Way back in July 2015, Spain and Italy were drawn alongside each other in the same FIFA World Cup™ qualification group. From the moment the draw was made, it was widely foreseen that the group would be a two-horse race between these two former world champions. Ultimately the Spaniards prevailed, claiming top spot and automatic qualification to Russia 2018.
Four-time winners Italy have only missed out twice on the FIFA World Cup finals, having been absent from the inaugural edition in Uruguay in 1930 and again when the tournament was held in Sweden in 1958. Runners-up in Group G behind Spain, they must now survive a tough-looking play-off over two legs against the Swedes if they are to extend their record of having appeared at every World Cup since then.
FIFA.com caught up with Leonardo Bonucci, recently named a member of the FIFA FIFPro World11 2017, to get an Italian perspective on this crunch tie.
Italy’s qualification for the World Cup will be decided in a play-off against Sweden. What are you expecting from these fixtures?
The play-off against Sweden presents two very difficult games against what is a very strong team, as shown in the group stage when they beat the Netherlands. It’ll be tough. But we’re Italy, and missing out on the World Cup is not an option.
What are the qualities of this Sweden team that can make life difficult for Italy?
It’s a team that has made up for losing one of its best ever players, in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, by staying compact and looking to surprise the opposition. They’re not going to sit back, they fight for every ball.
In the same sense, what are the weapons that Italy possess against Sweden?
The qualities that we need to show in these two games are the same as ever. We have to stick together as a group, to be willing to make the sacrifice for each other, to be humble and to always give it our all. The history of Italian football shows us that this is how we have achieved success, be it with the national team or at club level. The last time Italy won the World Cup, there was a lot of chaos externally but the whole country got behind the team and we won the tournament thanks to that magnificent squad of 23 and the maestro [Marcello] Lippi. Our strength is that we remain united in difficult times. So even though Italian football is not going through its most glorious period right now, we’re determined to put an end to our bad run and this is what we’re going to show out on the pitch against Sweden.
Did you know?
Sweden and Italy have played each other 23 times, with 11 victories for the Italians and 4 draws.
Italy had a tough time of it in their qualification group. In your opinion, what caused that uncertainty within La Squadra Azzurra?
The defeat against Spain created some problems. We thought that we were, if not better than Spain, then better than the account we gave of ourselves out on the pitch. That undermined the confidence of the group a bit. But the national team is going through a phase of regeneration and we have to be patient. As the older members of the squad, we need to motivate the young players to always give 100 per cent.
Italy have not missed out on a World Cup since 1958. Does this put even more pressure on the team?
We mustn’t create more pressure for ourselves. The situation is what it is, but we know – in difficult times – that we as Italians always manage to give that little bit more, that extra millimetre that will get us to the World Cup.