North Macedonia shock Italy: one of football’s biggest ever upsets? 

European champions will miss out on the Fifa World Cup for the second successive time 

North Macedonia players celebrate their victory over Italy in the World Cup play-off
North Macedonia players celebrate their victory over Italy in the World Cup play-off
(Image credit: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Italy’s shock 1-0 defeat at home to North Macedonia means the European champions will not appear at this year’s Fifa World Cup. A dramatic finale in the play-off semi-final saw Aleksandar Trajkovski score a last-gasp winner for North Macedonia, who will now play Portugal for a place in Qatar.

Beating England in the Euro 2020 final last summer is “now a bittersweet memory” for the Italian national team, said The Guardian. Like the play-offs in 2018, the Azzurri have failed to qualify for a second successive World Cup finals.

It is “truly a sporting disaster” for Italy, said the BBC. “Come the 2026 finals, assuming they make it, the Azzurri and their fans will have been without World Cup football for 12 years.”

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Veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini said the Italian squad were “destroyed and crushed” after the defeat in Palermo on Thursday night. “There is a great disappointment. From September to today we have made mistakes and we have paid for them.”

“It was a nightmare,” Italy midfielder Marco Verratti told RAI Sport. “Looking around the locker room, we had the players to challenge for the tournament itself, yet here we are talking about a disaster. It’s so tough to go from hero to zero.”

Italian newspapers were “left in dismay” following the defeat, the Daily Mail reported. Tuttosport led with a simple headline of “Nooooooooo!” while Corriere dello Sport’s front page had a headline that read “To Hell”.

Italy’s top-selling sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport described the seismic result as “Out of this World”, Sky Sports reported. Head coach Roberto Mancini has been left “devastated” and is considering his future.

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Portugal need to ‘respect’ North Macedonia

Trajkovski’s stoppage-time winner sparked “wild celebrations” among the North Macedonian players, staff and travelling supporters, said Sky News. For the country, which gained independence in 1991 with the breakup of Yugoslavia, this was undoubtedly its best-ever result.

North Macedonia are now just 90 minutes away from reaching consecutive tournaments, the BBC reported. Before qualifying for Euro 2020, they had never reached a Euros or World Cup. With Portugal up next, the journey is “not yet complete”. However, the result in Italy is “unquestionably the upset of the play-offs”.

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos had warned his players that North Macedonia could shock Italy – and he was proved right, Reuters reported. Portugal will now “need to show the same respect to North Macedonia that we would to Italy”, Santos told a news conference. “I told you before we could be playing them, those games are not a joke, it’s like a final and anything can happen. You have to face it with the focus and concentration that it deserves. A team that goes to Italy and beats the European champions doesn’t need introductions.”

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‘Seemingly impossible results’

International football is “full of upsets”, and it’s “all the better for it”, said PlanetFootball. North Macedonia’s victory over Italy is the latest in international football’s “strong tradition of seemingly impossible results”. Just five years ago North Macedonia were ranked 166th in the world, but “now they have knocked out the European Champions to take one giant step towards the greatest tournament in the entire sporting world”.

How does the victory compare to some of the other biggest shocks, The Sun asked. “The Italians’ absence from Qatar this winter will go down as one of the biggest surprises in international football history.”

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Mike Starling is the digital features editor at The Week, where he writes content and edits the Arts & Life and Sport website sections and the Food & Drink and Travel newsletters. He started his career in 2001 in Gloucestershire as a sports reporter and sub-editor and has held various roles as a writer and editor at news, travel and B2B publications. He has spoken at a number of sports business conferences and also worked as a consultant creating sports travel content for tourism boards. International experience includes spells living and working in Dubai, UAE; Brisbane, Australia; and Beirut, Lebanon.