It comes as no surprise to find that the composure and elegance Roberto Donadoni displayed on the pitch in a long and glorious career with Milan and Italy are part of his character. As he sits in the airy lightness of a Bloomsbury hotel conservatory, his lean frame clad in a crisp shirt, his dark, expressive face framed by greying hair swept back across the temples, he betrays no sign of the fact that he is a man charged with an impossible task – that of improving upon a World Cup victory.
When Marcello Lippi resigned as Italian head coach in July 2006 after seeing his team defeat France in the final, few would have predicted that his successor would be a 43-year-old who, for all his illustrious deeds as a player – he earned six Serie A titles and three European Cups with Milan, and appeared for Italy in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups – had only managed relatively small clubs in Lecco, Livorno and Genoa.
The grand tradition of Italian football has always dictated that the position of head coach goes either to someone who is already working within the national federation, as in the case of Cesare Maldini, or someone who has experience with big clubs, such as Arrigo Sacchi, Giovanni Trapattoni or Lippi.
But the circumstances in which this outsider got the top job were extraordinary. The matchfixing within Serie A uncovered by Italian police in May 2006 sent shockwaves through the national game, implicating Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and most seriously Juventus, who were eventually stripped of their titles from 2004-05 and 2005-06 and forcibly relegated.
In the wake of the Calciopoli scandal, the national federation deliberately sought to appoint a new coach untainted by even the faintest associations of corruption. Enter Donadoni.
The reaction from the Italian media ranged from sceptical to hostile, and when the new boy's first three matches produced defeats by Croatia and France and a draw at home against Lithuania, he came under heavy fire.
The front page of La Nazione carried the headline "How to reduce Lippi's masterwork to pieces in just three weeks", and Donadoni was accused of leading the Italian team "into the dark". The international retirement of Francesco Totti and defender Alessandro Nesta, as well as a series of injuries to key players, compounded his problems.
It seemed as if the new manager was about to fall prey to the anti-climactic reaction that had occurred after Italy won the 1982 World Cup, when they failed to qualify for the European Championship two years later.
But a sequence of five wins, culminating in victory over Scotland at Hampden Park in a match that even the laid-back Donadoni described as his own "World Cup final" saw Italy qualify top of their group for the European Championship that begin today.
Despite the monstrous pressures on him, Donadoni has found time to visit London to speak at a sports seminar at Birkbeck College, and as he reviews his recent experiences he is quietly ironic about the rabid criticism he has had to endure from his fellow countrymen.
"It is an attitude that exists in Italy which I may not share but I know, and I just keep on my course," he says. "The Italian media treats the national team differently. They feel more free to criticise the national team – they expect me to be Superman.
"In Italy it is inevitable that people will start giving you all kinds of advice and you will end up with 15 styles of play. This is good. I like to be given advice – especially by the media." The statement is delivered with a straight face – as was his assertion earlier this year, after the umpteenth question about why he had not attempted to coerce Totti into returning to the ranks of the Azzurri, that he did not know who the player was.
But there is no irony involved when Donadoni assesses his challenge. And he denies that the position he occupies is more of a nightmare than a dream.
"It is not that," he says. "It is a great responsibility that I have taken on but I decided to make the most of it. I knew I was accepting a very difficult job, but I would rather coach a team that has won the World Cup than one which hasn't. I believe the experience those players bring to the team is of paramount importance." Of the 23 players selected by Lippi two years ago, 14 survived in Donadoni's 23-man squad for the European Championship, although that figure dropped to 13 this week when captain Fabio Cannavaro sustained an ankle ligament injury requiring surgery. Despite much speculation to the contrary, the 33-year-old Alessando Del Piero has made the cut, but Filippo Inzaghi, the 34-year-old who holds the all-time scoring record of 63 in Uefa competitions, has not.
The new recruits to the Azzurri include three from unfashionable clubs – Genoa's Marco Boriello, Udinese's Fabio Quagliarella and Sampdoria's mercurial Antonio Cassano.
"I try to look as a wide as possible for players, 360 degrees," Donadoni says. "Although its clear that our great teams provide us with great footballers. When you have players coming to the end of their careers and others who are starting – it is a matter of getting the balance right. This is an important issue.
