Claudio Ranieri: A Roman general and man of the people

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The Independent Online

There was the most beautiful irony at the moment of the great triumph of Claudio Ranieri this week. The Chelsea football manager, and son of a Roman butcher, was no longer a bumbling figure and comic assassin of the English language but a man of powerful action - and a master of communication. The message he conveyed so emotionally soared beyond the boundaries of a big game.

There was the most beautiful irony at the moment of the great triumph of Claudio Ranieri this week. The Chelsea football manager, and son of a Roman butcher, was no longer a bumbling figure and comic assassin of the English language but a man of powerful action - and a master of communication. The message he conveyed so emotionally soared beyond the boundaries of a big game.

He declared - in the most exultant body language since his rival Sir Alex Ferguson danced in victory in Barcelona five years ago after winning with Manchester United the European Cup trophy which is now almost within touching distance of Ranieri - that in the end it is not what a man says, and still less how elegantly he says it, but what he represents.

Ranieri, his mostly adoring players and the fans who have taken his side against their deep-pocketed Russian benefactor Roman Abramovich have known for some time, is indeed a rare football man. Publicly humiliated by his bosses, often scorned in the media before the growth of his increasingly impressive stewardship of one of the most expensive collections of football talent ever assembled in the course of few weeks, Ranieri has held his nerve - and his dignity - quite brilliantly.

"Look," he said recently, "football is like any other part of life. You need to be honest with each other, and you have to give your best. Money is money and it is important to everyone to live. But there is something more. Yes, my players are well paid, but it is also easy for them to be insecure in our situation. My job is to make them happy - and confident. We have to do our work - and have pride."

It was that pride, a great effusion of it, which drove Ranieri out of his dug-out at Highbury this week when the sweetest of Chelsea goals brought victory over Arsenal - a team that had been lauded as potentially the greatest in the history of the English game - and a place in the European semi-finals against Monaco. The manager who had christened himself the Tinkerman had conjured a victory that was as uncomplicated as a perfectly grooved rifle shot, and when the astonishing reality of it had dawned a mischievous TV director fixed his lens on the ambivalent expression on the face of a man in the stands.

It was the oil oligarch Abramovich, who has poured more than £120m in to Chelsea while all the time making it clear that Ranieri was no more than a caretaker for, ideally, England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Russian's backdoor dealings with the Swede, the harassment of Ranieri by the club's chief executive, a former sports goods executive, has brought only disdain for several weeks now, and with each day the aura of the Italian has waxed a little stronger.

Now in a position of strength that provokes in many onlookers, especially those who have frustrations at the workplace, the thought that how wonderful it would be if life could always be a little more like this, Ranieri's greatest achievement has been self-evident. He has stayed true to the values that carried him through mediocre playing days in Italy to a distinguished coaching career in his native land, then Spain and now England.

These values were eloquently expressed on a cold night in Shrewsbury last season. Chelsea had won, with great ease, an FA Cup victory at a little ground which had earlier been the graveyard of another Premiership club, Everton. Ranieri stood by the touchline and delivered a moving tribute to his veteran professional and star of the game, Gianfranco Zola.

"Zola," said Ranieri, "is not only a great player, he is a man. First of all you must look at the man - and when you look at Zola you know what you have. You have somebody who you know will give you everything he has, and with him you know there is so much. I'm privileged to work with him, and I knew that when I first worked with him back in Italy many years ago."

That was back in the early 1990s when Ranieri, after years as a rugged full back and coach in the lower divisions, made his first break into the big league with Napoli. The club was suffering in the wake of the departure of the troubled Diego Maradona, who had led the team to the fabled scudetto title for the first time in history, an achievement which provoked a club-sponsored helicopter flight to the peak of Vesuvius, where the blue and white colours were sent swirling into the wind. Ranieri couldn't quite generate that level of euphoria, but he did well enough, guiding Napoli to fourth place and this earned him a three-year stint in Florence, where he guided Fiorentina back into the top league and won the Italian Cup.

Before he moved to Chelsea, he worked impressively in Valencia, where he laid the foundations for a run to the final of the European Cup, but had a less uplifting time at Madrid's second club, Atletico, where he collided with another wealthy football patron, Jesus Gil. Atletico went into administration and Gil to jail.

