A wind of change is sweeping through the Italian game thanks to Cesare Prandelli’s revolutionary approach to the national team who downed World Champions Spain in midweek. Italy went from the heights of lifting the World Cup in 2006 to the depths of despair four years later when they failed to make it out of the group stages in South Africa, so when Cesare Prandelli took over as Commissario Tecnico from Marcello Lippi last summer the only way was up.
In breezy Bari on Wednesday evening, the Azzurri had the opportunity to gauge how far they had travelled along the revolutionary road set out by the new coach and La Nazionale did not disappoint with a well-deserved 2-1 win over the World and European Champions, Spain.
The only positive note to come from Italy’s early exit from the last World Cup was that Prandelli was given a clean slate when landed the reins of restoring pride on the international front, having turned Fiorentina into a top-four side in Serie A and to within a whisker of the Champions League quarter-finals only to exit to Bayern Munich.
After the debacle in South Africa, expectations had been suitably realigned with the new world order, which left Italy in a similar position to those other fading football empires England and France. However, the new man had the opportunity to create a fresh identity and introduced a new buzz word in Italian football: Meritocracy. Players would be in the squad on current form, not just because they were household names.
Lippi tried this policy in a friendly against Northern Ireland ahead of the 2009 Confederations Cup – but once the World Cup qualifiers kicked in again, the likes of the ball-playing Giuseppe Mascara, Pasquale Foggia and Sergio Pellissier were immediately cast aside for a more prosaic approach. Prandelli’s first task was be to ensure that he did not follow that tired and tested route to ultimate failure which only added to that unwanted number of one or two-cap wonders and little or no continuity from the traditionally successful Under-21 set-up.
His biggest worry was that the young players were not getting a look in at club level over the arc of a season to even merit a cap, with the likes of Inter, AC Milan and Juventus dominated by foreign or aged stars. However, as soon as Mario Balotelli moved to Manchester City after missing out in South Africa along with another maverick Antonio Cassano, the striker made the breakthrough to the senior squad in Prandelli’s first friendly against Ivory Coast last August.
Giuseppe Rossi was another who had been overlooked by Lippi but the former Manchester United and current Villareal forward was handed the number nine shirt. The shell-shocked youngsters who had been in South Africa, Domenico Criscito who moved to Zenit St Peterburg this summer, Claudio Marchisio and Leonardo Bonucci were shown confidence and given the chance to learn from their sobering experience while Andrea Ranocchia has made the step up despite some iffy outings for Inter.
Prandelli has become something of a visionary, putting forward a proposal that a select group of under-21s are allowed to play as a team in Serie B, where they would gain valuable experience of the rough and tumble of professional life
The saintly Cesare who is not only well-respected within the game but by the sports media in general, has taken many a stray waif under his wing including the likes of Adriano, Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino to help them realise their full potential so there has been room for any player shining at club level to prove his worth on the international stage.
However, despite an amiable personality and an ability to get the best out of even the most wayward performers Prandelli has certainly not been a push-over when dealing with big egos.
He warned Cassano if he was not fit and playing regularly for AC Milan then his international career would be over and he left Balotelli and AS Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi out of his squad for the Euro 2012 qualifier against Slovenia after both players failed to observe his ‘code of ethics’ which was put in place outlawing any sort of unsporting behaviour. The pair had been sent off for their clubs in Europe so were blacklisted, but this was a temporary measure and the hand of forgiveness was extended to his bad boys when they demonstrated some contrition.
Even when the old guard such as Francesco Totti, Antonio Di Natale, and to a certain extent Alessandro Del Piero, were enjoying a rich vein of form last season, he resisted turning back the clock when the new generation needed all the support they could get.
In fact, Prandelli has become something of a visionary, putting forward a proposal that a select group of under-21s are allowed to play as a team in Serie B, where they would gain valuable experience of the rough and tumble of professional life rather than kick their heels at clubs where there is no reserve-team football.
One player who has benefited from leaving a top team has been Sebastian Giovinco, who looked set to become another wasted talent at Juventus where he failed to displace or even play alongside Del Piero. With his confidence shot to pieces, the Atomic Ant moved on to Parma – and lo and behold, he has been playing with the sort of verve and creativity that had originally marked him out as one to watch a few years ago.
Prandelli’s selection policy is very simple: if a player is starting for his club on a regular basis, good; if he is playing well, even better. Thus Giovinco has been given his opportunity, as have Alessandro Matri and Giampaolo Pazzini who have made the step up at Juventus and Inter, respectively while the promising Angelo Ogbonna who plays for Torino in Serie B was called up to the current squad.
The stirring victory over Spain is a major fillip for the much beleaguered Italian game and a year on after Prandelli’s first outing the quiet revolution is beginning to take shape which can only be good news for the country’s fledgling stars.
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