"But the most difficult choice is when you decide to put 11 players on the field, and leave seven or eight outside. It is important to know players at a personal level. When you are aware of them as individuals, then you can put them in a creative mould for the squad." Donadoni acknowledges that he has gained richly from a playing career under some of the world's finest coaches. During his two-year period with Major League Soccer's New York/New Jersey MetroStars he was under the charge of Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had guided Brazil to victory in the 1994 World Cup. His early years at Milan saw him playing for Sacchi, who then took over as the Italian coach and was replaced at San Siro by England's current manager, Fabio Capello.
"From a technical point of view, one of the most important coaches in my professional development was Sacchi," Donadoni reflects. "Fabio was another important one – he was a really good player which helped him enormously in understanding what went on behind the scenes. I believe that is very important for a coach, and my playing experience has been a great help." Donadoni remains in touch with Capello, and reacts with a grin to the suggestion that his old boss is luckier in having no triumph to follow. "Good for him!" he says. "But I think English football has improved enormously, technically speaking. I think England will go a long way under Capello. He believes in discipline, but I don't think he will be a jail-keeper." As a player of immaculate technique, Donadoni is ideally placed to judge the current level of expertise within Italian football – and he finds it wanting.
"In Italy we have lost sight a little bit of the technical aspect of things," he says. "There are some great footballers who nevertheless lack that. Unless we actually pay more attention to the technical aspect we will probably face hard times in developing football to a certain standard. The physical aspect of things has been predominating and this is not good." So does he believe that Italy cannot win the European Championship, then? A smile. You don't catch him like that. "No," he says. "I believe Italy can win the European title for sure." The task, however, is exacting given Italy's position in Group C along with Romania, their old rivals France, and the Netherlands, whom they play on Monday. Inevitably it has been called "the Group of Death" – but then that was the name given to the group which Italy eventually headed to reach the finals.
"It's the same way, the same style," says Donadoni. "A very difficult group. Nothing is easy in life, no?" He will strive to ensure that the players who won their last warm-up match 3-1 against Belgium a week last Friday will be in the ideal frame of mind for their coming challenge. "You try not to put too much pressure on their shoulders," he says. "Too much pressure can bring a circle of negativity that can be destructive. When we come to a competition like the European Championship we don't have enough time to prepare the physical side, so the mental side is very important." As Donadoni works to create the right environment for his men, he will be bringing to bear coaching skills he first developed during his brief period as the star player with the MetroStars.
"There I had the opportunity to start teaching my fellow footballers, which helped to shape my future as a coach," he says, adding with a grin: "The experience on the pitch was terrible. It is not comparable with the game in Europe. And the only thing I won in the US was the award of 'Most Fouled Player'." Donadoni, however, achieved something which the current poster boy of MLS, David Beckham, is unlikely to emulate, by returning home from the US and picking up his sixth league title medal. The wry humour he displays does not disguise a deeply serious attitude to his current responsibility, both to the national team and Italian football as a whole. The Calciopoli affair has clearly affected him deeply.
"I believe the negative events will bring some changes," he says. "I don't agree with those who say players can best express themselves in times of difficulties. It hasn't been easy for players in Italy but we can learn to get through. I think the principal actors in this are the players and the coaches. We should lead by example. We have no other choice. We must go through this." And if any of his 23 players in Austria and Switzerland are tempted to take their own responsibilities lightly, they should think again.
"When I played for Italy, sometimes I wasn't feeling at my best," he says. "But I think that for every footballer playing for their national team is important. I always felt particularly emotional when the national anthem was being played. The day I did not feel this was the day when I should retire from the national team.
"This kind of feeling can also be translated to the way I work with the team now – and if I didn't feel this emotion it would be time to move on." Donadoni has extended his contract for a further two years, although there is an escape clause – both for him and the Italian federation – should Euro 2008 go badly. You sense, however, that his commitment to his country will never wane.
Roberto Donadoni: A brief history
*ROBERTO DONADONI. Born 9 September, 1963, Bergamo
1982-86 Atalanta; 1986-96 Milan; 1996-97 NY/NJ MetroStars; 1997-99 Milan; 1999-2000 Al-Ittihad.
63 caps for Italy, 5 goals
Honours (all Milan): Six Serie A titles, three European Cups, three European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups
Played in the 1990 & 1994 World Cups, including the '94 final in the United States, losing to Brazil on pens.
2001-02 Lecco; 2002-03 Livorno; 2003 Genoa; 2004-06 Livorno; 2006- ItalyReuse content