Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Prandelli attends the draw for the 2014 World Cup n Sao Joao da Mata

Cesare Prandelli is running out of time. The World Cup kicks off in exactly four months less a day, with teams obliged to register their 23-man squads even sooner, on 2 June. For some nations that might be straightforward, with only one or two fringe players’ places yet to be determined. But for the Italy manager, there are going to be some extremely difficult decisions to make.

The Azzurri, after all, fielded 40 different players over the course of their qualifying campaign, and that figure does not include unused squad members. Nobody featured in all 10 Group B games, Andrea Pirlo leading the way with nine appearances, while Gigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci had eight each. Those players aside, Prandelli showed himself willing to chop and change, responding to injuries at times, but also to his own assessments of which individuals were showing the best form.

This flexibility proved an asset, Italy qualifying with two games to spare for the first time in the nation’s history. But as the finals approach, fans are beginning to ask whether Prandelli knows his own strongest XI, and whether or not it might include yet more untested players.

In particular, there has been much speculation about the make-up of Italy’s attack. Prandelli has spoken since day one about his desire to build a team around Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, and yet that pair have only been able to play together a handful of times, injuries and suspensions denying their partnership the chance it needed to get off the ground.

Instead, the manager has been forced to constantly reshuffle his forward line, using 10 different attackers during qualifying. Balotelli was Italy’s leading scorer with five goals, and yet only played in five games – finding himself excluded at different times due to disciplinary issues and lack of playing time at Manchester City. Pablo Osvaldo, with seven appearances, was a more consistent feature of Prandelli’s side.

But the latter player’s chances of starring in Brazil have since been damaged by a disappointing six-month spell at Southampton. After scoring 16 goals in 29 games for Roma last year, he managed just three in 13 for the Saints before moving to Juventus on loan last month. He played well on his debut for the Bianconeri at the weekend, but may still find his playing time restricted on a team who already have Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente ahead of him.

Right now, then, the only certainty for Prandelli would appear to be Balotelli – although even his nine league goals this season are offset by eight accompanying yellow cards. Rossi, if fit, will also find his way to Brazil, but after suffering yet another knee injury – expected to keep him out until April – he cannot afford any set-backs in his rehabilitation schedule.

Otherwise, squad places for attackers are very much up for grabs. Prandelli will have the option of calling on other forwards that he used throughout the qualifying campaign, such as Alberto Gilardino, Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Giampaolo Pazzini. But increasingly he is also coming under pressure from the public to consider players whom he has not used before – the likes of Luca Toni, Domenico Berardi or Ciro Immobile.

The first of those, in particular, has been gaining vocal support. The newspaper Corriere della Sera published a feature on its website this Tuesday, pointing out that it had been 1,696 days since Toni last played for Italy but arguing that “it is time to run to his services once more”.

The World Cup winner is, at 36 years old, enjoying a career renaissance, scoring 11 goals to drive newly-promoted Hellas Verona into the race for a European berth. He also has the highest average match rating (7.5) with Corriere out of any potential Italy striker. “When things are going like this for a player,” added the paper, “he can put his ID card back in the drawer.”

Berardi and Immobile are at the other end of the scale – 19 and 23 years old respectively, and each without a senior cap to their name. The former won international headlines with his four-goal performance against Milan last month, and his 12 league strikes overall represent more than half of Sassuolo’s total output this season.

But Prandelli speaks about him only in measured tones. “Berardi? After a long ban, he needs to go through the Under-21s first, just like everyone else,” said the Italy manager – referencing the one-year suspension from the national team set-up that the striker was given after failing to answer a call-up to the Under-19 team last year. “If he does well there, as well as in the league, with continuity, then he will get a look as well. We shall see.”

Immobile might be another matter. Prandelli confirmed to reporters this week that he has been keeping an eye on the Torino striker, and that he was “following him closely for Brazil, too”. “Immobile has not surprised me,” continued the manager. “He is a modern, complete attacker. He has a great generousness to him, too. And he is continuing to get better as a goalscorer.”

Recently it has seemed as though Immobile is becoming more effective by the week. He has struck seven times in his last seven games, despite not taking penalties for his team. Indeed, remove spot-kicks from the equation, and the Torino player’s 12 goals overall would be enough to make him the top scorer in Serie A.

