The youngest person who can describe Italy’s agony at failing to qualify for the 1958 Fifa World Cup in Sweden is about 70 years old.
Nineteen-fifty-eight was the last time the Azzurri, as the Italian team is called, failed to reach the finals. Now they are out again and you will be hard pressed to find somebody from anywhere in the world who can remember a World Cup without Italy.
With four titles, they are the second most successful World Cup team alongside Germany after Brazil.
If next year’s fiesta in Russia was a shareholders’ annual general meeting, the participants would doubtless take a minute of or two to note the absence of this long standing member and wish him well.
The world appropriately commiserated with them and this included even those who don’t admire their kind of play that is designed more to get results than to entertain. (Pele once said: “Italy always relied on a strong defence, which many people called ‘anti-play’, but which could produce devastating results in counter-attack.”)
The rituals that go with an outcome of such historic proportions have already started. The most important, to sack the coach, has been done and Gian Piero Ventura is now in the job market.
Poignantly, the greatest living goalkeeper in the world today, Gianluigi Buffon, has also retired. His career of 20 years, in which he racked up 175 appearances for his country, has come to a screeching halt. He had planned to do that next year but he now must live with the disappointment.
Two events are embedded in the psyche of Italian football and both came to mind on the night of Buffon’s tears: the Superga air disaster of 1949 and their elimination from the 1966 World Cup by North Korea.
On May 4, 1949, an Italian Airlines plane carrying the Torino football team that at that time comprised almost the entire Italian national squad was returning to Turin from Lisbon where it had played a testimonial match for FC Benfica’s Francisco Ferreira, the captain of Portugal.
The plane failed to make the runway and crashed into the wall of the Basilica of Superga, killing 31 people. These included players, officials and journalists.
It remains one of the worst air disasters involving a sports delegation in history. La Settimana Incom (“The Weekly Incom”) was a news feature that showed in Italian cinemas at that time, the equivalent of our now defunct Kenya Newsreel. It’s sorrowful dispatch read in part:
“The twilight lasted all day, a melancholy to die for. The sky came apart in the mist and the fog-blotted Superga.”
Italy came to a standstill. One million people lined the streets of Turin to thank and bid farewell to their dead. And the shock reverberated through the years that followed.
First, more than one year later, the footballers had still not come to terms with the tragedy and were too devastated to fly again when the 1950 World Cup came around. They opted to make the long voyage to Brazil by ship.
They qualified for the 1954 World Cup but were knocked out in the first round by Switzerland. Their terrible decade ended with failure to qualify for the 1958 competition after losing to Portugal and Northern Island.
In 1962, Italy came off the worse for wear in the infamous Battle of Santiago, one of the most defining football matches of all time – and all for the wrong reasons.
The Battle of Santiago was a first round match that took place against a background of enormous tension between Chile and Italy in the Chilean capital, Santiago.
Two Italian journalists, Antonio Ghirelli and Corrado Pizzinelli, wrote scathing stories about Chile that were reprinted in the Chilean media, fuelling public anger at the Italians. Before the match started, the two journalists were forced to flee the country.
This is part of what they had written about Chile: “The phones don’t work, taxis are as rare as faithful husbands, a cable to Europe costs an arm and a leg and a letter takes five days to turn up. Its population is prone to malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism and poverty.
Chile is a small, proud and poor country. It has agreed to organize this World Cup in the same way as Mussolini agreed to send our air force to bomb London (the planes didn’t arrive). The capital city has 700 hotel beds. Entire neighbourhoods are given over to open prostitution. This country and its people are proudly miserable and backward.”
Chilean newspapers returned the favour, describing the Italians as oversexed mafiosos and fascists. They also called them drug addicts, citing as evidence the doping scandal that had engulfed the players of Inter Milan at that time.
This set the stage for the most violent match in World Cup history which Chile won 2-0 against nine Italians after two of them had been sent off. One of those expelled, Giorgio Ferrini, refused to leave the pitch and had to be dragged off it by policemen.
