Marcello Lippi: the man who conquered football with a cigar in his mouth

Marcello Lippi: the man who conquered football with a cigar in his mouth

This feature is part of The Masterminds

IF TROPHIES ARE your thing, let’s start with them. Marcello Lippi, the grandfather of modern Italian football, won a World Cup, a Champions League and five Serie A titles during his storied career. Not a lot of managers can lay claim to having conquered European club football and overseen world domination with their country too. Vicente del Bosque can, Lippi can, and that’s it. They belong in the most exclusive of exclusive footballing clubs. Lippi’s inclusion as a mastermind dare not be questioned by anyone.

Like his illustrious Spanish counterpart, Lippi was a manager who always seemed to exude utter command and control – control of themselves, their profession and, most importantly, their squad.

He had some famous fans too. Sir Alex Ferguson, for one. Remember him? Fergie, who faced, defeated and was defeated by Lippi during the course of his time with Manchester United, was an admirer of the Italian, taking particular notice of his eyes.

“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,” Fergie wrote in his book Managing My Life.

What a quote. There aren’t a lot of coaches who Fergie claims to have looked up to but Lippi is definitely one of them. Cut in the same unanswerably authoritative style as Ottmar Hitzfeld, Lippi was the marvellously gifted Euro-style boss who Fergie wanted to be in his earlier United years. In the mid ‘90s, the likes of Hitzfeld and Lippi began to emerge as leaders in their profession and set the benchmark extremely high for any budding tactician. Ferguson used to use the endless brilliance of Lippi as a barometer of his own progress when he came up against the Italian’s inimitable Juventus machine of the ‘90s.

Ferguson tells a compelling story that painted the perfect portrait of how people within the game viewed Lippi: “I remember being in Turin and Signor Lippi was on the bench – wearing a leather coat and smoking a small cigar, smooth and calm, while I was a worker in a tracksuit being drowned in the pouring rain. To match yourself against the top coaches and to compete in all the great stadiums is marvellous.”

By the end of Fergie’s career, he was speaking to Lippi on occasion and building their rapport. They spoke in French – Lippi’s English was useless and Fergie’s Italian didn’t extend much beyond ‘ciao’. They also exchanged bottles of wine and whisky and spoke football, whatever language. Fergie had sought Lippi’s respect. By the end, he’d received it. That’s a measure of where Lippi stood – that Fergie felt he had to earn his acceptance. The Italian was an astonishingly respected figure.

Lippi was there too at one stage. After a decent playing career spent mostly in Genoa with Sampdoria, Lippi sought out a career in the dugout. As a defender who spent over a decade in the Italian top flight, Lippi was well-versed in discipline, organisation and unity, but he had plenty to learn.

Lippi NapoliLippi as Napoli manager in 1993

He retired from playing at the age of 34 and continued with Sampdoria as a student coach. After cutting his teeth in the youth team of the Genoese club for a solid three years, Lippi embarked on a journeyman-like endeavour of the lower reaches of Italian football. He had stints at Siena, Pistoiese, Carrarese, Cesena, Lucchese and Atalanta, but they’ll never be considered key in the shaping of Lippi’s philosophy. Those short-lived periods in charge of an Italian sub-level motley crew contributed to his experiences, yes, but it wasn’t until his time at Napoli that Lippi started to show himself as a coaching force.

In the darkened post-Maradona years, Napoli were a financial mess. Lippi, similar to later in his career, illustrated an enviable ability to shield his players from the events off the field in order to achieve success on it. Lippi taught his players to be remarkably focused and value the team more than anything. The individuals may have been excellent, but Lippi only cared for his players operating as a cohesive unit.

He saw football like engineers see a car – all the parts needed to function smoothly for him to be wholly satisfied. He guided the Partenopei to UEFA Cup qualification in the 1993-94 season and Naples turned out to be his gateway drug into greater things. Inevitably, his success there turned heads – and they happened to be very important heads. Lippi was offered the biggest job in Italy: the coaching role at Juventus. The Bianconeri president Vittorio Chiusano had seen his side come up against Lippi’s Napoli and was impressed to the point that he personally earmarked him as the man to take Juventus into a new chapter of dominance.

