Wednesday, June 15, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: June 18, 10:35 AM UK
In spite of what may have transpired over the past century or so, Italians do not love authority figures. We pay them some sort of superficial respect, especially if they pretend to have all the solutions, but we then turn around and think up every possible way of circumventing the rules they set and mock the very authority we fake our loyalty to.
From chasing after the traffic warden begging him to cancel our parking ticket because what we did was not THAT bad to crowding around the referee trying to bully him into awarding - or not awarding - a yellow card, you can spot a common trait.
But refs and traffic wardens and ticket collectors do not have it as bad as football managers - the allenatori, as we say - do.
One of the oldest clichés about Italians is that we are a nation of saints, seafarers and poets, but an addition made in the late 60s also signals we all love being a commissario tecnico, the formal title given to the coach of the national team.
On a smaller scale, we all feel we could coach our local side much better than the fellow who's actually doing it, even if our tactical experience does not go past constantly walking the ball into cul-de-sacs during park kickabouts. This is not exclusive to Italy, of course, but it is astonishing to see how easily coaches get criticised for reasons that should be less dependent on knee-jerk reactions.
One of the most common complaints, which I heard from my father while growing up, is that a side "has no ideas": this basically means players do not know what to do with the ball at their feet, and you can never fathom what is going to happen every time the ball is brought out of defence because there does not seem to be any discernible or consistent pattern of play.
Which is ironic, in a nation where tactics - as Italy coach Cesare Prandelli admitted last month - seem to matter more than individual skills. Interestingly enough, Riccardo Montolivo, a regular member of Prandelli's XIs both at Fiorentina and Italy, noted last week how his coach "gives us few set plays and allows us some freedom", a remark that shows the best side of Prandelli, who cannot really be expected to drill dozens of different plays into the minds of players he only sees a few times each year.
In club football, making it through a full season without being questioned at least once a week is surely utopia for a coach. Scudetto-winner Massimiliano Allegri was under fire early and then often during the campaign, even as Milan were pulling away from a weak competition, so you can imagine the kind of pressure coaches of less successful sides were.
Horribly, Gigi Del Neri was treated as little more than a village idiot by the media and fans, despite being praised by his players for his professionalism and attitude, while it took all of a couple of defeats - to Milan and Schalke 04 in successive matches - for Leonardo to have a metaphorical donkey hat lowered onto his head.
Lower still in the table, most of the coaches involved in a relegation struggle from the start were criticised so constantly and blindly - or put in a difficult position they felt they could no longer hold - that the majority of them left even after lifting their sides above the danger area, and that is a relatively new occurrence.
The most glaring instance occurred at Cesena, who had been promoted in 2009-10 under Pierpaolo Bisoli, who then left to take over Cagliari and has now been hired by Bologna. Massimo Ficcadenti, a former journeyman player, was handed the reins of a side widely predicted to drop back to the Serie B like a stone. Ficcadenti started well, Cesena winning seven points from their first three matches, but then reality set in and they began to struggle at the bottom. Nothing surprising here, considering their mediocre squad. Nevertheless, grumbles began to be heard at the Stadio Manuzzi whenever Ficcadenti made a substitution or changed tactics: crowd favourites Luis Jimenez and January loanee Alessandro Rosina were frequently taken off, to the dismay of fans who saw them as the only creative, whippet-like figures on the pitch. Never mind that Ficcadenti always seemed to have a rational, pointed explanation for his actions: Jimenez was short of match-fitness in the first half of the season, and Rosina would sometimes stray away from defensive duties on the right side, an especially serious offence when you consider Cesena's 4-3-3 (or 4-3-2-1) relied heavily on becoming a well-spaced 4-5-1 when opponents had possession.
Ficcadenti, who was at one point criticised for being "too reclusive", eschewing local TV call-in shows and even for choosing not to live in the centre of town, was supported by chairman Igor Campedelli throughout, although when a couple of hundred angry fans masses outside the main stand after a bad 3-0 defeat to Udinese Campedelli made the mistake of allowing them in and hearing their grievances - something that never leads to good things over here, as fans then believe they can actually interfere with team affairs.
After the season ended, Ficcadenti took the moral high ground and left, saying "we reached our goal, but I will not miss all the controversies, things that were said and done to hurt me on a personal level". He's now one of the candidates to take over at Lecce, another side whose coach, Gigi De Canio, chose to leave after probably overachieving in saving them from relegation.
De Canio had already tendered his resignation on the way home from a bad defeat at Cagliari in late November, only for chairman Pierandrea Semeraro to make him reconsider. Ironic, as Semeraro's suspicion that De Canio had misused some players and tinkered too much with the starting line-up and tactics was apparently the original reason for the coach's resignation. De Canio held on, survived some bad defeats and the customary meeting with fans who demanded more commitment then slammed the door behind him, saying he did not feel he could fulfil the expectations for 2011-12.
Clichés, perhaps, to cover the naked reality that as both a coach and general manager he would be limited by Lecce's inability to buy well in the transfer market and thus be unable to save the Giallorossi again. Whatever the real reason, De Canio walked away from a decent wage packet and jumped into the unknown, and you have to respect that.
At Bologna, Alberto Malesani left in what must be the most bizarre situation of coaches leaving the clubs they had just saved. While going through four different chairmen and two different sets of owners since July, players were left without wages for months as the club was hit with successive two- and one-point penalties that left them mired in the relegation zone through two-thirds of the season. Wins at Juventus and Lecce in late February and early March propelled the Rossoblu well above safety and prompted a revival of enthusiasm around town. Or more a sigh of relief, perhaps. The new board of directors deliberated on contract extensions for coach Alberto Malesani and iconic centre-forward Marco Di Vaio, and more than 25,000 attended the home draw against Cagliari on March 6 - you'd expect no more than 15,000 in normal circumstances, although special prices were set for that day.
As late as mid-March, one of the directors felt compelled to say "these players have given us a wonderful season", noting how both the team and the coach had performed admirably during a time when neither knew where the next salary or next points would came from.
Then, the bottom fell out. Bologna drew 1-1 with Genoa on March 20, a result that all but wiped out any thought of challenging for a place in Europe as some optimistic souls had predicted, and the Rossoblu went on to lose five consecutive matches and six of eight to close out the season, scoring only twice in the process and suffering the ignominy of a 4-0 home defeat to last-place Bari on the final day.
By then, things had taken an embarrassing turn for the worse: Di Vaio and other players were involved in an investigation on the use of disabled access passes to illegally enter the centre of town - ironically, Di Vaio had received the 'Nettuno d'Oro' award for being a model citizen only hours before. He gave it back - and Malesani baulked at signing his new contract. His close ally Carmine Longo, the sporting director who'd made some good signings last summer, had announced his departure after feeling his position was not as strong as it had been before, and Malesani felt Bologna would not be able to give him the resources to go through another season without losing sleep.
He's now signed for Genoa, where he's taking his outgoing, sometimes slightly manic act (watch his foul-mouthed rant when he was coaching Panathinaikos here, made all the funnier for Italians by his heavy Veronese accent), minus his suit jacket. While most of the players shunned the fans in embarrassment at the end of the Bari match, Malesani made his customary jog at the foot of the home end and threw his finest garment to the crowd as a gesture of thanks for their support. What you could not tell is whether the fans who pounced on the jacket were hoping he'd forgotten his wallet or not.