Mysteriously, Chile’s Leonel Sanchez, who broke Mario David’s nose with a powerful left hook, escaped referee Ken Aston’s attention.
Italy, world champions in 1934 and 1938, really wanted to use the 1966 World Cup in England to put behind them the Superga air disaster of 1949, the first round exit in 1954, the failure to qualify in 1958 and the Battle of Santiago in 1962. Unfortunately, North Korea were waiting for them.
Chollima is the nickname of the North Korea national football team. It is taken from a mythical winged horse believed to have existed by several East Asian cultures in ages past. The horse was said to be too swift to be mounted by any human being.
Before leaving for England, North Korea’s “Eternal President”, Kim Il-Sung – he has since died - who had exhorted his people to “rush as the speed of Chollima” to rebuild their country after the Korean War, sat his players down.
In the 2002 documentary, The Game of Their Lives, Rim Jung-Son, one of the players, remembered: “He embraced us lovingly and said: ‘European and South American nations dominate international football. As representatives of the Asian and African region, as coloured people, I urge you to win one or two matches’,” (Fifa had allocated only one slot for African and Asian countries, a move that made both continents to boycott the World Cup. North Korean didn’t and thus went to England after crushing Australia 9-2 on aggregate.)
Italy were understandably disdainful of the Chollima. They were concerned about the Soviet Union and….that country again, Chile. The first match went according to script: the Soviets tamed the Chollima 3-0. And in the rematch of the Battle of Santiago, Italy defeated the South Americans 2-0. So far so good.
But then, the Koreans drew 1-1 with Chile and the Soviets beat Italy 1-0 to qualify for the knock-out stage.
Italy thus faced a do-or-die fixture against North Korea. They blew it, losing 0-1 and Chollima were through. It was a catastrophe. Arnold Howe of The Daily Express’ wrote: “Pak Doo-Ik last night detonated one of the great explosions in soccer.
He scored the goal that hurled the Italians out of the World Cup. That sent the non-entities of North Korea into the quarter-finals. That sent the Land of the Morning Calm into a Middlesbrough night of frenzy.”
The “Eternal Leader’s” wish had been fulfilled. North Korea returned to a frenzied welcome in Pyongyang while rotten tomatoes from enraged fans greeted the Azzurri at Rome Airport.
You know that our country is lost in the wilderness when Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are celebrating their return to the Fifa World Cup while lowly Kenya’s main concern is how to increase the terms of its federation’s president.
Never mind that the current president was elected only last year and could conceivably be in office up to 2024.
No explanation has been made about what problem is being solved to necessitate this change which runs counter to the provisions of the Sports Act which caps a president’s terms at two.
If, then, it is just a question of trying to satisfy an elephantine appetite, why not go for life presidency? If eight years cannot be enough for a person who has served less than two, there is no way 12 can.
Solve the limitation problem once and for all and damn the Sports Act.
Kenya is currently ranked Number 102 by Fifa but that does not seem to be an issue of concern to the federation. Extending term limits is. We were promised freshness but what we have got instead is archaic ideas that were obsolete even in the era when bell bottom trousers and platform shoes were fashionable.
The proposal to extend term limits has nothing to do with public service. Its entire objective is self-perpetuation as an end in itself.
There is a statesman whose writings I read often. In one of them describing a beneficial attitude of mind when the odds are hopelessly arrayed against you and the situation seems irretrievably lost and yet you must do something because life must go one, he wrote: “To be a realist, one must believe in miracles.”
Whatever the lovers of Kenya football may be doing to counter this ego-driven assault on a very reasonable law, they must also believe in miracles. To wait for Fkf, which is guaranteed tenure of office up to 2020 to do anything meaningful for Kenya football is to wait for Godot.
There will need to be a miracle to hasten their exit. Without it we are in for a very, very long night because our problem is not just being lost; it is being lost without hope of being found.