In Florence, Ranieri had placed himself at the heart of the people, eschewing a mansion in the hills and choosing an apartment in the heart of the old town. Today he lives in Fulham with his wife Rosanna, who owns an antique shop in Rome and is often accompanied by Claudio on scouting missions in Olde England. After one trip to Kent, he reported the journey hilariously to some cocktail guests. They were startled by his catastrophic pronunciation of the word Kent. More considered expletives often lace his post-game reflections, invariably with great comic effect. The Ranieris' daughter, Claudia, is studying law in Rome, which could be an asset when it comes time for her father to leave Chelsea, which seems inevitable despite the brilliance of the team's achievements over the past few weeks.

None of Ranieri's colourful progress through the football life has surprised the inhabitants of the working-class district of Testaccio on the banks of the Tiber in Rome. There, Claudio grew up over the butcher's shop run by his parents Mario and Renata. He was known in the neighbourhood as a youngster of relentless enthusiasm - and optimism. When he was appointed to Chelsea in 2000 - to replace the more celebrated Gianluca Vialli - Renata said, "He may have some difficulties with English at the start, but not for too long. He picked up Spanish very quickly, and though I know that is closer to Italian, I'm sure he will be telling his players what to do in English soon enough."

She was right. One of his more memorable observations was to the young striker Carlton Cole, a tremendous physical specimen but not always the most valiant member of the attack. Said Ranieri, "When I look at you I see two animals in your body. One is a rabbit ... one is a lion. I would like to see the lion all the time."

When accused by a reporter of making too many changes to the team, he declared, "Yes, I'm the Tinkerman, but I will continue to make changes when I have to. I see it as the duty of a coach who has good resources to make changes when he thinks it is right. I want to play the football of the future, and for all of us in the game it is a time of change."

In the onslaught on the transfer market ordered by the new Chelsea owner last summer, Ranieri didn't always seem to be on top of the details. When, after a home match, he was asked about the presence in the stands of Hernan Crespo, the Italian-based Argentinian striker, Ranieri feigned surprise. An impatient journalist said, "Claudio, he's having a medical in the morning." Ranieri then performed a wonderful mime of someone caught in a lie. He put his finger on the end of his nose and then drew it forward by at least a foot. He shook his head and said, "I am Pinocchio, no?"

Not that, events have proved, but rather a passionate man of unbreakable, if peculiar, humour and style. Of all the recent tributes to his work and the meaning of it, none was more remarkable than that of John Giles who, in his time as a great midfielder for Leeds United and Ireland, was not noted for any excess of sentimentality. "If you happened to believe in the power of the prayer, I think you would have to say one for Ranieri to win the European Cup," said Giles the other day. "He has put up with a lot this season, but he has handled it magnificently and I have to say that in all my time in and around the game I don't think I've ever seen anyone deal with quite so much pressure so superbly. He could make a Chelsea fan of almost anyone. It is because you look at him and you see a decent, passionate man - and of course football is not exactly awash with those."

Another testimonial comes from Sweden, where coach and former player Jonas Thern remembers his time with Ranieri. "He was a hard man but you always felt that he had some feeling for you. He wanted the best for himself and the team - but also for you."

Two years ago the former Chelsea player Roberto di Matteo was struggling to accept that the fact that a serious injury had wrecked his career. His crisis coincided with Chelsea's appearance in the FA Cup final against Arsenal. He was surprised when Ranieri took him to one side and said he wanted him to lead out the team. "How many managers would do that?" reflected di Matteo. "I was no longer any use to him, but he thought it would be a good experience for me. I will never forget that."

This week Claudio Ranieri widened still further his group of admirers. He gave the nation a great abbracio - the big embrace - and when England responded a billionaire Russian sat remote and, it seemed, a little curious. Maybe he was pondering on some of the things that money just cannot buy.

A life in brief

Born: 20 October 1951 in San Saba, Rome.

Family: Married to Rosanna, an antiques dealer. They have one daughter, Claudia.

Playing career: Turned out for his church team before joining AS Roma's youth academy. Popular, reliable player forlower-league clubs Catania, Catanzaro and Palermo. Retired as player in 1986.

Managerial career: Began in the lower divisions with Campania. Managed Cagliari before joining Napoli and then Fiorentina. Won the Italian second division at Fiorentina before guiding the Viola to the Coppa Italia and the Italian Super Cup. Enticed to Spain to manage Valencia, where he won the Spanish Cup in 1998. Left to join Atletico Madrid in 1999 but resigned after the club was taken into judicial administration. Replaced Gianluca Vialli as Chelsea manager in September 2000.

He says...: "The squad is like a child. If a child makes a mistake and you put them under pressure, a child cannot grow up with confidence."

They say...: "I respect Claudio Ranieri a lot. He has handled himself well and with dignity. You need a thick skin." - Arsène Wenger, Arsenal manager