ROME – To fail once in the European Cup competitions may be regarded as a misfortune. To fail twice seems like carelessness. When AC Milan slithered out of the Champions League with a tame 1-1 draw at home to Deportivo Coruna on Tuesday night Italy lost its last representative in Europe this season.
For the first time in 19 years the Italians have failed to put a single team into the quarterfinals of any of the continental cup competitions.
Last year was bad enough -- Lazio were the sole side to make it through to the last eight and they soon came unstuck against Valencia in the Champions League. But this year has been a nightmare.
Back in the 1981-82 season, the last time Italy failed to put a side in the quarterfinals, the country had only four European representatives.
Juventus were beaten by Anderlecht in the European Cup, AS Roma lost to Porto in the Cup Winners' Cup while Inter Milan and Napoli went down to Rapid Bucharest and Yugoslavia's Radnicki respectively in the UEFA Cup. But this season Italy had 10 chances.
Inter Milan blew two of them by losing to unheralded opposition in both the Champions League qualifiers and the UEFA Cup while Perugia, Fiorentina, Juventus, Udinese, Lazio, Parma, Roma and finally Milan accounted for the other eight.
The Italians, who in the 1990s regarded the UEFA Cup as virtually their own, can now only gaze ruefully across the Mediterranean to Spain which has seven teams in the Champions League and UEFA Cup quarterfinals. The English have four and the Germans two.
Italy's ever-analytical newspaper columnists have expended thousands of words over the past few days in a bid to explain the country's demise on the European stage but solutions to Italy's "calcio crisis" are in short supply.
Many blame the vast sums of money Italian clubs spend on foreign players and both Milan and Juventus have hinted they might change their transfer policies and seek to nurture home-grown talent from now on.
Others rightly blame a lack of commitment to Europe -- and particularly the UEFA Cup -- on the part of Serie A sides obsessed with the coveted "scudetto" or league title.
Still others, perhaps clutching at straws, blame bad luck, refereeing errors or the delayed start to the season caused by the Sydney Olympics.
"Look at Spain," said Marcello Lippi who guided Juventus to Italy's last European Cup triumph in 1996. "At the moment that's the showcase country of Europe."
"Club officials in Spain have had the patience to invest in their youth sectors and the big clubs have had the courage to throw their best young players into their first teams."
"That's what's allowed clubs like Real Madrid and Valencia and other Spanish clubs to keep their sense of identity, their own DNA, which hasn't been pulled apart by the use of lots of foreign players, however good they may be."
"That's what we need to do, too," Lippi said. "I said last year that our football must learn to promote young Italian players. I haven't changed my mind."