Capping "Your Boys" Doesn't Really Work

Modern Italian coaches have had a habit of capping certain players and showing favouritism towards them when others wouldn’t. Even though some of these players are stars, most of these players are called-up out of loyalty and some selections even defy logic. Showing favouritism to “your boys” might be to your benefit as Italy coach or a fatal flaw.

This trend is likely to have been started by Enzo Bearzot, Italy’s coach in the 1982 World Cup victory. He called-up Paolo Rossi, who starred at the 1978 World Cup yet he had been out of the game for two years due to alleged match-fixing.

After four uninspiring performances, Rossi still started against Brazil in the second phase of España 82. He was Italy’s hero by the end of the World Cup, scoring six goals as the Azzurri marched on to victory.

Persisting in Rossi paid off dividends for Bearzot but his successors seem to have copied him and not achieve the desired result. At least Rossi was a star and a striker of great quality. Bearzot’s successors have placed faith in some creative players but it’s their faith in certain workhorses that most people find mind-boggling. 

Current Italian coach Cesare Prandelli has this habit as well. Even though I have been satisfied with most of his selections, there are still a few players that aren’t of a high enough quality to be Italian internationals.

Prandelli can’t be and shouldn’t be the only one to be accused of this. Italian coaches call-up players that they have great trust in yet these players don’t always have the best skills. If you look back in the last 25 years or so, Azzurri coaches have trusted “their boys” or even looked for their own Paolo Rossi. Bearzot’s successor Azeglio Vicini kept the ball rolling.

Vicini placed great faith in Giuseppe Giannini while he was coaching the Azzurri. The attacking midfielder worked wonders at youth level for Vicini and he was an important player at senior level too. After failing to qualify for Euro 92, Vicini was sacked as Italy’s coach and Giannini never won another cap.

Gianluca Vialli was another regular Vicini turned to with both the Azzurrini and Azzurri. After an impressive spell with the Azzurrini and firing in the goals for the senior team in the Euro 88 qualifiers, the striker was disappointing at Euro 88 itself and Italia 90.

Perhaps Vialli might have done better if his Sampdoria teammate Roberto Mancini won more caps. After a disappointing Euro 88, Mancini was capped less often by Azzurri. Some people reckon Roberto Baggio’s emergence halted his progress but seems to be nothing more than an excuse.

Mancini once said: “Nonsense! Anyone who understands football understands we could have easily played together.” We will never how well these two #10s could have played if they were paired at a major tournament. For many years, Italian coaches have refused to play with more than one fantasista or #10 and this case was no different.

Salvatore Schillaci was Italy’s hero at Italia 90 and “Baggiomania” was alive yet Vicini stuck with Vialli in attack. Sampdoria won the scudetto in 1990/91 but that form didn’t translate into success for Italy and his international career after Vicini’s sacking slowly came to an end.

Vicini’s replacement Arrigo Sacchi was the worst offender. It’s worthy of an article by itself but I’ll only give you a summary for now. Not only did he cap “his boys” frequently but he constantly changed his starting line-up after every international. It was the anti-thesis of Bearzot, who hardly changed his starting line-ups.

Sacchi had a massive tendency to call-up players from his old clubs Parma and Milan. Players like Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi winning caps wasn’t an issue at all. Milan was the best club in the world in the early 90s and Maldini and Baresi are arguably the two best defenders to have played the game.

Sacchi’s tendency to cap certain workhorses made little sense. Even Parma’s veteran midfielder Daniele Zoratto won a solitary cap in 1993. Luca Bucci and Roberto Mussi played under Sacchi at Parma and the former shoe salesman capped them for the Azzurri. Bucci was never a world-class keeper and although Mussi didn’t play badly at USA 94, Italy had better options.

Nicola Berti was one of the very few Interisti that was capped by Sacchi. He was a workhorse and he had played for Parma, although he was sold just before Sacchi came to the club.

