Interview with Marcello Lippi: Paddy Agnewtalks to the feted coach, who took a sabbatical after Italy's World Cup success. He's raring to go, and he's not ruling out the Premiership
If you just happen to find yourself walking along the seafront of the Tuscan seaside resort of Viareggio, do not be surprised if you bump into at least one very familiar face, a face you saw a lot of last June and July. Just at the moment, there is a good chance you will run into Viareggio's most famous son, Marcello Lippi, well known as a Paul Newman lookalike but much better known as the man who coached Italy to World Cup success last summer.
By his choice, a choice made before the finals in Germany, Lippi is unemployed. That is not to say that he is idle or that he has given up on football. Far from it. For much of the eight months since Italy's epic triumph in Berlin, he has been whirring around both Italy and Europe picking up prizes by the hundredweight and regularly lecturing students "on the ability to create a team".
Lippi intends to be back in football next season, most probably with a big-name club in Italy, England or Spain. As of now, he is enjoying a period on the sidelines. On a recent afternoon, Lippi met a small group of non-Italian reporters. Appropriately enough, we met him in the lobby of the Principe di Piemonte, a Liberty-style hotel on the passeggiata Viale Regina Margherita, the celebrated seafront promenade in Viareggio.
So then, what's next Mr Lippi?
"I'm 59 years old, what am I going to do, sit at home and go for bike rides? I intended to take a break after the World Cup, but you never want to give up on the possibility of other big wins, especially after you have experienced something like winning a World Cup.
"I've been contacted by seven or eight teams so far - none of them Italian, by the way - but I said no to all of them because I didn't want to start a new job in mid-season. If in April or May, a club comes looking for me with a serious set of plans, then I'll sit down and talk to them about lots of things, their plans, about the quality of life (in the town where the club is based) and then we'll see. The club doesn't necessarily have to be the sort of club that aims at lifting the league title."
Realistically, Lippi sees only a club and not another national team in his future. For a start, he feels too linked to Italy. For a second, he has already turned down Libya and Mexico. When the time comes, it will clearly have to be a "heavyweight" club: "I think it would be difficult for a foreign federation to come looking for me. It would be difficult for me, too, because it was such a huge joy to win the World Cup with Italy that I would find it very strange to go and coach another national side.
"In the future, who knows, but for the time being I think it is much more likely to be a club."
Could we be talking about a Premiership club? Years ago, while coaching Juventus, Lippi told your correspondent he would never coach in England because he did not speak English and because he did not believe he could coach via an interpreter.
Intriguingly, Lippi does not see it that way now. "Players, even in England, now speak different languages. I used to speak to Alex Ferguson only via the interpreter, but recently we've discovered that we both speak a little French and we talk to one another in French.
"Lots of players have played in Italy or have travelled around, so they understand different languages. A few years ago, I would have seen the lack of English as a huge problem for me in England, now less so."
Curiously, partly thanks to their many meetings in the Champions League, Lippi remains a great admirer of both Manchester United and Ferguson.
"Alex has been able to win a lot yet and at the same time continually renew the team and renew it before the team gets to the end of its cycle.
"In recent years, he has brought in players like (Wayne) Rooney, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Louis) Saha and others, and blended the new guys with the established players. Even if they have not won so much in recent seasons, this year they are back on top and look very strong.
"But you can make the real judgment on the best European clubs only after the second round of the Champions League, because it becomes a knock-out competition at that point, it's do or die and the best ones do. Many of the best teams time things deliberately so that they are at their best in March and April, not December and January."
As for the best players around, not surprisingly Lippi takes special satisfaction from the prizes (European and Fifa Player of the Year) won by his captain in Germany, Fabio Cannavaro. "Fabio deserves those trophies because his performances made a big contribution to Italy winning the World Cup. The fact, too, that he was voted by all the national team coaches must mean something.
"I would say the same too about Ronaldhino, in the past coaches have voted for him and there is a reason. He has been the best player of the last three seasons."
Would José Mourinho have been the best coach of the last three seasons? "The good coach is the one who gets the best out of players, who gets a mid-table side to finish second or third in his league. Mourinho has certainly done that and more than that in recent years; what is more, he has done it without himself having been a great player, something that can really help you when you coach a big team."
Not surprisingly, even in a year when Italian football has been hit by the Calciopoli corruption scandal and by the violence which cost the life of policeman Filippo Raciti in Catania earlier this month, Lippi remains very proud of the quality of Italian football.
"There's no country in the world with a better standard of coaching than Italy, and I'm not talking just about Serie A coaches, I'm talking about Serie C, Serie D coaches too. At every level, Italian coaches are very good - technically, tactically, athletically - and that's because lower level football in Italy is very, very competitive, much more so than in lots of other countries."
Lippi's pride in Italian football is palpable. He himself set the bar pretty high in Germany by using every player in his squad, bar the two reserve goalkeepers, to win the World Cup, a win that did much to restore the nation's footballing credibility, he claims.
"I don't feel the credibility of Italian football has suffered from Calciopoli. Around the world, people see Italy as the world champions, certainly that is the feeling I get from all my travels around the world in the wake of Germany.
"As for corruption, other countries like Portugal and Germany have had their problems, but this doesn't mean that their football has lost credibility. These are difficult moments, and if the football movement is strong it will overcome them.
"The sight of a club like Juventus in Serie B should make everyone stop and think. There are people who say that Italian football's problems have been swept under the carpet, but it doesn't seem that way to me. Juve were relegated to Serie B, they were stripped of two titles, Juve club directors were banned for many years, big clubs were heavily penalised as well so, clearly, there was no whitewash here."
