By Brian Homewood
MILAN (Reuters) - With his monotone delivery and forlorn expression, Italy's veteran coach Gian Piero Ventura would make an easy scapegoat for the country's astonishing failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
The 69-year-old, Italy's oldest-ever coach, infuriated his countrymen by repeatedly consigning Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne, arguably their most inventive player, to the substitutes bench.
He baffled them by fielding an unfamiliar and open 4-3-3 formation which barely any other teams use, then suddenly switching to a 3-5-2 for the two-leg World Cup playoff against Sweden.
He praised his players for trying to play his brand of football, without really explaining what that was.
And, having insisted that his mission was to rebuild an ageing team, he fielded a defensive quartet -- including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon -- with a combined age of 138 in Monday's decisive 0-0 draw at home to Sweden.
Ventura refused to step down after the match but is widely expected to lose his job this week.
But the fact that the nation's football federation (FIGC) turned to the journeyman coach in the first place may have simply highlighted the many problems facing Italian football.
As with many other countries, Italy's most illustrious coaches such as Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti and Massimiliano Allegri, prefer to work with top club sides and their huge financial resources.
The FIGC managed to lure Conte into the job after the 2014 World Cup but the current Chelsea manager implied that he was bored when he complained of the long gaps between matches. He also got into a row with clubs over the release of players for training camps and left after Euro 2016.
Conte's predecessor Cesare Prandelli appeared to hit the nail on the head when he said that national team matches were treated as an unwelcome distraction to the club season and that interest only really picked up for major tournaments.
Italy's failures are not recent: they have been eliminated in the group stage at the last two World Cups, results including a shock defeat to Costa Rica in 2014. Since lifting the trophy in 2006, they have won only one game out of six at the finals.
The domestic game is also struggling. Serie A, once the world's richest league, has lost its allure, unable to attract the same television money as its English and Spanish counterparts.
The FIGC itself is seen as the problem by many with some media calling for a clearout of officials on Tuesday.
Its president Carlo Tavecchio was elected in 2014 amid a racism row after giving a speech in which he talked of a fictitious African player he named Opti Poba "eating bananas".
Tavecchio, who denied that his comments were intended to be racist, was still elected with the support of the third and fourth tier clubs and amateur leagues who hold the balance of power in FIGC elections.
Still, Serie A appears to have turned a corner with more clubs owning their own stadiums, Juventus reaching two Champions League finals in three seasons and Napoli playing some of the most exciting football in Europe.
The question is whether the FIGC will opt for a wholesale overhaul of their football, as Germany did in the early 2000s, or whether a simple change of coach will do the trick.
It is only a few months since Ventura himself was praising Italy's young generation of players such as Federico Bernardeschi, Daniele Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Davide Zappacosta.
"The feeling is that they're building something important," said their 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi after a 0-0 friendly draw against Germany last year. "There is a wave of interesting young players."
As recently as August, the FIGC were so pleased with Ventura's progress that they gave him a two-year contract extension, taking him until 2020.
Buffon who ended his 175-match international career on Monday, insisted that Italy would be back. "There's definitely a future, because we have pride and strength," said the tearful goalkeeper.
"We're stubborn and hard-headed. After ugly falls, we find a way to rise back up. A lot of these kids are talented -- I wish them a lot of luck."
(Reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)