The man behind the scarf: 'With refs...ooof, he was awful'

Ian Herbert talks to Sven Goran Eriksson and David Platt and learns that Roberto Mancini's outward calm is only half the story

It will be the debonair Roberto Mancini we observe at Wembley this evening, that scarf impeccably arranged as he attempts to take Manchester City to a piece of history.

But it was a different individual Sven Goran Eriksson remembers, as he casts his mind back to the evening of Mancini's only competitive game beneath the twin towers, nearly two decades ago.

It was 20 May 1992 when Mancini's Sampdoria and Barcelona clashed in a European Cup final and Eriksson had a special interest in proceedings, since he was about to take over as the Genoese club's manager. It was when Ronald Koeman won the game for the Spaniards from a rather dubious free-kick that he first glimpsed a Mancini temperament that still makes him wince to this day. "As a person everybody loves Mancini," Eriksson tells The Independent, with an affectionate smile for an individual with whom his own richly successful Italian career became inextricably entwined. "But with referees? Ooof. He was awful. He couldn't control himself."

Mancini's protestations to the German official at the old Wembley went on for so long that Mancini was banned for several games at the start of the next season. "It was three or four games," Eriksson recalls. "I'm not sure if he tried to kill the referee!" The Sampdoria president Paolo Mantovani adored Mancini as much as anyone – "He would ring me up when we were playing away, ask if Mancini would play and only turn up if I'd said yes," Eriksson relates, in his office at Leicester City – but when Mancini rolled up in front of Mantovani and tried to persuade him to get the ban reduced, he got his come-uppance. "He told him: 'If you don't get your arse out of the office in two minutes I promise I will get you 10 games!' " Eriksson remembers.

Here is one of many reasons why Mancini's apparently unfathomable empathy with Mario Balotelli is actually no great mystery. For a real appreciation of why the calm, monosyllabic persona Mancini has offered to the British public in the past 16 months is a disguise, we must delve back to his emergence as a teenager of genuinely prodigious talent in the Bologna youth sides of the early 1980s which brought a Serie A debut at the age of 16. All the Italian pros knew about him back then. Eriksson had just started his Italian managerial career at Roma in 1984, when Roberto Falcao walked up to him at an early training session and said: "Buy Mancini." But Roma couldn't compete with the oil riches Mantovani was showering on Sampdoria. "He had decided to buy Mancini, instead of a ranch in Arizona," Eriksson remembers. "We tried. But no chance."

Had Roberto Baggio not been so favoured for the No 10 jersey, Mancini would have achieved more than his modest 36 international caps. Instead, for 15 years he devoted himself to marshalling Sampdoria's development into a European force. Captain, tactician, kit designer, he became such a fundamental part of that club's fabric that when Eriksson flew to Monte Carlo to be interviewed for the manager's job in 1992, he found Mantovani, Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were all on the panel.

It was on Mancini's say-so that David Platt was signed, too, and Mancini's first-team coach at City certainly saw both sides of the man. Off the field, Mancini would buy legendary team lunches at La Piedigrotta restaurant on the Genoese quayside and was calm to the point of being "shy", Platt says. (It is a word Eriksson also uses in the course of suggesting that Mancini and David Beckham shared many more characteristics than an appreciation of elegance.)

On the field, someone else took over. Mancini's quality of genius borne of a peripheral vision as Platt saw it – "He had such an ability to know that someone was in a better position to score than him and to find them: bang, there's your goal" – was accompanied by a raging impatience with team-mates as well as officials. "If players did stupid things on the pitch, well... ouch," agrees Eriksson. "He never argued with opponents. Just his own players and a referee. I wished many times that he would leave it to me!"

Players accepted Mancini because his judgement was almost always right, Eriksson insists. There could also be no doubt that he lived and breathed his beloved club. On an occasion when Eriksson found himself short of central midfielders, Mancini badgered him to let him play there. " 'Do it. Test me'," Eriksson remembers him saying. "Initially, I said, 'No', but we got one more injury so I said, 'OK, play there'. We never lost in the 17 games he was there."

