Few figures in world football command respect like Arrigo Sacchi. The former shoe salesman from Emilia-Romagna went from humble beginnings coaching his local club to the bench at San Siro.
There, he transformed AC Milan from a sleeping giant that hadn't won anything in almost a decade into arguably the greatest club side that the game has ever seen.
Having retired from management, he is now a popular pundit on Italian television and works as the technical coordinator for the national federation at youth level, where he's won plenty of praise for changing the way the coaching staff thinks and the way young talent is developed and nurtured.
On the eve of the 2014 World Cup, he agreed to speak to Bleacher Report about who he sees as the favourites for the tournament, Italy's own chances and what he believes makes a truly great team.
Getting straight to the point, he says: "The favourites for this World Cup are the South Americans. Brazil, playing at home, and Argentina. It's difficult to understand the future, but not the past, and every time the tournament has been played [in South America], a South American team won.
"Spain could still pull off another masterpiece, of course, even if the Barcelona core of the team isn't in the same shape that it was four years ago. Iniesta, Xavi, Pique, Jordi Alba...they're still very important players, but this season they haven't been absolutely top level."
Having won back-to-back European Championships and the last World Cup, you'd write off Spain's chances at your peril, but Sacchi believes that we might have seen the zenith of the Spanish golden age.
"That Barca core is coming to the World Cup from a bad place," he continues. "They lost the league and they were knocked out of the Champions League before the semi-finals.
"If you'd asked me six months ago, I might have still said that Spain were the favourites. Today, I'm less sure, but it all depends on what kind of form they arrive in.
"Obviously—even if the teams included a lot of foreigners—there were two Spanish sides in the final of the Champions League, while a Spanish team [also] won the Europa League. Back when Italian clubs did similar things, in 1990 and 1994—when both times we only lost out on penalties—Italy was always extremely competitive. So you can't say that Spain won't be the same.”
The 68-year-old is often credited as being the man who killed catenaccio—the defence-first philosophy that held sway over Italian football for decades. In reality, Nils Liedholm had begun that work some time before—particularly with his Scudetto-winning Roma side of '83—but it was undoubtedly Sacchi who dealt the death blow. His success with the Rossoneri toward the end of the '80s and the beginning of the '90s was so complete that there could be no question as to the superiority of his tactics.
Sacchi introduced zonal marking to Italian football, borrowing from the Dutch's Total Football of the 1970s, and he relied on quick, attacking football to win games. His Milan vintage might have boast the last great sweeper, Franco Baresi, in its ranks, but there was never any doubt that the manager's focus lay in attack.
Unsurprising, then, he approves of the work that Cesare Prandelli has done with Italy since taking over from Marcello Lippi. He doesn't see Italy as favourites but believes that they're good enough to cause an upset.
“For Italy, it's just important that they play good football. Then we'll see. They had an excellent Euro 2012, only losing in the final to Spain. It's an experienced squad, and they've been playing fairly well. At the World Cup, when they don't collapse like they've done a couple of times in the past, the more they advance the better they get, and they'll be very dangerous for everyone.
“I've known Prandelli for a long time; he's a brilliant manager. I knew him from our two years together at Parma, where I was the technical director, and he's only gotten better since then. He's done great work with the national team. He took [over] Italy after the catastrophe at the World Cup in South Africa [and] took them to second in Euro 2012. Now they've qualified easily and playing great, positive football. This is no longer an Italy of catenaccio and counter-attacks.
“To me, this looks like an Italian squad that might be less aggressive than some of the other sides in Europe, but at a South American World Cup, the game is different. With that heat, speed and pressing won't be as important as they'd usually be. This is an advantage for Italy, because while they might not be the best at those things, they always defend excellently, are very good technically and they can control games well.”
With its Juventus core in the heart of the defence and a midfield boasting Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, there's certainly no lack of talent in that regard. Up front, however, things are less sure for the Azzurri.
Giuseppe Rossi's exclusion has been controversial, as has the manager's decision to take just two proper strikers: Mario Balotelli and Ciro Immobile. There's an abundance of flair in attacking midfield and at No. 10, but the lack of another proven goalscorer is a concern.
“Rossi was always going to be a risk. For me, it might have been worth it. A player like that, with such quality, deserves a chance. He's a great professional, he's intelligent, he works well on and off the ball and plays for the team. He's a great loss for Italy.
“Balotelli is still a young guy. He's got a huge potential, [both] physically and technically, but he doesn't always have the balance or the maturity needed to play with and for a team [and] give his all, all of the time.”
It's often suggested that Balotelli was given too much attention too young, and what Sacchi says next reveals plenty about what he's trying to achieve with youth coaching in Italy and what he'd like to see change in football.
“I've said this before to my colleagues: We don't know if we're going to be able to create future champions. We have to try to create mature young people who have a strong work ethic and who respect the group and the federation. I think that Balotelli will mature. He seems like a good guy, and I hope he can deliver on his extraordinary talent.”
As a manager, Sacchi was always adamant that rigid formations and individuals mattered less than how a team was constructed internally, from the foundation up. He also eschews the need for specialists, especially at youth level, and he is against the kind of development that pigeonholes players and creates disjointed squads full of individuals.
For him, an acute, pervading understanding between all of his players was key to winning, and he believed that his “module” approach meant that he could slot players into different roles providing that they understood how the team, as a unit, functioned.
It's the kind of harmony rarely achieved in football—the Ajax of the 1970s and the 1990s, Sacchi's Milan and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona are the most obvious and successful examples—but he believes it's what all teams should be striving for if they want to win, and if their respective national sides are to reap the benefits.
“The mentality of a team is the product of the group's determination, their capacity to work together and their ability to understand the game. The more knowledge, the more desire there is to work. The more determination, the stronger the winning mentality is going to be.
“The problem for Italian clubs right now is that winning is all that matters. Merit doesn't exist anymore, and like elsewhere, most of the clubs are in debt. No one wants to plan long term, with youth, or to think about the future. They don't invest in young players, they only think of the problems right now—so they go and buy a player who's ready in this moment.
"There's less and less patience, and a lot of clubs are frozen by the fear of losing. If a team thinks like that, with a focus on prudent, defensive play, young players will never develop. This is the problem with football now. There needs to be more commitment from the clubs and the federation, to invest.”
An important sentiment from a man who's only ever thought of progression and pressing forward. Prandelli, too, likes to plan long term. He's embraced younger players and rebuilt Italy in his own image since 2010.
This summer's tournament is the culmination of four years' labour. As long as they play good football, Sacchi says, it will all have been worth it. And so much the better if they can go one better than he did in '94 and lift the trophy for the fifth time.
Sacchi is currently working as brand ambassador for BetClic in Italy.
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