At one point, last May, it seemed as if that same Calciopoli scandal would ruin Italy's chances in Germany. Ironically, the scandal may well have helped motivate Lippi and his squad in Germany: "Calciopoli did not put us off our stride for one reason. We had put together a really strong group.
"Remember, this squad had travelled to the Netherlands and beaten the Dutch who hadn't lost at home for two years and who, at that time, were one of the most in-form teams in Europe. We played with real authority and presence to win 3-1. Then after that we beat Germany 4-1 in Florence, playing really well, and after that game there was a strong sensation, a strong belief in the squad, the realisation that we were, not necessarily the strongest team in the world, but certainly a very strong one.
"If we had been a weak squad, Calciopoli would probably have wiped us out, but on the contrary we were very strong in our heads and the lads managed to turn everything that had happened into positive energy. In Germany, the team showed itself to be not only very determined and enthusiastic but also to have other qualities, to have class players in the team, to be well organised, to be able to play big games with a player less, to be able to play with four strikers up front.
"Then too, confidence builds as you progress. We got a big boost from winning our first-round group and thus avoiding Brazil, we got a big fillip from beating Australia even at a man down and with a last-minute penalty which clearly suggests the gods are on your side, and then we beat Ukraine easily. At that point, our self-belief was far removed from the team of the first round, so we really fancied ourselves against Germany in the semi-final, even if we were playing them in Dortmund where they are practically unbeatable.
"I would have to admit, though, we were helped too by the memory of that 4-1 win in Florence in March."
When one colleague suggests it might have been a relative disappointment to win on penalties in Germany, Lippi begs to differ, and vehemently so: "Not at all. Penalties represent a skill that, according to the rules, can decide a game. I've been through plenty of penalty shoot-outs in my career, you win some, you lose some - with Juventus against Ajax in 1996 I won a Champions League in a shoot-out, yet at Old Trafford in 1993 I lost one (to AC Milan).
"But a penalty shoot-out says a lot about a team's mentality, its self-belief. For example, in Rome against Ajax, all my players looked me in the eye and told me they wanted to take one of the penalties because they all wanted to be part of the success. On the contrary, at Old Trafford, after a match in which we had not played that well, nobody looked me in the eye, some of the players were looking into the grandstand, some were looking down at their boots, so much so that I thought at one point, what do you want lads, will I take all five kicks myself? The point is that in the Old Trafford final, my players didn't believe in it, and accordingly, we lost the shoot-out.
"In Berlin, it was like in Rome with Juventus, all the players wanted to take a penalty, even (Gianluigi) Buffon said to me, 'if you need me, I'll take one boss'. When I saw that, I was convinced we would win. One thing I'll tell you, though, is we did not prepare in any special way for the penalties, we didn't practise them for instance in the days before the game."
The final, of course, was marred by the infamous Zidane-Materazzi head-butt incident. Did that not help Italy in the end?
"To those who say we were much advantaged by the sending-off of Zidane, I would say this - he was sent off in extra-time, when the match was almost over. Sure he would have taken a penalty instead of somebody else, but certainly not instead of Trezeguet who would still have missed his, so his sending-off changed nothing.
"It was disappointing for all of us he was sent off, I had him as a player for four seasons, and I would say that after Maradona he was the best player of the last 20 years, on and off the field. Mind you, with Juventus we had a few occasions when he lost the head. What happened in Berlin was a pity but it takes nothing from his greatness as a player. Indeed, I spoke to him during the warm-up before the game and told him he should rethink his retirement, I told him that a player of his class should retire only when he can no longer walk and he just laughed. But I didn't talk to him after the game"
So, where next for Mr Lippi? He has no answer as of now and he even suggests self-mockingly that no club will come looking for him. After all, he adds, football coaches can be judged by pretty exacting standards.
"I took Juventus to four Champions League finals, yet somebody once asked me after I lost the second Champions League final if I considered myself a loser. Yes, I said, a successful loser. To get to the final that year, we had beaten Deportivo La Coruna in the second round, beaten Barcelona in the quarter-finals, beaten Real Madrid in the semi-finals, we had a great run through to the finals, and then you go and lose with the last kick of the shoot-out and someone tells you you are a loser."
Some loser. Indeed, this is one loser who is unlikely to remain unemployed for any longer than he wishes.
Date of birth: April 11th, 1948
Place of birth: Viareggio, Italy
1969-1970: Savona ; 1970-1980: Sampdoria; 1980-1982: Pistoiese
1985-1986: Pontedera; 1986-1987: Siena; 1987-1988: Pistoiese; 1988-1989: Carrarese; 1989-1991: Cesena; 1991-1992: Lucchese; 1992-1993: Atalanta; 1993-1994: Napoli; 1994--1999: Juventus; 1999-2000: Internazionale; 2001-2004: Juventus; 2004-2006: Italy.
WITH JUVENTUS: Five Italian Championships (1994-95, 1996-97, 1997-98, 2001-02, 2002-03)
One Champions League: 1995-96. Runners-up:1994-95.
Four Italian Supercups (1995-96, 1997-98, 2002-03, 2003-04)
Uefa Cup runners-up: 1994-95.
One European Super Cup: 1996-97.
One Intercontinental Cup: 1996-97.
One Italian Cup (1994-95).
WITH ITALY: World Cup 2006