When Marcello Lippi walked out on the national side following their disastrous World Cup 2010 campaign, it was clear to everyone that the Azzurri needed a pretty dramatic change of direction. Though Lippi will forever be revered for leading his country to the 2006 World Cup, his leadership had been called into question over his decision to persevere with the same core of players that had served him so well in Germany, often at the expense of promising youngsters such as Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Balotelli, and the increasingly insular style of his management was distancing the squad from their public.
Cesare Prandelli was the man the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) had chosen as Lippi’s replacement, and though Prandelli took a long time to make his decision, he appeared a perfect fit. For five years he had presided over steady progression at Fiorentina, becoming the longest serving manager in the club’s history, where he had nurtured a special relationship with the Viola fans. Prandelli’s expansive and exciting style of football naturally made him popular with the clubs faithful, but the dignity with which he conducted himself and the respect he had for the supporters earned him a special place in their hearts. When Prandelli’s wife Manuela died of cancer in 2007, Fiorentina’s fans unveiled huge banners across their Curva Fiesole stand expressing their heartfelt condolences. Prandelli was visibly moved.
It was this ‘people’s touch’ that made Prandelli such an attractive choice to the FIGC. When Prandelli left Fiorentina with the blessing of the clubs fans – no mean feat considering the Tuscan club’s often strained relationship with the national side – he wasted little time in rebuilding the relationship between the Azzurri and their supporters. Public training sessions were held, players were actively encouraged to engage with the public, and those who did not adhere to his strict code of ethics paid the price, as Balotelli himself has learned, after being dropped from the squad for his off-the-pitch indiscretions.
But the squad itself posed plenty of its own problems to Prandelli. The attempt to defend their World Cup in South Africa had ended in embarrassment for the Azzurri, as they struggled to draws with Paraguay and New Zealand, before defeat at the hands of Slovakia condemned them to a bottom placed finish in their group. The squad was tired, old and short of inspiration. Lippi’s refusal to include some of the younger generation had come home to roost, with disastrous consequences. The national side was, quite frankly, a laughing stock.
Lippi wasn’t the only one who shouldered the blame however. Serie A – the top flight of Italian domestic football – had contributed to such a sad state of affairs. Internazionale were at the peak of the Jose Mourinho era, having marched to the scudetto and Champions League glory with a first eleven composed entirely of foreigners. The perception was that there was a dearth of young Italian players breaking through. Many thought the national side faced an uphill struggle just to qualify for the 2012 European Championships.
But Prandelli has not just transformed things off the pitch, he has also addressed many of the key problems on it. The side has moved away from the counter-attacking football that prevailed under Lippi, instead adopting an exciting, front foot approach that saw them make light work of their Euro 2012 qualifying group with a series of attacking yet controlled performances. Antonio Cassano, repeatedly overlooked by Lippi, has come back into the side with devastating effect. Andrea Pirlo has rediscovered his finest form. Italy look well and truly revitalised.
Yet neither Prandelli nor his squad can escape the turmoil that has cast a long, dark shadow over their preparations for the tournament. With their domestic game going through another high profile scandal that seems likely to have far reaching implications, the national side find themselves on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. Zenit Saint Petersburg defender Domenico Criscito has already been forced out of the tournament squad after police raided his room during a pre-tournament training session. Leo Bonucci remains on the authorities radar. Such uncertainty is obviously far from ideal. Yet Prandelli, unsurprisingly for a man of his calibre, has taken the moral high ground, announcing that he would “not have a problem” if Italy were forced to withdraw from the tournament as a result of this latest match-fixing scandal.
Such a response was typical of the man. Prandelli, winner of manager of the year awards in consecutive seasons in Serie A, is leader on the pitch as well as off it. Leading his country through the shame and fallout as the authorities dig deeper into the murky world of illegal gambling and match-fixing with his head held high is perhaps an even bigger task than marshalling his squad to a creditable showing this summer. Prandelli however has the class to achieve both. Just ask those Viola fans.