Gli Esonerati – Why Italians Go Back To Their Exes 

History. Romance. Passion. And a predilection for chaos. 

It sometimes appears that Italian football observes a different set of customs to the rest of the European game. An impulsive enclave where the heart rules the head and strategy frequently gives way to emotion. 

One such idiosyncrasy is the penchant for Italian clubs to sack and then, in quick succession, re-appoint the same coach. It is one of calcio’s time-honoured curiosities and one that perhaps proves il primo amore non si scorda mai (the first love is never forgotten).  

In this article we explore the origins of this extraordinary phenomenon to understand why Italian clubs go back to their exes and whether it results in happily ever after… 

Did they ever really leave?  

First and foremost, it is important to understand that the coaches were never really sacked. In Italy it is called an exoneration; in the UK, we might describe it as gardening leave. The coach is excused from performing their duties, but in all other respects remains an employee of the club, receiving full pay.  

Italy’s employment laws contain specific provisions for the sports industry, identifying several circumstances that can lead to an exoneration. These include poor on-field performance, rifts with players and officials, or the loss of confidence of supporters or the media. The same regulations make clear that a coach cannot be fired based on unsatisfactory results alone; there must be some breach of the coach’s contractual obligations for a sacking to be legal.  

Several clubs have historically attempted to go down the route of a full contract termination, but there are consequences for getting this wrong. In 2014, Lazio sacked Vladimir Petkovic in response to his signing a pre-contract with the Swiss national team. However, the Biancoceleste’s claim of improper conduct was considered unjust by the tribunal and Petkovic was awarded substantial damages on top of the value of his unspent contract.  

Can’t they just agree?  

The separation of a coach from their club by mutual consent, a familiar exit route in the UK, remains a possibility, but in Italy it is uncommon for two reasons.  

Firstly, the coach knows they are entitled to be paid for the full duration of their contract if their basic obligations are fulfilled, so have little incentive to agree to a cut-price departure. Secondly, there is a collective agreement between the coaching trade union (AIAA) and the Italian leagues which mean an individual cannot coach two different teams in the same season.  

So, whilst it remains possible that a coach could agree to a pay-off, the incentives gravitate against this. In the short term, a departing coach would find themselves out of work for at least the remainder of the current season. It is precisely this combination of being ‘unsackable’ and having few alternative options that see coaches loitering on the payroll of their clubs for an extended period.  

Trying again…  

The return of an ex-coach is a rational economic choice for some clubs. If results don’t improve under coach B, then the club faces the option of either reinstating coach A or bringing another, coach C, onto the payroll. For many clubs, the prospect of simultaneously paying three different coaches is simply unaffordable.  

From a practical perspective, as a season progresses, the pool of available coaches from which to select a third coach also diminishes. The club would need to find someone who has been out of work up until that point. Again, all roads point back to a return for the previous coach.  

An intriguing dynamic is that a returning coach does not have a choice about having their duties restored. As we discovered earlier, they are still on the payroll and must make themselves available to their employer. Failure to do so could result in a justified termination of contract and loss of their entitlement to pay.  

All of this means that a President and their exonerated coach would be wise to part ways on amicable terms, yet history is littered with examples of bridges being burnt and humble pie later being consumed.  

In 2011, Palermo’s President Zamparini said of the departing Delio Rossi “The team has been completely destroyed. He ruined my Palermo. Rossi has destroyed this squad.” Just four games later, a remorseful President restored his coach, saying “Changing the Coach was my mistake. I apologise to the fans. I hope that the future is better.”  

In our recent interview with Ahmad Benali we heard about the behaviour of out-going Crotone coach, Francesco Modesto, who aggressively criticised his club captain after being exonerated by the club. Modesto was reinstated just a few weeks later…only to discover that the relationship with one of his key players could not be salvaged.  

Who Does This Sort of Thing?  

The strong financial motivation behind these re-appointments means that it tends to be smaller, provincial clubs that commonly use this practice. Larger clubs ringing the changes mid-season are less financially-constrained and enjoy greater pulling power to attract a new coach from abroad (or to encourage a coach exonerated elsewhere to break their contract).  

It is perhaps of no surprise to find that notoriously trigger-happy club owners Maurizio Zamparini (Palermo), Massimo Cellino (Cagliari, Brescia) and Aldo Spinelli (Livorno) have all partaken in the custom of re-appointing an exonerated coach in the same season. Reggina, Crotone, Empoli, Padova and Cremonese are other clubs that have made these u-turns on multiple occasions over the past two decades.  

