So one can imagine when it was revealed a week or so ago that Juventus coach Antonio Conte had telephoned Italy boss Cesare Prandelli to tell him he was prepared to hand over data on the players he'd called up from his club few accepted it for what it really was — a great gesture in the spirit of cooperation.
Eyebrows were raised. Ears pricked up. There had to be an ulterior motive, right? Conte wouldn't have done it for free, many speculated. He surely must have named a price? What favour did he ask of Prandelli in return?
The information, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, related to personalised training sessions and recovery programmes. Collaborating on areas like these makes a lot of sense. If a national team coach is fully availed of all the facts by his counterparts at club level then he can make informed decisions on what their players can and cannot do. The risk of injury is, to an extent, minimised and if a player were to breakdown while on international duty, there'd be shared responsibility, greater understanding and less scope for recrimination between club and country.
"Yes, we consulted each other," Prandelli admitted, "and we have the same vision. There will be innovations in our methodology ...we are happy that our relationship with the clubs is improving. We want to become a club ourselves, a reference for others. We must always be one step ahead. A proposal emerged from our chat: if a player has a particular requirement, he should tell us about it."
Instead of bridging the gap between club and country, however, this seemed to widen the divide further. Amid reports, fervently denied by Prandelli, that Conte had asked Italy not to call up Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella, it was insinuated that he had sought preferential treatment for his players at the expense of the others and in particular those from Napoli ahead of Saturday's top-of-the-table clash between the two teams in Turin. It was all a grand conspiracy.
Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis apparently called the FIGC president Giancarlo Abete to express his concerns. It was said that a pact had been made to preserve Andrea Pirlo, as if he were an endangered species. Giorgio Chiellini would not be put in harm's way for Friday's World Cup qualifier away to Armenia in Yerevan either. It mattered little that six Juventus players actually started the match and another, Emmanuele Giaccherini, came on as a 74th-minute substitute for the aforementioned Pirlo in a 3-1 win.
Responding to the claims of favouritism, Chiellini said: "It doesn't exist. The national team has always gone along with the requests of the clubs. Its staff is in contact with the trainers at each individual club. It's not the first time that players have done 'personalised' sessions at Coverciano and it won't be the last. The whole thing has been manipulated."
Napoli full-back Christian Maggio, who'll miss tonight's delicate qualifier again Denmark at San Siro after being granted leave following the birth of his child, added: "There isn't any problem with 'personalised' sessions. Prandelli's fitness coach asks everyone if they have any particular requirements. In the event that they do they train apart from the rest of the group."
All the conviviality, however, was conveniently ignored by the media when it emerged that goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon had suffered a minor thigh strain that meant he missed training at the weekend and was a doubt for Denmark's visit to Italy. The news was apparently received with scepticism by Napoli, knowing that their own shot stopper, Morgan de Sanctis, would have to take Buffon's place and be put at risk. Would Prandelli 'look out' for Juventus again and rest their No.1?
It was all getting ridiculous. Buffon trained for an hour on Monday. Committed to the cause as ever, he told reporters: "I'm not thinking about Juve-Napoli at the moment, only about Italy." Meanwhile De Sanctis felt that whole affair was "embarrassing." He insisted: "The media have blown this situation up too much." Not for the first time, they were seeing things that weren't there, even if it has since been confirmed De Sanctis will now play ahead of Buffon.
Make no mistake, this isn't 1974 all over again when Napoli midfielder Antonio Juliano claimed he was the victim of discrimination, alleging that a certain Fabio Capello only started ahead of him because he played for Juventus and it was no coincidence that his old clubmate Dino Zoff was back in the national team after moving to Turin.
No, the past week has shown, especially after the lacklustre spectacle of the Milan derby, how much the press want a fierce rivalry between Juventus and Napoli to develop as if there weren't one already following last season's Coppa Italia final and the subsequent fallout at the Italian Super Cup. Certainly from a title-race perspective, it hasn't been this close between the two clubs since the `80s, when Michel Platini and Diego Maradona faced off.
"Juve-Napoli has become the league's 'classic'," said Chiellini. "There's a lot of respect on our part, but it will decide nothing. It's impossible after only eight rounds of the season."
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.
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