In his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play, Andrea Pirlo affords Roy Hodgson a single paragraph. When they were together at Internazionale in 1999, Pirlo was a young player beginning his career and Hodgson was an interim appointment before the arrival of Marcello Lippi the following summer. Pirlo recalls one key detail from their time together.
“Hodgson mispronounced my name,” he wrote. “He called me ‘pirla’ [dickhead], perhaps understanding my true nature more than the other managers.”
Asked about it today, as he prepared to face the 35-year-old Pirlo in his first game at a World Cup as manager of England, Hodgson said as gently as possible that he disputed the memory of his former player. “I think he may have used a bit of poetic licence there,” he said. “I called him Andrea for the most part. I never use surnames. I don’t ever remember referring to him as Pirlo – I’m a Christian name person.
“Maybe ‘Andrea’ and ‘Pirla’ sound similar. Certainly, he was anything other than a ‘dickhead’. I felt a bit sorry for him because he hadn’t played much when I came because the squad was full of No 10s. Roberto Baggio, Youri Djorkaeff, Ze Elias all vying with Paulo Sousa for a place.”
Hodgson was no part of the decision to sell Pirlo to Milan, where Carlo Ancelotti then launched his career as one of the great playmakers of his generation. By then Hodgson had moved on again, this time to manage Grasshoppers Zurich on the great journey of his career that has come full circle, one might say. Although Hodgson, ever wary of the pitfalls of language added: “I don’t want the circle to end. I want the circle to carry on.”
It was another day of preparation as the week moves towards Italy in Manaus on Saturday. On Thursday England travel, and Hodgson is burdened with another concern, this time the injury to Danny Welbeck which forced him out of training in the session the England manager took after his media commitments here in the Urca neighbourhood.
It was his first exposure to the Brazilian press, who were curious to ask him about his only previous World Cup finals experience, with Switzerland in 1994 – a reminder of his extensive coaching past. Internationally, Hodgson is well-known and well-regarded, whether it be coaching a young Pirlo at Inter or Finland or the United Arab Emirates or Neuchâtel Xamax in Switzerland. At home it can be a different story.
What is the phrase, someone asked, about prophets and homelands? Hodgson, being Hodgson, knew immediately – “No one is a prophet in his own land” – which expresses something of the situation in which he has found himself until now, 38 years into a very successful management career. He finally has the job that places him above all others, manager of England at a World Cup, although did he feel resentful it has taken so long?
“There were some very good coaches in that time [who experienced the same]. Vic Buckingham is a very good example, a top-class manager who really and truly did fantastic jobs. John Mortimer at Benfica. It’s a good question, but I don’t know whether I ever really felt one or the other. I certainly never thought about pioneering. That’s for certain.
“I don’t really remember feeling resentful either. I suppose because in the countries where I was working, particularly Sweden and then Switzerland and to some extent Italy, I was getting more than enough attention, plenty of acclaim from time to time. I don’t think I ever thought, ‘This should be done in England’. I think I just accepted the fact that I left very, very young, totally unknown as a player and as a coach.
“I was just happy and pleased that I was able to fulfil an ambition to become a coach that was recognised and even appreciated in certain countries. I don’t think I ever looked back and thought, ‘I wish this was in England’, but of course I’m really happy that it’s England now.”
At 66, and having managed all over Europe and further afield, Hodgson has no issue with the travelling, it is just the details that annoy him. He is unhappy with the livery in one of the press rooms at Urca that has a 10-foot picture of him in his FA suit. “If you want to ask the question, ‘Would I want to see it removed?’ the answer is, ‘Absolutely’. But unfortunately there it is.” The doctor, Ian Beasley, has had his work cut out persuading Hodgson to take his malaria pills for Manaus.
The next few days will be shaped by how Welbeck responds, given that he is a likely starter for Hodgson. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably be back in time for the Uruguay game next week, but before then Hodgson’s options have already been reduced and if Welbeck is not available either then it will surely be inevitable that Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling will start.
“The team that wins this World Cup won’t necessarily be because of managerial excellence,” he said, “it will be because the team has some very good players and played together well as a team. I’m looking forward to it and I’m determined we will go into the games as well organised as we can possibly be.
“I’ll believe in the players because these are players who are worthy of believing in, but it’s going to be very much a case of what those players can actually do when I show my confidence in them and say that, ‘You’re the man for the job and I think you can help us win this game’. Then they’ve got to get out there and play. It’s players that count at the end of the day.”