It is a little-known fact that Cesare Prandelli was once the manager of England. Only for a single night, mind you. His one and only game in charge took place at the Villoresi theatre in Monza, on 13 December last year. If you would like to know who won, then all you need to do is pick up a copy of Stefano Ferrio’s novel, La Partita.
The book, adapted into a one-off stage production by Gianfelice Facchetti (son of the great Inter full-back Giacinto, no less), tells the tale of match interrupted. Two young teams are nearing the end of a fiercely contested game when their ball gets lost. Reluctantly, they abandon the hunt and call it a draw. That is until fate draws the protagonists back together 33 years later and they resolve to finish what they had started.
One team, Bar Fantasia, is made up of natural frontrunners – a group who are described as being accustomed to success off the pitch, as well as on it. They are brash, arrogant and selfish. The other is dominated by hard-working and idealistic underdogs, who named themselves ‘England’ due to a shared admiration for that nation’s perceived way of playing football: physical, determined, and reliant on the collective.
At root this is a familiar story about competing world views, pitting individualism against idealism. But what made Faccheti’s production unique was the cast. Prandelli’s England team that night was acted entirely by convicted criminals, serving time at Monza’s district prison.
Playing opposite them, for Bar Fantasia, were a number of professional footballers from the local team, Monza. Facchetti had called in his footballing connections to make this a star-studded cast. He also needed to twist a few arms to get the show put on at the Villoresi; although the inmates’ theatre company was long-established, it typically performed only inside the walls of the prison.
Persuading Prandelli to take part, though, was his biggest coup of all. The Italy manager had coached Facchetti in the youth team at Atalanta back in the early 1990s, before the latter gave up on football to pursue his career in theatre. The pair remained good friends, and Prandelli was quick to agree to help out.
His role in the play was a minor one, showing up to give England a motivational team-talk before their big game. “You’ve been waiting 30 years for this match,” he told them. “You cannot be afraid now. You are a team, so help each other.”
Eleven months later, Prandelli found himself using very similar words to address another group of inmates. This time, he was not acting. Instead Prandelli was speaking to real-life footballers, having accepted an invitation to manage the same prison’s seven-a-side team for a derby against their local rivals Aso San Rocco.
His pre-game pep-talk was delivered in the presence of armed guards. The prison’s team, who play under the name Alba, compete in a league run by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, a national non-profit organisation which seeks to “promote sport as a means of education, growth, hard work and social integration”. They are the only side in their division who never get to play away from home.
None of Alba’s squad took part in the play at the Villoresi last year. According to a piece by Facchetti in Sportweek magazine, one of them, Marco, had been involved in rehearsals, but lost his spot in the cast over a practical joke that went awry.
Now, though, Marco would have the opportunity to play for Prandelli in a real game. “I know you are a close-knit team,” said the manager before kickoff, echoing the themes of Facchetti’s play. “Try to play like one, always working harder to help one another. Let’s go, lads.”
They needed no second invitation. On a wet and sloppy pitch, Alba raced to a convincing 5-2 victory, complete with a hat-trick from their Latvian striker, Florind. Among his goals was a bicycle kick that left Prandelli gushing. “The beauty of the technique on a goal like that is universal,” said the manager. “Its value isn’t reduced by the fact that it happened here. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
Prandelli went further, insisting that: “Anyone who has a passion for football will not see distinguish between a match played in prison or one at the Maracana.” He was speaking from a position of rare authority on the matter, having guided Italy to a 2-1 victory over Mexico at that stadium during this summer’s Confederations Cup.
Indeed, some might ask what the manager was doing here at all, frittering away time on a group of criminals with a World Cup is barely half-a-year away. Ought he not to be focusing all of his energies on scouting, planning and preparation?
Not in Prandelli’s view, no. Because unlike so many others before him, he has chosen to view his role as greater than just getting results on a football pitch.
Serving as manager of the national team has afforded Prandelli a position of prominence that he refuses to take lightly. Since accepting the job, he has been consistent in stating that he and his players have a duty to represent their country in a positive way, as well as to convey the right messages about how the game should be played.
These are not hollow words. Prandelli wasted no time in introducing a code of conduct for his squad, dropping players as important as Daniele De Rossi and Mario Balotelli after they breached its terms while playing for their club sides. He arranged training sessions on fields that had been reclaimed from organised crime syndicates, and called up Simone Farina, a Serie B player who had testified against individuals who sought to involve him in a match-fixing attempt.
Prandelli has also taken his players to visit a prison before now, attending the Sollicciano correctional facility in Florence with Mario Balotelli and Gigi Buffon back in September 2011. Not everyone was on board with such action. Why, they asked, should criminals get to enjoy a visit from their heroes, instead of regular law-abiding citizens?
Perhaps the answer lies in Prandelli’s religion, as a Christian who believes all souls can be redeemed. Or maybe it is a question of simple humanity, and an approach which says that our mistakes should not define us forever.
What we can say with certainty is that he is a firm believer in the power of sport to make a real and tangible difference in people’s lives. “Moments like this give you a powerful sense of what football means, but most of all of what living means,” he told Facchetti at the end of Alba’s win. “It’s a match which can give something meaningful to everyone who has been a part of it.”
If only the same could be said for every other game that we will hear about this weekend.