Several coaches have found themselves on the receiving end of a re-appointment more than once during their careers. The list of journeymen coaches falling into this category – Giuseppe Iachini (Brescia and Fiorentina), Rolando Maran (Catania and Vicenza) and Luciano Spalletti (Venezia and Sampdoria) – perhaps makes for unsurprising reading.  

Does it actually work?  

We’ve identified a sample of 50 case studies from recent decades to understand whether these reconciliations can be considered a success. The sample covers instances where a coach had two separate spells in charge of the same team in a single season.  

In terms of on-pitch performance, a clear conclusion emerges that these re-appointments rarely have the desired effect. Comparing performance across the first and second spells (as measured by points per game) shows that in 33 out of 50 cases (66%) the performance deteriorated the second time around. In most cases, points per game in the first spell provides a low bar (i.e. under-performance is likely to have contributed to being exonerated in the first place), yet the vast majority of recalled coaches fail to meet even that modest benchmark.  

Let’s take a look at some specific instances:  

  • Livorno, Serie A, 2007-2013 – President Spinelli made various attempts to recall coaches, but often with the same disappointing outcome. Fernando Orsi was restored in 2007/08, but lost all three remaining matches to succumb to Serie A relegation. Just 2 years later and back in Serie A, Gennaro Ruotolo was given six games to save the club in his second spell, losing five of them. Then in 2012/13, Davide Nicola was re-instated with four Serie A games remaining; four straight defeats culminated in their relegation.  
  • Francesco Guidolin, Palermo, Serie A 2006/07 – a wretched run of form saw Palermo losing their grip on a European qualification berth as the season entered the final rounds. A twitchy President Zamparini appointed Renzo Gobbo, but the new coach was unable to arrest the slide. Guidolin was restored for the final two games of the season, winning both matches to secure 6th place. A rare example of a re-appointment paying off.  
  • Roberto Cevoli, Reggina, Serie B, 2018/19 – the coach was harshly exonerated with the club residing in the play-off places. His replacement Massimo Drago was nothing short of a disaster as the club fell out of contention for promotion. Cevoli was recalled late in the season, winning all four of his games to claw his way back into a play-off place.  

A similarly bleak picture emerges when looking at the duration of spells in charge. The average duration of the second spell (10 matches) is markedly lower than the first spell (21 matches). Or to put it another way, half of the recalled coaches lasted ten games or fewer.  

There are a few exceptions where a recalled coach has endured, but arguably these instances speak as much to the error of the initial exoneration as they do to the insight of the re-appointment:  

  • Eusebio Di Francesco, Sassuolo, Serie A, 2013/14 – the young coach paid the price for a poor run of form in January 2014. His successor Alberto Malesani lost five straight matches before the Neroverde recalled Di Francesco. He took over the reins with the club in bottom place, four points from safety with twelve games remaining. Di Francesco led them to survival and used that as a springboard for another three full seasons at the helm, culminating in Europa League qualification.  
  • Giuseppe Papadopolu, Siena, Serie B, 2001/02 – the coach made up a six-point gap to lead the club to survival in his second spell. From there, he steered the club to promotion in 2002/03 and masterminded Serie A survival in 2003/04. He fell just short of a century of games in his second spell.  
  • Francesco Monaco, Ancona, Serie C, 2006/07 – Ancona were rooted to the foot of Serie C when Monaco was recalled. The coach oversaw four victories in the final eight matches before definitively securing safety through the relegation play-outs. The very next season he secured an unexpected promotion to Serie B via the play-offs.  
  • Giovanni Stroppa, Crotone, Serie B, 2018/19 – Stroppa was harshly sacked whilst inhabiting a mid-table berth in October 2018. He was recalled on New Year’s Eve, inheriting a club that were second from bottom in the table. An immediate reversal of fortunes elevated the Calabrians back to mid-table by season’s end and the coach led the club to Serie A promotion in the following campaign.  
  • Fabrizio Castori, Carpi, Serie A, 2015/16 – the coach had led minnows Carpi to their maiden Serie A promotion but was exonerated after just six games in the top flight. Five games later he was reinstated, almost pulling off a great escape before succumbing to relegation by virtue of a single point. Castori stayed on and led the club to the Serie B play-offs the following season. 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, why not take a look at our article about gemellaggio, the phenomenon of friendships formed between rival clubs. 

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