Ugly reality of Italian football emerges
As Cesare Prandelli offered his "irrevocable" resignation as coach of Italy following their elimination at the group stages of the World Cup, he reflected on his four-year tenure. He spoke about camouflaging the limits and problems of Italian football. A combination of clever techniques were used to conceal them, guided by a simple premise: if Italy played beautiful football and presented a positive image to the world on the international stage, it would hide the ugly and negative reality that had descended on the domestic front. Prandelli proved adept at this art of covering up.
For a time he made Italy feel good about itself. Runners-up at Euro 2012, third at the Confederations Cup, they qualified for Brazil with two games to spare. Maybe Italian football wasn't so bad after all. Serie A's shortcomings in Europe had certainly given the impression that there were problems. Now fifth in UEFA's coefficient behind Portugal's Primeira Liga, the league hasn't produced a winner of the Europa League since Parma in 1999, nor gone past the quarterfinals of the Champions League since Inter triumphed in the competition in 2010.
But as Serie A lost face, Prandelli ensured that Italian football could still keep its head held high. Never was that more true than after they knocked out Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals and their performance against England in the group stages in Brazil. Everything unraveled after that. You can question Prandelli's squad selection, his tinkering and his change of approach against Uruguay, but a bad four weeks shouldn't detract from what was a very good four years.
In him, Italy have lost someone who showed concern not only for results but for the state of the game, its development and renaissance. He was an agent of change, challenging stereotypes in style of play and a football culture's mentality towards young players.
Just as he had done before Euro 2012, when youngsters Mattia Destro (then at Siena) and Marco Verratti (then at Pescara) were drafted into his preliminary squad with a view to giving them a taste of international football and blooding them for the World Cup qualifiers, he had already started looking ahead to Euro 2016. Another promising talent, Federico Bernardeschi (then at Crotone), was included in the physical tests he conducted before Brazil this summer.
Prandelli set an example to clubs by giving youth a chance. He took the long view in a country where clubs are all too often short-termist. For Arrigo Sacchi to follow him out of the FIGC last week, stepping down as technical supervisor of their youth teams citing "too much stress," represented another blow. Sacchi had also done valuable work, teaching the coaches of Italy's various age groups, obtaining 30 percent more training hours with the players and more competitive matches at all levels.
There had been encouraging signs of progress, too. Italy's under-17 and under-21 teams reached the European championship final a year ago. But as Prandelli and Sacchi have argued, more needs to be done. Italy has to push on.
Without them it remains to be seen whether they do or not. The situation is better than in 2010 when the only players aged 21 or under in the conversation for a place in the Italy team were Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli. Neither made it to South Africa.
A new generation has since emerged. In addition to Balotelli, the likes of Matteo Darmian (24), Alessandro Florenzi (23) and Ciro Immobile (24) have matured. Other more precocious talents like goalkeepers Simone Scuffet and Mattia Perin; full-back Mattia de Sciglio; Verratti the deep-lying playmaker; a tricky winger in Lorenzo Insigne; and strikers Mattia Destro, Stephan El Shaarawy and Domenico Berardi have also broken out.
More could yet follow, like midfielders Bryan Cristante, Federico Bernardeschi and Hachim Mastour, and forward Andrea Belotti. But they remain exceptions.
A study by the CIES Football Observatory showed that only 8.4 percent of players in Serie A first teams are formed by their clubs. It's the lowest percentage in Europe. Faith is not placed in young players. Serie A's 20 clubs spent 55 million euros on their academies last year. That's an average of 2.75 million euros each. The Bundesliga's 18, by contrast, invested 79.3 million euros -- or 4.4 million apiece. Is it any wonder why players aged 30 or over amount to 30 percent of Italy's top flight, and only 15 percent of Germany's? Resources in Serie A instead go on foreign players. At 53.8 percent, they represent the majority. They also play 54.1 percent of the minutes.