Chiusano anointed Lippi as the man to replace the mighty Giovanni Trapattoni, who had lifted the European Cup with Juventus 10 years previously. He didn’t know at the time, but that decision spelled the beginning of a remarkable period of domestic dominance for the The Old Lady. Lippi coming into Juventus was like Christopher Nolan taking over the Batman franchise. Here was a man who was not afraid to shake up the order of things.

Like Nolan reviving a franchise almost permanently destroyed by Joel Schumacher in the 1990s, Lippi arrived at Juventus buoyed by hope and guided by clarity of thought. Nolan always knew what he wanted to do with such an iconic character and so, too, did Lippi regarding an iconic club. Lippi was not afraid to stroll into the Juventus boardroom and demand that things be done his way, much like how the filmmaker stated his terms and conditions to the suits at Warner Bros’ headquarters.

Lippi’s first act was a decisive one. He convinced Ciro Ferrara to depart his hometown and beloved Napoli and follow the coach to Juventus in a statement of how highly he regarded his boss. It would prove to be an enormous signing as Ferrera went on to make 358 appearances and establish himself as one of the finest centre-backs of his generation. His education as a leader and a rock at the back was shaped and aided by Lippi’s teaching.

Juventus' Del Piero celebrates after scoring against Inter Milan during their Serie A soccer match in Turin

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Lippi added further defensive reinforcements in the shape of combative midfielder Paulo Sousa. Lippi’s changes weren’t drastic, they were focused. He built his champions on principles of defence and let the attackers express themselves – and it worked wonderfully. With Lippi, there was no ‘transitional’ period. He arrived, got down to business and started producing results. It’s was a markedly different footballing landscape to now, but you have to appreciate the talents of a man who possessed the ability to reverse a team’s disappointing fortunes almost instantaneously.

In his first season, Juventus won both Serie A and the Coppa Italia. Lippi’s domestic triumphs were made more impressive by the fact that he took over a side that had been underachieving for a decade since Giovanni Trapattoni last won the title in 1986. The solitary blotch was a UEFA Cup final loss to Parma, but the signs were there: Lippi was there to stay at Juventus and he was building something immense.

Under him, Gianluca Vialli caught a second win and plundered an impressive 17 goals during his coach’s first season. In his maiden voyage with Juventus, Lippi established the framework from which he would continue to operate. He espoused ideals focused on team chemistry and togetherness, always ensuring that his players entrusted and respected him. An ageing squad suddenly became revitalised and, from that point, it was difficult to remove Juventus from the apex of Italian football.

It was in his second year, however, that Lippi really showed his worth as a footballing mastermind. He made several astute signings, including capturing a certain French midfielder by the name of Zinedine Zidane.

With Lippi’s tactical drills well and truly implemented, Juventus became a nightmare to play against. They defended valiantly and attacked with imagination and flair. Players like Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero made it easier to watch, of course, but at the core Lippi’s blueprint was built on pressing and cutting off passing lanes from their opponents. They relentlessly made it tougher for other teams to progress further up the pitch and, if they did, they still had to get past the likes of Ferrara, Paolo Montero and Angelo Peruzzi. It was a mean defensive machine.

“During these years at Juventus, I don’t know if we’ve always been the strongest side on paper. However, we certainly did everything to show our value on the pitch. And when we weren’t the strongest, we were the best.” Marcello Lippi

That season, Lippi successfully defended his Serie A title in beating Parma by two points, but the real success lay in Europe, where Lippi managed to regain Juventus the Champions League for the first time in 11 years. Despite their attacking prowess, Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli were shipped off to England, to Chelsea and Middlesbrough respectively.

Surprisingly, Lippi also dropped Sousa despite the Portuguese having established himself in the first team. Lippi made big decisions because he wasn’t afraid to. He knew the club needed an injection of youth to freshen things up and subsequently found an immaculately gifted playmaker in Zidane and a devastating, hungry young striker in Christian Vieri. Lippi was the man who sold Roberto Baggio, The Divine Ponytail himself, to rivals AC Milan. He wasn’t afraid of restructuring the team, regardless of the personnel involved.

It was in the Champions League that Juventus marched under him. The Italians had been relentless en route to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, dispatching their group stage opponents with consummate ease and overcoming Real Madrid and Nantes in the quarter and semis. The only thing that stood in Lippi’s way was Louis van Gaal’s Ajax. That Amsterdam utopia that van Gaal had built was seen as the immovable object. Reigning champions and brimming with mouth-watering talent, van Gaal’s men were fancied to retain their European crown and further cement their status as the kings of the continent. Lippi had other plans.

