Irish soul brother taps in to Gaelic psyche

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

INTERVIEW: GIOVANNI TRAPPATONIIn an exclusive interview the Republic of Ireland manager tells PADDY AGNEWwhy the very nature of the ‘Irish athletic soul’ can help his side go a long way at the Euro 2012 finals

SITTING ON the mayor’s chair on the dais of the imposing town council chamber in Montecatini Terme, Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni looks for all the world a conquering hero come home. Montecatini Terme is not only one of Italy’s longest established spas in the heart of Tuscany, but it is also the site of Ireland’s pre-Euro 2012 training camp, chosen by Trap himself.

Most Irish fans know well by now Trap comes from Cusano Milanino in the rough, tough and grimy Milanese industrial hinterland. Montecatini Terme is a long way from Cusano Milanino yet Trap is received here as “one of our own”.

The point is he has been coming here for training camp purposes since he was a player with AC Milan in the 1960s. So much so that hotel owner Franco Biondi warns one member of the local press attending the civic reception for Trap not to ask awkward questions: “What are you going to do? Try and make show of him in his own town?” he says. Obviously, in these recessionary times, hotel owners are more than pleased to welcome Trap and the Irish team. Yet, the affection with which he is received on his “royal progress” round the town seems to suggest more than gratitude for the business he is bringing. This is Himself, the Man, the Living Legend, Il Guan, still going strong at 72.

Watching Trap in action for a day, it is hard not to be struck by his energy and enthusiasm. From civic reception to pitch inspections to media interviews, he is the centre of attention, doing nearly all the talking. Then at 8pm, when his day’s politicking and PR is over, there he is still holding court and charming people in the splendid bar of the five-star Grand Hotel La Pace. That hotel, where the Irish team will stay later next month, is in ways an expression of Trap. Built in 1870, it is a wonderful example of art nouveau.

Like Montecatini, this is a place that has known better and busier days. This is a quiet town where people, many of them of a certain age, come to take the waters. Honky-tonk Ibiza, it is not. Rather this is a perfect place to keep footballers on the steep and thorny path to Poland, far from temptation.

Trap is at the bar but he is not drinking. It is not that he is a teetotaller – he will have a glass of wine with his food – but he looks after himself.

That Trap energy, too, can surprise people. During the 2002 World Cup, those players not familiar with him, were surprised when he regularly insisted on joining in on the kick-abouts. Not only that, but he would get annoyed if the various Tottis or Vieris did not pass him the ball. Often he was so involved in the practice games, he failed to notice some of his players were much amused by his attitude. These days, he does not get involved in team kick-abouts, but he is in tremendous shape, looking sharp and fit.

We say he “holds court” because the reality is that if you have been a public figure for 50 years in Italy, consistently successful at the highest level of football, it comes as second nature to be the showman, declaiming in self-protective riddles about cats and sacks.

WHEN I FINALLY sit down to chat to Trap, he greets me more than warmly. I tell him the first time I interviewed him, one on one, was during his second period at Juventus in the 1992-93 season when he had such as Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Juergen Koehler, and Andreas Moeller in a side that won that season’s Uefa Cup. He smiles at the memory of it and mutters, “Ah, those Germans, they were good.”

Does he still keep in contact with many of his former players? Not many, apart from obvious examples such as his Ireland number two Marco Tardelli and former assistant Liam Brady, adding: “Mind you I would prefer my former players to say that I was a decent person rather than a great coach.”

If there is one thing that is true about Trap, it is he is obsessed with football and he loves to talk about it. His long-time close assistant, Pasquale Piccolo, says when he proposes an interview to Trap, he always makes a face and says, “Oh, no, not another one.” Yet, says Piccolo, when he sits down to talk football it is hard to stop him. Oliver Birkner, the Italy correspondent for German magazine Kicker, recalls interviewing Trap in a bar in Florence. Trap became so enthusiastic in his efforts to recreate a Champions League goal from the night before that he started running round the bar, moving tables and chairs.

These days, Trap is doing a lot of talking about Ireland and the Irish. He tells everyone how proud he is of what he has achieved in taking Ireland to the Euro 2012 finals. I suggest such talk is “diplomatic”. Have the Irish weather, Irish food and Irish football critics not soured the relationship? “No, no,” he protests. “The Irish see things the same way as me. I come from a region where people are very like the Irish, where there’s a very human dimension. I’m pleased for the Irish people we have qualified. I know these are hard times for a lot of them, that people are in difficulty. I am proud of what I have achieved because it’s what Ireland and the FAI expected of me. The Irish mindset, it’s very like mine, the people are like my people, small farmers, honest, hard-working people. I didn’t have to leave Salzburg (to take the Irish job), the choice was mine”

That might sound like pure schmaltz from someone more than happy to pick up an annual €1.2 million pay cheque from the FAI but those who know Trap swear a hole in a pot that his attachment to Ireland and the Irish cause is genuine. Marco Ansaldo, senior football writer at Turin daily La Stampa, has known Trap since his first “coming” at Juventus in the ’70s. He says he is not surprised by Trap’s success with Ireland or by his attachment to the cause: “If there was ever going to be a national team suited to Trap, well then that was Ireland. In many ways, he’s an Irish soul brother, that is from the old-fashioned view we Italians have of Ireland.

