ROME (Reuters) - Italians, who consider a spot in the World Cup finals a virtual birthright, slumped into collective depression on Tuesday after the national team failed to win a place among football's elite for the first time in 60 years.
"Disaster", "nightmare", "humiliation", were just a few of the words splashed across the front pages of Italy's newspapers to describe the shock of the team's elimination at the hands of a little-fancied Sweden on Monday.
"Apocalypse Azzurra," said the headline of La Stampa newspaper, referring to the unofficial name of the team whose bright blue jerseys reflect the azure of the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy have played in the last 14 World Cup finals, winning two of them. In all, they have triumphed four times, a tally only exceeded by Brazil, who have won five times. Italy are the only former champions not to make it to next year's finals.
"This is disgusting, the World Cup can't exist without Italy. It just can't exist," said Francesco Macella, a fan who was in Milan's San Siro stadium to watch as Italy failed to overcome Sweden in a tense 0-0 draw in the second leg of their European playoff, having lost the first leg 1-0 in Stockholm.
Every four years, Italy has come together over the World Cup, putting aside its historic city-state rivalries to become a united nation for a brief moment in time, cheering on all the players regardless if they came from Milan, Rome or Naples.
"We have failed and at a social level this could have been so important," said Italy's storied goalkeeper, Gigi Buffon, in a tearful interview minutes after the final whistle on Monday, recognising the broader significance of the national team.
While newspapers laid the blame squarely on team coach Gian Piero Ventura and football federation chief Carlo Tavecchio, some fans thought the failure reflected wider problems.
"This match mirrors our country which is falling apart," said a disappointed Stefano Martufello as he left the San Siro.
Italy is slowly recovering from a prolonged recession, but most people say they see no sign of the pick-up, with wages stagnant and unemployment stuck above 11 percent. On the political front, opinion polls predict that parliamentary elections due by next May will result in a deadlock.
Governments normally hope that the feel-good factor from sporting triumphs feeds over into the political sphere.
In the wake of Monday's downfall, the normally busy Twitter feeds of ruling politicians were quiet, while some opposition leaders sought to score quick points.
"There are too many foreigners on (our) pitches, from youth teams to Serie A and this is the result," said Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, echoing criticism in far-right quarters over the space given in sport to outsiders.
"STOPTHEINVASION. Give more room to Italian lads," he wrote, drawing hundreds of largely negative comments on his Twitter feed.
Italy last won the World Cup in 2006, but exited at the group stage in 2010 and 2014 after lacklustre displays. This latest setback showed how far the team have drifted from their peak, belying the widespread expectation that they would have eased past Sweden.
"For years I've had this feeling that Italian football is a little like Italy itself, which lives a lot in the past when the reality is that it finds itself dealing with things that are quite intense, even shocking," said Matteo Maragnano, peeling oranges in a cafe near Milan's gothic cathedral.
Grasping for silver linings, newspaper commentators recognised that the Italian team was weak and would not have got very far in Russia.
"The only consolation is that we would have made utter fools of ourselves at the finals," La Stampa said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich in Milan; Editing by Christian Radnedge)