Apparently, forever has a shorter shelf-life in Genoa than some other parts of the world. “If Del Neri still has his job after all these losses, it must mean that our faith in him is eternal,” said the Genoa owner Enrico Preziosi last Friday. Two days later, Del Neri was fired.
Preziosi is not the first Serie A president to perform such a volte-face, of course, and nor is it likely to be his last. This was the toy magnate’s seventh coaching change in the two-and-a-half years since he parted ways with Gian Piero Gasperini, a pace to rival that of Italian football’s great self-professed “manager-eater”, Maurizio Zamparini. On this occasion, the decision felt justified. Del Neri had collected just eight points from 13 games since taking over in late October.
“I am terrified of Serie B,” confessed Preziosi, whose team sits in 18th, three points adrift of safety. “If we get relegated it will be because we deserved it, but I am convinced that won’t happen…It would also be wrong to put the blame all on Del Neri. I am wholly responsible.”
He would certainly find plenty of support for the latter viewpoint among the club’s fans. Preziosi might be the least popular team president in all of Serie A, a stark contrast with the late Riccardo Garrone, owner of Genoa’s city rivals Sampdoria, whose passing last night was mourned by fans on both sides of the divide.
Where Garrone was perceived as a great servant to the city lauded for the substantial support he lent—both financially and otherwise—to public causes such as the renovation and re-opening of the city’s famous Carlo Felice Theatre, Preziosi stands accused by his club’s fans of treating the team like just another one of those toys that he produces.
Those fans’ grievances are many, but the greatest of them relates to the club’s transfer policy. Like several other clubs in Serie A, Genoa’s business model relies on bringing in young (and typically foreign) players at a low price before selling them on to bigger clubs once they have established themselves in the division. But unlike teams such as Udinese, Genoa have struggled to apply that strategy while still putting a successful team on the field.
That is in large part because Preziosi refuses to do anything by halves. Where Udinese’s policy relies on selling two or three players per season, retaining the core of the squad to ensure continuity, Genoa’s summer routine is more akin to total rebuilding project. In the last summer alone they bid farewell to Rodrigo Palacio, Alberto Gilardino, Giandomenico Mesto, Miguel Veloso and Davide Biondini, to name just a few of the most regular starters. Gilardino and Biondini had each only arrived in January.
Perhaps even more frustrating for fans is to see some players sold before they even have the chance to contribute. Stephan El Shaarawy played three games for Genoa as a teenager between 2008 and 2010, and then was loaned to Padova. As soon as he returned, the player was sold to Milan. Witnessing his performances this season for the Rossoneri, fans are livid that the club did not at least get to benefit from one good year of the forward’s talent.
Now they fear the same will happen with Mattia Perin, the 20-year-old goalkeeper who has been performing minor miracles for Pescara since being loaned to the newly-promoted club in the summer. Perin has played just a single game for Genoa back in May 2011 and is now reportedly being sought by clubs as big as Milan. As if that were not galling enough, with Pescara in 17th place, he may yet help to get Genoa relegated.
The managerial instability is plainly not helping. Where Udinese have been able to rely on the brilliant Francesco Guidolin to consistently put out a competitive side, Genoa have struggled to replace Gasperini. Gasperini, now manager at Palermo, had steered them to fifth and a place in the Europa League in 2008-09 but was fired just over a year later following a difficult start to the 2010-11 campaign.
Gasperini’s replacement, Davide Ballardini, did well to finish 10th that season, but was nevertheless replaced in the summer. The following year Genoa finished 17th, changing managers twice along the way. Luigi De Canio was appointed over the summer to replace Alberto Malesani, but lasted only till October when Del Neri came in, ostensibly to revive a team which had collected just nine points from eight games. Instead he did even worse.
Perhaps that is why Preziosi has now turned back to Ballardini, naming the manager as Del Neri’s successor. The club’s transfer activity so far in the January window might also appear to have been geared towards the returning manager, with the club adding Matuzalem, who played under Ballardini at Lazio, and Antonio Floro Flores, a forward who was at Genoa the last time the manager was in charge.
A manager who models himself after his former mentor Arrigo Sacchi—and we are not just referring to the bald-head-and-aviators look—Ballardini has already stated his belief that the only way to turn things round will be through a commitment to attacking and defending as a team. His successes both at Genoa last time out, and in steering Palermo to eighth in 2008-09 suggest that he might be up to the task.
And certainly there is more than enough talent in this squad for them to be higher up the table than they are now. Ciro Immobile and Marco Borriello have the potential to be a potent partnership up front (notwithstanding the latter’s comedic miss at the weekend), while others such as Juan Vargas and Sebastien Frey are capable of much more than they have shown this season.
Nevertheless, it will be an uphill struggle to win over a disaffected fan-base, one whose fury was piqued earlier this month when a story was broken about players enjoying a mid-week night out at Genoa nightclub Albikokka. The players, in their defence, were reported to have behaved perfectly responsibly (though a few did break team rules about staying out past 10.30pm) at what was to serve as a welcome home party for Floro Flores. Complaints that the players must not have fun at any time because the team is struggling come off a little unrealistic.
It is the extreme fringe of the fanbase, one which infamously broke out of their end and into the family section at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris during a loss to Siena last year before quite literally demanding the shirts off the players’ backs, which attracts most attention, but even the more moderate supporters are out of patience.
Not all supporters would express their displeasure, as one group did last month, by breaking into the team’s practice facility mid-training session to hurl abuse at the owner. But certainly most would like to believe that this team had a coherent long- or even medium-term vision of where it is supposed to be headed.
Instead the appointment of Ballardini, currently on a contract which only runs to the end of the season, just looks like yet another stop-gap measure before next, inevitable, summer rebuilding project.