Eriksson took Mancini with him to Lazio for a period rich in silverware but when he arranged a footballing swansong for him under Peter Taylor at Leicester City, there was evidence of that essential need to take some stick as well as give it out. Mancini was not fully fit at Leicester – "Finish. Be my [full-time] assistant," Eriksson had already implored him – and he was substituted in each of his four starts before deciding to leave for the manager's job at Fiorentina, aged only 36. When he knocked on Taylor's door to announce his decision, there was a humility bordering on embarrassment.

"We had a chat and it meant we were both late out for training that day," Taylor recalls. "We used to have a system in those days where if someone was late out they had to stand on the goal line, back to the players, who would smash half volleys at them from the D of the penalty box." The players were reluctant to blast the man they had nicknamed "Ledg" – for legend. "But Mancini was determined he should take the punishment," Taylor recalls. "The players loved him."

The unanswered question was whether genius of the player would translate into a similar quality as manager. The history of football is littered with the names of those who could not cope with managing lesser mortals. Platt describes how, from their seats on the bench, he is the first to hear Mancini's frustrations with those lacking the peripheral vision the Italian once displayed. "We'll sometimes have a [goal chance] and [Mancini] will think: 'Why hasn't he passed there?' " Platt says.

"He'll turn around on the bench and say, 'He only has to knock it there'. I put myself in the player's position sometimes. I know that as a goalscorer my sole focus would narrow; that I wouldn't see anybody else around me and I would just try and score the goal. But he was the player who had all the vision and I think sometimes he still sees the game from his playing perspective. He sees it peripherally. To him, what [a player has just tried] is alien." It is another reason why Platt believes Mancini has such faith in Balotelli, in whose prodigious genius he sees himself reflected back.

Yet as he began his management career Mancini surrounded himself with players of lesser stock, becoming "the blue blood who chooses to live as a commoner" as one observer has put it. And there was success. The Fiorentina squad he picked up after Leicester was drifting to bankruptcy but he took them to the Italian Cup. Then it was on to Lazio, also shedding players as Sergio Cragnotti's spending ended. The Romans were tipped to prop up Serie A. Mancini took them to fourth and sixth in successive seasons, before Internazionale came calling. "Even when he was playing he recognised that everyone had a role," Platt believes. "He knew that 11 Mancinis would get beaten and that other players were needed to complement him."

There is a significance in Mancini's decision to invoke the same spirit of the underdog which served him in those years ahead of today's FA Cup semi-final game and though there are signs that some of City's players have not taken to him like those at his previous clubs, they will not dent the unstinting self-belief which remains from his playing days. Some Italian observers who hear the "real" Mancini – the one who told El Pais in 2008 that Italian television "don't know what bullshit to come up with at night, so they concentrate on things that cause chaos" – describe him as a chulo (an arrogant). He has accepted that soubriquet "because I go against the people in charge and speak the truth", as he said a few years ago, and his relationship with his players has generally always been better than with his directors.

An extraordinary confidence that he will enjoy the same prodigious success as a manager as a player is one of Mancini's defining characteristics. "Eriksson and Vujadin Boskov [who also managed him at Sampdoria] both taught me to be an optimist and to believe in yourself when in difficulty," he told El Pais.

It is a confidence bordering on "impatience", says Platt. "I don't think he wants to live his life where he's not up against it," Mancini's coach says, when it is put to him that Mancini's blind spot is the absence of difficult moments in football. "He believes wholeheartedly we can win everything. Four or five games ago he was turning around to me and saying 'We can win the League'. I'm saying: 'Fine. Maybe. There's a good chance that if we do take 33 points out of 33 we will get to a points total that would win us the League. The mathematics are right'.

"But the difference is he believes it. Something at the back of my mind will tell me something is going to come up against us. That doesn't enter his head because he won't allow it."

Even the most supreme optimist would have some lingering doubts about the course of this evening's match, though, and the pursuit of a Champions League place which will follow. Mancini, the man who spots opportunities in places where others do not even look, will need to employ an extraordinary footballing mind like never before. His biggest test in football lies in the five short weeks ahead.

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