Part II: Marcello Lippi – The boss
After the shocking performance at Euro 2008 which culminated in the sacking of the quite frankly inept Roberto Donadoni, Marcello Lippi’s return to the Azzurri was billed as the return of the man who would lead Italy back to the pinnacle of world football. For a while it did look as though Lippi had managed to stop the proverbial rot, with Italy playing well in their World Cup qualifiers and topping the group at the end of the season with a series of solid performances. But recently, and specifically at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, things went horribly wrong. Italy looked tired and lacking in ideas, getting crushed 3-0 by Brazil after an unbelievable loss to the Egyptians. Since then, as is the norm in football, Lippi has been under intense scrutiny, with the entire Italian press looking for reasons for the team’s poor showing and part of this has been to criticize his team selection.
To understand why Lippi refuses to select Cassano it is important to understand his philosophy on how to build a football team. In an interview with The Independent newspaper, he was asked how he managed to create a World Cup-winning side. His response was enlightening: “To this day I am not convinced of having brought together with me in Germany the technically best players that could have been. But I was firmly convinced that I called the ones that could create a team, and they could play with one another to the best of their possibility. In this day and age you win if you become a team. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to have the best football players in the country. It is possible that the best, all together, don’t become a team. It’s like a mosaic, you have to put all the pieces together.” Lippi is a man who is obsessed with the concept of the team, the idea that the whole is superior to the sum of the parts, and should the delicate balance of the team be disrupted then this would cause the team to falter. To introduce a potentially combustible element into his squad would, in Lippi’s eyes, leave him with something that could threaten the team that he has created. The inclusion of Cassano would be one such element, and it is safe to assume that Lippi currently considers Fantantonio to be a risk that is not worth taking.
Although there has been much criticism of Lippi’s squad selection he has at least been consistent, in as much as he mostly selects players that he knows. Whether this is correct or not, it means that it is not simply il Talentino that finds himself out in the cold. Old-stager Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Motta, Matteo Brighi, Gaetano D’Agostino and Cassano’s club mate Giampaolo Pazzini are all players whose performances last season justified – at the very least – a proper chance to prove themselves. After all, for all Sepp Blatter’s posturing and FIFA’s spin, very few people consider the Confederations Cup a serious tournament and it would have been the perfect opportunity to bring in some new blood and give them two weeks and a minimum of three games to prove their worth. But Lippi also believes in loyalty, that players who are secure in their roles will perform better because it eliminates the nervy start that many players make in tournaments whilst worrying about their places in the side.
Lippi has never stated that Cassano will not play for la Nazionale under his watch. In fact, in an interview with Il Corriero Dello Sport at the end of last year, Lippi chose to comment on the Sampdoria striker: “Cassano does no good by being pessimistic… He shouldn’t think that he has not chance of the national team whilst I am in charge.” The door has clearly not been closed to the striker, and it is always possible that the disastrous Confederations Cup may speed up his return to Lippi’s squad, as the coach looks for a way to inject renewed enthusiasm into a deflated side. Paradoxically, it could be the case that the disaster in June could be the best thing for both Lippi and Cassano. Should Lippi bring il Talentino back into the fold, it would not be seen as an embarrassing admission that he is wrong, but as a willingness to change and adapt his team for the better.
The only way for Lippi to vindicate his stance on Cassano is to keep Italy winning. It is rare that the coach of a successful team is chastised over his team selection, and even those voices that dare to dissent are often lost under the general murmur of satisfaction. The performance at the Confederations Cup gave the press ammunition with which to attack Lippi, and given the difference between the current Italy side and the one that was victorious in 2006, it has been a justified reaction. Currently, Italy look like they need Fantantonio, but should Lippi guide Italy through qualification for next year’s World Cup without much difficulty and with a series of convincing performances, the dissenting voices will begin to wane and the former Juventus Coach will once again become the darling of Italy. Sir Alex Ferguson, in his autobiography, described Lippi as: “One impressive man. Looking into his eyes is enough to tell you that you are dealing with somebody who is in command of himself and his professional domain. Nobody could make the mistake of taking Lippi lightly.” If the wily old Manchester United manager would never take Lippi for a fool, then for anyone else to do so could prove a very bad decision.