They came, they saw, they conquered, or at least left the nation in tears. We are of course talking about the select few men given the unenviable task of leading the Azzurri into battle. Football Italiano reflects on past Coaches to have tried their hand at one of football’s hardest tasks as Coach of the Italian national team.
Milan during the late 1980s and early 1990s was an incredibly good place to be. It was the height of world fashion but more importantly (for some of us at least) the height of world football. The Rossoneri under their legendary boss Arrigo Sacchi had become an almost invincible football machine, winning numerous titles at home and abroad. They were blessed with heroes such as Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Italian stalwarts Franco Baresi and Carlo Ancelotti. The team also contained a certain Roberto Donadoni, a winger with pace, guile and incredible technique. He picked up 63 caps for his country and was undoubtedly an integral part of this all-conquering Milan side. Donadoni is also remembered for his penalty shootout miss in the semi-final against Argentina at Italia 90 which somewhat soured his otherwise perfect professional playing career. Unfortunately, his time as Italy boss would also be blighted by moments of misfortune, bad timing and a lack of good old-fashioned luck.
Prior to taking over the national team, Donadoni’s coaching career had been promising if not spectacular. Having begun his journey with Serie C1 side Lecco in 2001, he took over the top job at Livorno in 2002. A very brief spell at Genoa during the 2003/04 season culminated in him returning to Livorno in 2005, where he brilliantly led the small Tuscan-based outfit to sixth place in the table until his shock resignation in February, 2006, after Amaranto chairman, Aldo Spinelli, felt it necessary to lambast Donadoni’s tactics after a 2-2 draw with Messina during a televison interview. A hurt Donadoni felt this was not the way he wanted to be treated and he immediately quit the club. Little did he know that in a few months time, this unsavoury incident would pave the way for the 42-year-old to be considered as Marcello Lippi’s successor, after the Azzurri’s glorious triumph at the 2006 World Cup in Berlin.
Lippi’s decision to step down after winning the World Cup left the Italian Football Association (FIGC) with a problem. Who could possibly take on the mammoth task of building on the successes achieved by the Viareggio-based Tactician? With a wealth of top coaches at their disposal at the time, there should have been an avalanche of applications. However, not one felt they could break a club contract to lead the national side. Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti, Cesare Prandelli and Luciano Spalletti to name but a few would have been prime candidates for the job, but all had commitments they supposedly could not get themselves away from. Was it conceivable that some of these big name bosses felt that leading the current world champions was too much of a risk and that failure would leave a very big stain on their copy book? Whatever the reason, the FIGC decided that Donadoni should be approached and he was offered the role of national Coach. He was a young Coach with fresh ideas, huge success as a player, over 60 caps for his country and free of any club commitment. Could this have been a masterstroke by the FIGC or, as some commentators believed, the only real option available to them? Either way, Donadoni was installed as Azzurri Coach and the response by supporters and pundits alike, was luke warm to say the least. Leading La Nazionale should be the pinnacle of a Tactician’s career, a job that requires experience, a winning mentality and an impeccable track record. The jury was already out on him while the ink on his contract was still drying. With the qualifiers for the European Championships fast approaching, Donadoni would have little time to convince a nation, and the stupendously difficult task of stepping out of Lippi’s shadow, which would eerily hang over him throughout the whole of his reign.
His first game in charge, a friendly against Croatia on August 16, 2008, did little to enhance the faith the FIGC had shown in him. He chose to give the majority of the World Cup-winning squad a rest, calling up only third-choice goalkeeper Marco Amelia. The result was a 2-0 home defeat, ironically in Livorno of all places. Lippi’s first game in charge had also been a 2-0 reverse, prompting a nation that thrives on sporting superstitions to be not overly upset by the score-line. The match also marked the emergence of an attack-minded 4-3-3 system, previously unused by Azzurri Coaches, who had always tended to stick by a more cautious approach to team formations. This tactic was to be further employed as September arrived and the Azzurri’s road to European Championship qualification began. The group was one of the toughest, and Donadoni would have to pit himself against dangerous opponents such as Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine, a resurgent Scotland outfit but more worryingly Raymond Domenech’s Les Bleus, who would be more than motivated to avenge the defeat in the World Cup final only months earlier. But before such glamour ties were to be contemplated, Italy began with what looked on paper at least, the simple task of overcoming a modest Lithuania side in Naples.
