Still too early to assess Malesani’s efforts

Soccer is often governed by its own brand of logic, one that does not allow for mathematical assessment. This logic is often also connected with various factors that are not necessarily apparent from the stands. The tough-minded American approach to competition, where first is first and second is nothing, is too absolute to judge a professional’s performance. If that were the case, then the most successful coach in the history of Greek soccer, at club level, would have to be Juan Ramon Rocha. During his two-and-a-half year coaching tenure at Panathinaikos, Rocha led the Athens club to a Champions League semifinal and two league-and-cup doubles. Even so, he was never accepted as a professional coach. Rocha, too, considered coaching as a side-venture. Based on the logic of numbers, Rocha seems like a coaching giant compared to Alberto Malesani, the Italian whose contract at Panathinaikos was terminated recently, less than a year after he was hired. Though Malesani enjoyed a fabulous domestic record during the season’s second half, and extracted impressive performances from his team against Werder Bremen and Barcelona in Athens, the Italian failed in terms of overall results achieved during what has turned into one of the club’s darkest-ever periods. Heavy losses in European competition, premature elimination from the Greek Cup following a loss to second-division club Ergotelis, and exclusion from title contention from as early as January weigh heavily on the team’s assessment this season. Yet, Malesani, who achieved none of Rocha’s accomplishments at Panathinaikos, possesses one of the most impressive resumes of any coach who has worked in Greece. He may not have worked with Italian powerhouses – Fiorentina and Parma are the highest he’s reached – but Malesani has been fortunate enough to work with numerous outstanding players. He handpicked players the caliber of Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Gabriel Batistuta and Adrian Mutu to his respective squads long before they ascended to superstardom. Their individual market values went on to be worth as much as the Greek league combined. It is important to note that while players such as these were still nascent, they developed under Malesani, and no talent was squandered. If the logic of numbers told the entire truth, then Malesani’s tenure at Panathinaikos could be written off as a failure. Providing an answer now would limit the assessment to theory. The development of a team based on new faces, foundations and mentality is a long-term matter, so it would be unfair to judge Malesani now. A more accurate answer is possible several months down the road, when it will be harvest season for the seeds that Malesani sowed. If the yield is good, then the Italian must get a share of the credit, and vice versa. Even during Malesani’s recent farewell dinner for his associates, the Italian urged the Athens club’s officials to have faith in the work he leaves behind. The decision to end his contract is complex. The issue does not begin and end with the Italian’s family matters that forced him to make frequent trips to his homeland during his tenure at Panathinaikos. Had the Greek club truly wanted to hold on to Malesani, the family issue would have remained a concern, but not an unsolvable problem. On the other hand, had the club rejected his efforts outright, his end would have come long before the season’s finale. Club boss Yiannis Vardinoyiannis showed unprecedented support – for Greek standards – of Malesani when a growing number of team officials and fans began to doubt the Italian earlier in the season, when the team’s title hopes began slipping out of touch. Vardinoyiannis suddenly found himself in a dilemma of either holding on to a targeted coach that knows his players, or start from scratch. He opted for the latter, mostly because he feared that a bad start after summer would have generated pressure and, possibly, put the new season in doubt. The club’s past troubles, caused by countless hirings and firings of coaches in recent seasons, do not convince that this latest decision was correct. Time will tell.