At 6:20 a.m. on a drizzly grey Monday morning in Florence last week, a blue Fiat Bravo and a BMW pulled up outside the gates of Coverciano, the home of Italy’s national team. It was the police.
They had come to notify Domenico Criscito, the Zenit St. Petersburg left back, that prosecutors in Cremona had placed him under investigation in the latest and most dramatic development of the Last Bet scandal, which has cast a shadow over Italy for a year now.
The scandal is just the latest hit for an Italian side stumbling into the Euros. There is even doubt they will take the field on June 10 in Gdansk.
So grave is the situation that Prime Minister Mario Monti said, bluntly, “I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to suspend the game for two or three years.”
Monti, it must be said, wasn’t making a proposal or outlining his government’s position. He was speaking as a football fan. Yet his opinion was taken seriously and provoked quite a response with many suggesting that while the guilty within Italy’s most loved sport and its 12th biggest industry, would be punished if Monti’s idea became reality, so too would the innocent.
Even so, Cesare Prandelli appreciated the sentiment Monti touched upon. He stunned many on Friday by telling Rai Sport: “If they were to tell us that for the good of football Italy shouldn’t go to the Euros then it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Scandals have galvanized Italy in the past – notably at the 2006 World Cup, which they won – but Prandelli, to his credit, does not intend to use such a negative situation as a source of motivation.
“The comparisons with 2006 seem like a cliché to me. The situation is different now,” he told a press conference.
“They always say that Italy become more united in difficult situations and I hope that is the case now too. However, I don’t believe in the theory that we can only perform under pressure.
“We should be giving our best in serenity too. The important thing now is to show the people we are determined to clean up football.”
Daniele De Rossi agrees that the parallels between 2006 and 2012 are wide of the mark.
“In my opinion it’s worse than in 2006 because then directors were involved, now it’s some friends of mine, Italy teammates like Criscito and [Stefano] Mauri.”
This time players are under scrutiny and that creates tension within the dressing room that wasn’t there six years ago. It has already got to some within the camp. Keeper Gigi Buffon lost his temper and hit back at the press, calling the “leaking of news” a “disgrace.”
The next day Buffon faced allegations about how he spends his money – and that just piled more pressure on the Italy camp.
As the police swooped on other suspects across Italy, Prandelli faced another selection headache ahead of the deadline to name his final 23-man squad.
Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci has been implicated in testimony given by former teammate Andrea Masiello relating to when they played at Bari in 2009-10.
Prandelli opted to include him on the basis that “Bonucci has not received any type of notification from the prosecutor’s office. This is why he will come with us to the European Championship.”
Public opinion is divided regarding Bonucci’s call-up, but on the whole there is sympathy towards the Italy coach and the circumstances in which he finds himself.
Since qualifying for Poland and Ukraine, Prandelli’s preparations for the tournament have been gravely hampered by things more or less outside his control.
Last October, Prandelli’s top scorer Antonio Cassano had a stroke and is lucky to be alive not to mention playing competitively for his country again before Euro 2012. While Cassano recovered in time, his strike partner Giuseppe Rossi did not after suffering a relapse of a serious knee injury.
With elements of his first choice starting XI no longer available, Prandelli fought hard to get club owners in Serie A to consent to a midweek in-season training camp. After initially rejecting the idea, they granted his wish only for the event to be cancelled following the rescheduling of games that had been postponed in light of the tragic death of Livorno midfielder Piermario Morosini in April.
It was thought that everything that could go wrong had already done so. But no.
Watching their final warm-up game against Russia on Friday night, the growing pessimism around the team’s chances grew. Italy lost their third match in a row, and left the impression that the events of the last week have taken a significant toll.
Monday’s police raid at Coverciano was followed by Tuesday’s terrible earthquake in Emilia-Romagna, which brought about the decision to call off Italy’s warm-up match with Luxembourg in Parma out of respect for those who sadly lost their lives.
Prandelli could be forgiven for thinking that this maybe isn’t Italy’s year. It’s a shame. He has done so much to restore a sense of honor and pride to the national team. In Prandelli, there could perhaps be no one better to lead Italy right now. Forget the results. Dampen the expectations. His moral compass is headed in the right direction. He is the right man with the right values to lead Italy out of the darkness and into the light.
From the start of his tenure, Prandelli introduced an ethical code to make players accountable for their actions and understand that representing their country comes with responsibility. His Italy went above and beyond the call of duty. He wanted it to stand for something and to be a force for the good.
For instance, last November Prandelli accepted an invitation from Don Luigi Ciotti, an anti-mafia campaigner, to bring Italy to train on a pitch in Rizziconi that locals were too afraid to play on in case they disrespected the local ‘Ndrangheta clan from whom it had been confiscated by the authorities.
It was as if to say: ‘If Italy can play here, then so can you.’
As it happens, as Criscito was leaving Coverciano, he crossed paths with the Ternana player Fabio Pisacane, a friend and fellow Neapolitan with whom he had come through the ranks at Genoa. Pisacane had been invited to Italy’s training camp at the special request of Prandelli as a reward for standing up to match-fixers, reporting them to the police and setting an example. According to La Repubblica, Criscito presented Pisacane with his No. 4 shirt in a gesture that was charged with symbolism.
He was there with the Gubbio defender Simone Farina, who had been named a FIFA Football for Hope ambassador earlier this year for also informing the authorities of an attempt to fix a game.
“I must have come on the wrong day,” Farina joked.
As for Criscito, he maintains his innocence. Innocent or not, Criscito won’t be in Poland. After talks with the vice-president of the Italian Football Federation Demetrio Albertini and Prandelli, it was decided Criscito would be omitted from the Euro 2012 squad.
“I am not taking Criscito because he would have been under pressure which no human being can bear,” Prandelli said.
“The other reason is that he could have been summoned by a prosecutor at any moment before a match.”