How the Italian national team fell from its lofty perch

How the Italian national team fell from its lofty perch

OVER THE YEARS, Italian football has endured its fair share of sporting, socio-cultural, political and economic hardships. The 2006 Calciopoli scandal sent shockwaves throughout the Peninsula, leaving three of Serie A’s top four clubs – AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Juventus – relegated to the second-tier and each slapped with point deductions.

Of the four clubs, Juventus were hit the hardest. Stripped of their 2004/05 and 2005/06 Scudetto titles, exiled to the bottom of Serie B with an almost insurmountable 30-point deduction (later reduced to nine), and barred from partaking in the Champions League in the 2006/07 campaign, the Old Lady witnessed a mass exodus of some of their biggest stars, including Zlatan Ibrahimović, Patrick Vieira and Fabio Cannavaro who sought refuge away from the madness that had possible career-threatening implications. Italian club football had hit rock bottom.

Entering the 2006 World Cup in Germany, there was widespread pessimism across the country, for it seemed as though there was no way a nation in such turmoil could possibly defy odds on the grandest stage of them all. Captivating the hearts of Italian’s everywhere, Marcello Lippi’s Azzurri stunned the football world, defeating France on penalties at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, lifting the Jules Rimet for the fourth time. Italy couldn’t have done a better job of alleviating the embarrassment of the scandal. In a matter of months, they were on top of the world. But, as the old adage goes, the higher you climb, the harder you fall.

After the streamers fell and partying stopped at Piazza Venezia in the Italian capital of Rome, the hope was that the nation would author a brand new, sustainable era of global dominance. Slowly but surely, Italy’s closest competition smelled blood, aimed to claim their crown and leave them in the rearview mirror altogether.

The 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland is where Italy’s soon-to-be biggest foe Spain, deep with world-class talent all over the park, would birth an era of world domination. Rather than invigorating the squad with fresh faces for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Lippi’s second stint after replacing Roberto Donadoni saw him lean too heavily on the old guard – and he paid dearly for it. 

Captain Cannavaro was a shadow of his former self at 36, and promptly hung up his boots on the international stage after crashing out of a winnable group including Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. Then, Cesare Prandelli stepped in to guide the La Nazionale back on course, knocking out Germany en-route to Euro 2012 final. Spain, once again, showed they had Italy’s number, leaving many reluctant to concede Italian football had been revived.

Behind the scenes, Devis Mangia’s workings were a cause for hope with the under-21 side. The young Azzurrini turned heads at the 2013 Under-21 Euros in Israel, fielding a gifted core of youngsters led by the former Pescara trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile and Marco Verratti. Stacked to the brim with graduates like Álvaro Morata, Isco, Thiago and David de Gea, Italy were once again halted in their tracks by a superior Spain, who became the model to emulate.

The lower tiers of the national team system had undeniably done their job to nurture top talent fit to usher in a new era. Calcio’s fondest supporters recognised a bright future could be upon them, but two questions remained: could these young prospects become impact first-teamers for their country, and would Italian football’s flawed structure make it impossible to achieve success?

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Consecutive group stages exit at the World Cup provoked plenty of soul searching, and once again, prompted a change of the coach. Prandelli honourably resigned with two years remaining on his contract, and in stepped Lecce native Antonio Conte, the director behind Juventus’ return to the summit of Italian football.

Meticulous, fiery and with a focus on man-management, Conte’s no-nonsense mentality and tactical acumen was exactly the profile to give the Azzurri the facelift it needed. His selections were questioned at every turn but the 23 men he brought to France for the 2016 Euro were re-born as fearless warriors; embracing his philosophies, demonstrating trademark ‘grinta’, and winning the hearts of Italian’s everywhere in spite of falling to Germany in the quarter-finals.

Conte’s Italian ensemble became a source of hope for a nation so desperately clamouring for it. The foundation seemed to be laid out upon the feet of FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio for Italy to prosper again as a footballing nation, but in appointing a 69-year-old Gian Piero Ventura to carry on with the project Conte had left for him, it only set up Italy for a historic crash.

Tavecchio’s appointment of a journeyman like Ventura was the ultimate gamble. His greatest achievement in over 40 years of coaching is a Serie C trophy. Ventura promised to be the forward-thinking manager who would integrate youth and ensure the last remnants of the 2006 roster – Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli – received the proper sending off in the form of one last World Cup in Russia.

Ventura became an attractive replacement for Tavecchio to succeed Conte; a tame temperament and cheap. Sure enough, Tavecchio got what he paid for: a stubborn, non-inventive manager with a pedestrian coaching resumé that had no business managing the Azzurri, let alone getting a contract extension through to 2020.

After Italy succumbed to a defensively sound and gritty Sweden side and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years, the players, supporters and everyone involved at the decision table have plenty of time to reflect on where it all went wrong. But more importantly, now more than ever, what measures can be taken to ensure this disastrous phase doesn’t drag on?

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and while Italy don’t necessarily need to completely replicate what nations like Spain, Germany and France have done to remain global powers, they can certainly learn from each and apply accordingly to their own infrastructure. If they want a complete revamp, they need look no further than Belgium.

First, Italian football must consider drawing inspiration from Spain by introducing the concept of B teams in the lower divisions. Real Madrid Castilla and Barcelona B are among the many La Liga clubs to have junior sides in Spain’s Segunda División B. Their third division has four groups of 20 teams while, conversely, Italy’s equivalent Serie C is comprised of nearly 60 sides. It doesn’t make sense for the number of teams failing due to financial irregularities – Modena, Como and so many others – to cause an imbalance in the youth structure, which only prevents the best talents from playing with the best competition in the country.

