers, still producing a whole lot of rubbish), he would take it in an instant. But after years of constant success, Italy’s predicament feels a whole lot worse than anything MLS has ever had to cope with. Consider this: in the last seven years, Serie A has been rocked by two high-profile match-fixing scandals, the most recent of which brought league-championship-winning manager Antonio Conte a ten-month suspension. Two years ago, Italy dropped below Germany in the UEFA coefficient rankings and lost a Champions League spot. Inter Milan, European champions in 2010, finished sixth last season. This year, Portugal is sending three representatives to the Champions League, while Italy is sending only two. Meanwhile, in Spain, Barcelona is producing epic, era-defining football, and the national team is winning World Cups. In July’s European Championships final, Spain beat Italy 4-0.