On Saturday night, the snowy-haired president of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), Gabriele Gravina, received a notification. It was a PEC — the certified emails that have replaced the fax machine in the mythology of binding football paperwork. The message, on behalf of Roberto Mancini, tendered his resignation as Italy manager.
A long weekend awaited. Literally, in this case.
Ferragosto is a public holiday. Visit one of Italy’s big cities at this time of the year and, aside from the tourists, they are deserted. The Italians are at the beach. It’s the last weekend before the start of a new Serie A season. A chance to be beside the sea rather than in the stands of some stadium up and down the bel paese. But relaxing it wasn’t for Gravina. Not as it should have been.
Upheaval has characterised this summer.
Paolo Nicolato stepped down from the under-21s job after his Azzurrini failed to get out of the group stage at the European Championship in late June. A team captained by Newcastle United’s new arrival Sandro Tonali never recovered from the refereeing mistakes in the opening game against France, which were scandalously uncorrected in the absence of VAR and goal-line technology from the competition in Georgia and Romania.
A month on, Milena Bertolini handed in her notice after group-stage elimination from the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Criticised for leaving such a leader as Juventus captain Sara Gama at home, Bertolini’s team selections and faith in inexperience backfired.
The players felt all alone on the other side of the world. No one from the FIGC flew out to support the team in a perceived show of no confidence.
Gravina did not escape criticism.
His priorities were questioned amid reports of him giving consideration to standing in regional elections in the Abruzzo region, where, as anyone who has read Joe McGinnis’ 1999 book will know, he was once club president of the miraculous Castel di Sangro.
Gravina ruled it out and rode things out. There were enough highs to push the lows to the back of people’s minds.
Italy did get to the final of the Under-20 World Cup in Uruguay in early June, fired by the goals of the player of the tournament, Chelsea’s Cesare Casadei. Then in July, after a series of near misses, they won the Under-19 Euros for the first time in two decades, a long overdue reward for the work of the FIGC’s technical coordinator Maurizio Viscidi.
All of a sudden, the future seemed bright again and Mancini had plenty of cause for optimism and reason enough to stay in the job.
Only 10 days ago, the FIGC announced an “evolution” in its structure. This hit the mainstream news at a time of extreme transfer aggregation because Gianluigi Buffon, after finally hanging up his glove at age 45, joined the national team set-up. Buffon takes on the role left by the late Gianluca Vialli as head of delegation; it’s a motivational onboarding position, the purpose of which is to set the tone at training camp, make sure standards are met and teach players how to belt out the national anthem.
In the end, the small print of the FIGC’s revamp was more important than the Buffon headline.
Mancini was given greater oversight of the under-21s and under-20s. This entailed having more of a say in squad selection and the stylistic and philosophical alignment of these teams. Both would train and play like his senior side to best facilitate the graduation of players from one to the next; something that wasn’t much of a problem anyway when you consider Mancini gave 57 players their Italy debuts in his five years.
Superficially, it meant more power. But in this house of cards, the reshuffle didn’t end there. Mancini’s staff, a band of brothers forged during his playing days at Sampdoria, was largely broken up. Fausto Salsano would remain by his side in the dugout, but Alberico Evani and Giulio Nuciari’s time with the national team came to an end.
While change is never easy, there were still jobs for the boys.
Attilio Lombardo, his trusted assistant, became the coach of the under-20s after Carmine Nunziata succeeded Nicolato at the helm of the under-21s. Antonio Gagliardi, an FIGC lifer and tactical luminary who was on the staff when Italy won the Euros in 2021, returned to its HQ at Coverciano after striking out on his own and assisting Andrea Pirlo. The promotion of Alberto Bollini, who led the under-19s to that Euros triumph in Malta, was deserved, and ample reward that was frankly hard to begrudge.
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“I’m surprised, disappointed and perplexed,” Italy’s minister of sport Andrea Abodi tweeted upon hearing of Mancini’s notice. “It’s a surprise decision on Ferragosto: all very strange. It makes me think: were the recently announced appointments approved by him or not?”
The timing of Mancini’s resignation had caught everyone off-guard.
If he’d walked into the sunset after Italy’s shock defeat to North Macedonia in that ill-fated World Cup play-off in March last year, it would have been understandable. But memories of Italy going unbeaten in 37 games and winning the Euros for the first time in more than half a century were still fresh two years on.
The inevitable and ungrateful calls for Mancini’s head in the immediate aftermath of that loss in Palermo overlooked the small details, the breaks of the game, the penalties Jorginho missed both in Basel and Rome against Switzerland, the team who qualified for Qatar at Italy’s expense.
