RIO DE JANEIRO -- Four years and 25 days ago, Cesare Prandelli took over the Italian national team. Two months later, he laid out his philosophy and promised change.
He said he'd make the country fall in love again with the Azzurri, that the team would be a force for good and that success could be achieved by playing well. He took his cue from Spain, whose possession-based football was all the rage, and put together an attacking side based on midfielders doing what they do best: passing. The defend-and-counter of the past -- which had been waning for a long time -- went by the wayside and, with it, the obsession with results.
Perhaps a part of him was motivated by the personnel available -- a nation that has historically produced outstanding defenders and individual match-winning strikers -- was now running low in both departments. On the other hand, he did benefit from a sterling generation of midfielders.
Off the pitch, Prandelli turned on the charm as well. He was among the first and most outspoken high-profile managers to condemn homophobia (he penned the introduction to a book about closeted gay footballers) and racism. He introduced an ethical code for his players (and showed it wasn't just window dressing when he used it to ban the likes of Mario Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi), and, believing a national side is more than a cash cow for the FA, took the Azzurri to train in deprived neighborhoods and on land confiscated from organized crime.
Up until a few days ago -- half-time in the Costa Rica game, in fact -- he was true to his word. Then he did a 180 degree turn, at least on the footballing front. With the Azzurri a goal down, he abandoned what some media had hastily dubbed "Tikitalia."
On came Antonio Cassano, followed by Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci. Three attacking midfielders joining Balotelli up front. Fine, if they're part of some sort of game plan you worked on. Less so if the opposition drops deep and your strategy becomes entirely predicated on hoping that one of the substitutes conjures up a moment of magic.
It's what Italy did a generation ago. It was not the Prandelli way, and it blew up in his face.
Hindsight is 20-20 obviously, and had it worked, you likely wouldn't be reading this now, because Italy would be in the round of 16 preparing to play Colombia. But it was nevertheless so uncharacteristic to work so hard for four years on a blueprint only to put it through the shredder against Costa Rica. Had the Azzurri done their thing they may not have equalized, but they would have at least grown in confidence.
Instead, they took the defeat and set themselves up for a tense affair with Uruguay. All they needed was a draw, and maybe that was the problem. Prandelli redesigned the system and personnel: out went De Rossi (injured), Ignazio Abate, Thiago Motta and Antonio Candreva. In came Marco Verratti, Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci and Ciro Immobile.
The confidence was gone. It was now a backs-against-the-wall struggle against the toughest, roughest crew in the world game: Uruguay and their "garra charrua." Another version of Italy, one battle-hardened and savvy with plenty of defensive talent and led by, say, Marcello Lippi or Giovanni Trapattoni would have thrived in this context.
Not this one.
The match got physical, and fear -- once a motivator -- became an inhibitor, and the possession game began to wobble under the Uruguayan attacks. Again, Prandelli's substitutions were telling. Balotelli made way for holding midfielder Marco Parolo after a horrid first half, the main highlight of which was showing the world how high he could jump when he kneed Alvaro Pereira in the head.
After Claudio Marchisio's debatable sending-off and with the Azzurri holding on for dear life, Prandelli replaced Immobile with ... Cassano. Yeah, him again. You're exhausted, down a man and you rely as your sole attacking outlet on a guy who turns 32 next month and had a heart attack three years ago? OK ...
Again, it's not that you can't see the logic in the choices. It's just that they cut against the philosophy Prandelli himself had championed, and that many had bought into. That's where he let himself down. The "new Italy" began to think like the "old Italy." Which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- the "old Italy" won plenty -- as long as you have the tools the "old Italy" had. And he didn't.
Beyond that, you can parse out the mitigating circumstances all you like. Balotelli played as badly as he has in a big game in his career. Marchisio's red card, De Rossi's absence, Luis Suarez's biting, Diego Godin scoring a goal with his shoulder blades and whatever else you like ... provided you weigh it up against the fact that Italy created almost no chances when it was 11 versus 11, that Uruguay had an excellent penalty claim of their own, and that Gigi Buffon -- him again -- pulled off at least three out-of-this-world saves.
Prandelli is not entirely responsible for the loss. He is entirely responsible, though, for ditching a philosophy he introduced and championed and which yielded outstanding results in the past four years, on and off the pitch. And he would have been responsible even if Italy had hung on for the draw, then beaten Colombia and then whoever else in the quarters, all the way to the final.
Perhaps that's why, ultimately, he tendered his resignation immediately after the game. He sold an idea, it worked, and then he abandoned it. And because he's more of a man than a lot of his colleagues, having realized he screwed up and that he was responsible, he offered to walk the plank.
It doesn't quite end here. You expect the Italian FA will ask him to reconsider, and well they should. Other Azzurri managers have won more; few have behaved in as classy a way as he has. And few of the potential alternatives seem as adept at handling the inevitable generational change that will come soon when the likes of Buffon and Pirlo retire.
When you go out the way Italy did, the talk -- inevitably -- is of rebuilding, root-and-branch reviews, soul-searching and all that. But it would be a tragedy if the excellent work of the past four years was thrown out in one go.
Regardless of whether Prandelli stays, the philosophy, style and outlook he built -- until a week or so ago -- must not be torn down.