It may have been a bridge too far in the end, but when Cesare Prandelli claimed he would have no problem with Italy withdrawing from Euro 2012 on the eve of the tournament there were quite a few ready to take him up on his offer.
The national team were once again in the maelstrom of a growing scandal surrounding Italian football, just as it had been ahead of the World Cup finals in 1982 and 2006.
Rather that preparing his final 23-man squad for their transfer to their base in Poland, the urbane coach was dealing with a dawn raid on the team training camp just outside Florence which led to one of his player’s Domenico Criscito questioned over a match-fixing investigation and dropped immediately.
He may go by the grand title of commissario tecnico della Nazionale italiana – generally shortened to CT - but the coach is no more than a lowly official in the grand scheme of things inside the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) so Prandelli was the last to know that the police were knocking on the door of one of his starters.
The FIGC vice-president Demetrio Albertini was aware of what was going down: the former AC Milan midfielder, who had been brought into the job as a “clean face” following the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, was first on the scene and the one to inform the player that he would have no opportunity to voice his innocence and would be marched out the gates to face his prosecutors on his own.
Another defender, Leonardo Bonucci, saw his name banded around as another who may have a dirty secret or two that he was letting on about and the Juventus man spent an uneasy couple of days before he could breathe easily.
Just about every young boy in Italy wants to be a professional footballer but it is a calling only a very few attain – some feel it is akin to a religious order
Sensing blood, the press dug for more dirt and lo and behold suddenly goalkeeper Gigi Buffon was reported to have gambled 1.5million euros at a Parma tobacconist which happened to house a betting booth.
Prime Minister Mario Monti saw some political gain by weighing into the argument with a thought that he should have kept to himself; that Italian football should take a break for two or three years to clean up its act.
FIGC president Giancarlo Abete hit back that maybe it should be the politicians who should take a long, hard look at their own behaviour but Prandelli knew that he could not be drawn into a situation where he was at a disadvantage so he opted for the defence of least resistance: the team will stay at home if that is what everyone wants.
A fractious relationship had been developing between the CT, his employers and the clubs. The former Fiorentina coach was becoming more and more isolated from his old colleagues now that he no longer was in involved in the game on a day-to-day basis.
He had a plan for a few more squad gatherings vetoed by the clubs and he felt that the FIGC were not doing enough to help keep the international team keep its status the standard-bearer of the national game.
He lamented that no one cared about the Azzurri until a tournament came around and a creeping sensation must have gone through Prandelli’s mind that much like Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, that when they are out to get you, you must protect yourself at every turn.
He demanded that his players be as honest will him that he would not be dealing with anymore question markers over their integrity to ensure that the national side could be counted on to be the shining light to the country.
Just about every young boy in Italy wants to be a professional footballer but it is a calling only a very few attain – some feel it is akin to a religious order or a cult where you have to buy into every element of the life.
However, if you are in search of the Grail who does one send forth, but Knights – those with a love of the court (Italy) but nearly always faced with ethical predicaments which they must somehow surmount.
Prandelli would draw these seasoned campaigners close to him, knowing that if he was to have some semblance of power against those looking to discredit the Azzurri as a front for a dishonest profession then he needed to be successful or at least not fail miserably
In fact, those players who lifted the World Cup in 2006 were awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic – a rank higher than a Knight – and within the present squad Buffon, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and Andrea Pirlo had all been honoured.
Prandelli would draw these seasoned campaigners close to him, knowing that if he was to have some semblance of power against those looking to discredit the Azzurri as a front for a dishonest profession then he needed to be successful or at least not fail miserably – and that meant coming through the group stage and then progressing as far as possible.
It was not the out-and-out siege mentality of Enzo Bearzot and Marcello Lippi who turned the players against the press, but one where humility would be used as a weapon against the naysayers.
So when Monti made his inflammatory remarks, Prandelli waited and bided his time and if attacks were also to come from outside the world of football then he would garland favour from someone holding a higher position in the political sphere.
Having sent President of the country Giorgio Napolitano a birthday greeting, the message of support that came in return, must have delighted his eyes ... it started, Dear Prandelli ... and would go on to further strengthen the coach’s resolve.
By then Italy were marching to the Final and along the way the team had become a united band. Prandelli’s loyal kinsmen had even silenced the potentially mutinous Mario Balotelli during the half-time interval against England.
The striker had felt the full wrath of De Rossi’s anger after missing a second presentable chance within the opening half-hour – and when the Manchester City man lifted a finger to his lips in response he was confronted by Pirlo who told him in no uncertain terms to show some respect to an experienced international.
The argument was set to continue in the dressing room until Buffon and another maverick turned loyal servant, Antonio Cassano stepped forward to put the youngster in his place.
Prandelli, apparently, watched on and was heard to tell his assistant Gabriele Pin, “We have our team.” Balotelli, rather than sulk, must have looked at the World Champions around him and decided it was time to seize his moment on the back of their toiling efforts.
With each thrust against the team coming from the Italian press there was a deft parry of humility. “Yes, Germany are favourites ... “yes, Spain are stronger” (they were indeed). And when it came to England, Prandelli did not belittle the opposition by putting them on a pedestal but rather talked up his own team.
Balotelli, rather than sulk, must have looked at the World Champions around him and decided it was time to seize his moment on the back of their toiling efforts.
And with each victory, the players took strength just as they had done in other historic moments where the Azzurri had confounded their critics. Let the world think Balotelli is slacking in training, messing around with the corner flag or staring off into the distance when the rest of the team are going through a drill.
The real work was being carried out away from the prying eyes – in front of videos, in team-talks, in one-to-one discussions – and then what can be gained from an extra training session when the players could be presented with a new piece of information by watching the Germans or Spanish in action – and at the same time attempt to relax tiring muscles in front of the television.
There is old footage that shows the heroes of ’82 lounging around the pool the day after overcoming Brazil in that epic second phase group game in Madrid. They do not seem to have a care in the world as they soak up the sun or take a leisurely dip but tellingly some players are wearing the freshly-laundered shirts of their opponents.
To the victor the spoils; that was the message – there was press blackout then but it was clear to all that donning the much-vaunted shirts of the vanquished spoke louder than words.
This time, Prandelli brought some theatre to proceedings in producing the letter from the president the press conference ahead of the final which ended with an invitation to his official residence at the Quirinale building in Rome whatever the outcome of the final.
In the end, however, Prandelli’s brave Knights had nothing left to give and they had to bow to the Kings of Iberia. However, the coach had won his greatest battle, to leave the arena with his head held high and without reproach, having played the game of intrigue on and off the pitch.
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