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Powerhouse Italy Copes With The 'Indelible Stain' Of Missing The World Cup

Italian national team players slump in dejection at the end of their World Cup qualifying match against Sweden on Monday. The 0-0 draw killed the four-time world champions' hopes of a spot in the 2018 tournament.

This is the way World Cup hopes end — not with a bang, but with a whimper.

With their tournament dreams on the line against Sweden on Monday night, the Italian men's national team — the four-time World Cup champion Italian men's national team — simply could not get the win they needed. They didn't even demonstrate the knack for tragedy that might have made for a dramatic defeat, à la the U.S. men.

Instead, Italians watched their opportunity to play in the 2018 World Cup wither slowly as the scoreboard stayed empty, drifting to a scoreless tie with the Swedes in Milan. With the 0-0 draw, Sweden booked their own ticket to Russia to play in one of the world's most watched events.

Not since 1958 has the World Cup lacked an Italian team.

Luckily, though, it appears Italians are taking it in stride: "Italy, this is the apocalypse," declared the Italian sports publication La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Il Messeggero declared on its front page that the draw was a "national shame." Another paper dug deep for its metaphor, reaching back a century to liken the game to a disastrous World War I battle, calling it "the Caporetto of football."

"In only a few months' time we will be watching the World Cup for everyone else: For the first time in 60 years we will be on the outside," the major sports daily Corriere dello Sport said in an editorial, according to The Guardian. "It is an intolerable football shame, an indelible stain."

Of all the images to emerge from the difficult moment, perhaps the most enduring will be that of Gianluigi Buffon, a legendary goalkeeper who won the World Cup with the Italian squad in 2006 and who is now retiring from international soccer. Buffon wept as he left the field.

"This was my last game for Italy," Buffon told reporters after the game. "We are sorry."

He isn't alone. Several of Italy's most recognizable players are unlikely to still be on the field by the time the next cup comes, in 2022.

After the game, the dedicated Swedish contingent in the stands, fans who were rooting for the Swedes even deep in Italian territory, tried to offer their counterparts a little bit of solace. Huddled in the upper decks, clad in gold, they appeared to belt out a rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life":

And, small comfort it may be, Italians can nevertheless know their misery has plenty of company: The aforementioned U.S., as well as powerhouses the Netherlands, Chile and Cameroon will all be staying home in 2018, too.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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