Italy qualifies for the 2024 European Championship on a very special and political evening. This has mainly to do with their opponent from Ukraine.
Goals have a reputation for being the essence of football, the meat on the bones of this sometimes seemingly tough game, but sometimes the magic of the sport comes even without any goals. The 0-0 draw in the European Championship qualification on Monday between Ukraine and Italy was exactly such a celebration of football on very different levels: sporting, historical and, given the global situation, somehow also political.
“The players showed the character of Ukraine,” said the coach Serhiy Rebrov, after his team missed direct qualification for the continental tournament and has to hope for a successful play-off round next March. “You all know that the war in Ukraine continues. It’s still very hard for the players, they’re constantly looking at their phones and watching the news from home,” explained Rebrov. “It’s not easy to work in this atmosphere.”
On the one hand, this is very sad, but it contributed significantly to the intensity of this football evening. The Ukrainians played this game, which was officially declared a home game, in the Rhineland because there were a particularly large number of Ukrainian refugees staying here, which actually created a home game atmosphere.
But also the Italians contributed a lot to the highly intense atmosphere, which was peaceful and respectful at all times. While the Ukrainian anthem played, many Italians applauded, everything remained fair and respectful at all times. A touch of the tournament magic that the German organizers want for the coming European Championship summer could be felt. And it was also very exciting.
Trauma of the late goal
When the final phase began, everything was set for another Italian drama of failure. One goal and the defending European Championship champions would have missed out on another direct tournament qualification after missing the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The Italians were the slightly better team over the 90 minutes, but the trauma of conceding a goal against North Macedonia in the second minute of injury time, which meant the team missed the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a deep fear was omnipresent in those minutes.
The dedicated Ukrainians pressed with increasing desperation for the goal that would have knocked Italy out of the direct qualification spot. And then in stoppage time there was this foot contact between Mykhailo Mudryk and Francesco Acerbi in the penalty area, which the referees could have considered a foul with good arguments. Maybe the scene wasn’t completely clear, so VAR couldn’t intervene, but if the penalty had been awarded to Ukraine, there wouldn’t have been a clear error. “From my point of view it was a penalty,” said Rebrov.
So the game was denied its final point and the Italians were able to celebrate instead of having to suffer another tragic football drama. “It was not a given to qualify for the European Championship, just like nothing is easy in football,” said Luciano Spaletti, the master coach of SSC Napoli, who has been responsible for the Squadra Azzurra since the summer and has initiated a transformation project.
Spalletti’s wing-heavy attacking style was particularly evident in the twenty minutes before the break; overall, Italy were already the better team with the stronger individual players. “We had the opportunity to take the lead, but if we don’t, it’s normal to suffer,” said Spalletti. Especially since the Italians have lost their coolness, the self-confidence with which opponents were worn down and countless games in the past turned into a tough series of interruptions. The fine art of destruction is certainly not part of this team’s essence at the moment.
The fact that this success was achieved in this beautiful atmosphere in Germany still fuels confidence for the coming summer. The approximately 6,000 Italians in the stadium, which was predominantly filled with Ukrainians, “made us feel all their support,” said Spalletti, which was “a good omen” for the European Championships. And goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was already thinking about defending his title. “We are overjoyed because we are back where we belong,” he said, “and that is only fair because we are the defending champions – and want to win the European Championships again next year.” The Ukrainians, on the other hand, score in the play-off semi-finals on either Bosnia, Israel or Poland.