I HAVE THIS MEMORY from my childhood that’s still vivid in my mind. It’s some time in the 1990s and I’m sitting on the sofa watching Channel 4’s Football Italia. I had tuned in to see highlights of Alessandro Del Piero but was sidetracked by a wild Italian, barking instructions – it may have been abuse – at his teammates with the most perfect hair and baggy shirt I’d ever seen. He looked, to me at least, like the ideal defender, the type I’d heard so much about and had witnessed by watching Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. He was tall, strong and clearly an impassioned leader.
Except he wasn’t a defender – not even close. It was Roberto Mancini. That day, against Roma, he was sublime. I knew of Mancini, but that’s about where it stopped. Sure, Sampdoria were one of Serie A’s better sides but they didn’t have the appeal of the Milan clubs, the romance of Napoli or the colossal power of Juventus. Perhaps that’s why he passed me by for so long.
In that moment, my whole perception of the number 10 position changed. Long gone was the idea that it only suited the most creative and free-spirited; gone was the notion that nobody could touch Roberto Baggio. There was another Roberto in town, and he too was a prodigy.
Unlike much of his playing and managerial career, Mancini’s early years were spent in serenity, the quiet Campanian town of Roccadaspide his home. Pronounced dead minutes after being born due to a blocked windpipe, it took a slap on his face by the doctor and a splash of cold water to awaken Roberto from his slumber. He was special: the child that came out dead but lived to see the light.
It was in his mountainous home, playing for the local church team, that Mancini honed his skills, impressing enough to begin playing for the senior side at just 12. Football was seen as a luxury – a chance to escape the disciplined job of being an altar boy. His expressive and fiery heart would often come to the fore on the football pitch, while his quiet, almost reclusive ways, would be seen at most other times. It was a personality trait that he was later accused of showing at Manchester City, often ignoring his players and seeking refuge in his office.
Inevitably, Mancini’s skills outgrew his town of just 6,000 and he was snapped up by Bologna at 13 after impressing in a youth tournament. As his ability sharpened, so too did his confidence. Stories of his leadership were told from day one.
Mancini would lambast his teammates and often walk away from training sessions if things didn’t go his way. He wanted to take all free-kicks, all corners, all penalties. To him, a prodigy on and off the pitch, football was his game – everyone else was there to support him. It was an attitude that served him well for much of his career.
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Impressing for Bologna, Mancini was all set to move to AC Milan after impressing at a trial, only for the Rossoneri to send his contract to the wrong address. It came to light in later years, although Mancini never regretted the error: “Maybe they would have tried to stop me from playing. I wanted the ball but they were very rigid, even though they won a lot.”
After a solitary season in the Bologna first team, which included locking himself in the changing rooms after the club refused to release him for Italy under-21 duty, a fast-rising Sampdoria splashed out £2 million to take Mancini to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. It would be the start of a player-club relationship that matches any other in calcio history.
Mancini quickly became a fulcrum of the Sampdoria attack, nestling in behind the striker to link play from behind. He had the perfect touch for the position, able to gently bring the ball under his control and see angles and passes that few knew were there. He was a thinker, an artist, and the pitch was his notepad. Where others would shoot, Mancini would pass. When his teammates dropped their heads, Mancini would raise his. Expertly marrying a desire to lead and graft with the skill to rival any of calcio’s best, he was the league’s greatest anomaly.
Where others like Roberto Baggio moved from club to club in the search of a home, Mancini – the closest to him in terms of style and execution – stayed with Samp for 15 years, becoming the club’s most treasured servant. More importantly, his impact saw the northerners reach heights they could never have imagined prior to his arrival.
Mancini’s 566 appearances for Sampdoria saw the provincial Genovese side become, for a period at least, Italy’s best. I Blucerchiati suddenly became the hipster’s choice around Europe, helped in part by Football Italia, their exploits in Europe, and a kit that was unlike any other. And at the heart of it all was Mancini – with a little help from his friends.
Sampdoria’s first shot of glory with Mancini pulling the strings would come in the shape of the Coppa Italia in 1985. After powering through their group, they progressed to the final, where AC Milan awaited. Winning the first leg in the San Siro thanks to Graeme Souness’s goal, Mancini scored a crucial penalty in the second leg to guide the club to their maiden domestic cup success. It was a seminal moment for the club, one which would begin the process of elevating them to Italy’s best.
