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Buffon with his Italy teammates after World Cup elimination.
Buffon with his Italy teammates after World Cup elimination.

-Essay-

This was not how he wanted to say goodbye. Gianluigi "Gigi" Buffon's tears were featured Tuesday on the front pages of Italian newspapers, and not just the all-sports publications. At 39, the legendary goalkeeper played his final game for Italy's national team Monday night.

For the first time since 1958, the four-time world champions have failed to qualify for the 2018 edition of the mother of all international sporting competitions: soccer's World Cup. Following Monday night's draw against Sweden, Italians are trying to quantify just how big a disaster this is for a country where the sport is a rare source of national pride and unity. Milan-based sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a banner headline Fine ("The End"), and compared the elimination to the "apocalypse." Rome-based La Repubblica called it Italy's "flop." Meanwhile, Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera had its own lineup of metaphors: "nightmare," "epic novel," "curse."

Corriere della Sera, Nov. 14, 2017

Yet, speaking for a moment for non-Italian soccer fans, I'd say that it's also bad news for the big event next summer in Russia, for the sport itself — and in some way, for the whole of Europe. Let me explain. For starters, this is no swipe at Sweden, which was the better team over the two confrontations. But for those of us who love "the beautiful game," the FIFA World Cup without Italy will miss a big chunk of its beauty. It would be like an Olympic basketball tournament without Team USA or a rugby World Cup without the All Blacks of New Zealand. With Italy staying home, it's as if the planet's soccer family was heading to Russia one member short.

But as a multinational and mobile European, I can say that Italy's absence prompts an even deeper reflection. My natural allegiances, soccer-wise, go (in this order) to Portugal, France and Germany, all of which have long-running bitter rivalries with the squadra azzurra. Like every Frenchman, I still have painful memories of that long, hot 2006 summer night when Zinédine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi and earned a red card — as Les Bleus went on to lose the World Cup final on penalties. That night was Zidane's last game as a professional player. And he went out through the back door. Like Buffon did Monday night.

So why, watching from my current home in Germany, do I feel sadness rather than Schadenfreude? Perhaps it's a timely reminder of what it means to be a European, at a time when the continent's identity is being put to the test on a daily basis. I, for one, have no desire for Europe to meld into a single supra-state run out of Brussels. This is a continent rich in culture and history, made of great and flawed nations (and proud regions), which should find new ways to push each other to play to win in a world that gets more competitive every day.

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