Every Italian player I have interviewed so far has said, without fail, that this is a very united squad, and although this is the sort of standard line that most players trot out, in the case of Italy, the camaraderie is clear to see.
As Cesare Prandelli said recently, "I give us a seven out of ten for the team spirit these guys have created," though in truth the unity in the group stems from a coach who has succeeded in integrating established members of the Azzurri firmament, such as Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano – who, as the chief practical jokers in the side, have certainly helped his cause – with new arrivals such as Emanuele Giaccherini, Fabio Borini and Alessandro Diamanti.
Prandelli has managed to forge a tight-knit group by stressing the importance of playing good football – enjoy your football, play the right way and the results will come. The 54-year-old is serious about the way the game should be played but believes that a relaxed squad is a successful one. The players have enjoyed days off with their wives and girlfriends and returned his trust by working hard in training.
Though a calm and dignified figure, the Azzurri coach has also ensured that he leads by example. If he says something, he means it. Back in February, after decreeing that players guilty of breaking disciplinary codes would be overlooked for international selection, he omitted Pablo Osvaldo and Mario Balotelli from his squad to face the United States due to offences of ungentlemanly conduct committed while playing for their clubs.
Prandelli believes that only by leading from the front and having the same rules for everyone can he get all his players pulling in the same direction. This is why, after promising a group of Benedictine monks that he would visit them if Italy qualified for the quarter-finals, he did just that early on Tuesday morning.
In a town famous for its religious pilgrimages, Prandelli embarked on one of his own. Starting off at 3am, after an exhausted Azzurri party had returned from their 2-0 victory against the Republic of Ireland in Poznan and dined together in their team hotel, the Italy coach and his backroom staff made a 21km, three-and-a-half hour trip by foot from their Wieliczka base to the Camaldolese priory on the outskirts of Krakow.
This is a coach who sticks to his word, and by doing so he has earned the respect of his players. In fact, these players have in turn made a promise of their own: should they get past England and reach the semi-finals, they have all agreed to forego their prize money, which will instead be donated to the victims of the earthquake which struck Emilia-Romagna recently, leaving 27 people dead, scores injured and thousands homeless.
To put the potential figure into perspective, for winning the FIFA World Cup in 2006 the Azzurri squad pocketed a total figure of around €5m.
Prandelli is a force for good, and his influence is rubbing off on his players. Forza Italia.
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