Ruing Rossi: Cesare Prandelli's Gamble

The decision to leave Giuseppe Rossi out of the World Cup is a heartbreaking one, but Jeremy Lim backs Cesare Prandelli for making the right choice.

Another major summer tournament approaches and Giuseppe Rossi is still wondering what it will take to get his international career on the road. The forward will not be starring for Italy at the upcoming World Cup, after head coach Cesare Prandelli pragmatically opted to deny the former Manchester United youth player over fitness concerns.

The decision deepens Rossi’s international plight. His marginal existence for country began in 2010, when Marcello Lippi’s baffling oversight of the rising star saw him excluded from the Azzurri’s World Cup group stage exit. Italy then enjoyed some opportunity to enjoy the starlet’s abilities in full flow as he featured heavily under Prandelli during Euro 2012 qualification.

Alas the good times were not to last for the striker. He would miss the championship in Poland and Ukraine through injury, in what was the start of a nightmarish two year spell spent on the sidelines. Only rehabilitated recently, Rossi returned to thrilling Italian audiences last season, this time for Serie A side Fiorentina.

His time in Florence initially appeared to offer some respite. The highlight of Rossi’s first campaign at the Artemio Franchi was his hat-trick during the epic 4-2 turnaround against Juventus last October. The Viola had been trailing by two goals before his intervention. But Rossi produced three splendid finishes to chase the Italian champions back to Turin, humbled and chastened.

It was the first occasion in which Rossi had struck three times in a single match. His treble took his season’s tally to eight goals in as many Serie A games. The marksman's resurgence had by now become legendary.

A young Giuseppi Rossi dons Manchester United colours

Lurking misfortune

First snapping the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while playing for Villarreal in October 2011, Rossi suffered a crippling relapse in a bid to return for Euro 2012 soon after. It would not be until May 2013 that he returned to the pitch, this time with Fiorentina after the outfit chose to take a gamble on his eventual return to fitness. Refusing to let his career fall by the wayside, he celebrated a return to scoring form in August that year, ending what must have seemed like an eternity - 23 months without a goal.

Each subsequent chapter to Rossi’s career has turned out to be better than its prequel. Forced to leave Manchester United for want of space and playing time, the New Jersey-born player saved boyhood club Parma from relegation, before earning a reputation as La Liga’s finest player outside of Barcelona or Real Madrid at Villarreal.

It now appears that Fiorentina gambled correctly in their decision to take him on. By the start of 2014, ‘Pepito’ was Serie A’s top scorer, or Capocannoniere. A magnificent return of 14 goals earned him bragging rights over the likes of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain. For a moment, he looked on course to match his own personal best haul of 32 strikes in 52 appearances, secured during his last full campaign in Spain.

Yet misfortune still lurked cruelly behind the forward. It made its claim on Rossi again when roughhouse defender Leandro Rinaudo came crashing through during Fiorentina’s Tuscan derby date with Livorno on January 5th, leaving the 26-year-old writhing on the pitch clutching his right knee. News emerged later that he had escaped another ligament tear, but would still be sidelined for the next four months.

The antagonist became widely deplored in Italy. It was only three months before that Rossi was brought back into the Azzurri setup. His 17-minute appearance against Armenia - the striker’s first in two years - raised hopes of seeing the finished article finally leading his nation at a World Cup Finals. The prospect of seeing Rossi paired upfront with Mario Balotelli had captured the imagination of many. Instead, Rinaudo’s tackle left those dreams in tatters.

But there was still optimism Rossi could stage another marvelous fightback before the departure for Brazil. National team trainer Cesare Prandelli was banking on it. “Giuseppe Rossi must be calm. He knows the view I have of him and knows that we will wait until the final days. I am sure that he will find within himself the strength to stay motivated and recover,” he told reporters immediately after news of the injury broke.

A heart in your mouth moment - Rossi goes down injured against Livorno

By this stage, comebacks were familiar territory - a personal speciality. Rossi would undergo therapy and work furiously to get back to being fighting fit. He made his return for Fiorentina in May, netting as a substitute versus Sassuolo. In total he struck 17 times in 23 appearances for the Viola, a remarkable statistic considering the injury depths he had faced. And it appeared that Rossi’s immense recovery had come full circle when Prandelli included him in Italy’s provisional 30-man squad for the summer finals.

