Lucky general Trapattoni hasn’t met his Waterloo just yet

It seems there’s an invisible hand of fate guiding the Italian manager these days, writes Ken Early

Mon, Mar 25, 2013, 12:00

Marco Tardelli first worked as hired muscle for Giovanni Trapattoni in 1975. A henchman this experienced doesn’t need to be told what to do. After the match on Friday night, it was time to rub some noses in it. He pointed scornfully at one journalist: “He said it would be Giovanni’s Waterloo!”

The spectre of Waterloo was invoked last week in the Irish papers, but that was because we were playing Sweden and The Sun decided to have some fun with ABBA references. One imagines Tardelli reading the pun-laden preview with mounting incomprehension and anger. “‘Will Trapattoni Take A Chance on Paul Green?’ ‘Will he select Super Trouper Robbie Keane up front?’ . . . ‘ The FAI would have to come up with Money Money Money to pay him off’ . . . What is this newspaper talking about?”

He can be forgiven for taking the Waterloo reference literally because Trapattoni’s matches are always being compared to Waterloo (the battle, not the song). Last October The Daily Mail wrote that the match away to the Faroes could be “Trap’s Chilly Waterloo”; as far back as 2002 Wales’ Western Mail described a Wales-Italy qualifier in Cardiff as a potential Waterloo for Trapattoni.

If Stockholm was Waterloo then Trap was cast as Wellington rather than Napoleon. The most famous account of the battle appeared in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables . If Tardelli had fought with Wellington that day, he would have got the hump with Hugo’s take on the English performance: all the credit went to the players and none to the manager.

“Waterloo was a battle of the first order, won by a captain of the second,” Hugo wrote, “that which must be admired . . . was not captain, but her army. To make Wellington so great is to belittle England . . . The column of Waterloo would be more just if, instead of the figure of a man, it bore on high the statue of a people.”

Napoleonic wars
Friday night was not a truly decisive encounter, just a 0-0 draw. If Tardelli wanted a parallel from the Napoleonic Wars, the better analogy might be with Borodino, where the Russians fought the French to a standstill outside Moscow.

ABBA never wrote about Borodino, but Tolstoy did. In War and Peace , he used the chaos and bloodshed of the battle to illustrate the true influence of Great Men in history. He shows us Napoleon strutting about behind his lines, holding a telescope in his small white hands. Every so often he peers through it into the smoke and confusion, and issues another string of orders which have already been made irrelevant by events. Tolstoy mocks Napoleon for believing that he is in control. He is like “a child who, holding on to little ribbons fastened inside a coach, imagines that he is driving it.”

Napoleon’s counterpart, the one-eyed Field Marshal Kutuzov, spends the battle at Russian HQ eating chicken, crying, and occasionally dozing off. His officers worry about the ancient leader’s apparent lack of dynamism, but Tolstoy sees Kutuzov as the wiser of the two generals. Unlike Napoleon, he accepts that what is happening on the battlefield is beyond his power to control. All he can do is try to impart confidence to his soldiers by showing his faith in their ultimate victory.

That is a kind of leadership Trapattoni would understand. He is too experienced to think that much of what happens out on the pitch is down to him. After the Sweden match he reminded Sunday journalists that every result is subject to the whims of chance. “You miss a penalty, the goalkeeper makes a mistake, you can lose and it’s not your fault.”

Blind chance
Sometimes you get it right and it’s not your fault. The recent transformation of the Ireland team owes more to blind chance than to the planning of Trapattoni. Friday’s team included nine players who didn’t start the first game at Euro 2012, but most of the changes were forced on Trapattoni by retirements and injuries. The team that has emerged happens to be younger, stronger and faster. Another spate of injuries could ruin everything, but for now the team has a future.

Their immediate future will be without Robbie Keane, who misses the Austria game with a calf problem. Last week the captain said he can “easily carry on for another four or five years”.

At his current rates, he could end up adding another 50 caps and another three or four goals. Keane has scored one goal from open play in his last 15 internationals, knocking in a rebound after the Estonian keeper spilled Keith Andrews’ free-kick. Two penalties (against Estonia and Kazakhstan) are his only other goals in a run that stretches back to the summer of 2011.

On Friday, Keane kicked air in the first half and failed to attack Shane Long’s cross in the second. You wished it had been Long in the centre attacking somebody else's cross. Later, Keane failed to cross first-time when Ciarán Clark and Jon Walters were unmarked in the centre. He didn’t look sharp.

Wes Hoolahan replaced Keane on Friday and looked sharp. He links the attack better than Keane. Trapattoni never seemed likely to promote Hoolahan ahead of Keane, but again random chance has intervened. It’s Trapattoni's good luck – or maybe his gift? – that random chance often seems to guide him to the right answer.

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