One workhorse that had no connection to Sacchi’s past yet still managed to get into the Euro 96 squad was Fabio Rossitto. A fine player for Udinese but he wasn’t an international standard player.

There is more to tell about Sacchi’s reign but that can wait for another day. Fortunately, the two coaches who succeeded Sacchi, Cesare Maldini and Dino Zoff, didn’t show favouritism to certain players. Despite that, they too could be accused of not giving Roberto Baggio enough match-time.

Giovanni Trapattoni carried on that trend of not capping Baggio as well as selecting certain players that weren’t really up to the international level of football.  Angelo Di Livio was a star at Juve but at 36, he wasn’t going to be a match-winner at Korea-Japan 2002.

Cristiano Doni had a great season with Atalanta in 2001/02 but he was poor at the World Cup. Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero deserved to be called-up for the 2002 World Cup but they didn’t live up to the hype.

If there was a veteran and creative player that need to be called-up in 2002, it was Baggio. “The Divine Ponytail” had more creativity than Di Livio, more experience at a high level than Doni and handled big occasions better than Totti and Del Piero. “Trap” might have been subscribing for the “I am Jealous of Roberto Baggio Club”.

Trapattoni was replaced by Marcello Lippi after Italy failed to reach the Euro 2004 quarter-finals. Some people can blame the “biscotto” between Sweden and Denmark but “Trap’s” tactics became dated. His bizarre selection for the Euros was Bernardo Corradi instead of the emerging Alberto Gilardino.
Lippi started to cap Gilardino and in his first stint, the former Juve coach was right to call-up Gila. He could have made an exception in 2010, when Gila looked static and overweight.

He too had a habit of calling-up workhorses Vincenzo Iaquinta and Simone Pepe and omitted Antonio Cassano. Lippi was so grateful to Fabio Cannavaro that he still brought him to South Africa 2010, even though the defender was clearly past his peak and in horrendous form for Juventus.

Cassano was out of form when Italy won the 2006 World Cup but he was at his peak in 2010 and the best Italian #10 when Lippi didn’t bring him to South Africa. The Azzurri went out in the group stage and failed to win a match.

The ex-Juve coach showed too much faith in the workhorses and in his heroes from Germany 2006. Some selections like Cristian Zaccardo, Simone Barone and Iaquinta disappointed Azzurri fans back in ’06 but the Palermo duo had limited time on the pitch and Iaquinta usually came off the bench.

Unfortunately for Lippi, there was nowhere to hide after the 2010 disaster so Cesare Prandelli was brought in and he has freshened up the Azzurri. Italy is playing some of its best football in years and the squad is younger yet even Prandelli has provided some odd selections.

Prandelli’s “boys” include players such as Emmanuele Giaccherini, Thiago Motta, Morgan De Sanctis, Christian Maggio and Gilardino. Most of the players mentioned don’t really merit a spot but “Gila’s” selection isn’t such a bad one.

Giaccherini receives call-ups despite not being a regular starter for Juventus. Prandelli said recently that he admired “Giac’s” work ethic. Oriundo Motta is usually used in the faux-trequartista role but without much success. The Napoli duo had good cases for call-ups in the past but now they are past their best.

“Gila” can be labelled as one of “Prandelli’s boys” but he is a unique case. Whenever Gilardino is being coached by Prandelli, he scores goals for fun. Without Prandelli, “Gila” is a lesser player.

He is over 30 but Gilardino has followed in the footsteps of Roberto Baggio, Beppe Signori and Marco Di Vaio to go to Bologna and revive his career. It has worked and with Prandelli coaching the Azzurri, he can win more caps but he must keep up the form.

Prandelli has some great players under his disposal but some of them aren’t up to it. If the nucleus is in good shape, things can work well. If not, his “boys” aren’t going to pick up the pieces and fix them. They might be the scapegoats.

There is over a year to go until Brazil 2014 and Prandelli must choose wisely. Previous Italian coaches have shown that if you show favouritism towards certain players, it can pay off but it usually backfires very badly.