Italy’s World Cup failure is a welcome reminder to us all - Stuart Rayner on Football

Italy missing out on this winter’s World Cup was cause for celebration.

Nothing against Roberto Mancini’s players, deserved winners of the last European Championship having produced some of its best and most entertaining football, but as a reminder with England having breezed through qualification that these things should always have to be earned.

It is a lesson which should not be needed less than a year after the collapse of the power-grab that was the failed breakaway European league.

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In case anyone had forgotten, Sky last week broadcast a documentary called Super Greed: The Fight For Football about it, presumably because their head of irony was on holiday that week.

‘Budget buy’: Manchester City’s Ferran Torres was sold to Barcelona, who have had their financial problems, for ‘only’ £50m. Picture: PA

At the time I wrote that “This audacious, duplicitous gaggle with eyes only on the next dollar but no feel, never mind love, for the game they have bought into – but not bought – will be back, reconstituted but with the same greedy goal.” It was hardly the boldest prediction ever, but they are already.

As the most die-hard plotters – Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona – apparently continue scheming behind the scenes, European governing body UEFA has granted them another baby step towards their goal of not having to bother with trivialities like having to be good at football.

When four teams are added to the Champions League in 2024, only two will have to qualify on merit. The other two will be invited on the basis of their record over the past five years, despite not having been good enough in that one. At least there will be no “leapfrogging” – no qualifying at the expense of teams who finished higher in their league. But it is another chip away at the competitiveness and jeopardy which makes sport.

Everton have been unable to buy their way into Europe, and the chances of Manchester United making the top four are extremely slim. Tough. That is how sport works.

If sport was frozen in time, we would be looking at a Wanderers versus Royal Engineers FA Cup semi-final, rather than despairing at the way Liverpool and Manchester City supporters are being disrespected. Fight evolution and you get stagnation.

For a long time it looked like Barcelona would miss the boat only for the club so consumed by debt it could only afford to buy £50m Ferran Torres and take on most of Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, Dani Alves and Adama Traore’s wages in January to scramble firmly into contention. They still get their own way.

The Government came out very strongly against the breakaway. But Boris Johnson has bigger fish to fry right now – he was so distracted he forgot to listen when told he was backing the UK and Ireland’s entry into a one-horse race to host the 2028 European Championship and instead suggested Ukraine should host it – but who the Government sells Chelsea to and on what terms will tell us how far they are prepared to back up words with actions.

West Ham United vice-chairman Baroness Karen Brady recently claimed it was “inevitable” the Premier League will revert to five substitutes despite having rejected the idea three times already because the “big six” want it.

She could be wrong, but in a league where two thirds of clubs must vote through the change – the Premier League will discuss the plan at a meeting today – it is depressing she could even think that.

The big boys will not take no for an answer, it seems. The rest have to be equally firm in looking after the interests of the game as a whole.

Otherwise last spring’s victory will be a very hollow one.