Cat in bag but pidgin English still on the loose
GROUP C REPUBLIC OF IRELAND v CROATIAThe Italian’s broken English has caused the Irish media to despair at times, especially when deadlines are fast approaching, writes KEITH DUGGAN
‘. . . But in Italian, it sounds much nicer . . .’
-Tommy DeVito’s mother, Goodfellas.
‘YOUR JOB . . . is easy,” exclaimed Giovanni Trapattoni, finally losing patience with the Irish press corps gathered around him and dressed in a motley assortment of Paulie Walnuts-inspired shades, shorts and pastels as the Tuscan sun beat down and the players disappeared into an air-conditioned bus.
For the previous few minutes, Trapattoni had sought to make his position clear on Kevin Foley’s departure and if and when contact had been made with Stoke City’s Marc Wilson and whether, indeed, Wilson had replied. The Italian wore his immaculate white track-suit zipped and was clearly more bothered by what he felt was the wilful misunderstanding of his audience rather than the midday heat.
This was on Thursday when the Irish squad was still in Italy. At the very first pitch-side press briefing, Trapattoni had thoughtfully rotated his audience so that their backs were to the sun while he faced into it, reasoning that it was better for one than many to be facing into the direct light.
The gesture set the tone for the European hop-skip-and-jump trip to Poland in which Trapattoni has been personally charming towards the Irish press corps and professionally irritated by the series of persistent questions about issues he believed that he had gone to pains to make clear. Now that we have reached the eve of Ireland’s opening match in Euro 2012, one thing is beyond doubt: talking football in Italian and Hiberno-English can lead to confusion.
Trapattoni’s insistence on speaking the language of the country where he is coaching is a reflection of the way he was raised: he considers it to be good manners, plain and simple. Since he took over the Republic of Ireland job, the system has been for him to receive the questions translated into Italian by his infinitely patient interpreter, Manuela Spinelli, and then to reply in English, sometimes breaking into his native tongue when his passions get the better of him. Mostly, the message of the day is communicated, after a fashion. But when it goes wrong, it can go badly wrong.
After the Irish had played out their dicey 0-0 following a summer storm in Budapest on Monday night, Trapattoni was plainly intent on ensuring that his views on the match were understood by the Irish reporters present to record them.
This was after eleven o’clock at night and the Italian was heading to the airport for a late, late flight to Gdansk but he still looked fresh as a daisy: always, the Italian seems brimming with energy. The frailties of the Irish defensive set-up playing 4-4-2 against a five-man Hungarian midfield confirmed his suspicion that the Irish team will have to adapt playing against teams who use similar systems. So a press briefing that started off with good intentions ended up stormily.
“So it has got to be for Irish reporters clear,” Trapattoni started. So far, so good.
“When we meet a team with one striker another behind him, we are always difficult.
“To have a balance we have to renounce . . .” – “Give up,” clarified Manuela Spinelli – “one striker and put one more in midfield. Also in past I notice this position. I notice line-up. I will speak with the team and show them our difficulty.”
When Trapattoni was asked to clarify that the same 11 who started against Hungary would, as he had previously signalled, now start against Croatia, the Italian took a breath and showing the patience of a schoolmaster dealing with a class in truculent mood he explained: “I said now . . . Now! Two minutes ago I said: I have to see. And a-review this game. But I said also Croatia is another element.”
But when he was asked, “Is that a yes or a no,” it was like that moment when the milk on the stove goes from bubbling gently to flowing out of the saucepan. “Today. Is Sunday evening,” Trapattoni, his voice raised now. “We play the next Sunday. We have a week to discuss thes, thes, thes and thes.”
And that was the trouble: we did. So many days and so little to talk about. There is always a strange dislocation about post-match football interviews. It is late. The fans have fled. The cleaners are working. Everyone is tired. People are hammering away on laptop computers, into phones. Cameras are clicking. Someone is always down a corridor arguing with someone else. But on this night, the issue seemed weighty.
The reporters were intent on establishing if 90 minutes against Hungary had prompted Trapattoni to either radically adjust a system he had spent the qualifying campaign fine-tuning and, also, possibly changing his mind about the starting 11 to face Croatia. From Trapattoni’s perspective, he was merely trying to emphasise that it was important he illustrate to the players how the Hungarians had exposed their defensive frailties in the game and to make them see that in coming games, they may need to sacrifice a striker to bolster the rearguard action. But it was when he heard the word contradictory – “contraddittorio” – that he went a bit Vesuvius on his audience.
“No. No. No. I said play 11. But! But! When they understood us or see our difficulty, then my duty change. It’s clear. You want to know the name ! NO! NO!,” he said, breaking into Italian.
“Okay! Okay,” Manuela Spinelli said quickly.
“He wanted to use this game to see the team and evaluate the system.
“That you can play so or change,” Trapattoni interjected. “It’s clear? It’s clear.”
But it wasn’t clear.
“There’s a language barrier here,” someone ventured in the audience.
This did not go down too well.
“No, no lingua. No language. Si?
Can we have it in Italian?
Trap gazed down at his Irish inquisitors, baffled and angry. The Hungarians in the room, a bit dazzled to have Trap as their guest, squirmed uncomfortably.
