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The fate of Meo Sacchetti and the Italian national team
With Italy still unbeaten as the third window of European Qualifiers for the FIBA Basketball World Cup tips off on Thursday, Italian fans would be justified in looking more closely at coach Romeo Sacchetti. To those already familiar with 'Meo' his success will not come as a surprise, but for others, it is worth exploring his background and how this relates to the performances he's managed to get out of this team.
Chasing your goals is one thing - this is the essence of sports. Tasting every moment of the journey, though, is a whole different experience. The latter being a much less traveled road with only a select few having actually shown the ability to thrive on the pressure attached to the repetitive grind of competition. It takes a natural talent to do so, first and foremost to be able to put all aspects of life in the right perspective.
Meo Sacchetti has displayed this talent through his entire career, first as a player and in the last twenty years also as a coach. Meo has encountered plenty of obstacles in his way, walking a difficult path. Born in a refugee camp in southern Italy and fighting through misfortune and preconceptions both on and off the basketball court. He was a silver medalist at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, and Sacchetti was also a key player in Italy winning the 1983 FIBA EuroBasket in France.
A solid two-way wing player, Sacchetti was the template of what we now refer to as a stretch four. He suffered a career-ending injury during Serie A's 1990 finals, and snapping his achilles tendon shattered his dream of winning a scudetto with Varese, the team he rooted for since childhood. Even then, though, Meo didn't falter: the thought of a life without basketball never even crossed his mind. He started coaching, working his way up through multiple seasons in Italy’s minor leagues.
Sacchetti travelled the country far and a wide, from the far north of Udine all the way to Sicily, only to find his home on yet another island in Sardinia. Taking charge of Sassari, he took a second league team to its first national championship in 2015. Not only did he manage to reach that historic achievement, Meo did it his own way.
As much as any team that he has coached through the years, that Dinamo Sassari team who also won the Supercup and the National cup in that season displayed a very distinctive kind of high-speed, fun-driven, score-first mentality. Rarely ever seen losing his composure on the sidelines, Sacchetti has carried that "player's coach" attitude pretty much everywhere, making it a proper trademark. He described this demeanour in his autobiography ‘Il mio basket è di chi lo gioca’ (my basketball is for those who play it).
This attitude has stuck with him in his latest adventure with Vanoli Cremona, a team that was meant to start in the second league but eventually snapped up a playoff spot in Serie A, and also in his brand new tenure as Italy’s head coach.
Hired last summer, Meo’s priority was to revitalize an environment exhausted by years of perceived "underachievement". Despite a talent-filled roster, led by NBA stars such as Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari, and the presence of super-qualified coaches such as Simone Pianigiani and Ettore Messina, the ‘azzurri’ failed to get past the quarter finals in both EuroBasket 2015 and 2017. When Sacchetti became the national team’s head coach, World Cup qualification games loomed and it was unclear which players would be available.
"That’s no big deal for me," he stated in his first press conference as Italy's coach, "I've never had the privilege to pick all the players that I wanted. Whoever wears this jersey, will have to give his absolute best. That's all."
And that's exactly what happened during the first four games of the qualifiers, all won by a good margin. Young players who struggled to find minutes in Serie A and other European competitions, played with confidence. Others who spent the last few years on the fringes of the team appeared to be rejuvenated. This is not news for anyone who’s been following Sacchetti's work throughout his career: players like to play for Meo. And noone knows it better than Brian, Meo's son, a real good-luck charm for both his father and the teams he’s played for.
Locker room guy, beloved by his teammates and skillful 'jack-of-all-trades' on the court, Brian was a cornerstone of the legendary Dinamo Sassari, winning titles while his father coached the team. After an eight-year stint, he's come back wearing the national team's jersey, a brand new feeling for the 32 year old.
"I got used to looking over my shoulder and seeing my Dad on the bench," Brian says, "and still, being together under these special circumstances feels a little weird."
Another unusual story to note is how many calls Brian keeps getting from former teammates and opponents, mostly Americans, enquiring about transferring to play for Sacchetti Sr. "It happened when Meo signed with Vanoli Cremona, it'll happen again."
Brian smiles, he knows players like to play for his father, and they’re inclined to follow him wherever he goes.
Similarly, from the performances we’ve seen from the ‘azzurri’ in their qualifying games, the Italian national team also seem to be excited to to follow him along the path that leads to China for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019. But as Italian basketball fans already know, Sacchetti is someone who enjoys the minutiae, the subtle clues that life throws at us. The meaning in Italy being in the same qualifying group as Romania, the land in which his brothers were born and his family found work before returning to Italy, is not lost on him. But when looking for signs you can go even further. The Italian national team may even follow him beyond China, looking a little further East.
If you believe in destiny, the Olympic Games also appear to be in Sacchetti's future: Meo's wife, also a former basketball player and the rock of the family, is named Olimpia and the silver medal Sacchetti gained in Moscow still holds up as his greatest achievement as a player. Although he shies away when asked about it, it's not unlikely that Sacchetti is eyeing a comeback to the Olympic Games forty years after his contributions as a player.
"All I'm thinking of is the next game," swears Italy's head coach, "and what I can do to get my players comfortable and confident."
No matter how well the team has played under his management so far, the roads to China for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and then Tokyo for the Olympics are long and winding. Meo has faced obstacles before though, and while at this stage we cannot be sure whether he will realise the grand dreams he has for these tournaments, one thing’s for sure. He’s going to enjoy every step of the journey.