When Cesare Prandelli took over as coach of the Italian national team, he vowed to make fans once again "fall in love" with the Azzurri.
You could argue most bosses at the international level face a similar challenge, at least as far as the bigger footballing nations are concerned. The club game dominates in terms of press attention, cash flow generated and supporter priorities.
(Yep, it's that chicken and egg thing: Do folks care because the media devotes acres of space to it, or does the media offer 24/7 coverage because fans are genuinely interested? Either way, apart from six weeks twice a four-year cycle, in most cases these days, international football is treated as an intrusion on our enjoyment of the club game.)
That's pretty much the status quo most of his colleagues have had to deal with for some time, but for Prandelli, there was another twist. When he took the helm after the 2010 World Cup, the Azzurri were coming off a veritable nightmare showing in South Africa. Even Marcello Lippi, the man who had made them world champions in 2006, didn't get much love after Italy's first-round exit.
But the only thing worse than getting criticized is being ignored. And the Azzurri were in danger of going down that route.
At least within Italy, clubs take such priority that many fans are classic bandwagon jumpers. Criticism is the default mode, almost as if preparing to revel in told-you-so schadenfreude when the early exit comes. Then, when the team squeaks through to the quarters or the semis and that big match comes up, everybody jumps back on board, only to abandon ship if things don't go to plan. Both Lippi's team and that of his predecessor at Euro 2008, Roberto Donadoni, were greeted with indifference of the kind that makes players consider pulling out of international friendlies and go into qualifiers with a frown.
"I want to change all that. I want to have fun," Prandelli said. "Let's entertain. Let's be nice. Let's be likable."
Greeted with the usual skepticism, he was true to his word. He introduced a "code of ethics" for national team players, which meant that if they misbehaved at club level they wouldn't be called up to the Azzurri. He took the team to train in some of the most deprived parts of the country, including a field seized from a jailed mafia boss. He wrote the introduction to a book about homosexuality in the game, talking about the pain closeted players must feel and how important it was to support and champion the cause of anyone who did come out.
Most of all, he tried to get his team to play well. The word "catenaccio" hasn't applied to the Azzurri for a long time, but just to avoid any doubt, he made sure all traces of it were banished by playing a progressive, creative style based on his rotating midfield, where all central midfielders take on playmaking duties in turn. Andrea Pirlo may have been Italy's brightest star at the Euros, but he becomes more effective because Italy are less dependent on him. With the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo shifting into different positions at different times, Pirlo becomes a value-added proposition rather than the key to the attack (as he often is, for example, at club level).
At times, it works and it's not just great to watch but effective too. At other times, the system stutters, not least because many of these players aren't used to playing this way with their club teams. You get the sense, heading into today's clash against Mexico, that the latter is more likely to occur. A number of players are worn down after a long season. Others, like Stephan El Shaarawy, whom Prandelli had penciled in down the right flank in a 4-3-3, simply are in a downward cycle, which can happen when you're 20 years old.
Some have suggested the safe thing to do when your big guns aren't firing is to revert to the original game plan. Sit back and unleash Mario Balotelli on the counter. After all, with Juventus' starting central defenders (Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leo Bonucci) and starting goalkeeper (Gigi Buffon) on hand, you could just pack the box and keep your fingers crossed and your odds wouldn't be so bad. Heck, it worked for Italy sides in the past.
But Prandelli won't do that. He's going to go down swinging. So much so that on Sunday you're likely to see two out of Alessandro Diamanti, Alessio Cerci and Emanuele Giaccherini -- fine players all but hardly household names -- lining up behind Balotelli. Diamanti was playing left back in the third division until he was 24. Cerci was hyped as a teenager then went off the rails and bounced around a number of clubs. Before this year, he had never started more than 18 games in the top flight. The former plays for Bologna, the latter for Torino. Giaccherini does play for a big club, Juventus, but he started only 10 Serie A games this season (and not because he was injured) and made his topflight debut two years ago, at 25.
All three are there on merit. Cerci and Diamanti had good seasons, and Giaccherini is versatile and tireless. Yet, most of all, they'll play because Prandelli doesn't pick on reputation and doesn't try to cram his best players onto the team. Simply put, they're the guys who are most suited and most capable, while he waits for El Shaarawy to regain his mojo and Giuseppe Rossi to regain his fitness, of doing what Prandelli wants this Italy team to do.
The old cliché about results coming above all else applied to Italy for a long time. In the minds of some, it probably still holds true, though mostly at club level. But Prandelli -- and this is perhaps his biggest feat thus far -- has managed to give Italy fans a new metric by which to judge the team, one that goes beyond the scoreline.
If you're cynical, you'll suggest that it's because they don't care the way they once did about the Azzurri, that they too have fallen victim to the hegemony of the club game. And there may be some truth in that. But it's equally true that Prandelli has made the Azzurri fun -- fun to watch and fun to be a part of -- and to players already stressed out enough by Serie A and the Champions League, it may be just what they need.