Thankfully, nobody took Cesare Prandelli up on his offer.
“If they tell us that it is for the good of football that our national team does not go to the European Championships, that would be no problem,” the Italy coach told Rai Sport at the beginning of June. Three-and-a-half weeks later, his team is preparing for a semi-final against Germany.
Such an extraordinary statement had not arrived unprompted. At a time when Prandelli hoped to be fine-tuning for his first tournament in charge of the Azzurri, he instead found himself fielding questions on everything but his footballing plans. Having already endured a dawn raid on his team’s training base as part of the ongoing match-fixing investigations – which led to Domenico Criscito being dropped from the squad – he was now being pressed on whether his captain, Gigi Buffon, had a gambling problem.
The cynics were quick to point out that the country has a history of succeeding in tournaments entered on the back of great domestic scandal, pointing to the World Cup triumphs of 1982 and 2006. On each occasion Italy had used press hostility as a spur, with first Enzo Bearzot then Marcello Lippi fostering a siege mentality among their players and challenging them to defy their critics.
It would have been easy for Prandelli to go down a similar path, banning particular journalists as Bearzot did in 1982 (some had spat at his team’s feet as they left a game), or simply refusing to answer questions on particular topics as Lippi did in 2006. That, though, was not Prandelli’s way. Asked if he would consider imposing a press silence, he replied: “No, that would not be respectful to people who are just trying to do an honest job.”
Prandelli’s courteousness towards others has long marked him apart, but there was more at play in such words than simple human decency. From the moment he took the job in 2010, he has made it plain that he views this job quite unlike any other. Here he was not just a football manager, but also a public servant. “The Italian shirt is not mine and nor is it yours,” he had said at his unveiling in the summer of 2010. “It belongs to everyone.”
Those were important words for fans to hear at a time when many felt alienated from a national team which had become yet more closed off during Lippi’s second tenure. Where his predecessor had clung determinedly to the players who secured the triumph of 2006, Prandelli promised a fresh start and a strictly meritocratic selection policy. Antonio Cassano—never even considered by Lippi—was brought immediately back into the fold.
A code of conduct was also introduced, stipulating how Prandelli expected his players to behave themselves on the football pitch, even when representing their clubs. His willingness to pursue the policy even to the detriment of his own side was rammed home when Daniele De Rossi was excluded after delivering a forearm to the face of Darijo Srna during a Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Journalists were quick to brand this brave new era as “L’Italia del sorriso”—Italy, with a smile—but while the change of tack was appreciated, the question of whether it could actually work was another matter. Prandelli talked of his desire to play an attacking, possession-based game yet many doubted that he had sufficient talent available. Buffon himself had declared after Italy’s World Cup exit that “just qualifying for the European Championships would be an achievement worth celebrating.”
But qualify they did, playing exactly as Prandelli had promised, finishing second only to Spain in average possession percentage through qualifying. Praised repeatedly for copying the ‘Barcelona model’, Prandelli had in fact created one all of his own, a 4-3-1-2 in which the midfield rotated throughout a game, players taking turns to step forward into the role of trequartista.
And yet when the tournament itself rolled around, he was also flexible enough to change. In the wake of a 3-0 friendly defeat to Russia, and with no further warm-up games to play, he took counsel with his players and—partly on their advice—switched to a 3-5-2 which aped the systems many were had been playing in for their club sides. In Italy’s opening game, against Spain, and then again in the first-half of their match against Croatia, the move was a success.
Prandelli, though, had not given up on his own vision, continuing to work with the players on his old 4-3-1-2 in training as well. The 3-5-2 provided a pragmatic short-term solution to the problem of only having a short period time to work together before a tournament, but once Prandelli felt they had grasped his own system once more, he was quick to return to it.
There was courage, too, in his individual selections. Against a Spain team who have dominated world football for four years he handed Emanuele Giaccherini his first-ever international cap and started Daniele De Rossi at centre-back, a position he had played in just a handful of times for Roma and never in a back-three. Against Ireland and England he introduced Alessandro Diamanti off the bench, a 29-year-old whose only previous cap came in 2010.
If progress was not entirely serene—draws in the first two games left Italy in a precarious position—then they had certainly lived up to Prandelli’s ambition to play a positive game. Even while Spain were dominating possession in their opening encounter, Italy never gave off the impression of a team attempting to park the bus. They managed more shots with 42% possession in the first half alone of that match than France managed with 44% possession throughout their entire quarter-final against the holders.
When the Italian Football Federation president Giancarlo Abete announced before the decisive group game against the Republic of Ireland that Prandelli’s job was safe regardless of whether Italy reached the knock-out stage, there was widespread approval. Following the win over England, there is instead fear over the offers that could come the manager’s way. Italy might not have scored before the penalty shoot-out, but 64% possession and 20 attempts on target (35 overall) speak to the level of domination achieved.
Prandelli was not short of admirers in Italy beforehand, his lack of major trophies thus far in his managerial career offset by achievements at Fiorentina, a team who had just finished 16th when he took over in the summer of 2005. In each of the next four seasons under his charge they would secure enough points for a Champions League berth, though penalties imposed as part of the Calciopoli verdicts ensured kept them out on the first two occasions.
He might have made more of an impression on an international audience, too, in 2010, had his team not been eliminated on away goals by eventual finalists Bayern Munich in the round of 16, having previously topped a group featuring Liverpool and Lyon. A string of extremely contentious refereeing decisions—most notably the failure to spot that Miroslav Klose’s first-leg winner had been scored from an offside position—left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Prandelli lamented his team’s luck at the time, just as he has in the last few days over a schedule that will see his team face Germany on 48 hours’ less rest than their opponents. But he is rarely one to dwell on the negatives. Having seen his wife Manuela pass away five years ago after a long illness, Prandelli is better than most at keeping results in perspective.
Which is not to say he does not care about the game; indeed, he has credited football and the people within it as fundamental in helping him to move on, but simply winning at all costs is not top of his agenda. Asked about Italy’s prospects this week he was quick to turn the discussion away from his own team’s chances and towards his concerns over the insufficient resources available to young players back home.
When conversation finally did turn back to the semi-final itself, Prandelli delivered a message to make the neutral supporter’s heart sing. “We will study everything and try to strike at Germany’s few weaknesses,” he said. “We will try to dictate the match. My team is not miserly. We won’t try to defend ourselves on the edge of our own area. I would prefer to concede a goal on the counter-attack than suffer in defence for 90 minutes.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from both 1982 and 2006 it is that no level of international success can simply wash away the problems that have been exposed by the recent scandals in Italy. But it is certainly hard to imagine how it could have been to the good of football to have this tournament without Prandelli in it.