Roberto Mancini has not always been ready to serve his country. As a player, he brought his own international career to a premature end, telling Arrigo Sacchi not to select him for the 1994 World Cup (as referenced in this contemporaneous report from Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera).
Tired of playing second fiddle to Roberto Baggio, Mancini’s patience had finally snapped during a friendly against Germany in March of that year. For once, the Divine Ponytail was not present, meaning Mancini got to play from the start. But instead of being given a full 90 minutes, he was replaced by Gianfranco Zola at half-time.
Looking back now, Mancini regrets his decision to walk away. He told Italian football website Storie Di Calcio that he feels no bitterness toward Sacchi, blaming himself for being the sort of character who required absolute backing from his coaches. In an interview with newspaper Corriere dello Sport this week, Mancini added that he would do things differently if he had his time again (quotes in Italian).
Asked in the same conversation whether he would be interested in succeeding Cesare Prandelli as Italy manager, Mancini responded in the affirmative. He said that he was proud to be linked with the vacancy but stressed that he had not been contacted so far by the Italian Football Federation.
That is no surprise. After all, it was not just Prandelli but also the Federation’s president, Giancarlo Abete, who resigned in the wake of Italy’s group-stage exit from Brazil. The governing body will hold an election to find the latter’s replacement on 11 August. It is unlikely that any manager will be appointed before that date.
None of which has stopped the press from speculating. Gazzetta dello Sport named Mancini, Massimiliano Allegri, Francesco Guidolin, Luciano Spalletti and Alberto Zaccheroni as the most likely candidates for the job. A poll of their readers found that more than half wanted the former Manchester City boss.
Mancini’s popularity is easy enough to understand. His is by far the most impressive managerial CV amongst that group, featuring three Serie A titles and one Premier League title—not to mention a combined six domestic cup triumphs between Italy, England and Turkey.
His respect for supporters is also appreciated. Mancini famously purchased a full-page advert in the Manchester Evening News after he was sacked by City, thanking the club’s fans for "three unforgettable years”. They responded by raising £7,000 to purchase an advert in Gazzetta dello Sport to say “Grazie” in return.
But popularity alone does not qualify a manager for such a high-profile job. Is Mancini the right man to succeed Prandelli? What might he do differently to his predecessor?
On the surface, there are plenty of similarities between the two. Both are tactically versatile, Mancini varying his formations at Manchester City at first between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 before eventually experimenting with a three-man defence—just as Prandelli did with Italy.
Both have tended to rely on full-backs to provide width for their teams. Perhaps in Prandelli’s case that was simple pragmatism. Toward the end of his tenure at Fiorentina, he had Juan Vargas and Marco Marchionni hugging the flanks up front, but for a variety of historical reasons, Italy have tended not to produce true wingers.
Mancini endorsed at least one part of Prandelli’s World Cup strategy during his aforementioned interview with Corriere dello Sport, saying that he too would select Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon if he were picking an Italy side today.
He was less forthcoming on the subject of which parts of the team he might change. Although he did highlight the potential of young players like Marco Verratti and Ciro Immobile, it is only fair to point out that both started Prandelli’s final game in charge against Uruguay.
And if there is one concern about Mancini’s candidacy, it is that he would not appear to be any better qualified than his predecessor to handle Italy’s greatest conundrum: Mario Balotelli. The manager was reported by the Manchester Evening News to have been involved in a training-ground scuffle with the striker toward the end of his tenure at City, having previously struggled to get the best from the player.
Balotelli’s misadventures in Manchester were well-documented, from bathroom fireworks to needless red cards against Arsenal and Dynamo Kiev. There were high points, too, not least the assist he provided on Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal in 2012, but it speaks volumes that the Premier League club should eventually sell him to Milan for less than they had paid to acquire him two years previously.
Italy might not need to rely on Balotelli in future as they have over the last four years. The emergence of not only Immobile but also Mattia Destro, Domenico Berardi, Lorenzo Insigne and Simone Zaza will give the next manager more options than Prandelli enjoyed for much of his tenure. A healthy Giuseppe Rossi and Stephan El Shaarawy could also go a long way to improving this side.
But Mancini still comes with red flags. His poor record in European competition is troubling, suggesting that he lacks the tactical nous to outwit the world’s very best coaches. He was also reported to have lost the support of his players long before he was sacked at City, with the Telegraph’s Mark Ogden writing that “the manager had no remaining allies on the playing staff by the time he lost his job.”
Then again, Mancini had already led the team to its first league title in 44 years by that point. Prandelli, for all the good will he generated with a brilliant run to the final of Euro 2012, never won a trophy with Italy. Indeed, his most prestigious piece of managerial silverware remains the Serie B title he won with Verona in 1999.
It is also true that Prandelli has never managed a team with resources like City’s. He will relish the opportunity he has now to achieve domestic success in Turkey with Galatasaray. But Mancini is ready for his shot at something bigger. He is not a perfect candidate, but he might just be the right man for the job.