I’ll admit it from the get-go, I’ve had a pretty bad start to the week. An email came through on Monday afternoon that made my world quiver with fear, guilt and the feeling of deceit. My heart sank.
Paddy’s electronic orders were clear, however: betray your country. Well, not quite in those words…
As an Englishman, the only time that mild interest in this green and pleasant land ever comes close to any alarming, fleeting chauvinism, is around the time of an international football tournament.
At this stage, bad-mouthing the national side becomes sacrilegious and – in my deluded little mind – hinders our chances at glory. Without meaning to sound like a platitudinal PE teacher, it’s all about the positive mental attitude from here on in.
The very hint, even the slightest notion, that I should set my mind to work compiling an argument undermining the English national team filled me with dread.
However, the mandate was as follows: Why Italy deserved to qualify over England.
It was a firm, close-fisted strike to the gut; sending the air from my torso abruptly upwards. How could I ever argue such a thing?
My moment of treason was premature and forthcoming; vivid images of bald, knuckle-dragging men with Burberry jackets and GOLA trainers hauling me into the back of a Transit flashed before my eyes as I envisaged a systematic dismantling of my national side for all the world – you lot, in essence – to read.
But then I thought about what matters most to me in life: football or England. Football, the sport I’ll watch at the drop of a hat, beaming like the Cheshire Cat and salivating slightly; the sport I play, watch, read and live, or England; some grey mass off the coast of France with a large enough population to contentedly commit shot-in-the-foot voting crimes on a scale that makes a difference.
Not a difficult choice, clearly.
What should matter to all football fans – universally – is the sport’s heritage, beauty and passion. They should trump vague patriotism any day of the week, even those precious few every fourth summer.
So, seeing a World Cup with an absent Azzurri – the first since 1958 – ought to bring sorrow to the hearts and minds of the football purist.
The Italian side are, after all, ingrained in international football; they’re one of the big boys and should never be missing from the party.
They’ve won that treasured golden relic four times over and fallen a close second twice. In the World Cups where they’ve appeared, Italy have featured in exactly one third of all the finals. That’s a ridiculous record.
Not having that unit of tradition and history, then, is something for us all to mourn.
But it runs deeper than that. The Italians have been painfully unlucky and can boast quite the competitive side, one replete with legendary names and talented footballers.
Gian Piero Ventura, the Italian gaffer, did little to utilise the quality before him and – with the aghast nation watching – rigidly maintained his tactical approach despite its evident failings as he oversaw Italy’s chances at World Cup success crumble before his eyes.
Keeping the electric Lorenzo Insigne benched for the majority of the double-header play-off against Sweden was perhaps Ventura’s greatest mistake.
The Italian maestro had been in cracking form, but was forced to watch from the sidelines as his beloved Italy missed out on qualification for the first time in almost 60 years.
All things considered, and when you look at the Italian squad (which I’d recommend you do), Italy ought to be playing in Russia this year.
Their absence is not only a massive loss for global football fans, but also one big tactical cock-up – and an unjust one at that.
Comparing the chiselled, classy likes of Buffon, Verratti and Immobile to England’s talismanic Jamie Vardy only serves to further the humiliation of Italy’s summer break as well as highlighting the global unattractiveness of English men.
Italy deserve their place in the competition far more than England ever have, and will tonight prove more of a threat than first expected.
In fact, since receiving that fated email on Monday afternoon, I’ve come to fall in love with the Italian national team. You try researching the buggers all day and avoid such an outcome.
Tonight, my allegiances will be split. Not out of the desire for victory, but out of admiration and regret.
I say this with the utmost sincerity: Long live the Azzurri and may their return be swift and glorious.
Now, go on, make Paddy smile and call me unpatriotic. You know you want to.