Pitchside Europe

Tottenham’s gain will be huge loss to Italy if Prandelli moves

Cesare Prandelli

Turning to the back pages of Saturday’s La Repubblica, a story run by the paper really caught the attention: “Prandelli chooses London,” insisted the headline.

This sceptred isle, Albion’s capital, the city they call the big smoke is apparently the destiny of Italian coach Cesare Prandelli, and not just when England play his team in sweltering Manaus on June 14 in the group stages of the World Cup this summer. After the tournament in Brazil, Prandelli will “almost certainly” coach Tottenham, wrote Francesco Saverio Intorcia. It’s a bold claim.

After parting company with Andre Villas-Boas on December 16 following a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool at White Hart Lane, Tottenham promoted Tim Sherwood from his role with the development squad. He was to be more than just a caretaker. Within a week of taking charge Tottenham announced Sherwood had been made first team coach on a permanent basis with a contract until the end of next season.

On the whole results have been good. Although knocked out of the League Cup by West Ham and the FA Cup by rivals Arsenal, and despite being considered a tactical naif, Tottenham have lost only once in the Premier League under Sherwood - a 5-1 defeat to Man City - and have never been closer to the top of the table at this stage of the season since the top flight was rebranded in 1992.

All that, however, hasn’t stopped the speculation about who will be behind the desk at Tottenham’s Enfield training ground in July and on the bench at the Lane come August.

The sense remains that Sherwood is on trial until the end of the campaign when his position will be reviewed. Until the weekend, the Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal - often mentioned in connection with the post since Villas-Boas’ dismissal - appeared to be the upgrade on standby should Tottenham decide to make another change in the summer.

Earlier this month, Van Gaal did nothing to discourage the notion that contact had been made, explaining to reporters: “There’ll be a moment I can tell you guys more about that but that moment is not now.”

On his future he added: “I’ll quit after the World Cup… and everybody knows that there’s one more top competition I would like to work in.”

Ajax coach Frank de Boer, another name linked with Tottenham, said they - and Liverpool - are “clubs that I think in the future I could be manager of.”

Unlike them, Prandelli hasn’t commented on the prospect of working at Tottenham. And one suspects that as a gentleman with respect for his peers, and as someone with a code of ethics who likes to be seen to do the right thing, he won’t.

Prior to the story in La Repubblica, Prandelli has spoken about his future, though. He’s had to. Back in September, Sky Italia’s Alessandro Alciato, the biographer of Carlo Ancelotti and Andrea Pirlo, claimed Prandelli will step down after the World Cup.

An announcement was expected once qualification was secured but it never came. One is anticipated, however, next month.

“After the friendly with Spain,” Prandelli told La Repubblica on February 5, “I will meet with [FIGC] president [Giancarlo] Abete and we will make a series of considerations. We will not go to Brazil with the matter in suspense.”

When asked for his opinion on his predecessor Marcello Lippi’s belief that a coach should be at the helm of a national team for four years and no more because after that length of time the same face, same voice, and same words lose their impact, he replied: “That could be true, but I don’t intend to face this theme now. The plan for the World Cup has started.”

Abete believes “there’s still the possibility [Prandelli] could stay after Brazil,” but others are less optimistic.

Like a lot of international managers, Prandelli has said that he misses the day-to-day contact with players, the going into training every Monday to start preparing for a game at the weekend.

And while he has found coaching his country to be a fulfilling, enriching and unforgettable experience, an honour and a privilege, certain aspects of it have left him weary and disillusioned.

Given the context he’s working in, Prandelli has done an extraordinary job. There’s a case to be made that his tenure will go down as one of the most successful in the history of the Azzurri, even if he weren’t to win anything with Italy, because his work has gone beyond results.

Italy were at their lowest point since 1966 when Prandelli replaced Lippi in 2010. An old generation of players was retiring and a new one yet to emerge in a league where the ratio of local to foreign talent is similar to that in England. And yet Prandelli managed to restore pride in the footballers representing Italy and the fans supporting their country.

His national team became an example to follow. He imbued it with a sense of responsibility, imposing a code of conduct that the players had to respect. He gave it a social conscience, taking the squad to train on pitches where locals were too afraid to play amid intimidation from the local mafia, as well as in towns afflicted by natural disasters. He invited players from the lower leagues who’d stood up to and reported match-fixing to spend time with the team as a reward.

He has made Italy so likeable. They have won many new admirers. Respect for them is no longer begrudging because Prandelli has inverted the stereotype of Italy as a defensive, counter-attacking nation. Under him, they have played on the front foot, seeking to take the initiative and impose themselves on opponents with possession-based, offensive minded football. That way, if they lost, they could at least say they gave it a shot and leave with their heads held high, as they did in the final of Euro 2012.

That was a remarkable achievement. No one in Italy expected them to go that far just two years after they finished bottom of a group including Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. So bearing all that in mind and the regard in which Prandelli is held, you’d imagine he is the subject of a lot of interest.

Were he to step down after the World Cup, though, the kind of job he’d aspire to in Serie A is unlikely to be available. Juventus intend to extend Antonio Conte’s contract. And why wouldn’t they? Milan have replaced Massimiliano Allegri - the early favourite to succeed Prandelli as coach of Italy - with the inexperienced Clarence Seedorf. If only they’d waited. Prandelli would have been perfect for them what with Milan wanting to build a team around Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia de Sciglio, as well as promote kids from their Viareggio-winning youth side. As for Inter, their new owner Erik Thohir seems intent on retaining Walter Mazzarri. For now at least.

So if Prandelli were looking for a new challenge, it would likely have to be abroad. Tottenham general manager Franco Baldini has appointed him before. Remember he chose Prandelli to replace Fabio Capello at Roma a decade ago. Unforeseen circumstances intervened, however. Prandelli resigned after six weeks to care for his wife Manuela who was battling the serious illness to which she’d sadly succumb in 2007.

It remains to be seen if he will be reunited with Baldini at Tottenham. Were Prandelli to go - and unless he stays with Italy I doubt we’ll learn his destination until the end of the season - it would be a great loss to Italian football.

No one has done more to push for change and the reform of the game in Italy than he has over the last four years. It would exacerbate the brain drain in Serie A too with a lot of the country’s most successful and intelligent coaches - Fabio Capello, Lippi, Ancelotti, Luciano Spalletti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri - all working abroad.

You couldn’t blame Prandelli, though. Were Tottenham to go in a different direction to Sherwood, he’d be a great appointment. Of that there’s no doubt. But a lot can happen between now and the end of the season domestic and international, so let’s watch this space.