“He is the proof that champions need to have character and he can set the example for everyone. Even if Rossi doesn’t make it into the 23 [man final squad], he has already won his battle,” the Nazionale coach stated. Comparisons in the Italian media to Francesco Totti’s return before Italy’s triumphant World Cup campaign in 2006 reflected the public’s growing enthusiasm.

The scheduled warm-up friendly against Ireland was seen as the litmus test for Rossi’s readiness, with those who made the cut for Brazil to be named in the aftermath. Prandelli laid down the gauntlet on the eve of the encounter at Craven Cottage: “Am I optimistic about Rossi? Yes, for how preparations are going. Rossi has passed all the physical tests. I am convinced  that in these recent days he has worked especially well for this game because he also knows that he must conquer a little fear. He knows tomorrow will be his first match of the World Cup.”

What followed was a dull climax to the story after a fantastic lead-up. Rossi huffed and puffed for a bore 71 minutes of action, failing to find top gear. The explosive nature evident when playing for Fiorentina was absent. A through ball leading up to Ciro Immobile’s disallowed goal was his only moment of quality all evening. Nevertheless, it still came as a shock to many that the finalised Italy roster released the next day did not feature his name.

'National traitors'

As Prandelli reflected, his protégé was lacking “something extra”. Missing an edge. After a terrific journey, Rossi had faltered at the last hurdle. But if his ascent back up earned him great credit, then the response to his exclusion certainly didn’t. Camp Rossi went rogue, completely abandoning the party line. “Everyone says I'm not in shape: I dare them to ask anyone for the test results and those of the match. You'll be surprised,” the striker wrote on Twitter. “Getting tackle on? Scared? Makes me laugh.”

WAG Jenna Sodano joined in the mean social media blitz, while his grandfather branded Prandelli a hypocrite. “Two days ago Prandelli said many fine words, then 48 hours later he changed his mind. Prandelli just made the biggest farce of his career. He betrayed Rossi and did not live to convene my grandson, who is in excellent health,” said Bruno Petrocelli on Italian radio. “I won’t be rooting for Italy, as there are national traitors. I'll be supporting the USA.”

Their caustic statements were quite the barb, betraying moments thought to be totally out of Rossi’s mild-mannered character. Prandelli explained he did not want to risk his heart ruling over his head after he saw Rossi playing within himself, and refused to be swayed by popular opinion. “I told him that it was a difficult decision because he’s an amazing guy. Prior to the match against Ireland I said that from a physical point of view he was fine, but I wanted to see something more from him.

“I wanted to see a striker that was playing as a striker. But I did not see what I wanted to see. The risk was too great. The time required for a proper recovery just wasn’t enough. The easy thing to do was to call him up – you’d have all been happy. But I did not expect the reaction he gave.”

Despite being called up to the provisional squad, Rossi failed to make Italy's World Cup cut

Rossi’s sense of entitlement appears even more staggering considering the form and fitness the throng for Italy showed themselves to be in during the run-up. Immobile was eventually crowned Serie A Capocannoniere, a feat that earned him his big break to Borussia Dortmund. The poacher from Naples ripped Fluminense apart with three goals and two assists in the team’s continued friendly preparations for their Group D opener with England.

Meanwhile, Antonio Cassano and Alessio Cerci are coming off the best seasons in their careers too, with Parma and Torino respectively. Lorenzo Insigne fired Napoli to Coppa Italia glory this year, and has never shied from delivering on the big occasion in his fledgling career. And who can forget Balotelli’s contributions in the Italy shirt, with his titanic displays at Euro 2012 and subsequent Confederations Cup cementing his top credentials?

You cannot have doubted Rossi’s resolve to travel to Brazil. But ultimately, the Fiorentina man would have proven the biggest liability if selected.

His frustration over missing out - again - might be palpable. But Rossi’s days with the Azzurri are by no means over yet. A player of his calibre will always find his way back to the international fold, when the time is right. The forward is well on the road to complete recovery, and can take heart from the personal journey he has embarked on. Next term will be his chance to issue the perfect riposte, when he is back stronger than ever.

Jeremy Lim is a freelance football writer with a particular interest in the Spanish, Italian and South American game. He writes for several online outlets, and can occasionally be heard on Red Card Sports Radio. He will also be writing about Group F in our World Cup Blogs section.