Unfortunately for Donadoni, this first game was to set off the sound of sharpening knives, which he would never be able to silence throughout his entire time in charge. A poor 1-1 draw was all La Nazionale could muster, even with 10 world champions and the recalled Antonio Cassano in the new look 4-3-3 set-up. To make matters worse, Donadoni and his men would have to face France four days later, with the pressure already beginning to mount on his relatively young shoulders. The game proved a disaster for Italy and Donadoni. At a packed Stade de France in Paris, Domenech’s team outclassed a lacklustre Italy with a comfortable 3-1 home victory. A change to 4-4-1-1 formation did little to mask the inadequacies of the earlier Lithuanian result and Italy’s chances of qualifying for the championships were already in the balance after only two matches. A Coach clearly out of his depth was guiding the world champions, or so the fans and media believed. But Donadoni was not about to let the critics dampen his footballing beliefs. And with the spectre of Lippi looming ever larger, the Coach stuck to his principles and embarked on a 10-match unbeaten run in qualifying. What is often overlooked when discussing Donadoni’s career is the fact that he used at least four different formations throughout the qualifying campaign. Italy qualified as group winners under his stewardship, amazingly three points clear of the aforementioned French. Despite being handed arguably the toughest group of all, the Italians reached the finals comfortably. The use of the four different formations (4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-5-1) brought about two schools of thought. Either this was a Coach that did not know what his best team was and stumbled his way to the top of the group, or, here was a talented man who could adapt his team and tactics depending on the opponent to maximum effect. In keeping with popular opinion on his handling of the national team, most critics put their money on the former.
The European Championships in the summer of 2008 proved a disaster for both Italy and Donadoni. The results were poor but what is often overlooked are the factors surrounding the catastrophe, for which Donadoni was completely blamed and ultimately paid the price with his job. Firstly, Donadoni had had to rebuild a team without retired star duo Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti. Secondly and perhaps most crucially, Azzurri captain Fabio Cannavaro pulled out of the squad days before the competition’s start through injury. His replacements, Andrea Barzagli and Marco Materazzi, were in unexplicably atrocious form. Furthermore, top marksman Luca Toni went on to experience his worst games ever in an Azzurri shirt. Finally, he was warned by his employers that anything less than a semi-final appearance would put his contract renewal in jeopardy while rumours of a potential return for Lippi filled more and more newspaper column inches. Italy’s 3-0 defeat to Holland in the opening match saw Lady Luck turn her back firmly on Donadoni. Admittedly, the Azzurri did not play well, but the first goal saw Ruud van Nistelrooy standing clearly in an offside position (with Christian Panucci lying off the pitch injured). The Dutchman’s reaction after the ball went in clearly showed just how dubious the goal was. Holland’s second came moments after Italy had a scoring chance of their own cleared off the line. Then during the match against Romania, Toni had a perfectly good goal chalked off before a magnificent save from Gianluigi Buffon spared further blushes after a debatable penalty was awarded to the Romanians. The match ended 1-1 meaning Italy had to beat France again which they did, 2-0. The Azzurri were then handed a tough quarter-final clash against eventual winners Spain. The ex-Livorno Coach went into the game with a team low on form and morale despite their victory over the French. The defence was fragile without Cannavaro, Toni never looked likely to hit the back of the net and the tenacious Gennaro Gattuso was suspended for the match. Donadoni decided upon a cautious defensive strategy against a Spanish team that had most pundits salivating at their slick style of football. Donadoni’s tactical game was heavily criticised by the media, though he came incredibly close to knocking Spain out, and had the penalty shootout gone in his favour after a 0-0 draw, who knows how the European football roadmap would look today.
Certain conclusions can be drawn from Donadoni’s time as Italy Coach. He was inexperienced but he showed impressive tactical awareness. He took over a team that was suffering from a heavy World Cup hangover but comfortably guided Italy to qualification from an immensely difficult group. Key players were missing and others were in shocking form throughout the entire European Championships, yet he came within one penalty kick of eliminating arguably the best team in the world. Despite all this, fans and commentators never embraced him and the scent of Lippi followed him wherever he and his squad went. He left as inconspicuously as he arrived, refused any compensation for his sacking and was promptly replaced by his predecessor Lippi. His two-year tenure was over and the prodigal son returned, much to the delight of all of Italy.