Lippi: 'We were in a state of grace for months'

Marcello Lippi reveals how he guided Italy to World Cup glory by combining indestructible team spirit with superior tactics. By Frank Dunne in Florence
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Marcello Lippi, suntanned and suave in black suit, black shirt and black tie, sits under photos of his Italy team's World Cup celebrations which adorn the walls of Coverciano, the Italian Football Federation's Technical Centre in Florence, trying to spell out exactly how you win a World Cup.

After a while trying to explain it to me, and a morning trying to explain it to a group of top coaches from across Europe, he comes close to admitting that something happened to Italy this summer in Germany which defies rational explanation. "It was like a dream. Everybody played at 100 per cent. If I made a change, the player coming on played even better than the player going off. There was an absolute feeling of security, a sense of our own strength. Everything worked perfectly. Everything went our way. We lived for two months in a state of grace. It was magical."

Italy carried off the game's greatest prize at a time when the country's domestic game was reeling from a match-fixing scandal involving some of its biggest clubs. Far from being a distraction, the scandal was crucial in forging team spirit. "You need motivation, a special group spirit, to win a tournament," Lippi said. "The team was already a strong group but when the scandal erupted they knew how to transform everything that was going on into positive energy."

Lippi took over from Giovanni Trapattoni as national team coach in July 2004, after Italy's dismal performances at Euro 2004 and the 2002 World Cup. "We came from two experiences that were not positive and the country had fallen out of love with the national team. My first objective was to get the people to fall in love with the team again. The second, more important, objective was to create a team. The players had to realise that they played for two teams, not just one. You play for your club and, at the same time, you play for another team, your country. We started working towards this, towards becoming a team."

Lippi felt that his players needed to have the sense of being "part of a project". "You get over any negativity because you are all working for the same thing. You don't have to react to what's happening to you in a given moment. In this way the players' belief in their own abilities begins to grow."

If a single game in this year's World Cup could be read as a manifesto for a new kind of Italian football, it was the semi-final against Germany, when Lippi played extra time with four attack-minded players - Vincenzo Iaquinta, Alessandro Del Piero, Alberto Gilardino and Francesco Totti. Lippi, however, resists my attempt to load the match with significance.

"What happened in the Germany game was just a tactical interpretation of a particular situation. In extra time, I realised that the game was no longer being played in midfield. It was a case of Italy attacking, then Germany attacking, then Italy attacking - with Italy probably attacking a bit more than Germany. The forwards and the defenders in each team were those doing all the work. Seeing as we have a very strong defence - far, far stronger than Germany's - I said to myself, 'Let's put on four attackers and go for it'. It meant we were also ready with the right players to take penalties, if necessary.

"Don't forget we had played the whole year with three attackers - Gilardino, [Luca] Toni and either Totti or Del Piero. We had a decent level of organisation between defence and midfield and I liked to play with three attacking players, usually with Totti behind two strikers. But Totti was injured before the World Cup and I had to decide what to do. I felt - and the players felt - that he was a player who could change a game for you in an instant so we wanted him out there even if he wasn't 100 per cent in terms of sharpness or stamina."

Lippi had spent the morning at Uefa's "Course for Coach Educators", at Coverciano, in Florence, trying to put into words what he called the "indescribable" experience of leading Italy to World Cup success - "the greatest satisfaction any coach or player can have." Not that the only coach to have won both the World Cup and the Champions' League was short of ideas. Lippi actually apologised for talking too much. "As you will have noticed," the 58-year-old Tuscan said, "I love talking about football."

Italy's ability to change tactics when necessary marked Lippi out from many of his peers in Germany, the 2-0 first-round victory over the Czech Republic in Hamburg a good example. "The Czechs play with one striker and lots of midfield players. So I went with one striker and lots of midfield players. Why give them the advantage in such a vital game? We knew if we beat them we would top the group and avoid Brazil, whom everyone in the world feared. We could also see we might then come up against Australia and Ukraine in successive rounds and, with all due respect to those teams, we felt that we had a great opportunity to get through to the semi-final."

Italian players grow up in a culture where complex tactical discussions begin in the cradle, but taking a national team to a level where it can switch seamlessly between game plans still requires work. "Once you've selected the players, you have to learn to play in two or three different ways, which means working hard on the training ground. In Italy, that requires effort because every club plays with a different approach. Juventus play with one formation, Palermo another, Milan another again."

In a postscript to the point - one that Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren might prefer not to read - Lippi added that "in some countries, like England, every club plays the same way, which makes things easier for the national team coach."

Player selection and man-management were Lippi's opening themes. "I'm sure that if you ask any coach who has been in football a long time he will tell you the same thing: it's the quality of the players that counts. You must have players with good technique. Where teams are evenly balanced in technical terms other factors come into play, like character and personality. People talk a lot about speed but without technique you won't be able do things quickly."

With top-class footballers now on stratospheric salaries, the real test for a coach is coaxing young millionaires to push themselves. "These days you have players who, in one or two seasons, have earned enough to solve all their problems for life. It's about having the right kind of personality to deal with the players."

Lippi describes the balance that needs to be struck in building successful relations with players as "being able to impose your own personality on the group without nullifying theirs. You have to make the players feel that you are a strong guide but also that you are making use of what they know and what they can do."

Lippi's role model was Fulvio Bernardini, the former Sampdoria and Italy coach who helped develop the young Lippi as a libero at Sampdoria in the 1970s. "He was a cultured man, a man of great humanity and knowledge, one of the few university graduates in football. He was the perfect example of how to impose your personality without being overbearing. I would be happy if I thought that I was a little like him."

Ferguson praises Lippi's intervention in battle of Berlin

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, provided a filmed tribute to the tactical acumen of Italy's World Cup-winning former coach, Marcello Lippi, as part of Uefa's 16th Course for Coach Educators in Florence.

In introducing the clip, Uefa's technical director, Andy Roxburgh, joked that Lippi and Ferguson had become such firm friends they were now almost "a mutual admiration society".

The two have much in common. Both realised early they wanted to coach. Both are socialists from working-class backgrounds and both can be prickly with the media. But they don't agree on everything.

"I told Marcello that I thought the final was fantastic," Ferguson said. "He said he thought Italy-Germany was a better game. Of course, it was a better spectacle but from a tactical point of view the final was fantastic. In the second half, Marcello knew he was on the way out. He changed the situation and after that I couldn't see Italy losing. It was the turning point of the game. I couldn't see France losing to Italy on ability but I could see them losing on penalty kicks."

Italy had enjoyed one more day's rest than France after the semi-finals but the Azzurri had spent a huge amount of energy defeating Germany over 120 minutes. "We had an excellent first half, better than them," Lippi said, "but the players were tired and in the second half France's better technique and organisation began to tell."

On the hour in Berlin, Lippi made two changes: he replaced Francesco Totti with the aggressive midfielder Daniele De Rossi and midfielder Simone Perrotta with striker Vincenzo Iaquinta.

"Putting in De Rossi helped strengthen the midfield but by adding Iaquinta we managed to maintain the same attacking potential. The game became very finely balanced again.

"To be fair, we didn't create many chances but France didn't pose us any great problems after that."