Perhaps we, like Prandelli, ought not to be shocked. Immobile has always been a natural goalscorer, dating back to his time growing up in Naples as part of the Sorrento youth team. In 2007-08, his final year with that club’s Under-17 side, he found the net 30 times – enough to earn himself a move to Juventus. He continued to dominate in the Old Lady’s youth set-up, leading her to back-to-back Viareggio tournament triumphs, and scoring a record-equalling 14 times along the way.

Immobile was briefly anointed as the heir to Juve’s attack, the symbolism not lost on fans as he was introduced as a substitute for Alessandro Del Piero on each of his league and Champions League debuts. But he was not yet ready for such a stage. He slogged through unsatisfying loan moves to Siena and Grosseto before exploding at Pescara in 2011-12. Inspired by Zdenek Zeman’s attack-minded schemes, he scored 28 times as the Delfini raced to a Serie B title.

Instead of accompanying Pescara into the top-flight, he returned to Juventus and was swiftly sold on co-ownership to Genoa. There he would struggle, scoring only five times for his new club. There were mitigating circumstances here – most notably in the fact that he had often been made to play out wide in order to accommodate the more experienced Gilardino – but it was to Immobile’s credit that he never really sought to make excuses.

After returning to Juventus again last summer, and this time being sold on co-ownership to Torino, Immobile was asked what he thought had gone wrong in Genoa. “Players often look for alibis – it’s easy to give the blame to others,” he told the newspaper La Repubblica. “I messed up, even if the atmosphere was not ideal for me.”

He has found a happier home in Turin, where Giampiero Ventura has not only stationed Immobile in his preferred position as the leading man in a 3-5-1-1, but also afforded him time to settle. The striker did not score his first goal until October. Since then, he has not stopped.

So effective has his partnership with Alessio Cerci been, that fans have begun to compare the pair to Francesco Graziani and Paolo Pulici – the ‘goal twins’ who led Torino to its most recent Scudetto in 1976. Immobile, a player well-versed in his footballing history, is making every effort to justify that comparison. “I read that Pulici would have 1,500 shots on goal every week,” he said last month. “In my opinion, training that hard is essential.”

Immobile also had his own footballing idols before joining Torino, though, citing the former Cesena and Brescia forward Dario Hubner as a player he tried to style himself after, and Mario Gomez as a more current role model. Just like both of those players he is tall and powerful, but refuses to limit himself to sniffing out chances inside the box. Prandelli’s praise for Immobile’s “modern” approach was a reference, in part, to his willingness to drop back, fight for possession and help to launch counter-attacks.

It is still far too early to anoint Immobile as the coming star of the national team, having, as he does, just half a season of high-quality top-flight performances under his belt. Plenty of great lower-league goalscorers have been and gone down the years without ever making much impact at the highest level.

But Immobile has done enough to deserve the consideration that he is receiving. There are very few sure things up front for Prandelli, and yet plenty of interesting options. Immobile might just be the most intriguing.

Injured FC Sion player Gattuso sits in the tribune before the start of the second half of their Swiss Super League soccer match against Grasshopper in Sion

For the second time in five days, Gennaro Gattuso’s image graced the front cover of Gazzetta dello Sport. On Saturday, he was seen serving up a big plate of spaghetti to Andrea Poli. Gattuso had invited the Milan midfielder to a restaurant that he owns in Gallarate, to the north-west of the city, after learning through media interviews that they shared a mutual admiration.

On Wednesday, though, the story was rather different. “Ringhio defends himself,” ran the headline above a stock photo of Gattuso in his playing days. One day previously, his home had been searched as part of the ‘Last Bet’ match-fixing investigations, which have been ongoing since 2011.

He was not the only person under scrutiny. In total, eleven current and former footballers’ homes were raided on Tuesday, while four other people were arrested on match-fixing charges. Gattuso, unlike that latter group, has not yet formally been accused of any specific offence, but as the most famous face linked to this latest stage in the investigation, his story inevitably dominated the headlines.

Gattuso’s powerful reaction might also have helped to intensify the spotlight. “If they proved this stuff then I would be inclined to go out into the piazza and kill myself,” he told TV reporters. “This is not who I am.”

At first he denied having even placed a bet in his life, although he would later backtrack on that statement, telling Gazzetta that he made a few wagers in 2002-03, before players were banned from doing so. But as he would rightly stress, having an occasional flutter was quite a different thing than rigging a game.

