Pitchside Europe

Did ‘Spy Games’ make the difference in Genoa derby?


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At the beginning of pre-season this summer, Sampdoria’s coaching staff received a new toy to play with. Designed by local company Flyonaction, it was an orange drone with four rotor blades and a camera attached to its undercarriage. Created with filming training for analysis in mind, Samp’s players had to get used to it whirring overhead as coach Delio Rossi put them through their paces at Bogliasco.

Associated with spy games and modern warfare, the drone was unnecessary in the detection of an intruder at the club’s training ground on Friday. While observing the players practice ahead of the weekend’s Derby della Lanterna, Samp’s team manager Giorgio Ajazzone noticed something moving in the trees around the perimeter. Communications director Alberto Marangon went with him to check it out.

It could just be a mushroom picker, they said to each other, but you never know. Instead they found a man in full camouflage gear, the uniform of the Bundeswehr, dressed as though he were on a military operation. Ajazzone recognised the face. It was Luca de Prá, Genoa’s youth team goalkeeping coach and grandson of the club’s greatest ever shot stopper Giovanni, the man who had been between the sticks when the Grifone last won the Scudetto back in 1924.

Just what was he up to? A pair of binoculars by his side suggested de Prá had been on an espionage mission behind enemy lines. Such incidents aren’t uncommon in Italian football of course. “Come on! We all do it,” de Prá protested. He’s not wrong.

Samp’s former manager Walter Mazzarri has been known to send his assistant Claudio Nitti out On Mazzarri’s Secret Service. A master of disguise, he has done reconnaissance on opponents dressed as a cyclist tending to a puncture or as a casual shopper on his way home from the Supermarket.

Aware of his old coach’s antics, Beppe Marotta, the former Samp director of sport who left to become Juventus’ general manager in 2010 had his security detail comb the Olympic Sport Centre in Beijing prior to their encounter with Mazzarri’s Napoli in the Italian Super Cup a year ago. They discovered Nitti in a judo hall with a perfect view of the pitch on which Juventus were training.

But back to de Prá. Described as a “Rambo genoano” by La Gazzetta dello Sport, he found himself in a compromised position. For all he knew Samp could take him hostage, demand a ransom [how about three points?] or make him sing “Doria Olè, Doria Olè, Forza Doria, Doria Olè.” Please, de Prá presumably thought, anything but that.

Comparatively speaking, he got off lightly. Pulling out his camera, Ajazzone declared: “I’ve caught you red-handed,” and snapped a picture. A short while later it was posted on Sampdoria’s official website with an amusing accompanying statement. They were to act in accordance with the Geneva or should that be the Genova convention? “No prisoner has been taken,” it read. “the soldier was free to return to his base. We must always forgive our enemies. Nothing annoys them more.”

Like the IMF, Genoa disavowed all knowledge of de Prá’s actions. He was at Bogliasco on his own initiative, they said, and as punishment he’d be suspended by the club.

In hindsight, Samp’s supporters now wonder whether their club were perhaps too magnanimous in their handling of de Prá. Did he know too much about Samp and their plans for Sunday’s game? The result would indicate that he did. After being knocked out of the Coppa Italia by La Spezia and losing both of their opening games in Serie A this season, Fabio Liverani’s first win as coach of Genoa came in this game of all games. And it wasn’t just any win either.

A volley from the former Samp loanee Luca Antonini, a tap in from Emanuele Calaio and a trademark Francesco Lodi free-kick contributed to a 3-0 victory, the biggest ever recorded by the ‘away’ side in this derby.

Running to celebrate with his players, Liverani went under the Gradinata Nord at full-time to savour the moment. It was, he said, an “indescribable joy.” Mission accomplished for de Prá.

Afterwards, Genoa president Enrico Preziosi announced that de Prá “will be reintegrated because it’s the right thing to do.” And there you have it, the Derby della Lanterna, with a final chapter that reads like John Le Carré’s ‘A spy who came in from the cold.’

James Horncastle

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