Some, however, don't play. Instead, they just make up the numbers: 173 foreign players featured in fewer than 15 games for their clubs last season. Are they blocking a path for young Italians to the first team? Not necessarily, as clubs are increasingly choosing to recruit foreign players and develop them in their academies. Keita Balde Diao, Mamadou Tounkara and Joseph Minala at Lazio are prime examples of this strategy.
Anyone who watched the final phase of the Primavera championship between the country's top senior youth teams in June will also have noticed that 35 percent of players were foreign. "Focus on the youth sector? They're full of foreigners. What are you talking about?" exclaimed Prandelli in an interview with Il Corriere della Sera.
The clubs bear a responsibility here. Their academies are also not seen to be preparing kids adequately enough to make the step up to the first team, whether they be from Italy or elsewhere. It's a critical moment. When Prandelli resigned as coach of Italy, Giancarlo Abete, the president of the FIGC, did too. His replacement will be named on Monday. The race to succeed him has been controversial, to say the least.
On receiving an estimated backing of 69 percent at the initial assemblies, including 18 of the 20 clubs in Serie A -- tellingly, it was the chief modernising forces of the Italian game, Juventus and Roma, who voted against him -- 71-year-old Carlo Tavecchio was made the front-runner. A day later he gave a rambling speech explaining his vision. While making a point on work permits and the number of non-EU players a team can register per season, he made a racist comment. There was a huge public outcry.
FIFA and UEFA requested an investigation. Members of Italy's Democratic Party asked for him to withdraw his candidacy. Daniele Tommasi, the head of the Italian Players' Association, asked: "With what credibility can we fight against racism and discrimination" if Tavecchio is elected? Black players including Sampdoria's Stefano Okaka called it what it was: "scandalous and unacceptable." Tavecchio apologised, but even amid the furore didn't step aside.
"In America, England and France, he would have been made to resign the following day," Daniele De Rossi said. The example of Donald Sterling being banned from the NBA and forced to sell the L.A. Clippers was cited.
Fiorentina, Cagliari, Sampdoria, Cesena, Empoli, Sassuolo, Torino and Verona all withdrew their support of Tavecchio. It remains to be seen whether the members of Serie B will also formally distance themselves once they meet again on Thursday. Tavecchio has made more gaffes since, only adding to the opinion that he is "inadequate" for the role. Yet an intractable class of clubs headed by Lazio and Milan are still behind him, refusing to listen to the outrage and instead putting their interests first.
As it stands, Tavecchio is polling at 52.6 percent. His rival, former Milan midfielder Demetrio Albertini, is still at 33.9 percent. The rest are undecided or leaving their ballots blank. It's no wonder Juventus president Andrea Agnelli thinks it would be a good idea to open voting up to the public and have primaries. It goes without saying that Albertini would be a much more acceptable proposition, not only because he is young and -- perhaps most importantly of all -- not Tavecchio, but because he stands for change, not continuity of an old system.
Albertini isn't the ideal candidate, true -- many would have liked to have seen someone like Pierluigi Collina run -- but he's the best on the ballot.
The manifestos make for an interesting read. Both Tavecchio and Albertini want Serie A to be reduced from 20 to 18 or maybe even further to 16 teams. Were that to happen, TV revenue would be distributed between fewer clubs, allowing for more stability, greater investment in infrastructure and players. There'd be more quality, less quantity.
Albertini also wants 25-man squads to include 10 homegrown players. He wishes to incentivise youth development and is proposing clubs enter B teams into the Lega Pro (Italy's third and fourth divisions) to allow kids to play competitive matches against older players.
Reservations about some of his ideas aren't lacking, and there is scepticism about his ability to get them introduced if elected, given how ungovernable Italian football has become. But Albertini is clearly a better bet if Italy is to push through the reforms required, become competitive again and be the great product it was in the late '80s through the '90s and into the mid-2000s.
James Horncastle contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.