“In my life, I have never, and I mean never sat down with people to fix matches,” he told Gazzetta. “I have never thought in even the furthest part of my brain about throwing a game because, first of all, I don’t even know how you do it. I don’t ever play with my friends, because I don’t even know how to lose a meaningless little game. Anyone who knows me knows how I think.”

It was a characteristically passionate response, although even the player’s tone quickly became the source of conjecture, with both his defenders and his detractors extrapolating far more than they reasonably should. “Everyone close to me is telling me to stay calm,” continued Gattuso. “You tell me how a person can stay calm when they know 100% that they never did anything of the sort.”

He had been drawn into this investigation after prosecutors in Cremona obtained phone records for two of the men arrested yesterday—Francesco Bazzani and Salvatore Spadaro, who are alleged to have acted as the middle-men between bettors and footballers in a series of matches dating back over several years. Ever since the investigation began in 2011, investigators have been searching for that missing piece of the puzzle, the ‘Mister X’ (or perhaps ‘Misters X and Y’) who were in position to negotiate with all parties and orchestrate a result.

Key to the case against Bazzani and Spadaro is evidence that they contacted players and other football club employees by phone before and after matches that are under investigation. Gattuso’s name came up when it emerged that he had received 13 text messages from Bazzani over the course of a year and a half. But as the player himself has pointed out, he did not respond to any of them.

The pair had certainly met, with Gattuso characterising Bazzani, a professional bookie, as someone who knew “half of Serie A”. But according to the player, the only things they discussed were tickets and shirts for giveaways.

Early indications are that the people who matter might be inclined to believe him. Corriere dello Sport’s Andrea Ramazzotti wrote on Thursday that: “investigators do not consider Gattuso’s role in the betting scandal to be a central one”. It was suggested that he might not be required to stand trial.

He would not be the first the first player to be exonerated in this investigation after having his name dragged through the mud. Domenico Criscito was infamously dropped from Italy’s Euro 2012 squad after a high-profile dawn raid on his bedroom at Italy’s Coverciano training facility last June. The case against him was subsequently dismissed without any charges being brought.

Herein the danger in rushing to judgement. Gattuso has not yet even been charged with an offence, and yet might reasonably argue that his reputation has already been massively tarnished by events over the last two days.

Giancarlo Abete, president of the Italian Football Federation, spoke out in support on Wednesday, saying that: “I will only take this into consideration if there were to be a judicial ruling, which I hope will not happen, against him. Knowing Gattuso, and knowing his behaviour and his style, it seems impossible to me that he would be involved.”

Abete went further, stating the need for “prudence” in waiting for the Last Bet investigation to run its course. “In terms of clear-cut situations,” he added, “there is not a lot to see at the moment”.

Not everyone would agree with that final assertion. In fact, many people found it surprising that Abete would make such a comment, given that 53 football clubs, as well as 144 players, managers and other team employees, have already been sentenced by the sport’s disciplinary body for offences unearthed by the Last Bet investigation. Penalties have ranged from fines to suspensions and points deductions.

And while judgements must be held until all trials are completed, Tuesday’s arrests were accompanied with some damning allegations by the chief prosecutor, Roberto Di Martino. Of the 30 matches now under investigation, four took place in 2013 (you can see a full list here). The implication is that, after a brief hiatus following the initial round of arrests in 2011, the people attempting to fix matches went right back to work.

If true, that would be a damning indictment of the game’s ability to police itself, allowing such a thing to occur so soon after the warning flags had been raised. It seems a far more pressing concern for Italian football than the question of whether one high-profile individual was or was not involved.

FIFA President Blatter shake hands with Italy's Farina during the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2011 soccer Award Ceremony at the Kongresshaus in Zurich

Last month the Daily Telegraph revealed that members of an alleged betting syndicate had been arrested on suspicion of fixing games in English football. Since then yet more have followed after the National Crime Agency acted on information passed on by the Sun on Sunday.

A Whitehall summit with five leading British sports and representatives from the Premier League, the Football League and the Gambling Commission was called yesterday. The FA has indicated it would consider signing up to a cross-sport anti-corruption body. A debate is being had. How can the integrity of the game be better protected?

It was while reading about and listening to the various proposals that my mind turned to Simone Farina. You probably should have heard of him by now. If not then that tells its own story: his actions haven’t got the coverage they deserve.

