Sixty eight years of attitude


The Manager: Paddy Agnewgives an insight into the new man at the helm of Irish soccer

"I had a hard and difficult childhood. At three years of age, I had diphtheria. There was never much money around. But now I would say precisely that hard and poor childhood was my good fortune and in a sense is the key to my life. It helped me understand the meaning and the significance of so many things and to distinguish the true from the futile . . ."

Giovanni Trapattoni is the speaker and those words, spoken in an interview back in 1989, are as true today as they were then.

Trapattoni grew up tough and rough, as someone who made his own way up the greasy pole of football success.

Born in a modest dwelling in the Milan industrial hinterland of Cusano Milanino, Trapattoni was the fifth child of five, the spoiled baby of the family. He was born at home on St Patrick's Day, 1939, in a small tenement building, now destroyed but then inhabited by no less than 16 families.

His father, Francesco, a peasant farmer from Barbata near Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps, had moved to Cusano Milanino in search of work. Francesco found a job at the Gerli textile factory. He would work a 14-hour shift and then go straight from the factory floor to work with nearby farmers, cutting grass, feeding livestock or mending fences.

Francesco rarely had time to drop by home between the factory and the farm, so young Giovanni would be sent out with a bag of sandwiches for him.

"I would stay there and watch him eat the sandwiches; he would finish them in a minute; he ate so fast because he didn't want to be wasting time."

Trapattoni grew up in wartime. Some of his earliest memories are of being lifted, half-asleep, out of his bed and rushed to a shelter as the air raid sirens blazed and the Allied bombs fell. His earliest football memories, too, recall those days of hardship. He learned to play football on the street, kicking around a stuffed pig's bladder ("None of us ever had a real ball").

He began his team football with the San Martino "Oratorio", the local parish youth team, where he was spotted by Antonio Crippa, a talent scout linked to AC Milan. When the time came for him to have a trial with the big Milan club, his father almost scuppered the deal. A friend had offered Francesco a job in the bank for young Giovanni. To Francesco, that looked a much safer bet. However, "Il Guan" and the talent scout stuck to their guns, giving rise to a career that saw him play 284 games in Serie A (mainly for AC Milan) as well as 17 times for Italy.

Trapattoni played alongside some legendary figures. He was the midfield woodcutter and water fetcher for "Golden Boy" Gianni Rivera, and he was often back there in defence helping out captain Cesare Maldini, father of the peerless Paolo.

Critics of the time recall Trapattoni not only as a dour, battling midfielder but also as a key weapon in the Milan armoury. For example when Milan won the 1963 European Cup at Wembley, beating Benfica 2-1, Trapattoni played a key role.

Benfica had started that game well, with their great striker Eusebio opening the scoring. Frustrated by the way Eusebio seemed to be running the game, the Milan coach Nereo Rocca switched the marking, putting Trapattoni on the Portuguese ace. From then on, the music changed. Eusebio, under fierce marking, faded from the game and Milan came back to win 2-1.

Nor was Eusebio the only famous scalp to fall Trapattoni's way. A generation of Italian fans recall how he marked the great Pele out of an Italy v Brazil friendly in May 1963. One fierce Trapattoni tackle early in the game and Pele was gone. These days, Trapattoni plays it down, saying that Pele was not fit that day . . . but the legend lives on.

Trapattoni is intelligent and talkative, and his horizons occasionally stretch beyond football. When he coached Bayern Munich in the 1990s, he surprised many by regularly attending the opera. He lists Vivaldi and Beethoven (especially the 9th symphony) as favourites. On occasion, he has befuddled hacks with references to Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece, 100 Years of Solitude.

For all that, Trapattoni is perhaps best loved by Italians for his enigmatic sayings such as, "Don't say cat if you haven't got it in the bag."

He was brought up in a Catholic family and has a sister, Maria, a nun, so it comes as no surprise to discover he is a strong believer. During the 2002 World Cup finals, he caused a huge furore in Italy when he was seen with a bottle of Holy Water on the Italy bench.

Yet, Trapattoni's religion is about more than superstition. A co-operator (sympathiser and fellow traveller) of the Catholic movement Opus Dei, he is perfectly attuned with a fundamental Opus Dei principle, namely the sanctification of ordinary work, saying in 1999: "Josemaria Escriva (the founder of Opus Dei) has taught many athletes that their efforts in training and in competition, their companionship with team-mates, their esteem for their opponents, their humility in victory and good spirit in defeat, are a specific path for reaching God and serving others."

Noble words, but Trapattoni is also a total realist. When he had difficulty with the talented but quarrelsome Brazilian Edmundo at Fiorentina, he pointed out that good players do not need to love one another to be able to play well together. Companionship is one thing, getting the results is another.

During the 1989 season that saw him win the Serie A title with Inter, he explained his modus operandi: "I'm a pain in the ass, I shout at players to do this or do that a thousand times during training, day after day. If the players have any grey matter in their heads, they follow me."

Here's hoping he finds plenty of grey matter in Irish heads.