He had been studying van Gaal’s style for months, a cigar protruding from his lips as he studied video footage of Ajax in both domestic and Champions League action. Van Gaal deployed rather rigid 4-3-3 that did not represent the fluidity of the man he modelled after: Rinus Michels. As he has been known to do with Manchester United, the Dutchman assigned specific individual roles and restricted their creative freedom somewhat. Van Gaal was wary of his players overlapping and potentially exposing their defenders.

Lippi, in response, deployed his own iteration of a 4-3-3, but not one designed on dominating possession. Lippi had the players to topple van Gaal’s champions, but it was down to the coach to devise the ultimate game plan. This is where Lippi earned his money. He turned collections of talented individuals into teams, into something worth writing about. Antonio Conte and Didier Deschamps led the ferocious pressing style, while Del Piero had the guile and sense of intelligent running to stretch Ajax’s defence.

Vialli could have won the game on two separate occasions with the Ajax defence at sea, instead crashing the crossbar and side-netting to leave his coach looking on from the dugout inside Rome’s famous footballing Colosseum. Lippi was never vexed. You would never catch him pumping his chest and demanding noise from the crowd, like a Jürgen Klopp or Diego Simeone of the modern era. Lippi was more of an astute observer, someone who didn’t speak because he was mostly thinking. Fergie observed, as too did van Gaal that night in Rome.


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Ajax threatened sparingly throughout the game but it always seemed as though Juventus possessed a mental edge over their opponents. Even with extra-time beckoning and, ultimately, penalties looming, Lippi opted not to overload his players’ tired minds with more information.

It came to penalties and Lippi’s motivational techniques of trusting his players worked. All of Juventus’ penalties were converted with aplomb and the Bianconeri hoisted the Champions League trophy aloft. It was the eyes that did it. Lippi’s eyes. Just as Fergie had noticed them upon first meeting the coach, Lippi had a similarly disarming effect on his players. He could convey sentences with a look, like a Paolo Maldini glaring at an out-of-position right-back across the defensive line. A response wasn’t often uttered, because either Lippi or Maldini were always right.

While it’s true that Lippi suffered some pains at Juventus – losing to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in the proceeding Champions League finals were enormous hammer blows – he continued to be regarded as one of the finest. He lost finals, he lost dressing rooms, but he never lost his self-belief.

His spell at Inter Milan continues to be remembered for the wrong reasons. The Nerzzurri underperformed and finished fourth under him and, when he suggested the players get a “good kick up the back side” after a loss to Reggina at the start of the next campaign, he was sacked and departed the San Siro amid a wave of disappointment.

However, his next great achievement came – once again – as a successor’s act to Il Trap. In 2004, Trapattoni left the Italian national side following a sub-par performance in Euro 2004. Lippi, of course, oversaw a comfortable qualification campaign until disaster struck. A national scandal.

The Calciopoli match-fixing scandal rocked the footballing world and threw Italy into a state of turmoil a month before they were due to take on the world’s best in Germany. Corruption, match-fixing and endless amounts of exposé headlines cast a dark shadow over the Azzurri’s World Cup preparations. Phone-tapping and investigative endeavour had uncovered a network of crime and corruption, spreading from the highest levels of the Italian football hierarchy. Every morning, newspapers were reporting on different stories of deals between managers and referees. The outcome was, as we all know, one that shook the grounds of Serie A. Juventus were stripped of their Serie A title and relegated in disgrace. Other top clubs such as AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio also incurred hefty fines for their involvements in certain deals.

Now put yourself in Lippi’s shoes. He’d been preparing for a World Cup but suddenly he found himself as the man looked upon to pull the country’s sporting culture out of the gutter. Their hands were filthy, but Lippi’s hands remained as steady as they were clean. His old club Juventus had been outed as cheats, something that must have affected him deeply, but his focus remained on carving a strong performance out of a national side that was due a good tournament performance. Lippi was receiving frantic phone calls begging him to attract some positive publicity for Italian football. The calls made no difference. Lippi always had a game plan and intended to execute regardless of the extenuating circumstances.