Farina is 31. He was born in Rome in 1982, the year Italy won the World Cup with goals from, among others, Paolo Rossi. Pablito, as he became known after his heroics in Spain, had made a stunning return to the Azzurri following the two-year suspension he had served for his part in the Totonero betting scandal in 1980.

Over three decades later, another one would send shockwaves through the game in Italy, Operazione Last Bet. Farina would be caught up in it and emerge a hero. He was a modest no-name footballer, a centre-back who spent nearly all his career marshalling the defences of clubs in the lower tiers of the Italian game.

Two years ago almost to the week that the Telegraph broke its story about match rigging in England, Farina had been preparing for Gubbio’s fourth round Coppa Italia tie with Cesena when he started to receive text messages from an unknown number. “How you doing?” they asked. “It’s Zampe’.” At first Farina chose to ignore them but they were persistent. He finished training one day to find a series of missed calls.

They were from Alessandro Zamperini, a former teammate of his with whom he’d played in Roma’s academy. Zamperini claimed to be on his way to Gubbio to sell his car and wondered if Farina fancied a catch-up while he was in town. It seemed innocent enough. Why not? So they arranged to meet for a coffee one morning at a local patisserie. Once there, however, Farina soon realised the reunion was a ruse.

He was offered €200,000 to split between himself, his team’s goalkeeper and two defenders to guarantee a Gubbio defeat by an ‘over’ scoreline. For a player in the lower divisions of any country, not just Italy’s where wages are low and not always paid on time or in full, the temptation was obvious. But Farina flat out refused. Zamperini was undeterred. Do him this favour and it could be returned. He asked to be put in touch with Gubbio’s director of sport. If the club risked relegation at the end of the season and required a result to stay up, then that could be arranged.

Farina had heard enough. He made his excuses pretending he had an urgent appointment and left. As he did Zamperini raised his finger to his lips. The inference was clear: Don’t talk about this to anybody. But Farina wasn’t about to let himself be intimidated. He went to the authorities that afternoon and told them everything. Another player, Fabio Pisacane had done so earlier in the year after he had been approached to help fix a game between former club Lumezzane and Ravenna. No one else did. They were the exceptions.

Giancarlo Abete, the president of the Italian Football Federation, the FIGC, thanked them but added: “We mustn’t commit the mistake of making a normal act pass for an extraordinary act.” Absolutely, but what Farina and Pisacane did wasn’t normal. The ‘done thing’ would have been to look the other way, seek refuge behind the wall of omerta, forget about it and pretend nothing happened. That would have been the easy thing to do. What they did was a lot harder than you might think.

While Farina insisted: “I haven’t done anything special,” it was certainly recognised as such. “Farina and Pisacane are role models for young people,” tweeted FIFA president Sepp Blatter. “Courage in denouncing match-fixing is an example for all.” He would stand beside Farina at the 2012 Ballon d’Or ceremony as he named him a Hope ambassador.

Cesare Prandelli also made the grand gesture of inviting Farina and Pisacane to Italy’s Coverciano training camp as the team prepared for Euro 2012. “It’s an invitation to show our solidarity, our support and our gratitude,” he said. “Simone did his duty, but at times doing so takes courage and runs risks. Farina has shown great inner strength. His example is a message of hope. Today everyone is saying so but in a few months’ time Simone might find himself alone again.”

Prandelli’s words were prophetic. Before the beginning of last season, Gubbio released a statement to communicate that Farina’s contract had been rescinded by mutual agreement. Even though he insisted “there’s nothing dark behind the termination of my contract,” the suspicion was that he was being made an outcast. There was talk of an offer from Ascoli. But nothing came of it.

“I find it incredible that a player of only 30 who has had a dignified career in the Lega Pro and played some games in Serie B last season can’t even find a team on a free transfer and the minimum wage,” said FIGC vice-president Demetrio Albertini.

It reminded La Repubblica’s columnist Gianni Mura of the treatment of Jacques Glassmann, the former Valenciennes defender and recipient of a FIFA fair-play award, who blew the whistle on Marseille offering money to go easy on them ahead of their European Cup final against Milan and Ligue 1 title decider against Paris Saint-Germain in May 1993. His contract at Valenciennes wasn’t renewed. And so Glassmann went on to play for amateur club US Mauberge before finishing his playing days on the distant island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. “I hope that it’s not like this,” Mura wrote.

