ROME — This is a year when much of Italy feels upside-down, and so it’s almost fitting that the usual markers of soccer obsession are suddenly nowhere to be found.
Sports bars in Rome are full at dinnertime, but this time, it’s the outdoor tables that are most crowded, the ones with no view of the televisions. Soccer continues as the background soundtrack of daily life — but in one suburban neighborhood on a recent evening, the action was coming from 13-year-olds on a community field, and the stakes were low, the tricolor flags were nowhere, and the adults at a nearby cafe paid no attention to that game or any other.
“I haven’t watched the World Cup, not a minute,” said Sabrina Battista, 37, a teacher sitting at the cafe. “It doesn’t exist this year.”
“We lost a moment of sharing,” said Chiara Caporilli, 39, sharing the same table.
“We lost a moment of beauty,” Battista said.
What Italy lost, of course, was the chance to feel sporting elation and torment and hope. Its national team — like those of the United States, Chile, China, Ghana and the Netherlands — failed to qualify for the World Cup. But in Italy, the absence cuts deeper.
The beloved Azzurri hadn’t missed a World Cup in 60 years. Four times, the team had won the whole tournament. Entire generations had grown up here considering soccer glory a birthright, a reflection of Italian creativity.
Italians have also relied on their national soccer team to help unify a country splintered by politics and closely held regional identities.
But this time, Italy is experiencing a most unusual kind of summer: one that is quieter, more subdued, and more partisan as well. As the World Cup kicked off this month, thousands in Rome were chanting in the streets — but this time, instead of celebrating, they were protesting their new government’s hard-line policies toward migrants.
“Soccer is no longer the dominating issue,” said Darwin Pastorin, a Turin-based journalist who has written many books about Italian soccer. “People in the sports bar talk a lot about the government, about migrants. They are more concerned by the quality of the government than that of their goalkeeper.”
When Italians do reach for an explanation of their soccer decline, their answers include some of the unnerving factors that have flipped this country’s politics, enabling insurgents to charge in from obscurity and push establishment parties aside: economic rot, a failure to innovate. The Azzurri have seen their talent pool steadily dwindle since 2006, the year of their last World Cup title. The country has not kept pace with the Germans and Spanish in developing young talent.
After Italy failed to beat Sweden in November and officially lost its chance at the 2018 World Cup, the initial reaction was seismic. The team parted ways with its coach. Several marquee players retired. One front-page headline called the loss a “national shame.” Another paper called it the “apocalypse.”
More recently, when soccer has jumped to the forefront, it has been through the controversies of politics. The biggest soccer story in Italy now is about corruption in the construction of a major stadium in Rome. And the highest-profile politician in Italy’s new government, Matteo Salvini, got into a public argument this month with one of the country’s most famous soccer players, Mario Balotelli, who suggested that Italy needed to do more to help migrants integrate.
Fans say they have taken the Azzurri’s absence, after the initial shock, with a dark resignation. Several days ago, the Corriere della Sera, a national daily, published a slide show depicting mock photos of Italy’s 2018 World Cup experience. One photograph shows 11 members of the Azzurri on the field, but they are standing still, watching television. Another image shows the Azzurri’s “official” World Cup apparel, being worn by a fan. He is on a sofa, in loosefitting leisurewear.
The television ratings for the World Cup remain strong, but the enthusiasm is gone. The one place in Rome to find loud soccer-watching crowds is at the central piazzas thronged by tourists.
“It’s as if something is missing,” said Gino Mariani, 48, who helps run the Core de Roma sports restaurant in a southern suburb here.
“When the national team plays, that is the only time Italians are joined together,” said Dino Zoff, the goalkeeper on the 1982 team that won the World Cup.
That ’82 title endures as one of Italy’s most binding experiences, coming on the heels of more than a decade of terrorist bombings and political strife. Zoff, along with his teammates, returned to Rome on the presidential plane, and as they entered the city, they were greeted by an uncountable number of fans.
“It’s an almost instinctive kind of passion,” Zoff said. “It is the national team, not nationalism.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.