Why Cesare Prandelli finally gave up at failing Valencia with no end in sight
It was two weeks before Christmas when Cesare Prandelli sat in the press room at Mestalla and decided that he was not going to be taking any questions; not today. Instead, he had something to say, undiluted by digression; this appearance would be on his terms and his terms alone.
With cameras rolling, Valencia's manager delivered a damning diagnosis of his team, accusing his players: they were unprofessional, they had an attitude problem, they didn't care and he'd had enough. He spoke in Italian but his message was clear: Anyone who wasn't prepared to fight for the shirt and love it should leave.
He spoke for a minute and 57 seconds, returning repeatedly to the same word, sometimes delivered as two. His whole appearance was encapsulated in those five letters: fuori!... fuo-ri! Everyone understood it as Fuera, in Spanish. Out! Out, out, out! Any footballer not prepared to give what he demanded (and that was many of them) would be shown the door. It was a threat aimed at the players but aimed at the club too, reiterated a few days later and a few thousand kilometres away, and one that ultimately applied to him. Nineteen days on, none of them are out but he is.
Those two facts are related.
On Friday afternoon, the news broke: Prandelli is no longer Valencia's manager. He had reportedly spoken to the club's new director of communications to insist once again on the urgent need for experienced signings -- and yes that does say "communications," not "football" -- given the club's position, a single point above the relegation zone, enduring their worst-ever start to a season. The response did not convince; there was no evidence that he was going to get what he wanted, a line had been crossed, so he walked.
Prandelli called Singapore, where he had been a fortnight before, where the president Layhoon Chan was and where the owner Peter Lim always is, to say sorry but I'm out. Fuori. Another one, gone. Maybe it's not the manager, after all. Not Nuno or Gary Neville. Not only them, certainly.
This crisis runs deeper; this is institutional. Another call was made, a familiar one: Valencia's very own Mr. Wolf, Salvador Voro, the crisis manager who has taken charge four times but who insisted he never wants to take over again, took over again. Counting caretakers, he's coach number six (and number four) since the start of last season -- seven if you include both Nevilles.
When Pako Ayesteran was sacked, sporting director Suso García Pitarch admitted that he had only stayed as long as he did because they could not afford to sack him. Now Prandelli has gone because they couldn't afford to back him. Because of that and a whole lot more besides. The mutual suspicion, the paranoia and paralysis, the differences; the lack of conviction and commitment; the inability to grasp opportunity or construct an identity; the instability and the hidden interest, the climate and the culture. The failure. Because this a failure, a real failure. A failure to get it.
Prandelli had been in the job for 90 days. Not long, but long enough. Too long, in fact. This has not been a happy experience; the little time he has had was sufficient to realise that this was not right; it was not going to work. He had suspended that disbelief momentarily but ended up thinking the assurances were worthless. He had thought he could change Valencia, but he could not. Just as those who came before him could not.
Also, Prandelli's diagnosis of the squad's problems proposed solutions that proved beyond them. He would have been entitled to mistrust those around him. The president Layhoon Chan had talked about her, sporting director García Pitarch and Prandelli as "a team" but they didn't really sound like one very often. In the end, Prandelli decided they weren't. As for his team, well, it wasn't his at all. He'd come to the conclusion that it never would be.
A press conference was held back in Spain after the "team" had returned from a journey to Singapore to meet the club's owner, Peter Lim, who took control two years ago. Since then, Lim has spent almost €200 million in two years, €94m to take a majority share and €100m more in investment. He's spent money on Valencia; what he hasn't done is spend much time in Valencia. He hasn't been at Mestalla for almost a year. In one local sports paper the question has switched from "where is Peter Lim?" to "does Peter Lim exist?"
As for "who is Peter Lim?" Layhoon answered that.
"I am Peter Lim," she said at the press conference. "Do you understand? I am Peter Lim and I am here. I represent Peter Lim; I am Peter Lim." Which poses the question: if you're Peter Lim, why did you all fly to Singapore to see Peter Lim? But, anyway: they did. There was much to discuss, after all; much to be said.
With Valencia a point from the relegation zone and not playing the following week -- and with forward Santi Mina declaring "either we show our balls and our courage or we're going to shit" -- this was a summons, an obligation to see the boss and face the music. Layhoon later placed the responsibility for poor results with the sporting director and the manager, revealing that they had been told results were "unacceptable." Mostly, though, she pointed at the players, just as the manager had done.
"They need to reflect, to think about it, and to see what has gone wrong," she said. "It depends on them; they have to think about what they can do."
The answer in some cases was simple, proposed by Prandelli: leave. They must be replaced, something that reflected that Singapore was not only about delivering a reprimand; it was also an emergency meeting and request to travel delivered by the manager, his opportunity to call in reinforcements and start the revolution he had announced under the banner of "Fuori." "It's time to see the owner," Prandelli had said.
He wanted to see where he stood too. He knew that he could not shift players out or bring players in without the owners' backing; he wanted to test that and see how much support they would give him. Would they listen and act? He was delivering an ultimatum to the board and to Lim; he was challenging them to change the culture that had created a climate not conducive to success, to remove those players standing in his way and in doing so build his authority.
The fact that he was sitting there, front row and centre, while García Pitarch and Layhoon Chan took to the stage at the press conference when they returned suggested that he had been given assurances - a promise to get rid of the players he didn't want and to sign the players he did. The problem was that promises like that are easily broken and not easily fulfilled, especially not for a club like the one Valencia have become.
Words are one thing, reality another. If there was an agreement, it was an uneasy one. The contradictions were evident even that day -- Prandelli's stress on experience to Pitarch's inclination towards youth, for example -- and over the next few days, they would become unavoidable. Layhoon said that she would not be naming targets only for García Pitarch to admit that he wanted Simone Zaza. Prandelli had chosen him and the player's father admitted that they were talking. It was a good start, but that was all it was. Now, with Prandelli's departure, even that deal may be in danger.
Some agents have reportedly suggested that they're unconvinced by how the club is acting; put bluntly, they're unconvinced Valencia really know what they're doing. Besides, solutions at this stage are short-term at best and it's not so simple to restructure and build a competitive team, even less so in January. The winter window, so often confirmation of failings in July and August, is rarely a good time to get the players you want. It is rarely a good time to get rid of players you don't want, either. Even back in the summer, with time and without the pressure of impending crisis, Valencia sold the one defender they didn't want to lose and kept the three they did.
This is now a club weighed down by their own mismanagement, seeking an emergency solution that, by definition, is rarely a lasting solution. But it was a necessary one, Prandelli insisted; non-negotiable. He wanted five players: experienced players, good players. Players who he insisted were absolutely necessary to rescue them.
But players cost money, even when they come on loan, and there isn't much of that. Upon returning from Singapore, there was a message from Layhoon: direct, a dose of realism. Spend more, people say. But, spend what? "It's not just a case of bringing it from Singapore," she explained. Financial Fair Play rules, La Liga's economic controls, mean it has to be money generated. At a club where attendances are dropping, there isn't a shirt sponsor, marketing avenues remain unexploited and even the director of the youth system says it's not in their interests for the B team to be promoted.
Where, in short, arrivals depend directly on departures. And even that's not so easy; one of Prandelli's threats became an empty one, hastening the moment when the other of his threats became a reality.
"No player has said he wants to go," Pitarch admitted. So two weeks later, Prandelli did.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.