Neil Humphreys: Italy's decline was a decade in the making
Azzurri decline was a decade in the making
A reality TV star is the American President, an Australian ferry has just been named Ferry McFerryface and the Italians are not going to the World Cup.
Sanity has finally left the building. We're living in an episode of Stranger Things. An alternate, upside down world is now reality. Black is white. White is black. The Swedes defend like Italians and the Italians attack like cabbages.
In these surreal, Lewis Carroll-like times, nothing makes sense any more.
The Italians always qualified for World Cups. That's what they did. If all else failed in football, the Azzurri could always be relied upon to turn up every four years, boots on, elbows at the ready, happy to make mischief at set-pieces.
A World Cup without the Italians feels like a Wimbledon without Roger Federer, a Formula One race without Lewis Hamilton or an American Presidency without fake news; unthinkable, implausible, utterly inconceivable.
The last time the Azzurri failed to qualify was in 1958, when Elvis Presley swopped musical mayhem for military service. Almost 60 years later, the Italians are swopping tickets to Russia for an extended stay in Heartbreak Hotel.
They join Holland, the United States and Chile on the sidelines, but this feels different.
Picturing a World Cup without Italy is like picturing a heavyweight division without Muhammad Ali.
They helped to define the competition, lifting the golden bauble four times.
At a time when the extraordinary seems ordinary, it would be easy to lump the Italians in with the other bizarre events of recent times, but they shouldn't be. Their disaster was at least a decade in the making.
Since they last won the trophy in 2006, the Italians have won just a single match at the World Cup Finals.
If they qualify for Qatar 2022, they'll be looking to win only their second tournament match in 16 years.
Antonio Conte's hypnotic charisma and endless training drills squeezed every last drop of talent out of an ageing, limited squad at Euro 2016.It's an alarming statistic and one that should be noted in the Chelsea boardroom.
His successor, Gian Piero Ventura, will almost certainly be removed after a wretchedly conservative campaign, but he inherited a creaking gang of pensioners.
In the first leg in Sweden, seven starters were over 30. Three of them were at least 33.
COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Despite the first-leg loss, six of the veterans still started the goalless second leg yesterday (Singapore time).
Unlike Germany, France, Belgium and even England, to a degree, a youth development revolution is yet to take place in Italian football.
The Serie A incubators have stalled.
A tearful Gianluigi Buffon deserved a better retirement party after 175 caps. But the bigger question is why was the 39-year-old allowed to reign, unchallenged, for so long?
The same could be said of Giorgio Chiellini, 33, Leonardo Bonucci, 30, Andrea Barzagli, 36, and Daniele de Rossi, 34.
Their collective pedigree was rarely in doubt, which was fortunate as there are still no obvious and outstanding candidates to replace any of them.
The old guard has allowed the Italians to get by for the best part of the decade, but one of the longest Indian summers in international football has finally come to an end.
Italy was a country for old men in every sense.
In the dugout, a then-67-year-old journeyman replaced Conte after Euro 2016.
Ventura's coaching highlight in a 41-year career was promotion from Serie C in 1996. The Azzurri needed a revolutionary. They hired a reactionary.
If Ventura's hapless, unadventurous and entirely predictable tenure could be summed up in one humiliating moment, it came in the second half against Sweden.
Unable to score, Italy's 3-5-2 ultra-cautious line-up had already resorted to pumping long balls to the isolated Ciro Immobile.
Ventura ordered de Rossi, a defensive midfielder, to warm up. De Rossi refused. He was caught on camera saying: "Why the **** should I warm up? We need to win, not draw."
Andrea Belotti and Stephan El Shaarawy were eventually sent on but Lorenzo Insigne, perhaps Italy's most creative footballer, never left the bench.
Ventura did pick Jorginho, Italy's best performer on the night, but the coach's inability to trust the few mercurial artists at his disposal ensured a drab, uninspiring campaign culminated in his downfall.
Italy picked the wrong coach who then picked the wrong players at the wrong time, a time when international rivals were investing in - and promoting - younger talents.
The rest of the world had moved on. The Italians hadn't.
In the end, old age defeated the Azzurri.