Sweden send Italy into World Cup abyss

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WC18 ITALY

The pleasure of WC qualification for Sweden and pain of failure for Italy was evident in Milan

Italian football boss Carlo Tavecchio said recently that failure to qualify for the World Cup would be the apocalypse and his worst fears came true as they missed out on the finals for the first time in 60 years.

A 0-0 draw at home to a defiant, belligerent and technically inferior Sweden ended the four-time world champions' hopes of reaching next year's finals and with it the international careers of several of Italy's biggest names.

The Swedes will take their place in Russia after qualifying for the first time since 2006.

Italy's 1-0 aggregate defeat in their European playoff, after Jakob Johansson's deflected strike in Solna, is likely to go down alongside elimination by North Korea at the 1966 World Cup as one of their greatest football failures.

The Italians have only missed qualification for the tournament once before -- missing out on the 1958 finals in Sweden -- after not entering the first World Cup in 1930.

The players sank to their knees as the final whistle went, the starkest possible contrast to the Swedish joy.

It was also the tear-jerking end to the career of their 39-year-old goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon who made his Italy debut 20 years ago against Russia -- on the last occasion that Italy had to face a playoff for a World Cup place.

"It's upsetting that my last Italy game coincides with our elimination for the World Cup," Buffon, a World Cup winner in 2006, said.

"Sport teaches you to lose and win as a group and share joy and pain. The coach has the same degree of blame as us."

Daniele De Rossi, Italy's fearsome 34-year-old bearded midfielder who was surprisingly left on the bench on Monday, also announced his international retirement after 117 appearances.

Defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are almost certain to follow suit.

However, Gian Piero Ventura, at 69 the oldest coach Italy has ever had, refused to confirm that he would step down, saying he needed to talk to the federation first.

After a scrappy opening 20 minutes at the San Siro, Italy took control and pressed forward in waves.

They had penalty appeals turned down and were denied by outstanding Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen but were also let down by some desperately poor finishing and final passes.

"I absolutely apologise for the result but not for the effort we put in or our desire to win," Ventura said.

His opposite number Jan Andersson admitted his side had to cling on to their first-leg lead.

"We had no weapons left. We just had to sit there and hope that we could hang on," he said.