by Bill North
FOOTBALL: I can't help but feel a sense of closure following Italy's 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier loss to Sweden.
The team four-time champions, who in 2006 knocked out the best ever Socceroos side fielded courtesy of Fabio Grosso's stoppage time theatrics before going on to lift the World Cup, will not feature at the finals in Russia for the first time since 1958.
An overrated team that has always grafted out results in ugly, unconvincing fashion, they were 26th in 2010 and 22nd in 2014 and have finally been dealt the most crushing blow of all.
It's not surprising by the way. After all, Italy is only ranked 15th, below New Zealand's opponents Peru (10th), who last played at the World Cup in 1982, and even Wales (14th), who missed qualification but have Gareth Bale to thank for their boosted ranking of recent years.
But will my somewhat spiteful satisfaction prove premature? After all, this has been the qualifying campaign of giant killers, with the Azzurri joining the likes of 2010 runners-up Netherlands, 2016 Confederations Cup runners-up Chile, African giants Ivory Coast and Cameroon, and USA on the sidelines.
It's an ominous trend facing the Asian Cup champions Australia, who should by rights dominate Honduras tonight at ANZ Stadium, judging by how well they handled their swampy conditions last week Friday (Saturday morning our time).
But the Italy exit is exactly why the World Cup must remain a 32-team format, and not the 48 proposed by FIFA for 2026.
It took decades of tinkering until FIFA achieved the optimal mix at France in 1998. Since then the format has worked a treat. Most groups are tough, some are brutal and there are still enough minnows in the mix to allow for the occasional fairytale.
As we have just seen, the possibility of big teams missing out and minnows like Iceland, Egypt, Panama and either Peru or New Zealand getting in generates interest months ahead of the tournament proper.
At risk is the prestige of simply being at the World Cup.
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