The exact role of coaches is a hotly debated topic in soccer. Is the sport like jazz in which the players use their creativity to improvise genius, with the coach merely there to provide the cut-away reaction shots the television cameras need to enhance the drama? Or is it akin to a symphony in which the coach is the conductor, a Bill Parcell-ian puppet master orchestrating every move?
The Euro 2012 quarter final in which Italy triumphed on penalties against England after a 0-0 draw offered some clues to this eternal debate. Both teams played in styles that were true reflections of the personalities of the likeable, articulate men who coach them.
In doing so, both can claim some kind of redemption. Italy is into the last four of the Euros, just two years after it crashed out of the World Cup in the first round for the first time since 1974, after a humiliating 3-2 loss to Slovakia. England left without conflict and tabloid-created controversy.
Where they come from, that counts for a lot.
England coach Roy Hodgson, polite and practical even in defeat, insisted his team was able to take a quiet pride that they had achieved their stated goal of being “good tourists.” “There was a distinct feel-good factor about this campaign,” he said, explaining the squad’s big lesson was “We have a better chance than when the mood of the team is quite negative.”
England leaves Poland and Ukraine having only bettered 50 percent of possession in the helter-skelter, Premier League-style match against Sweden. After the “two banks of four” retreat against what turned out to be a gutless French squad, and a win that could be considered lucky against co-hosts Ukraine, the Three Lions depart via their traditional method, penalties, in the quarterfinal. It remains unclear whether they are any closer to building a team that can compete at the elite level.
Hodgson had no regrets about the game. “We tried our best,” he said. “We worked as hard as we could in the 90 minutes and the 30 that followed.”
Blaming injuries and cramps to Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard for the lack of muscle in the midfield, he preferred to focus on the positive. “Our defending was resolute, especially in the strong spells of pressure Italy had in the second half and the second half of extra time.”
Hodgson defended his players penalty-taking failures. “We have watched our guys take penalties in training … because penalty taking has become an obsession for English football. But you can’t replicate the nervousness and pressure of the occasion.” He was also realistic when it came to the penalty-taking skills of his opponents. “If you have a player who can kick confidently like Pirlo did, you either have that as a player or you don’t. It can’t be taught.”
Many would agree with Hodgson and will say that England’s persistent failures in penalty shoot-outs – it has now won only once in six attempts – suggests the existence of an inherent weakness in the way football is being developed nationally. But Hodgson was optimistic and declared, “We have good young players coming through,” pointing to the likes of Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. “This tournament has been very good for them.”
Clinging onto every success, Hodgson departed and said, “We leave having never been beaten in regular time, only in penalty shootouts, which are not the same as football. They are not the same competition.”
His opposing number, Italy’s Cesare Prandelli, agreed with him, claiming penalties are 80 percent luck. A calm, refined persona, the coach was unfazed even by the grueling experience of a penalty shoot. “For the penalties I put my arm around my son and I told him he was very lucky to not have had to have paid for a ticket to watch,” he revealed with a laugh.
Prandelli was in a buoyant mood, praising the play of Andrea Pirlo, who had been the difference in the game. An intelligent midfielder comfortable in possession, Pirlo gave the game a perfect symmetry. Everything he had, England did not. The coach expressed no surprise at Italy’s dominance in possession (64 percent to 36 percent) and the 39 shots the Azzurri struck on goal. “I knew we could actually control the game,” Prandelli said. “The only worry I might have had was we would allow them too much on the break.” Expressing frustration with England’s deep-lying defensive emphasis, he admitted, “We tried to bring them out of their defense but they did not want to come out.”
The Italians have reinvented themselves, game to game, and rebounded from a sloppy second-half in the group-stage match against Croatia, during which they were outthought and overrun. When asked how much it was down to his influence, Prandelli modestly deflected the praise, attributing his success to the Italians' innate desire to “play football. “We have worked at this for two years and we have done it by taking on our opponents,” he said. “We may win and we may lose, but Italian sides always want to play football.”
Against England, they displayed an offensive aggression, lacking only the finishing, but Prandelli would not admonish his strikers. “We had ideas and we had heart so we created chances,” he said. “We wanted to play triangles high up the pitch and we did that throughout the game.”
Mario Balotelli’s wanton finishing combined with his dramatic penalty-kick celebration did not faze Prandelli. “He played great tonight,” the manager said. “He has a lot of character for coming up to me and saying ‘I want to take first penalty!’ When a player does that, you let him take it.”
The Italians now face a rested Germany in the semifinal, and while Prandelli admitted the extra two days Germany has to prepare make it favorites, he claimed, “We are just 10 minutes after the game -- we have stopped celebrating. To win, we need everyone back, fit and fresh.”
Prandelli projected a bold ambition about the semifinal clash, “It is always going to be an open game against Germany. They are a great side but even against a great side, Italy can still play football.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.