Italy’s ‘lost generation’ will lack any World Cup experience

ROME (AP) Call them Italy’s ”lost generation.”

The Azzurri’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup means that a good portion of the squad’s players will not have appeared in football’s premier tournament by the time they approach their 30s.

Winger Alessandro Florenzi will be 31 by the time the next World Cup rolls around. Center forward Andrea Belotti will be 28, as will playmaker Federico Bernardeschi and striker Domenico Berardi.

Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli – the next installment of Italy’s vaunted center backs – will also be approaching their late 20s.

The 2022 tournament in Qatar will be held in late November and December, meaning it’s more than five full years away.

If current form is anything to go by, it’s no certainty that Italy will qualify.

The four-time champion failed to reach next year’s World Cup in Russia after going out 1-0 on aggregate to Sweden in a qualifying playoff on Monday.

It’s the first World Cup Italy has missed in six decades.

Captain Gianluigi Buffon, defender Andrea Barzagli and midfielder Daniele De Rossi each announced their retirements from the national team after the playoff loss. They were the last remaining members from the squad that won Italy’s last World Cup in 2006.

Buffon, Barzagli and De Rossi were planning to hand over their expertise to the next generation in Russia. But their plans got cut short.

So Gianluigi Donnarumma, AC Milan’s 18-year-old starter, will take over from Buffon in Italy’s goal without ever having traveled to a major tournament.

Giorgio Chiellini, another veteran center back, may retire also. If so, it will leave Rugani and Romagnoli with the keys to the defense and only Leonardo Bonucci to turn to for guidance.

Italy has historically been relucatant to use younger players despite a trend in that direction, as evidenced by the recent success of a young Germany squad that won the 2014 World Cup.

Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman were both 20 when they helped France reach the final of last year’s European Championship and 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe and 20-year-old Ousmane Dembele are also now key members of Didier Deschamps’ squad.

By contrast, players like Bernardeschi, Rugani (both at Juventus) and Romagnoli (AC Milan) have struggled for playing time with their clubs.

”Italian football’s year zero was five or six years ago but few realized it,” Italy’s under-21 coach Luigi Di Biagio said. ”Now comes this glaring result and everyone starts shouting.

”But when we were talking about younger players not finding space in their squads we weren’t making an argument for our national team, but for the good of everyone.”

Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne made one brief appearance at the 2014 World Cup and is now widely considered Italy’s most talented player. But he was largely left on the bench by coach Gian Piero Ventura in the playoff loss.

To the consternation of many, the 26-year-old Insigne came on for Marco Verratti in a central midfield role late in the opening leg against Sweden.

It was widely considered a tactical blunder by Ventura and further underlined Italy’s malaise.

”It’s useless to call up Insigne to make him play out of position,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. ”This is how the international spotlight transforms into something negative and how our jewels don’t become utilized.”

AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire in Paris contributed.

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