- Roberto Mancini has led a remarkable turnaround in Italy’s fortunes
- Almost three years have passed since his Azzurri side last tasted defeat
- Mancini tells us about his attacking revolution and special World Cup motivation
With Roberto Mancini, the numbers rarely tell the full story.
A perfect example would be his tally of zero FIFA World Cup™ appearances as a player. Those who never saw him in action might conclude from this figure that, as a footballer, Mancini was unremarkable. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, his coach at Sampdoria and Lazio, is among several to laud this supreme trequartista as “an artist” and “a genius”. “He saw things on the pitch quicker than anybody else,” enthused the Swede. “His vision was incredible.”
Mancini himself laments as “absurd” his underwhelming international career – a long, painful story of ill luck, the emergence of Roberto Baggio and two costly fallouts with coaches.
Becoming Italy boss himself equated, he said, to “being given a second chance”. And the 56-year-old has grasped that opportunity decisively. A team decried as Italy’s worst of all time – the first in six decades to miss out on a World Cup – has been transformed into a side that is unbeaten in 28 matches and has won its last nine by an aggregate score of 28-0.
Again, though, those numbers – impressive as they are – only tell part of the story. Just as notable has been the radical shift in style that Mancini has overseen, with those wins and goals built on an adventurous, attacking approach that owes little to Italian tradition.
There was plenty to unpick, therefore, as Mancini spoke to FIFA.com in the wake of a 3-0 win over Turkey that has sent his team soaring up the list of UEFA EURO 2020 favourites.
FIFA.com: Roberto, you signed a new five-year contract recently. The length of that deal is unusual, particularly in modern-day football. Does it signify how much you are enjoying the job?
Roberto Mancini: We’re committed together to try to win a World Cup, and that’s why [the length of contract] made sense as it reflects this is a long-term project. At this point, given where we started three years ago, things are going smoothly – and that’s thanks to the young and talented players we have on board. I believe that those years we have ahead will be fruitful for Italy.
When you became a coach, and having represented the national team as a player, was coaching Italy always a dream?
Yes. I started my international career when I was just a teenager, and although I played in extremely strong national teams blessed with many talented players, I was never lucky with results. If you go back to Italy’s World Cup in 1990 for instance, we didn’t lose a single game throughout the competition, but ended up finishing third with six wins and a draw. It’s crazy! I hope we will get our own back for all those chances that were missed in the past.
Despite your talent and wonderful playing career at club level, you were never given the chance to shine at a World Cup (remaining an unused squad member in 1990). How much of a regret was that, and has it made making a mark on the tournament as a coach a priority for you?
Given that I started my international career very young, I could potentially have played for Italy in four World Cups and four European Championships. And I wish I had! For many reasons though, I didn’t achieve the success I wanted – except for winning a European title at U-16 level. So, yes, I hope that all I missed as a player might be achieved as a coach.
Sven-Goran Eriksson was speaking about coaching you recently, saying how much he loved you as a player and person, but also how incredibly demanding and intense you were. Would Mancini the coach enjoy the challenge of working with Mancini the player?
I would like working with that kind of talented, technical and inspired player! I see those attributes as positive. Sven was a master for me – a great coach who taught me a lot of things. I have to thank him again. He’s a great man.
How do you deal with the pressure of carrying the hopes of a football-crazy nation? Is it possible to escape from?
No! That’s Italy! Our country has 60 million coaches and it’s impossible to slip away from them. But at the same time it speaks for how deeply involved Italians are with their national team, especially when it comes to final competitions. Italians love football so much, and that’s fantastic.
How have you found the experience of coaching through the pandemic, from playing in empty stadiums to the logistical issues and, of course, even contracting COVID yourself at one stage. Has dealing with all that been one of your biggest challenges as a coach?
There’s no doubt it’s been a difficult challenge individually, albeit amid a very tough time for people everywhere. No-one had ever experienced these kind of things before, and you can only hope that they will never experience them again in the future. Families lost loved ones, people were deprived of their freedom. For everyone, it was the worst thing that could have happened. Those of us involved in sport were no different, and we simply had to adapt to what was going on around us.
In a recent interview with us, Brazil coach Tite singled you out for high praise, not only for your results with Italy but for the way you have changed the team’s style. Is that kind of recognition, from a peer and fellow top-level international coach, satisfying to hear?
Tite is a great coach and he comes from the most inspired, creative nation in the football world – a country where you may be considered disrespectful if you don’t adopt an offensive style. We are very glad to read of Italy being singled out in this way. At the same time though, it’s worth bearing in mind that our nation’s past successes, winning four World Cups and one European Championship, were achieved by adopting a pretty defensive approach. Each nation has its own style of play and that defensive quality in Italy still makes the difference even today. To become a good team, you need to establish the perfect balance between attack and defensive knowledge.
Was it always in your mind when you took the job to tweak that balance to make Italy more adventurous?
I took the helm in a very difficult moment, but we wanted to do something really different with respect to what had been done previously. Then we brought in lots of young, talented players we considered well suited to adopting a different style of playing – more offensive than in the past. In every team I coached before, I’ve always tried to bring that kind of approach. Sometimes you succeed in that, sometimes you don’t. But in this case it was the right time to give our fans an attractive national team to watch and enjoy.
It’s said you have achieved playing in a more attractive way, and the run of great results over the past three years, despite lacking the global stars of past Italian generations. What do you say to that?
It’s true there were moments in the past when Italian football had more of these masterful, world-class players. It’s difficult to say why those huge talents are missing nowadays. At the same time, a new generation of excellent players is rising in Italy, and these youngers are skilled enough to perform on the international stage and one day become those kind of global stars. It’s just a matter of time. Our hope is to guide them to victory and help them realise their aims.
You were appointed after the failure to reach the last World Cup. How much of a national trauma was watching Russia 2018 from the outside, and has it been a source of motivation in the time since?
It wasn’t easy for anyone, myself included, as I am in my fifties and have always seen my national team compete at the World Cup. But the unexpected is the real, fascinating essence of sport, even if we suffered for it in this case. Our hope is that it won’t happen again and, to ensure that it doesn’t, we need to work hard to perform well because we’re playing in an era in which many national sides have become competitive.
Do you feel you’re well positioned to go the distance at the EURO, and which other sides do you see as strong title contenders?
Many teams, such as the world champions (France) and the European champions (Portugal), are stronger than us at the moment. So too are the teams that have been playing at a high level for the last five years – they can call upon many more experienced players than we can. We started this project just three years ago and are only now reaching that kind of level. But as we said before, unpredictability is always the essence of football.