As Italy embark on their quest for the crown of 'Kings of Europe’ in the UEFA Euro 2012 Championships in Poland and Ukraine, their coach Cesare Prandelli cuts a figure of a gentleman of the highest calibre. The storm clouds of scandal are gathering over the Azzurri, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that Italy are at their best in adverse conditions. Not only this, Prandelli has instilled a new pride in the national team and a new verve in their play.
When Prandelli inherited the position of coach of the Italian national team he had his work cut out for him. The Italian team had looked jaded and bereft of ideas under Lippi’s second failed tenure. The appointment was something of a coup for the FIGC, Prandelli had won two successive Manager of the Year Awards in Serie A for his work with Fionentina and the job was viewed as something of a poisoned chalice. After winning the World Cup in 2006, Italy had then suffered the ignominy of a first round exit in South Africa 2010. Many of the players were seen as the ‘old guard’ and Serie A, which was replete with foreign imports, was struggling to produce the next generation of Italian stars.
The first thing Prandelli did was to instil a code of ethics in the team from the top down. Bad behaviour was not tolerated. Mario Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi were not selected for the national team while they were serving club bans for off-the-field misbehaviour. A firm but fair attitude has brought the best out in his players and Prandelli has been able to nurture Italy’s most creative and difficult talents such as Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Under Prandelli's old-school stewardship, Italy have been rejuvenated and they negotiated a difficult qualifying group containing Sebia and Slovenia undefeated. Italy’s 3-0 loss to Russia in a pre-tournament friendly was a anomalous blip on an otherwise very strong upward curve. The Azzuri have been installed as outsiders to win the tournament at 15 to 1. But only a fool would bet against Italy to not still be in it at quarter-final stage, and then, well it’s tournament football and anything can happen.
Prandelli has brought his footballing philosophy, one of attack and creativity, one that inspired Fiorentina to their biggest successes of recent times, to bear on the international stage. As Lippi encouraged a rigid, defensive football (a tactic that achieved considerable success), Prandelli has had the courage of his convictions and brought in the more creative players that were shunned by the previous management.
Italy won the World Cup in 2006 under the shadow of the Calciopoli scandal. If anything, scandals and accusations bring the team closer together. The World Cup-winning team of 1978 was also beset with scandal in 1980. And now in 2012 corruption and scandal have reared their ugly heads yet again as many of the Italian team have been investigated by the authorities in regard to the latest match-fixing accusations.
Cesare Prandelli playing for Juventus
Prandelli, has made it a point of honour under his leadership to fight against corruption. When first taking over the Italian side he brought them to Calabria to train on the Rizziconi ground, which was built on land confiscated from the 'Ndrangheta. “Some things help people who live in particular situations and I hope this is not an isolated gesture,” Prandelli said. “We all want to face the mafia and emphasise that the country is moving on, winning with its resistance.”
Prandelli has instilled a new pride and standards within the squad, he dealt with the current scandal incisively claiming immediately that, on Prime Minister Monti’s suggestion that football could be suspended in Italy until the spectre of corruption could be well and truly expunged, he ‘would not have a problem’ if the Italy team was asked to withdraw from the Euros. “If you told us that for the good of football we should not participate, it wouldn't be a problem for me," Prandelli told RaiSport. "There are things that I believe are more important. I dislike crusades. I prefer to face up to things and not take positions without considering the consequences.”
Cesare Prandelli can deal with these problems because he has the full support of the players and the supporters, they respect him. He behaves always with dignity and this, in sport at least, is increasingly something of a rarity. In recent times the coach as tactician who plays psychological ‘mind games’ with the opposition has become de rigueur, but Prandelli is a remnant of old-world chivalry that steels his position and that of his players. They respect him and will go the extra mile for him. That is equal to extra gas on the field and could prove decisive in tight matches. Amidst the mudslinging in the media, the team can now hold their heads high, a peculiarly Italian ability.
Another example of the man’s integrity in departing from the industry norms he recently declared his support for the growing call for the acceptance and an end to silence concerning homosexuality in football, urging gay footballers to come out. “Homophobia is racism and it is indispensable that we make further steps to look after all aspects of individuals living their own lives, including sporting figures,” he wrote. “In the world of football and of sport in general there is still a taboo around homosexuality. Everyone ought to live freely with themselves, their desires and their sentiments. “We must all work for a sporting culture that respects the individual in every manifestation of his truth and freedom.”
The respect that the world of Italian football has for this true gentleman was apparent when he faced his biggest challenge. In 2007 Prandelli’s wife of 25 years Manuela passed away after a battle with cancer. He left his new job as manager of Roma to be with Manuela at a critical stage in her illness and the whole country was moved. Cesare and Manuela had been life-long partners, they met when he was 18 and she was 15 and had shared everything, she supporting him through his career as a professional footballer starting with Cremonese and continuing to Juventus and together they raised their family.
The whole Fiorentina team attended Manuela’s funeral and the club was shaken by events. Indeed the whole nation of Italy was moved by what had happened. But Cesare Prandelli has dealt with his grief in his own quiet and dignified way. Through his faith he has found the strength to love again and now lives with his new partner Novella, in Florence. “The main objective for a man,” Prandelli said, "is happiness. I told my sons that with Novella's presence they haven't lost a father but they have gained a person who is richer again. I have met someone who has filled me with the desire to try the joys of love again. And without love I cannot live.”
by Hugo Mc Cafferty