Just before Italy’s quarter-final against Ukraine, just as the Azzurri approached the business end of the tournament, Juventus’s general manager, Gianluca Pessotto, hurled himself out of a window in an attempted suicide. Juventus were embroiled in the worst scandal football has ever seen (before FIFA, of course) and his suicidal tendencies served as a reminder of how the collective mentality of Italian sport had plumbed new depths. There were five Juventus players in the Italy squad. Lippi was the man charged with the task of controlling the mood. There wasn’t much he could do with such news. The captain, Fabio Cannavaro who considered his former teammate a close friend, was devastated by the news. He and his teammates, including Del Piero, flew home from their World Cup training camp to visit Pessotto.

After spending some time at the bedside of their stricken colleague, who was being treated for multiple bone fractures and internal haemorrhaging, the Italian players returned. Lippi immediately recalibrated their focus onto football. The quarter-final against Ukraine was negotiated expertly, dispatching the Eastern Europeans 3-0. Following that victory, Cannavaro and Zambrotta unfurled a banner of support for Pessotto whilst they celebrated with teammates. In a matter of days, Lippi had turned the doom and gloom of a frankly near-tragic incident into a semi-final for the people of Italy to celebrate.

Lippi ItalyLippi guided Italy to World Cup glory despite the nation’s greatest footballing challenge of the modern era

Italy were outstanding throughout that tournament. Fabio Grosso played the football of his life as the marauding left-back who scored an extra-time winner in the semi-final and the decisive penalty in the final against France. Cannavaro himself was immense, earning the nickname ‘The Berlin Wall’, while Francesco Totti, Zambrotta, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Nesta all had stellar tournaments. However, as we know, this collection of talented individuals came together under the binding, harmonious philosophy of Lippi.

The sense of ‘team’ certainly shone through when Cannavaro subsequently spoke about the experience of winning the World Cup: “To truly understand you need to be part of it,” Cannavaro told FourFourTwo. “The 2006 group took two years to build – enough time to understand that when one of you is in trouble you can always get support from team-mates, and when you need someone you’ll always have them at your side. And you might not believe it, but in those 40 days [at the 2006 World Cup] we had a lot of fun too.”

Remarkably, Lippi used every single player he had at his disposal – and effectively. Marco Materazzi stepped in brilliantly after Nesta was injured in the final group game while players like Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Luca Toni all made meaningful contributions as well.

In the end, Italy won, beating France in that memorable final to give Lippi a World Cup to add to his Champions League. It certainly didn’t happen by accident: “To this day I am not convinced of having brought together with me in Germany the technically best players that could have been,” Lippi said after. “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.”

This only further underlines Lippi as one of the most proficient tacticians to ever grace the game. To him, football is never a complete game. There is always room for improvement. There is this romantic ideal that a football team must be constructed and moulded, always adapted accordingly. There may be that missing piece of the puzzle, but that has always been the manager’s job to suss out and rectify. That is what Lippi has proven. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and, through those steely, intimidating eyes, the collective always trumps the individual.

For managers like Lippi, the improvement of the individual is important mostly because it is conducive to team unity.  For Lippi, a superstar was never flashy player who scooped awards and made headline writer’s jobs a dream. The true superstar was the one who understood and relayed the coach’s message and methods most effectively. Lippi found that in Conte, he found that in Cannavaro, but both of those players also became who they were because of Lippi.

While it’s true that Lippi somewhat fell off the radar after deciding to see out his final years in management with China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, his indelible mark left on the world game can not be discounted – nor forgotten. He was a Champions League winner, he was a World Cup winner and he was a winner of men. Players respected him; other coaches respected him. The players felt compelled to listen and abide by him, while other coaches – like Fergie – sought to model parts of their career after his great Juventus side. You only have to look at the fact that Lippi reached four European finals in a row with Juventus. Yes, he may have lost three of them, but his ability to maintain remarkable consistency at the highest level is what set him apart.

Lippi is that type of manager who should serve as encouragement to those starting out. He never had a brilliant playing career and he was fired three times in his first decade of management. But he kept at it. He knew that if he could learn how to command the respect of those around him and work that into his knowledge of the game, the trophies would come – and they did.

His accomplishments were nothing short of monumental and the fact that he took an underperforming Italian side on the brink of mental collapse and galvanised them to a first World Cup success in 24 years stands as one of the finest managerial achievements by anyone in the history of the game.

By Matt Gault  @MattGault11

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