It sometimes occurs to me that being the manager of a national team may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. With too few games in which to evaluate their players and too much time to agonize about each and every single option available to them, these lucky few are then left with the unenviable task of distilling it all down to 23 names whilst dealing with the media backlash, the fans’ expectations, and their players’ wounded egos to boot.
It is in this context that Italy reacted negatively to Cesare Prandelli’s decision to leave Giuseppe Rossi at home last week on fitness grounds, compelling the Fiorentina starlet to miss a third major tournament in a row. The flames were further fanned by the apparent controversy surrounding the validity of Prandelli’s fitness tests – and Rossi’s irked reaction on twitter- leaving many Azzurri fans reaching for the panic button.
And who could blame them? After all, a fit Giuseppe Rossi brings something that the Azzurri have often lacked: a rare combination of flair, creativity, pace and, more importantly, a clinical touch few Italian strikers possess. For all his talent, even Mario Balotelli failed to score in four out of six Italy games at Euro 2012, not to mention his current scoreless streak with the Azzurri going back to October.
In the aftermath of this latest tormentone, some (including this correspondent) were drawn to parallels with a namesake of Rossi’s named Paolo, who went from being a washout who hadn’t played in two years to leading Italy to victory in the 1982 World Cup. Bring a player like Pepito along- the argument went- and he may well rekindle that old spark in a crucial game, fit or unfit. The former Ferguson protégé seemed to confirm this suspicion by adding two goals in an impressive four-game stretch towards the end of the season with Fiorentina- albeit one from the penalty spot.
It was fitness that won out however, ultimately being the factor that axed Rossi’s chances of making the plane after the Fiorentina striker looked like a shadow of his former self in a friendly against Ireland. It may have appeared fanciful to Prandelli to assume that the New Jersey native could come on and turn a game on its head – even as a sub- without that extra half-yard Fernando Torres has been chasing since 2008, and too much of a sacrifice to risk him whilst he wasn’t on his game. Rossi had yet to play a full game since his return, often appearing hesitant to go into challenges and still a step off the pace. Managing 35 minutes as a sub in Serie A, may not have equated in Prandelli’s mind to braving the last quarter of an hour or even extra time in the Amazonian weather- which Italy would only escape come the semifinals if they win their group.
Though the fitness issue has been laughed off by some – after all, Rossi’s namesake Paolo hadn’t played in two years before catching fire in 1982- Prandelli looks to have taken certain lessons from last year’s Confederations Cup to heart, namely the fact that Italy were run off the park by Japan and were barely able to stay on their feet as the clock wound down in their semi-final loss to Spain. It is unlikely the coach wants a repeat performance, as his choice of Mangaratiba (where humidity often spiked in the 90’s) as his World Cup HQ abundantly proves. In this context fitness is much more than a convenient excuse to dump Rossi, and rather a mantra his staff has constantly repeated over the past few weeks. For a squad that is 11th in average age coming into the tournament, this may well turn out to be a deciding factor.
Rossi is also the unfortunate victim of what has, ironically, been a great season for Italian attacking play. Ciro Immobile is one of only six players to have bagged at least 22 goals in one of Europe’s Top Four leagues, assisted by the brilliant, if a tad mercurial Alessio Cerci (one of his outbursts allegedly caused Torino manager Giampiero Ventura to be suddenly taken ill). Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Cassano have, for their part, massively contributed to Napoli and Parma’s campaigns.
For want of a better comparative adjective, it may have been easier for Prandelli to stick with the safe options from a form and fitness perspective, rather than risk upsetting fans by not backing four players who may just have done a little more to deserve a place on the plane. Furthermore, Il Mister’s likely choice of formation would exclude the aforementioned strikers from earning a starting spot, with the midfield cabal and Super Mario shotgunning most of the slots in Prandelli’s 4-1-3-1-1. If none of them are even starting, why should Rossi even be on the plane?
Prandelli may have also felt that rushing Rossi back would have been too great of a risk for a player who has not even come close to playing a full season since 2010-11 (ironically the year after Lippi excluded him from the last World Cup), and whose career is unlikely to survive another ligament tear. Fresh from his recent contract extension, Prandelli may be playing a longer game than many of us give him credit for, and could well envisage France 2016 as the stage on which Rossi can bring the footballing world to its knees.
Granted, it is very hard not to feel sorry for one of Italy’s most promising strikers of the modern era, a player so handicapped by injuries and plain bad luck that his international career may never amount to more than what it is now: a halfway house between his untapped potential and the untold frustration fans (not to mention Rossi) feel every single time fate conspires to keep him out of a tournament.
Yet this unfortunate sequence of events shouldn’t compel Prandelli to select him, or even make him the butt of the fans’ vitriol. For that purpose, all guns should be trained on Marcello Lippi, who recently expressed regret at not selecting Rossi for the 2010 World Cup. With Vincenzo Iaquinta (and his 8 Serie A goals) heading the line, Italy were humiliated in ways that made the 1966 defeat to North Korea appear a respectable outcome by comparison.
Ultimately, it is tempting for fans to want to consider every single possibility before a major tournament, and to add another illusory layer of protection in those unbearable hours before going over the top. Yet whilst the squad is doubtless important, Italy will likely live and die by the starting lineups Prandelli chooses, and the select subs he feels comfortable throwing in the fray (though he is quite inclusive). An English journalist learned that lesson when he negatively compared England’s 2002 squad to Argentina’s, arguing that the Three Lions could never hope to compete against a squad that had kept out the mighty Santiago Solari.
Like Marcelo Bielsa’s side, or indeed Rossi’s Villareal, Italy could very well fail to make the grade, though it won’t be for want of experimentation. Having been pretty much assured of a place in the World Cup as of last summer, Prandelli has enjoyed a luxury few in his position have had: that of tinkering with multiple formations and numerous players, affording him plenty of time to consider the possibility of a World Cup without his own Pablito. Chances are he’ll do just fine.