“For a start, he’s very Catholic, not in the sense of being a daily communicant but in his core beliefs, in the belief that there is a God out there who can help you. Then, too, he has that touch of madness which we associate with the Irish. I mean madness in the sense of being able to go out there at the age of 55 to coach and to win with Bayern Munich in Germany, and then go on to Portugal and then to Austria and to keep on winning all the way.

“Of course, he likes money too. He loves the idea of being able to go out there and earn big money at his age. Mind you, though, money is not the main reason why he is still out there working. It’s very simple, he can’t live without football.”

Trap’s inner family have long since accepted that reality. Even though several family members reportedly wanted him to retire after Euro 2012, no one opposed him seriously last November when he signed a new contract with the FAI, through to 2014.

AS FOR TRAP’Srelationship with religion, whilst modern Ireland may no longer be the expression of traditional Catholic culture, old Trap still is. He remains a believer who regularly goes to mass, telling me: “I’ve always been a believer. I have someone looking after me who, when I wonder if I should do something, that someone says ‘Go on, do it, it will work out’, and it often does,” he says, adding: “I am a believer, but the point is not about believing, it is that this life doesn’t give us time to think. Things could change if people stopped for just five minutes in the day to think about things. If people just thought to themselves, here I am, I have food to eat whilst in parts of the world, in Africa, people are dying of hunger.”

During his management of Italy at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, he was much criticised, even ridiculed, in Italy for having stopped to spray the team bench with holy water before the games. He finds that criticism offensive, explaining: “Faith and holy water are against negative situations. They don’t guarantee you will win, but I believe in good and evil and an object that has been blessed will protect you. Obviously, it doesn’t mean you will win. If that were the case everybody would be sprinkling holy water all over their bench. I always say too, keep far away from me those who wish me ill.”

As for Irish food and weather, Trap has no problems. There is nothing he can do about the weather but Irish food is very good, he says, adding that the Irish team avails of an Italian chef, Guido, at its Portmarnock base: “Irish meat is among the best in the world, Irish vegetables are good too, Irish fish like salmon is terrific . . . but if you don’t know how to prepare them or when to eat them in relation to a game, then . . . I tried to explain to my players how they should eat because the athlete also eats rice and pasta. Mind you, many of them know themselves.”

As for drink, Trap has no problems with the players having a beer or two after a game, but only after the game. During team training, all alcohol is banned.

TRAP REMAINS SOMEONEfrom an older generation, from a time when good manners, saying the rosary and putting dubbin on your boots held sway. It is no exaggeration to say he grew up tough. He was born in a modest tenement dwelling in Cusano Milanino, the fifth of five children. His father, Francesco, had moved there from Barbata in the foothills of the Alps, in search of work. He would work a 14-hour shift at the Gerli textile factory and would round off his day working as a farm labourer. Young Giovanni was often sent out with the sandwiches for him. Trap recalls how quickly his father would eat those so as not to waste time. Some of his earliest memories are of growing up to the sound of air-raid sirens, as Allied bombs rained down on Nazi-occupied Northern Italy. Legend has it four-year-old Trap even became friendly with some of the German soldiers manning an anti-aircraft gun in his courtyard.

From an early age, he had to work for a living, mending steam irons and then in a bakery. From the ages of 14 to 18, he used to get up at 3am to work in the bakery. In an interview in 1989, he said his “hard and difficult childhood” was his “good fortune” and in some senses, “the key to my life”. He has not changed that opinion. He learned to play football on the streets, with the parish youth team, the San Martino Oratorio. When the time came for him to have a trial with AC Milan, his father was not much pleased. A friend had offered him a job in the bank for the young Trap. To Francesco, that looked a much better deal. When Trap thinks of modern Italy, the scandal-ridden politics, he admits to sometimes feeling humiliated as an Italian working abroad: “It happens a lot that people tell me that we Italians are all Mafiosi, it’s frankly humiliating but all I can do is try to be different, showing people I am a normal person who works hard and does his best.”

Intriguingly, former prime minister and AC Milan owner, Silvio Berlusconi, once offered to run him in a safe seat, as a Forza Italia candidate. Astutely enough, Trap opted to pass on that one.

For someone who has earned big money for the last 50 years, almost without interruption, his lifestyle is understated. He drives a Ford (for sponsorship reasons) and keeps his good Mercedes in the garage. His one annual holiday for the last 40 years has been to the very quiet Talamone on the Tuscan coast where he has a house. He first visited there on his honeymoon with Paola in 1964. Like all the family, Paola, who was in China whilst Trap was inspecting Montecatini, tends to keep a very low profile. She has long insisted their children – 45-year-old Alessandra and 35-year-old Alberto – steer clear of the limelight. Was Trap never tempted to help them find work in the remunerative world of football? He did try to help “various members of the family” find work in football, he says, but they were not good enough, so he advised them to look elsewhere.