Getting over it was hard. Carrying on without Vialli, his closest friend and infinite source of positivity, was too. After scaling a mountain, Mancini found himself unexpectedly down the bottom again. He had envisaged winning the World Cup last December. Italy’s participation in that tournament would have been another natural end-point, regardless of the outcome.
Instead, the man who led Italy to an epic redemption was confusedly in need of it himself, back to square one. He tried to pick himself up and dust himself off. Mancini led a new team to the final four of the Nations League earlier this summer. But in the Dutch city of Enschede, he cut a jaded figure and looked like a spent force after Italy lost to eventual champions Spain 2-1 in their semi-final. The manner of the defeat hurt, as the decisive goal came in the 88th minute.
Again, Mancini stayed when it would have been entirely logical for him to go. Certainly more logical than leaving on August 13, amid the strong suspicion that Saudi Arabia’s petrodollars have led him into temptation and a competitive salary — competitive with the Saudi Pro League, anyway — with their national team (under an interim manager since Herve Renard resigned in March to lead homeland France at the Women’s World Cup and with their Euros equivalent Asian Cup looming in January).
After working for a club owned by Abu Dhabi in Manchester City and others in Russia and Turkey, Mancini’s horizons are as broad as his pockets are deep.
There are two schools of thought on the suddenness of his departure.
First of all, the timing is awful insofar as Serie A starts later than the other big leagues and so its players will be that little bit rustier going into next month’s round of European Championship qualifiers.
A squad for their two games, on September 9 and 12, needs picking presto and Italy are in a delicate position.
While reaching the final four of the Nations League does at least assure them of a place in the play-offs for a spot at the Euros next summer, Italy will want to avoid having to use it. After losing to England on home soil in March for the first time since 1961, the best Italy can surely hope for is the runners-up spot in Group C, which brings automatic qualification. Standing in their way are, hauntingly enough, North Macedonia and a resilient Ukraine.
The risk of an instant irreversible loss of face for the new coach is therefore quite high.
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On the flip side, Mancini has had the good grace to exit when coaches of the calibre of Luciano Spalletti and Antonio Conte are available.
In some respects, it couldn’t be better, and this piles pressure on Gravina. He honestly can’t afford to mess this up as his predecessor Carlo Tavecchio did in 2016 by replacing Conte with the out-of-his-depth Gian Piero Ventura. Gravina has to lean on the promise of the under-19s and under-20s and point to the number of Italians starting for Inter Milan, Roma and Fiorentina in last season’s three European finals.
“I’m not ruling out anything,” Spalletti said, when asked in May about one day taking the Italy job. “I have to think about what inspires me and the national team would definitely be inspiring, because it’d allow me to take some time out every now and then. It’d definitely be a good solution, but I’d need to have an idea of what kind of national team it is.”
Not far from Coverciano, Italy’s training base in Florence, is the Tuscan farm where Spalletti is spending his sabbatical, tending to his ducks and driving the old tractor round after delivering Napoli their first league title in 33 years last season.
The bald aesthete wished to spend more quality time with his family after a couple of intense seasons in the bay area, particularly with his young daughter, and the cadence of international football would, along with the prestige of being CT (Commissario Tecnico), provide him with an appealing work-life balance.
The FIGC, however, would need to pay a clause worth €3.25million (£2.8m; $3.56m) as he is still under contract with Napoli unless, that is, their owner Aurelio De Laurentiis asks not what his country can do for him but rather what he can do for his country. The clause is a non-compete after all, and national teams do not compete with clubs.
As for Conte, he’s already had a crack at this job and left it, on a high, for Chelsea in 2016. He was emotionally conflicted about his departure, in the aftermath of a penalty shootout defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals of the Euros in France. The worst Italy squad in decades, talent-wise, played the best football of the tournament and left the impression they could have won the whole thing if only Simone Zaza and Graziano Pelle had not made such ludicrous choices with their spot kicks.
So Conte has unfinished business with Italy but his salary level is prohibitive and the squad less familiar than the one he assumed control of in 2014, which drew heavily on his Juventus teams of previous seasons.
Make no mistake, in order to be credible, Gravina has to attract one of these two.
Claudio Ranieri presumably can’t leave Cagliari in the lurch, so emotionally tied is he to that club — and besides, his last international gig with Greece went so badly that some Leicester City fans couldn’t believe he was hired to replace their 2015 relegation-fight saviour Nigel Pearson.
The World Cup heroes of 2006 have various degrees of coaching experience now but aren’t totally convincing.
It’s a blue moment, and whether Gravina has Miles Davis’ genius for improvisation is questionable.
(Top photo: Claudio Villa/Getty Images)