A week ago, Cesare Prandelli agreed to a two-year contract extension that will see him coach the Italian national team through the European Championships in France in 2016.
Simply put, this is thoroughly deserved—and the best thing that FIGC could have done.
It's rare in this day for international managers to last much more than one World Cup cycle. It's rarer still for a coach to receive a contract extension before his performance at FIFA's showpiece event has been evaluated.
Prandelli, however, has worked wonders for the Azzurri. When he took over four years ago the team was reliant on the aging core of Marcello Lippi's 2006 world champions and had an air of complacency. Good players who had one way or another alienated themselves from Lippi were frozen out of the picture entirely.
Prandelli immediately injected youth into the side by calling up the likes of Giuseppe Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci and Mario Balotelli. He also welcomed black sheep, like Antonio Cassano, back to the side. He balanced that youth movement out by leaning on key veterans like Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and captain Gianluigi Buffon.
He has battled complacency by keeping even his veterans fighting for places. Players like Antonio Candreva, Emanuele Giaccherini and Alessandro Diamanti have played key roles as squad players at Euro 2012 and last year's Confederations Cup.
Along with competitions for places on the roster, Prandelli has kept his players on their toes—and kept order—with a strict code of conduct. Key players like De Rossi and Balotelli have seen themselves dropped from the squad when they have misbehaved at their clubs. Such measures have led to a more disciplined side.
Tactically, Prandelli has been something of a mad scientist. He stabilized the free-falling Azzurri with the base 4-3-1-2 formation he employed at Fiorentina but based on opponent and personnel he has experimented widely, mostly using friendlies as his test tubes.
An injury crisis at the beginning of Euro 2012 forced him into a 3-5-2 formation. The formation fit his core of Juventus centre-backs well and turned out to be an incredibly effective way of combating the Spanish juggernaut. Other forays into 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3 formations to exploit the talents of players like Giaccherini, Stephan El Shaarawy and Alessio Cerci have been bandied about in friendlies.
Every one of these tests has given Prandelli something useful that he has been able to use in later competitive matches—which he has done to great effect. Prandelli has led the Azzurri to their best Euro finish in 12 years and their best-ever finish at the Confederations Cup in his three years at the helm.
With exciting young players like Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile, Domenico Berardi and Mattia Destro on the horizon and other youngsters like Balotelli and Lorenzo Insigne already stamping their mark on the team, a coach like Prandelli can only take the team to greater heights.
The choices to replace Prandelli would have been limited. Rising coaches like Antonio Conte and Vincenzo Montella—who could both lead the Azzurri at some point in their careers—don't seem willing or ready to move up from the club level yet.
Other coaches like Massimiliano Allegri—who in March was reported by Sky Sports Italia (h/t Football Italia) as a candidate for the top job in Greece—wouldn't have inspired much confidence among Italian fans. Fabio Capello could be an option were he not tied to Russia until 2018.
Foreign options are almost out of the question. Only one non-Italian has ever so much as temporarily held the top job—in 1966-67 when Argentinian Helenio Herrera shared the job with Ferruccio Valcareggi before the latter took over full time. It would take a tremendous accomplishment for FIGC to ever look outside the peninsula.
Prandelli is not totally above reproach. He has shown an almost irrational devotion to former Fiorentina players like Riccardo Montolivo and Alberto Gilardino despite erratic form from the both of them.
He is, however, the best option Italy has. Losing him would risk erasing much of the progress that the Azzurri have made since he arrived and would virtually guarantee a lesser man on the bench.
Prandelli gives Italy the best chance to return to the international elite and add stars to their crest. FIGC should be commended for keeping him on the bench for as long as they possibly can.
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