It started with a bang, but it ended with a whisper, a scandal, two immediate resignations (the manager and the head of the football federation), and a bite that shook the world.
Italy’s 2014 World Cup campaign moved from a sense of triumph to one of total disaster in just a few days. After a sparkling opening against England, with a masterclass from the bearded maestro, Andrea Pirlo, the following two matches saw Italy play some of the worst football in their history.
They appeared to have been victims of “reverse doping”, moving at walking pace, unable to perform simple tasks such as passing the ball to each other, shooting on goal or tracking back in defence. There were few crunching tackles, no counter-attacks, and an enormous amount of huffing and puffing with no end product whatsoever.
Italy failed to trouble the scorers in those two, terrible games, and their failure to gain even one more point meant that they were out – eliminated at the group stage for the second World Cup in a row, against a mediocre Uruguayan team and the upstart minnows of Costa Rica.
The fallout was brutal. Cesare Prandelli, the man who had taken Italy to the final of the European championships just two years ago, fell on his sword. He was swiftly followed (to widespread relief) by the President of Italy’s Football Federation, Giancarlo Abete.
There were calls for Prandelli to reconsider, but he said his decision was irrevocable. Prandelli took responsibility for what had happened, and there was little doubt that he – and many of his players – had crumbled under pressure. His tactical choices were confused and confusing, and the constant changes in personnel did little to change things. His risky decision to choose a maverick genius like Antonio Cassano backfired badly, and his faith in Mario Balotelli was not repaid. Prandelli has been a superb manager, but when the going got tough, he was all over the place.
Balotelli the scapegoat
Swiftly, the Italian press and public looked for scapegoats. There was an obvious candidate. Despite scoring the winning goal in Italy’s only victory, Balotelli himself took most of the flak. In part, of course, this is because he is black. All his mistakes are magnified because of the symbolic power of his (unchosen) role as a representative – the most visible and famous representative – of a new generation of black Italians, sons and daughters of those 5m foreign immigrants who have lived, worked and settled in Italy since the late 1980s.
But there were other factors at work here. Club loyalties have always been important in Italian football – crucial parts of the identities of millions of ordinary Italian people. One of the first things you find out about people when you meet them for the first time is which footballing category they fall into – juventino, interista, milanista and so on.
In the past, these loyalties have been secondary to those of support for the national team. La nazionale has stood above club and local rivalries. Yet, in the fallout from 2014, I have detected a shift in emphasis. Balotelli is scapegoated because he is black, but also because of his club and his footballing past. Juve fans hate Balotelli as a symbol of the Inter victories after the calciopoli scandals, which they believe were a conspiracy organised in part by Inter managers and others. Inter fans don’t like Balotelli, of course, because he eventually joined their closest rivals – the team he supports – AC Milan.
There are around 11m juventini in Italy, and something like 5m interisti (who knows what the real figures are?). That’s 16m fans. And none of them likes Balotelli very much. In this World Cup, club loyalties outweighed those linked to national identity – especially in the fallout of one of the worst defeats in Italian footballing history – that against Costa Rica (the only comparable defeat was that against North Korea, in 1966, which led to tomatoes being thrown at the team on their return to Italy, and a huge debate which went on for months).
Is this a turning point? Are club loyalties and identities now so strong that they colour everything, dominating discussion of how La Nazionale has performed? I can also see this tendency creeping into the way England are seen. Is club football beginning to erode the power of the World Cup altogether? After all, if you are England, the World Cup lasts for two games every four years (in the worst case scenario) and is therefore profoundly unsatisfying for any kind of fan.
Italy’s defeat will lead to further soul-searching about the deep structural problems at the heart of their footballing system. The day after the defeat against Uruguay, Ciro Esposito, a Napoli fan who had been shot on his way to the Italian cup final in Rome on May 3 by a neo-fascist Roma ultra (hard-core fan), died in hospital.
Italy is blighted by crumbling, uneconomic and horrible stadiums, dominated (inside the ground) by organised and often violent fans who hold the clubs to ransom. A recent scandal saw hundreds of players, middle-men and others involved in betting scams, but was quickly swept under the carpet. Politics is everywhere, and not in a good way. No significant investment has happened since the 1990 World Cup, and that was pretty disastrous, with some of the stadiums built at that time having already been demolished.
On the field, we saw the last of the great playmaker Andrea Pirlo. But even he was part of the problem. As other teams cut out his passing outlets, he dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball. It was taking Italy what seemed like hours to even get to the halfway line. One perfect pass set up a chance for Balotelli in the Costa Rica game, but he hardly saw the ball for the rest of that match. Pirlo’s centrality had become a millstone from which Italy could not free itself.
There was no plan B. By the end, there wasn’t really a plan A anymore. The team should be grateful to Suárez’s fangs for deflecting attention from a collapse which was as unexpected as it was extraordinary. As the post-Prandelli era presumably begins (unless he reconsiders) it will take much more than a change of manager to put this mess into some kind of order.
Next, read this: Italy’s ultras – death threats, local pride and footballing farce.