Italy’s FIFA World Cup™ victory in 2006 may have been a supreme achievement but it undoubtedly concealed the problem of a game in need of renewal, spreading dangerous levels of complacency within Italian ranks. Four years later, a Squadra Azzurra side still in search of a first victory in 2010 paid a heavy price when they suffered the biggest humbling in their history on South African soil.
Instead of allowing the crisis to spread, the Italian Football Association (FIGC) moved quickly to address the issue head-on. As a result, some of the country's most legendary names have agreed to take an active role in the rebuilding process and help restore the four-time FIFA World Cup™ winners to their former glory. They have all been granted extensive powers to meet their ends, even if it means sweeping aside many long-held traditions and beliefs. FIFA.com now takes a closer look at the changes taking shape in the Italian game.
Baggio bringing passion to bear
Elegant former forward Roberto Baggio struck 27 goals in his 56 appearances for Italy and, now aged 43, he has been appointed head of the technical sector with a responsibility for injecting a new attitude into youth development. "In Italy, the results-based culture rules above all else," he said. "I remember being a young player and once attempting and pulling off a back-heel during a training session. The coach immediately started shouting, 'back-heels are for the circus.’ In contrast, the culture of the beautiful game dominates in Spain. That’s the mentality we have to start developing."
With that goal in mind, Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) has agreed to come out of retirement and leave his ranch in Argentina behind him in order to serve his country. "Italy doesn’t lack talented players," he explained. "We just need to let them express themselves, put our trust in them and find intelligent ways to help them. Technique should always come before the physical and tactical sides of the game."
Although he does not possess any coaching badges, Baggio has already won over observers. "Roberto Baggio is football itself," said Sandro Mazzola, another Italian icon. "When he’s on a mission, he always gives everything. And Baggio can’t be accused of coming back for his own ends either, because he’ll just be having his expenses reimbursed rather than being paid. Passion will be his only salary."
Legends preaching youth focus
Another big name from the past eager to oversee widespread change is Demetrio Albertini, the 39-year-old having collected 79 caps before taking up his current position as FIGC vice-president in charge of Club Italia. "We need to introduce a new code of ethics to all of Italy’s national teams, including and in particular the youngest ones," he said. "The players need to understand that La Nazionale isn’t a top-level club side but a broad team that represents an entire country and certain values."
The erstwhile AC Milan midfielder has likewise issued an unambiguous message to Italian club presidents. "Few clubs have the necessary infrastructure for youth teams," he said. "Invest so that youngsters can play." Determined to see the youth game flourish, Albertini has also made another proposal: "The big clubs should have a reserve team playing in a league that acts as a natural breeding ground and where winning games is not the only thing that matters. These B teams would help young players grow up in a truly competitive environment."
Pulling in the same direction will be Gianni Rivera, who fired 14 goals in his 60 international appearances and helped Italy finish runners-up at the 1970 FIFA World Cup. Now 67, the much-revered former midfielder has been placed in charge of the educational side of the youth department, where he will look to build functioning links between schools and the sporting world.
Reclaiming their standing
Finding the best way to develop promising youngsters will be similarly prominent in the thoughts of Arrigo Sacchi, coach when La Nazionale reached the FIFA World Cup Final in 1994 and now technical coordinator of the youth teams from Under-16 level to the U-21s. "Talented players are fundamental but they need to have passion," explained the 64-year-old. "We need talented players, but not soloists. They have to understand that football is a team sport." Sacchi has also expressed his concern that, "Italy is currently a country of old players."
The figures certainly back him up, with the average age of a Serie A player standing at 27.44, the second highest figure in Europe behind Cyprus. Meanwhile, AC Milan boast the dubious honour of having the oldest team in the league with an average age of 29.28. Opportunities for young players are therefore more limited than elsewhere, and a relative lack of exposure to competitive football may well explain why Italy have not collected an international title at youth level since their U-19s claimed continental honours in 2003.
The final piece in the jigsaw is, of course, the new Italy coach himself, Cesare Prandelli, a fervent disciple of attractive football as he demonstrated in the Fiorentina hot-seat. Perfectly echoing the priorities dear to the team of legends around him, the 53-year-old kept on just eight of the players who appeared at South Africa 2010 when he announced his squad for the upcoming friendly with Côte d'Ivoire. Opting to turn the page, he called up no fewer than ten newcomers, seven of whom are defenders, and in fell swoop cut the average age from 28.9 to 25.7.
With a minimum of fuss, the Italian game has therefore rolled up its sleeves and got back to work. The desire to introduce changes is obvious and the expertise in little doubt, but the results will only become clear four years from now in Brazil. Then, with the eyes of the world watching once again, La Nazionale will hope to reclaim their traditionally lofty standing on the international stage.