Farina went to England instead. In September last year Aston Villa made him a community coach. He works with kids between eight and 12. Ron Noble, a friend of Villa’s owner Randy Lerner and secretary general of Interpol, the organisation that awarded Farina a Commemorative Medal for his contribution to crime prevention and law enforcement said: “Simone is a football defender both on and off the pitch. He showed integrity and courage by turning down and reporting to the police an attempted bribe to corrupt the outcome of a match.

“He needs to become just as important a role model for our youth like stars such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Corruption in sport is a very complex problem for which there is no quick fix. In addition to strong enforcement efforts, all those linked to the ‘beautiful game’ must place a great emphasis on prevention.”

If I were the Premier League or the Football League, I’d consider giving Farina a call. Why not involve him in their efforts? The FIGC recently made him an advisor within their youth sector, maybe the FA should too. He’s got something to teach. His experience is useful and the values he upholds are those everyone in the game should aspire to keep. Farina can be an educator of the next generation. He’s right under our noses. You just hope he gets noticed and isn’t forgotten about.

Italy v Brazil - FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 Group A

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.

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Even Ronaldo was caught off guard. The former Brazil striker built his footballing career around a rare capacity to anticipate what would happen next, recognizing where team-mates and opponents were headed before they knew themselves. But he made no secret of his surprise this week at seeing Italy qualify for the 2014 World Cup with two games to spare.

“Welcome, and congratulations on the speed of your arrival,” wrote Ronaldo, an ambassador for the tournament, in a guest column for Gazzetta dello Sport. “I was expecting you with all the other teams in October, so I have to admit that this was a bit of shock … Not the fact of your qualification – I never had any doubts on that front – but rather that you got here so quickly.”

He was not alone in his appraisal. Italy have missed out on just one World Cup (1958) since they first entered—and won—the tournament back in 1934, but this was the first time in the nation’s footballing history that they had qualified with more than one game left to play.

Nor had they benefited from an especially easy draw. Group C did not contain another obvious contender for first place, but each of Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic seemed capable of making life difficult for Cesare Prandelli’s side. And yet, after eight games, the Azzurri remain undefeated and having only dropped a mere four points in draws against the Bulgarians and the Czechs.

Italy had, in the sporting parlance, ‘booked their place’ in Brazil with a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic in Turin on Tuesday night. In a more literal sense, their football federation had done so several months earlier, placing room reservations with the Portobello Resort & Safari in Mangaratiba, an ocean-front hotel 65 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.

Those accommodations will be used not only by players, coaches and team officials, but also wives, girlfriends and children. One can only imagine how such an arrangement might go down in England, where many people continue to blame the nation’s underachievement at the 2006 World Cup on the distractions caused by ‘Wags’ in the team camp.

Prandelli does not share these concerns. Players’ families were already invited out to Brazil to join the team for this summer’s Confederations Cup, where they stayed together at another seaside resort, the Sheraton Barra. In their free time some players would take their families out to look at shops and sight-see. Others rushed out for a game of footvolley on the beach.

Perhaps the manager will clamp down on such games next summer and discourage his players from activities that could tire them out or put them at risk of an injury. More likely Prandelli will let them be. His tenure thus far has been defined by the belief that football should first and foremost be fun. Not for nothing did reporters christen his team L’Italia del sorriso—Italy with a smile.

Unlike so many others who pay lip service to the ideal, you get the sense that Prandelli truly does believe in his role as a national servant. He has taken his team to train on pitches reclaimed from the mafia, as well as in areas that were laid low by national disasters. He has enforced a strict code of conduct for his players, holding them to a higher standard.

And where his predecessor, Marcello Lippi, clung determinedly to a small and trusted squad, Prandelli has fought to ensure a meritocracy. In three years he has handed 39 different players their first international cap.

His actions have helped contribute to a mood of optimism around the national team, with players looking forward to international breaks instead of viewing them as a distraction from the day job. Perhaps that positivity has made a difference on the pitch, too.

The manager has got his tactics right more often than not, finding ways to negate Spain’s tiki-taka in both the Euro 2012 group stage and the Confederations Cup semi-final, even if his exhausted squad were blown away by the same opponents in the final of the former competition. But the fact that his team shuffled through three different formations against the Czech Republic on Tuesday night was indicative of Prandelli’s ongoing uncertainty over which system suits his players best.