A dozen or so Irish men looked back at Trap. Nobody was blinking.
Thankfully, there were aeroplanes to catch, reports to write. After the triumphant reception in Gdansk on Tuesday, Trapattoni was game enough to make another stab at getting the point across to the Irish. By now, the press room was enhanced by Italian press men: leather-jacketed and gazing at Il Trap in the way that men of a certain generation stare at photographs of Sophia Loren. For the benefit of his country men, he spoke in Italian, which was translated as: “It is very clear to us Italians because this is something we are used to: we only try to get the result. I don’t know what there is to understand: if you need to be here instead of there, then you need to be here, not there.”
The Italians chuckled heartily: the Irish looked more confused than ever. Be where? When? Could you get a train there?
Trapattoni sighed. It would be later tweeted by an Italian journalist that he, in an aside to his compatriots, he had described the Irish press as “dumb”.
If so, it was just out of exasperation and he probably meant it in a fond way. At that moment, everyone felt a bit stupefied: it was like being in the maths class where Pythagoras theorem had been explained 20 times and the class still can’t get it. Except this wasn’t even about Pythagoras: it was about where to play Robbie Keane.
Trap tried a different approach. He dipped into that illustrious past, full of glittering cups and trophies and wins based on strategy.
“You say I change opinion: no, no I change opinion. There is a reason. Two years ago maybe we play in cup . . . one of the best our defender/stopper has been our striker because we passed the last 15 minutes near our own box. But we won. It is clear? There is only one ball. Bayern Munich . . . one corner . . . Chelsea goal. It’s clear this. Many years ago we won Uefa . . . One of our best defender was our striker. Because they push ball in our box. But we won. If we need: there is only one ball. If we have the ball, we have the order.”
Later that night, a section of the press corps found itself heading back to its living quarters the way it often does: walking up a deserted road towards a train station and then waiting for a train which showed no sign of coming. The press corps looked jaded, hopelessly monolingual and vaguely homeless. It was around then, at 9pm, that phone messages came through from the FAI noting that Irish training had been cancelled and that the players would be given a day off.
It seemed a surprising development given that at his press briefing, Trapattoni seemed genuinely amused by the notion that his players might be tired. As this was discussed on the platform, a footballer still wearing his gear and carrying a football appeared. He was light, blond and wearing black shorts and a black sweater: in the twilight, he was a ringer for a young Damien Duff.
“Duff Storms Out Of Camp,” someone joked, picturing the headline.
“And Catches Really Slow Train.”
By Thursday, the confusion over how the rest day had come about was broached. Aiden McGeady had suggested the players were tired in the friendly game against Hungary, a sentiment which Trapattoni had dismissed with a laugh afterwards. Trapattoni was exhilarated after a week in his home country and clearly regarded the week as little more than a week-long rest.
The idea that professional footballers could be tired after one full international and a late night flight was probably incomprehensible to him.
There were some contradictory messages circulated afterwards. Keith Andrews confirmed that a delegation of footballers had approached the management, pleading tiredness. Speaking just a few yards away, Marco Tardelli was blissfully unaware of this. “Nobody ask us not to train. It was Giovanni who decided this,” he said.
Which, of course, it ultimately was. That he is the one who makes the decisions has always been Trapattoni’s default line. After all, he has been making those calls as a football man for 40 years and when he needs to, he refers to the imperious haul of domestic and European honours he has obtained as examples of why he believes in doing things a certain way.
Anyone who has seen his majestic outburst during the famous Bayern Munich press conference in 1998 when, speaking German, he lacerated his players for their lack of effort can be in no doubt about where Trapattoni’s sensibilities lie. The Italian is so sprightly that it can be easily forgotten that the first six years of his life coincided with the second World War. If he scoffed at the idea that his players might be tired after a week which of light training and a day tour of Florence, it is because he probably finds it unbelievable that young men could ever be tired.
Sometimes when Trapattoni speaks of modern footballers, it is hard not to feel that he feels that like most privileged western young people, they are too pampered and soft on themselves and that they have it too easy. At the heart of his argument in Budapest on Monday evening was an ethos which carried echoed of the Jack Charlton refrain. He wants his players, particularly his frontmen, to improve their work rate and harass opponents on the ball and, as he said himself, “to sacrifice”.
That is to be the key virtue when Ireland and Trapattoni himself return to the main theatre of European football in Poznan tomorrow night. At 73, the Italian shows no sign of slowing down or mellowing and even if he hasn’t said it, there is a clear sense that these European finals represent for him an opportunity to leave an extraordinary grace note upon the game. The Irish team is not the most lavishly gifted of the finalists: Trapattoni has made little secret of the fact that he believes he is operating with limited resources.
What could burnish his singular genius as a football coach more so than guiding a prosaic Irish team through a group that includes the dazzling Spanish and his beloved Azzurri?
Football is his life and at the heart of his heated retorts over the past few weeks was the fact that he regarded matters like Foley or playing systems or rest days as just a few of the constant decisions he has to make in order to run the football team the way he believes it should be run. His message, as he glowered down from the top table was clear not so much from the Italian and English that he spoke as the furious light in his eyes. It said: “I know what I am doing here.”