"Marcello Lippi is one impressive man. Looking into his eyes is enough to tell you that you are dealing with somebody who is in command of himself and his professional domain. Those eyes are sometimes burning with seriousness, sometimes twinkling, sometimes warily assessing you – and always they are alive with intelligence. Nobody could make the mistake of taking Lippi lightly." From Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing My Life.
One of the reasons Sir Alex Ferguson has been so successful is his ability to read men. When it comes to Marcello Lippi, the only manager to have won both the World Cup, with Italy in 2006, and the European Cup, with Juventus a decade earlier, Ferguson's assessment was spot on.
An hour in Lippi's company is less an interview than an audience. He is friendly and open, not haughty or intimidating, but nevertheless has a presence about him which commands respect. While Fabio Capello has made a promising start as England manager it was hard to escape the feeling, after meeting Lippi this week, that the Football Association could have done even better.
Lippi, 60 next month, was mentioned in the wake of Steve McClaren's ignominious exit but, he said, the FA did not ask him.
"I heard the names Capello, Lippi and Mourinho, but no one ever called me," he said. "I was asked [by the media] if I would like to coach England. I said, 'Yes I would', but I did not put myself forward and nobody ever called me. For me it was already an honour that for a few days my name was close to the English national team."
Would he have taken it? That is unclear, as is the prospect of him managing in the Premier League (Birmingham, somewhat ambitiously, have already asked; Chelsea have been regularly linked with him).
"I would love to work in England," he said, "but I am a manager who likes to interact with his players, to talk, for them to see what is coming from my mind, and my heart. It would not be good to have a translator."
I ask him whether his English is not similar to Fabio Capello's three months ago.
I say that he gives the impression he understands more than he lets on.
"Not at all. I can ask the taxi driver at the airport how long it will take to get to the hotel, but that is it."
He has, it is true, appeared to need the translator before understanding most questions, but he has a smattering of English and one imagines that, like Capello, he could learn if required. As it is he believes the FA did the right thing in hiring Capello.
"I think Fabio is the best choice," he said, "the most appropriate. He is the type of man whose personality and charisma can bring the team together and make them all participate at the same time. He is very well prepared from a tactical point of view, so he is going to be able to get the English team, with the great players they have got, to compete with the best in the world.
"He brings a record of success which is very important when a team has not won for a long time. What will the players be thinking when he speaks to them? They will be thinking, 'This man has won when doing these things which he now wants us to do'."
Many of those things would have been Lippi's way too, not least because they are the Italian method. Take, for example, the ban on mobile phones at mealtimes, which caused such a stir when imposed by Capello.
"It is not a problem in the half-hour you are eating to switch the mobile phone off," he said, picking up his phone and turning it off to demonstrate. "Even in the smaller [Italian] teams this is a matter of culture. It is imposed on the players, that is the way they grow. It is normal for them."
The England players can expect, too, to be billeted in less spectacular accommodation should they qualify for the World Cup. While England spent the 2006 World Cup cloistered in palatial style on a mountain top far from view Italy stayed in a relatively modest £110-a-night hotel outside Duisburg.
"It was the practical choice," he said. He sketches a diagram on a napkin. "The airport, 10 minutes, the training ground, 10 minutes, the city, 10 minutes. A one-hour flight to all the matches. It was the practical choice. The hotel was nice, not luxury, but it had a garden and a small lake." It was also Italian-run, with an Italian restaurant. The Hotel Landhaus Milser still boasts of its role in the Azzurri's success on its website.
"But," added Lippi sagely, "everything that makes this important is the wins. If we had not won..."
But they did, and much of that success was down to Lippi. Like Capello with England, he took over a team which was at a low ebb having been ignominious failures in Euro 2004. He has said his first aim was to make the Italian public love their team again, his second was to engage the players in the "project", to create a team atmosphere. Capello, said Lippi, feels the same about his task in England, so how did he do it with the Azzurri?
"I tried to give the Italian players the same conviction that I had within myself, which was the conviction that I believed strongly, 100 per cent, that in Italy we had the potential to make a World Cup-winning team.
"To this day I am not convinced of having brought together with me in Germany the technically best players that could have been. But I was firmly convinced I called the ones that could create a team, and they could play with one another to the best of their possibility. In this day and age you win if you become a team. It doesn't necessarily mean that you've got to have the best football players in the country. It's possible that the best, all together, don't become a team. It's like a mosaic, you have to put all the pieces together."