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Spain’s reign from 2008 to 2012 when winning three consecutive major tournaments is proof that the model works. The best talents gradually ascend the ranks and blossom into top-tier professionals. While not every Serie A club may not be able to make this happen, perhaps those with a vested interest in developing youth can have their Primavera sides run it first as a trial before a full-fledged launch is carried out.

Primavera players need to be mixing it up in Serie C at the very least, and experience the occasional Coppa Italia C competition. With this proposal, the national team will see it’s player selection pool broaden with an expanded cast of talent that has improved through competition that, like themselves, is vying for first-team action in the years to follow.

Hand in hand with a B team system, it is paramount that Serie A clubs make a collective effort to hand youth products the minutes to rise within the ranks, starting with a mandate on a specific number of homegrown talent called up for each match-day. For every six non-homegrown players, there should be one Italian being given a chance. While many may not feature on a given match-day, at the very least, placing them alongside seasoned professionals will help in their development.

Third, and perhaps the idea that will, and already has, sparked the most debate amongst Italian football supporters is the controversial topic of Oriundi – non-Italian national team players. In years gone by, Italy had placed a ban on the number of foreigners allowed to ply their trade in Serie A, especially after the 1966 World Cup defeat to North Korea.

Whether it was a direct result of the ban or not, the Azzurri rose to victory at the Euro 68 and finished runners-up two years later at the World Cup. Grooming domestic talent became the number one priority, and it rendered positive results in the form of international silverware. But that was then, and this is now. Times have changed, and rather than the governing bodies of the top five leagues looking at foreigners, instead, the emphasis should be on moulding talent of their own.

Germany is one of the best blueprints to follow for Italy. Unlike Italy, German youngsters are quickly becoming mainstays in the national team picture, and that is the gap that needs to be bridged for the FIGC – making the leap from promising prospect to impact first-team player.

The problem here is that provincial sides in the top flight, like Sampdoria for example, have been notorious for scouring outside the realm of Italy for talent only to flip on the transfer market to richer clubs years later. The reality is that clubs need to survive and plucking cheap South American talent and selling them later for a big profit – see Edinson Cavani and Paulo Dybala at Palermo – is a necessity. Much like in England, Italian players carry with them a premium in the market to other Italian clubs.

You can argue that it comes down to the faults of the Italian infrastructure itself in not taking the proper measures to bring talent through the system the usual way so that, even if sold, they make for a solid return. European Union labour laws restrict a ban, but if even it were possible, it is not the direct cause of Italy’s shortcomings over the last 10 years.

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Serie A’s top players like Dybala, Radja Nainggolan, Dries Mertens and Mauro Icardi are among the many whose star-power has helped bring the top-flight back amongst the best after it had fallen off since the golden age of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Rather than looking to blame foreigners for the fall of the national team, Italy must prioritise the growth of its own youth, which is why the aforementioned reforms are needed – to put Italy first.

Last, but certainly not least, the most important action needed for Italy’s hopes of a revival are to clean house at the very top, starting with Tavecchio’s resignation. The 74-year old, who won the FIGC presidency in August 2014, caused controversy during his run to the seat, making a racist comment about some players being “banana eaters” and has become the rightful scapegoat for Italy’s universal struggles to date.

For one reason or another, the Azzurri relied on archaic methodologies and outdated philosophies which no longer produce results. Witnessed at each and every major tournament since 2006, it’s been one step forward and two steps back. To alter this course, a progressive, forward-thinker with the ideas to adapt is needed in the president’s seat, perhaps someone like Demetrio Albertini.

The long-serving midfielder of the Rossoneri enjoyed an illustrious playing career. After his retirement in 2005, with the hopes of one day becoming a manager, Albertini became involved at the grassroots level, helping to create a football academy, Scuola Calcio Demetrio Albertini, in his name that has moulded a thousand youngsters called. From 2006 up until his run for the presidency against Tavecchio, the 46-year old held several positions in office, including vice-commissioner and vice-president in 2007 under the 2006 World Cup-winning president Giancarlo Abete, before being re-elected to the same role in 2013.

Along with having an impressive CV, Albertini has long recongised the issues that lie within Italian football. He told SportItalia in 2014: “For some years we have become focused on overseas markets rather than growing our own talents in-house. We are forming players for other leagues rather than our own, whereas I feel we ought to be self-sufficient.”

Albertini’s ideas for Italian football would have moved waves if he won the majority, as he understood the importance of incorporating youth in Serie A. Years before running for office, the articulate Italian explained that when he was 20 years old, he was a first-team player for Milan, and that today, he would likely be shipped out on loan season after season, ultimately having to look elsewhere for proper chances. Continuing on, Albertini expressed his support for a reformation in the Serie A and Serie B structures, further proving that not only does he recognise its importance, but that he also feels its attainable.

Enormous reforms to focus on developing youth, large-scale restructuring of the lower-tiers in the Italian football system, and everything in between are proposals worthy of consideration; nothing should be off the table for a nation that has experienced tangible decline over the past decade. But it’s only until the first set of dominoes fall that we can truly expect to see proper measures taken for wholesale change across the calcio spectrum.

With Ventura finally kicked to the curb and rumours picking up steam over a possible Carlo Ancelotti hire, now its FIGC’s heads that must follow suit – Tavecchio, Lotito and their henchmen. Through this purge, and with the support of an entire nation only with a revival in mind, the right brain-trust can take office, ensure calcio promptly begins Year Zero of its overhaul on time, and in the end, return to the summit of football, where the nation surely belongs 

By Matthew Santangelo  

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