ONE OBVIOUS ASPECTof Trap is the loyalty he has shown to those he met on his way to the top. Take Piccolo, his “Man Friday”. Pasquale was a mechanic in a garage in Turin close to where Juventus trained when Trap first met him in 1976. The pair would greet one another every morning over coffees in the local bar and eventually became friends. By the time Trap moved to Inter Milan in 1986, Piccolo had become a key assistant, so he moved with him to Milan. Trap went into business with Piccolo helping him set up his successful garage in Cinisello Balsamo, a tough, non-glamorous place in the Milanese hinterland. Even today, Trap still has his “office” or trophy room above the garage.

Today, too, if you want to talk to Trap, Piccolo is your first port of call. The Irish saw that loyalty when Trap appointed Brady and Tardelli as advisers in the Irish set-up. Brady no longer is involved but Tardelli remains Trap’s closest adviser, someone he phones three or four times per day. During the 2002 World Cup, Trap was also on the phone, ringing up Piccolo on a daily basis to check what the Italian media were reporting. Today, he does the same thing, checking with the FAI’s director of communications, Peter Sherrard, to find out what the Irish media have to say about him and his team.

Which, of course, does not always make for happy reading these days. Does it annoy him that critics suggest he is too defensive or that he is too cautious with regard to “new” talent such as Sunderland’s James McClean? Trap smiles and then tells a little story.

“People criticising me don’t annoy me, it’s just that they don’t understand, they don’t know that the lad needs to improve in various ways and that the players who are in his position, well, they give me certain guarantees, they are a lot more experienced. If I was to play McClean, it means I have got to drop either McGeady or Duff.

“Look, I was out for dinner in Milan the other night with Bruno Longhi and we went out to dinner with our families. We ate very well and then at a certain moment, this very young Irish lad comes to the table and he tells me he is the cook. ‘Complimenti,’ I said to him, ‘we’ve eaten very well, thank you.’

“And then this lad says to me, ‘But McClean, why don’t you play McClean’. And I said to him, have you see McClean play and it turns out he hasn’t actually seen McClean play. That’s the difficulty of our job, here’s a young guy who works as a chef and he wants to tell me who to play in the team. This guy doesn’t even know how McClean plays but he still wants him in the team.”

With that, Trap starts laughing. Water off a duck’s back. As a former Italy coach, criticism of his team selections is not a new experience. You have been in Italy a long time, he says to me conspiratorially, you know how it goes. Well it is going a bit that way in Ireland, too, he explains: “Some of your colleagues complain about the way we play, the lack of bel gioco. That’s true, sometimes we don’t play well. Is every article you write a brilliant piece? But the important thing for me is to get results and we have got them. L’Avvocato Agnelli (the late Fiat president Gianni Agnelli) used to say to me at Juventus, ‘Today we didn’t play well, did we, Trap?’ I would reply, ‘Yeah, it’s true we didn’t play well but, Avvocato, we won, didn’t we?’”

Trap also likes to recall how he one day presented a particularly insistent Italian critic with an Almanacco of Italian football history. I know you are busy, he said to his critic, but have a read of this and see just how many titles I have won.

MANY ITALIAN FOOTBALLwriters are bemused at Irish media criticism of Trap. After all, were it not for that “infamous” Thierry Henry handball in the Paris play-off, Ireland might well have qualified for the South African World Cup, whilst now they are on their way to Poland. For a little country with a limited football tradition, what more do you want?

And here we come to the other fundamental aspect of Trap’s attachment to Ireland. His genuine pride at what he believes he has achieved. If it was one thing to win the European Cup with Boniek, Platini, Rossi, Bettega et al, it is entirely another to lead Ireland to the Euro 2012 finals with much less firepower at his disposal.

Trap does not call his success with Ireland a “rehabilitation” or “sweet revenge” but you could not blame him if he did. By the time he left Italian football, after his unsuccessful spell as national team coach from 2000 to ’04, many critics were ready to write him off. “The Old Man has lost it”, people would say, he had become “a fossil from Jurassic Park”.

For now, it seems the “Old Man” has found it again. As he looks forward to the Euro 2012 finals, he expresses his full confidence in his squad: “Gaelic games are amazing because they are a perfect reflection of the Irish athletic soul, they’re games for the tough and the Irish are tough, they never give up. Even if I have the problem that I often have to play guys who spend a lot of time on the bench at their club, I have learned to trust these guys, to have trust in their immense pride. Add to pride, the fact many of them are excellent players and then add on good organisation and the Irish mentality and you can go a long way, indeed we have gone a long way in the last four years.”

Trap, too, has gone a long way from Cusano Milano to Dublin, via Milan, Munich, Lisbon, Salzburg and many other places. His old mate Biondi says he is like a good Chianti wine. As the years go by, it gets better. Many Italian fans see him as some sort of honorary ambassador to the rest of world. La Stampa greeted his appointment as Irish manager thus: “Our school of football continues to seduce people. Outside of football, people see us Italians as scoundrels and corrupt but when it comes to the pitch, then it is a different music.”