There are echoes here of Sir Alf Ramsey, who once replied to Jack Charlton, after the Leeds defender said he was surprised to be considered one of the best 11 players in England: "I did not say you were. I am picking a team, not the best 11 players." Capello appears to have the same ethos, which is why Gareth Barry's international future may be more secure than Frank Lampard's.
Lippi makes the point that he did have outstanding players, "big players, but their greatest skill is to have been able to put their ability at the service of the others."
This is partly because Italian players are tactically adept. Lippi said he played several different formations during the World Cup. He put five in midfield to match and stifle the Czechs. In the memorable semi-final he went to four forwards in extra time because he saw midfield was being bypassed. It was attack and defend and "our defence was much better than Germany's". In the final, as Italy tired, he took off Francesco Totti, replacing him with the defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi, but, he explained, to maintain Italy's attacking potential, he moved Andrea Pirlo forward, and brought on Vincenzo Iaquinta. The consequence was to make Italy more solid, without handing France the initiative.
All this was possible because, he said, "Italian players are the best tactically in the world. That's an honest opinion. I'm not saying that it's the best-looking football but it's the hardest because, whatever team you play, you are always going to have great difficulty when playing them.
"When I used to coach Juventus I had many players from all over the world, French, German, South American, and I maintained contact with all the managers of the national teams. Whenever they got back from Italy to play in their own country, after two or three years, the managers used to say they had much improved after playing in Italy."
No Englishmen, note. "In the past, no, I didn't think about buying anybody. But now there would be many, many players I would consider buying, like Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney. If I had a team with a lot, a lot of money [he rubs his fingers together for emphasis] I would consider buying those players. I believe English football is really, really strong, great in defence, midfield, attack. They only need to become a team."
Yet, even though there are four teams from England in the Champions league quarter-finals, only 10 English players figured in the starting line-ups in the last round. "English footballers are very, very good," adds Lippi, "but unfortunately there are not many of them."
Would any of the English team have found a place in his World Cup-winning team? "No. I would never say I'd like another player when I already have a team. Your own team is always the best in the world. They have also demonstrated to everybody to be the best because they won the World Cup."
And how did that feel? Lippi leans back and smiles. There is that twinkling in the eyes that Ferguson noted. "It is a feeling that cannot be compared to any other sports-related joy ever. To win a competition wearing the shirt of your national team. I've won the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup, but those sort of things cannot compare."
Lippi resigned the day after the final, sticking by a decision he made before the tournament. Since then he has enjoyed the break he planned to take after leaving Juventus in 2004, before the Italian Federation called.
He has, as might be imagined, been widely feted. He was in London to accept an award from Britain's Italian community, 2,000 of whom attended a champagne reception during the Dolce Vita Festival on Thursday to honour him. The MC introduced him with the words: "Here is a man who will never have to pay for a meal again".
Lippi has also been spreading the word. "I have been on a tour of Europe, attending coaching conferences, and in Italy, lecturing at 15 universities, telling them my story, how we won the World Cup. Recently I was in Scotland where I met coaches like Alex McLeish and David Moyes."
This would appear a pleasure. After initial wariness Lippi is enjoying the conversation. Like all the best football managers, men such as Ferguson, Sir Bobby Robson, Arsène Wenger, a burning desire to win goes hand in glove with a love of talking football.
Everyone needs a distraction, however, and Lippi's is deep-sea fishing. He still lives in Viareggio, the Tuscan seaside resort where he grew up. "I am in love with the sea," he says, "in every aspect. I like it when it is windy, when it is mild, in summer, in winter. I feel very well when I am near the sea. But," he adds quickly, "it would not be a problem to work in a town where there is no sea."
Those eyes twinkle again but the underlying message, that he is looking for at least one more challenge, will be noted by chairmen and presidents across Europe, for this is a serious football man.
La Dolce Vita Festival is on at Olympia, west London, today and tomorrow. For details, visit: www.ladolcevitaevent.co.uk
Lippi service: Coaching career
Marcello Lippi's career should offer hope to any manager. He was fired three times and coached nine clubs in his first 10 seasons in management. He had what he describes as "an honourable, but not brilliant" playing career, mainly as a stylish central defender with Sampdoria. He took his first coaching course at 25 and, after coaching Sampdoria's youth teams, worked his way up the leagues with a succession of clubs. He joined Juventus in 1994 and, apart from a disastrous 15 months at Internazionale, stayed a decade, winning five scudettos and the Champions League. Lippi took over the Italian national team in 2004 and masterminded their first World Cup triumph for 24 years in 2006.
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