After making a miserable defence of their world title at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where they limped out in the group phase, Italy had no option but to go back to the drawing board and start afresh.
There were few better candidates for picking up the pieces left by Marcello Lippi, who had failed to reprise the magic that brought Italy glory at Germany 2006, than Cesare Prandelli, a man who knows a thing or two about revivals.
During his days as a club coach Prandelli masterminded two successful Serie B promotion campaigns, taking Verona up to the top flight as champions in 1999 and repeating the feat with fourth-placed Venezia in 2001. And though he failed to pick up any trophies in his last job before taking charge of Gli Azzurra, a five-year spell at Fiorentina, he nevertheless restored the pride of a club that had fallen on hard times.
Pride was also the feeling the 55-year-old sought to inspire when he took charge of the national side, an objective he exceeded in style in Poland and Ukraine last year, taking the unfancied Italians all the way to the final of UEFA EURO 2012.
Months on from that fine achievement, FIFA.com spoke to Prandelli about Italy’s recent resurrection and their preparations for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.
FIFA.com: Italy’s run to the final of EURO 2012 seemed to take a lot of people by surprise. Do you think the team has gained respect since then?
Cesare Prandelli: Well, all we did then was focus on achieving our objective, which was to regain the trust of our fans by showing our love and respect for the blue jersey. We also managed to play good football, and now we need to pick up more experience so we can be better prepared for major tournaments and compete without fear. We need to learn how to take on the big teams: by showing them respect while believing in our ability to perform at the very highest level.
How much do you think the team can improve on their performance at the EURO?
We’ve got some very interesting young players and the progress they make in the months ahead will be crucial. We’ve always had a strong tradition when it comes to attacking players too, so I hope our youngsters can gain in experience without having to carry too much responsibility.
We need to learn how to take on the big teams: by showing them respect while believing in our ability to perform at the very highest level.
A lot of people were also surprised by Andrea Pirlo’s performances in Poland and Ukraine. Did you speak to him at all about his role in the team?
Pirlo is a special case (pauses). Few players give as much support to the national team as Pirlo and [Gianluigi] Buffon, and they’d do anything for the side. Andrea is one of the greatest players in the world. He can dictate the pace of the game and he gives the team character too. He’s one of our leaders, and as long as he’s motivated and willing to play, he’s always going to stand out. That’s why it’s impossible to leave him out.
Players like Pirlo and Buffon have provided a bedrock in the transitional phase that Italy have gone through, one that Brazil have experienced too. What has been the hardest part of that process to your mind?
The hardest part for me is to keep the critics happy (laughs). It’s hard to please everyone and get good results at the same time. But we wanted to make a start on that process of renewal so we could be ready for 2014. As for Brazil, the first thing that comes to mind when you think about them is the magical football they play, their technique and creativity. That said, I also think the Brazilians want to be competitive and are focusing in particular on physical fitness and tactical aspects. When you’ve got the fans they have and when you’re going for the World Cup you need a team that’s got character.
You’re taking part in the FIFA Confederations Cup later this year, where the winners of a combined total of 12 world titles will be on show. How much of an advantage would winning the tournament give you for Brazil 2014?
With Brazil, Spain, Italy and Uruguay there and all the world titles they’ve won, it’s going to be a fantastic competition, especially with the World Cup coming up next year. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of shape the teams are in this June, and obviously it’ll be an advantage to play in this competition. It will give us a chance to get more experience – especially for the younger players – and to get a feel of what the atmosphere will be like at the World Cup.