It would be false to suggest that Italy have always played well under his leadership. There have been some exceptional performances—most notably the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany—but also a number of disappointing ones. Italy’s speedy qualification owes much to the enduring brilliance of Gigi Buffon, who made a scarcely credible reflex save in the 2-1 win over Bulgaria last Friday, and did more than anybody to preserve a 0-0 draw away to the Czech Republic in Prague.

But if Italy have survived such tests time and again in the last three years, then it speaks to the manager’s qualities. More than the performances of Buffon, Andrea Pirlo or Mario Balotelli, it is the unity of this team which has become its defining strength. Time and again players have shown themselves willing to adjust to unfamiliar positions, track back and work themselves into the ground.

That spirit seems to have been embraced by the fans. Italy have not always been able to rely on the backing of their own supporters down the years, with club allegiances leading some to ignore or even jeer the national team. There were concerns before the most recent game that Balotelli might be heckled at Juventus Stadium, a place where he has been racially abused in the past.

Perhaps it was a different crowd that attended on Tuesday, or perhaps fans are just fickle, but this time the striker was warmly received. “The man of the match was Juventus Stadium—passionate and inspiring,” wrote Luigi Garlando in Gazzetta. “The applause for Balotelii after his missed chances was beautiful. We feared a poisonous atmosphere, instead we got a splendid lesson in sporting behaviour, one which we must take back with us to Serie A.”

Italy will need more than just optimism and good will, of course, to succeed in Brazil next summer. Prandelli’s team remains short of options out wide and is yet to find its best combination up front. There is already a huge weight of expectation on Giuseppe Rossi, who only just returned from successive knee ligament tears, to enjoy a productive season and find his way back into the side.

On top of all that is the potential distraction caused by reports that Prandelli plans to quit once the tournament is over. He is yet to make an official statement on the matter, but will do so in the coming days. Still just 56, few could begrudge him the desire to have another crack at the club game.

Even if Italy are at their best, achieving success in Brazil is a tall order indeed. Italy’s three previous World Cup campaigns in South America have ended twice in the first round (1950 and 1962) and once in the semi-finals (1978). No European team has ever won a World Cup on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Azzurri, though, can at least count on some high-profile backing. “As an ambassador, I am supposed to stay neutral,” wrote Ronaldo in the conclusion to his column. “So I will whisper this quietly: a little piece of my heart is always in Italy. I will always support Italy, secretly, a little bit.”

Back home, Italian fans will cheer for this team more loudly than many that have gone before. This week the Azzurri achieved something on the pitch that they had never done before, but it was the manner of that success—not the fact of it—which has won them such vociferous support.

The UEFA under 21 championship is underway in Israel. Italy has dominated England possession wise and got a goal to show for it thanks to Lorenzo Insigne. To England’s credit, they had a goal disallowed for reasons nobody can quite pin down.

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By Gustavo Vieira

We should all give reverence to the two most victorious national sides on the planet when they face each other, even for a friendly. Rubbing their combined nine World Cup titles in everyone else’s faces, Brazil and Italy contested a lively match in Geneva last night.

It was reassuring to see the continuation of Cesare Prandelli’s work with the azzurri still paying off. They dominated Brazil for most of the match and probably deserved to win. The never-aging Andrea Pirlo and the man of the match, (Super) Mario Balotelli, elevated QPR’s keeper Julio Cesar to the best Brazilian on the pitch.

On the other bench, Luiz Felipe Scolari, a.k.a. Big Phil, got yet another reminder that he’s a long way from having a proper team for Brazil 2014, not to mention the looming Confederations Cup at home in June. As usual, however, even when teamwork is missing altogether, Brazil fills the gap with its endless slate of individually talented players. The Italians should know better, but if there is one lesson in football, it is this: don’t underestimate Brazil.

In the 33rd minute, the still-in-the-rough diamond that is Neymar put a precise pass to the left of the box. The ball eventually found Filipe Luis, whose cross reached a cold-blooded Fred. He poked it into Buffon’s net without a bounce to open the scoring for Brazil. Even if Julio Cesar continued to save Brazil left and right, their unjust advantage widened in the 41st minute. A lethal counterattack carried by Neymar from Brazil’s defence all the way across the pitch ended with a sweet pass to serve Oscar in the box. The Chelsea prodigy effortlessly slipped it past Buffon to score Brazil’s second.
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