Over time, only four European title holders have missed out on World Cup qualification. Italy is the last and loudest name on this list.
As in 2018, the big absentee from the Qatar World Cup is four-time trophy winners Italy. If 4 years ago Squadra Azzurra’s failure to qualify was the result of a visible decline and a double with Sweden, an important national team, in 2022 things are completely different. Just a year and a half ago, the Italians were becoming the champions of Europe, at Wembley, after a final with England and at the end of a tournament in which they impressed with the quality of the game. A few months later, Roberto Mancini’s team was left at home by modest North Macedonia, right in Palermo.
It has never happened that Italy missed two consecutive editions of the World Cup. The shock was all the greater as it came after a memorable European, and a continental champion missing the next World Cup is a rarity. And it’s never happened with such a big name.
The first European champion to fail to reach the World Cup was Czechoslovakia. In 1976, in Yugoslavia, the Czechoslovaks defeated the world runner-up Netherlands and then the world champion FRG for the only title in the history of this country. In the last act, against the West Germans, Antonín Panenka converted the decisive 11-metre strike, with an execution that later took his name, for one of the great surprises in Euro history.
Panenka also scored Czechoslovakia’s first goal in World Cup qualifying in 1978. It was a 2-0 win over Scotland in Prague. A success that offered reasons for optimism, given that it was a group of only 3 teams, of which Wales was also a part. But two clear failures followed for the European champions at that time: 0-3 against the Welsh, away, and 1-3 in the rematch with Scotland, at Hampden Park. The last game, won 1-0 at home to Wales, no longer mattered.
It was 16 years before another European champion failed to reach the World Cup. In 1992, Denmark pulled off one of the biggest surprises in football history. Sent to Euro 1992 by Yugoslavia’s suspension for political reasons, the Danes went home with the trophy after defeating title holders Holland and then-world champions Germany. A triumph was hard to predict. And the “hangover” was just right.
Denmark started the 1994 World Cup qualifiers with three goalless draws. It was 0-0 with Latvia, Lithuania, and Ireland. Although they managed to win at home to the biggest name in the group, Spain, the Nordics would regret that false start. In the last match, they lost in Sevilla (0-1), while Ireland drew in Belfast with Northern Ireland (1-1). Denmark and Ireland finished with the same number of points (18) and the same goal difference (+13). Head-to-head did not count, where the reigning European champions had the advantage (0-0 at home, 1-1 away), so the Irish went to the final tournament in the United States has scored more goals (19 compared to 15).
If the European title won by Denmark was a big surprise, the one conquered by Greece in 2004 was truly an amazing event. And even if the Hellenes were not considered a great force even after the tournament in Portugal, missing out on qualification for the 2006 World Cup was still unexpected. First of all, the core of the team that had conquered Europe was preserved. So did the coach, the German Otto Rehhagel. Secondly, the group that Greece was part of in the preliminaries was an approachable one: Ukraine, Turkey, Denmark, Albania, Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Not only did the Greeks not even manage to get a place in the playoffs, but they finished in 4th place, behind Ukraine, Turkey, and Denmark. In the end, the unexpected setback suffered in the very first match of the qualifying campaign, 1-2 away to Albania, proved decisive. With 3 points in Tirana, the European champions would have ranked second.