In the wake of a Euro 2012 campaign that exceeded all expectations, there might be a temptation for some to think that all is well in the Italian garden. But Prandelli was keen to point out that serious problems remain, saying on the day after Italy’s 4-0 defeat by Spain in the Final: “We have every reason to be proud of this team. We played good, clean football and did so without polemics.
“The team is based not just on tactical but also ethical considerations and it could be an example for our whole country which is old, has old ideas, an old mentality and doesn’t want to change.
“And yet, football is an important vehicle [for change]. We have important potential and infrastructure, not to mention talented people.”
On one level, Prandelli’s words were primarily directed at purely football considerations; on another, they strike a telling chord in a country where youth unemployment (in the 16-24 age bracket) touched a record high of 32.4 per cent this summer.
On the football front, Prandelli’s complaints were obvious enough. Essentially, he wanted to make two points. Firstly, little space is allocated to national-team training sessions. “How do you expect me to train the team if I get them together just three times in eight months?” he asked.
He went on to point out how this season’s Italian Super Cup between Serie A champions Juventus and Italian Cup winners Napoli has been scheduled for August 12 in China, just three days before Italy are due to meet England in a prestige friendly in Switzerland. In other words, none of the players from either club will be available for the game in Berne.
Secondly, he wanted to decry those media polemics which had not only focused on the pre-Euro “Last Bet” scandal but which also “offended” him by accusing him of nepotism with the inclusion of his son, Niccolo, in his staff for the Euro 2012 finals. Niccolo, he claimed, is an accomplished physio who worked with him for three years at Fiorentina.
As for the football and that comprehensive defeat by Spain, Prandelli commented: “My only regret is we didn’t have two more rest days before the Final. In a way, maybe I should have made wholesale changes and introduced [fresher] players. But that would have meant a total lack of respect for the players who had taken us to the Final.”
Asked if the “potential” of Italian football meant that there were more like Andrea Pirlo in the pipeline, Prandelli was cautious. “Even though Andrea has the ability and desire to play on for another two years at this level, it is vital that we introduce new younger players,” he explained. “However, if they are not playing in European competition, what do we do?”
Pirlo himself preferred to concentrate his thoughts on the Final he had just lost, saying: “First of all, you’ve got to say that the best team won. Spain are perhaps the only team in the world who can outplay us in terms of pure football technique. But we were not in the [physical] condition to resist them as we did in the opening game in Gdansk.
“We had a great Euro run, all the way to the Final where we weren’t good enough but also where we weren’t lucky – just look at our injury problems, the fact that we played the last half-hour with 10 men or the chance that [Antonio] Di Natale missed just after
One irony of the Final concerned one of those injuries, namely to converted left-back Giorgio Chiellini. Clearly not at his best, Chiellini was beaten by Cesc Fabregas after only 15 minutes as the Barcelona man set up David Silva’s brilliant opening goal.
It is tempting to ask what would have happened had Prandelli’s original first choice left-back, Domenico Criscito, been available rather than having been dropped from the squad on the eve of the tournament because of a tangential involvement in the “Last Bet” scandal.
The scandal may well have focused Italian player minds but it arguably cost Prandelli dear.
Down to earth
Within days of Euro 2012, Italian football came down to earth with a bump when it emerged that Paris Saint-Germain were going to sign arguably the two most important players in the Milan squad: Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazilian defender Thiago Silva. Does this mean that all of Serie A’s biggest names are now up for grabs?
That good run in this summer’s European Championship simply cannot mask the fact that Italian football continues to lose power and influence, at least at club level. A few economic indicators make the point.
In 2005, Milan, helped by a good Champions League run, recorded seasonal earning of €234million, more than Barcelona who earned €207.9m in the same year. In 2011, Milan returned an almost identical turnover, at €235.1m while in the meantime Barcelona had more than doubled their earnings at €450.7m. Remember, too, that Forbes rate Milan as Italy’s most valuable club, standing at sixth in their 2012 rankings, behind Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal and Bayern Munich.
Put another way, where once Italian football was the second wealthiest league in the world it is now fifth in the rankings, behind not just the Premier League but also Germany, Spain and France. In other words, all-too-old Italian football continues to stand still as the others gallop.
All, however, is not lost; at least not yet. For a start, and this is clearly no bad thing, the more Italian football loses both its drawing power and expensive players, the more space there should be for home-grown talent. Could that be good news this year for players such as Mattia Destro of Siena, Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy, Marco Davide Faraoni of Udinese, Ciro Immobile of Genoa, Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli, Torino’s Angelo Ogbonna and many others besides?
What Euro 2012 underlined emphatically is that despite all its manifold problems – betting scandals, heavily indebted clubs, antiquated stadia, racist and/or violent fan behaviour – Italian football, as stressed by Prandelli, retains a quality of outstanding excellence that owes everything to the national, symbiotic link to the beautiful game. There is still plenty of very interesting Italian talent around.
As for change, well that is obviously a difficult call in this current climate of austerity and euro crisis. There are many clubs – Lazio, Roma and Fiorentina being the most obvious ones – which, given the successful example established by Juventus, would like to embark on a stadium-building project but which may have to put those plans on further hold.
One intriguing item of change and renewal that is happening concerns the legendary Meazza stadium at San Siro, Milan. For 20 years now, ever since the stadium was renovated for the 1990 World Cup, the San Siro pitch has given nothing but problems, with the grass seemingly unable to grow because the sun had been shut out by the extra “storey” which was added for 1990.
In recent years, Milan and Internazionale, the two clubs that lease the stadium from Milan town council, have solved the problem by relaying the entire pitch, often four times per season at a cost of £400,000 per year. This remedy has not always produced an ideal playing surface. After the Milan-Barcelona Champions League quarter-final last spring, Barcelona’s Brazilian full-back Dani Alves memorably called the San Siro pitch a “potato patch”. And that was not the first such comment by a less-than-impressed visitor.
For the forthcoming season the two clubs have opted to install a synthetic pitch, comprising 70 per cent natural grass and 30 per cent plastic. Dutch company Desso, who were responsible for the laying of the new pitches at Wembley and the Emirates Stadium, are in charge of the installation. The first chance to assess their work will come in early August, when Inter are due to play a Europa League home game.
By Paddy Agnew