What Mancini had brought was a single-mindedness that spread throughout the club. Where Sampdoria once bowed down to calcio royalty, now they had the belief that they could mix it with the best. They had become the undisputed kings of Genoa, and they had one of Europe’s best young players amongst their ranks.
Original Series | The Football Italia Years
Mancini’s greatest strike partner would arrive at the beginning of that Coppa Italia-winning season – Gianluca Villa. At the time boasting a luscious, curly head of hair, they became the perfect foil for one another, Vialli’s incessant running and ability to finish the ideal match for Mancini’s creativity. Vialli was as desperate in his quest for goals as Mancini was in his for perfection.
What Mancini needed above all else was a player who could make runs across the defenders and in the box that complimented his passing. In Vialli, he found the answer. The striker would say: “Roberto developed this wish, this skill to always give the last pass. You can do whatever you want to stop him playing but in 90 minutes he will always fool you twice.” He couldn’t have been more accurate.
It was this ability to continue fighting, even on the bad days, that made Mancini one-of-a-kind. He could be anonymous for much of the game, shackled by his opponent and his fiery mind, but burst into life with a quick turn, a sudden shot or a pin-point free-kick. He also had a healthy knack of scoring when it mattered most. While 168 goals in 566 games is a healthy return for any second striker, it only tells a part of the story as so many of his strikes were game-changing.
Two more Coppa Italia titles followed, in 1988 and 1989, with Mancini and Vialli key to their success, before their greatest triumph came in the 1989/90 Cup Winners’ Cup.
While Mancini only bagged two goals in the tournament, he registered five assists and played a key role in helping Gianluca Vialli become one of Europe’s deadliest strikers ahead of Italia 90. Defeating SK Brann, Borussia Dortmund, Grasshopper and Monaco led to a showdown in the final with Anderlecht.
Managed by the pragmatic Vujadin Boškov, Vialli needed to extra-time to score two crucial goals and bring home the club’s first-ever European title. It was a Sampdoria team that could match it with Italy’s best, boasting stars such as Gianluca Pagliuca, Pietro Vierchowod, captain Luca Pellegrini and, of course, Mancini and Vialli. Greater glory, however, was on the horizon.
As the 1990/91 season got underway, football fever following Italia 90 was still prevalent across the peninsula. It was against this backdrop, in a league that was undoubtedly the world’s best, boasting a number of world-class players and teams, that Sampdoria embarked on their quest for the ultimate prize.
Read | Sampdoria and the glory years of the 1990s
The Scudetto hadn’t visited Genoa since 1924, when Sampdoria’s city rivals lifted it. With AC Milan in the midst of Fabio Capello’s revolution, Internazionale boasting their famed German trio of Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme, and Juventus featuring Roberto Baggio, Sampdoria entered the season as rank outsiders for the title.
What followed was one of the league’s most resounding victories, the nature of which has been forgotten to time. Sampdoria lost only three times, half the number of their nearest rivals, scored the most goals (57 in 34) and conceded the second-fewest (24). They finished a whopping five points clear of AC Milan – at a time when two points for a win were still awarded in Serie A – a club that boasted some of the world’s greatest stars. Samp’s two wins against Milan were tactical masterclasses by Boškov.
Vialli won the Capocannoniere with 19 goals, while Mancini registered 10 assists and a further 12 strikes. Most impressive of all was Mancini’s ability to drag his team over the line. He retained his knack of scoring important goals but was now the de facto leader of the side, becoming Boškov’s manager on the pitch and his trusted confidante off it.
For i Blucerchiati, however, things would never be so good again at home. Despite that, they reached the 1992 European Cup final after eliminating the likes Rosenborg, Anderlecht and Red Star Belgrade on the way to their first-ever premier continental final, staged under Wembley’s twin towers. What awaited Sampdoria was a Barcelona side led by Johan Cruyff and featuring the talents of Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup, Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman.
Remarkably, despite Barça being the overwhelming favourites, Sampdoria, now officially boasting Mancini as captain, took their Spanish counterparts all the way to extra time before Koeman’s memorable free-kick killed off Italian hopes. Despite their loss, it was vintage Sampdoria all the way, mixing creativity in attack, with Attilio Lombardo now a prominent feature on the wing, with a steely defence.
Vialli, who left later that summer for a world-record £12.5 million to Juventus, finished with six goals in the tournament while Mancini and Lombardo registered four each.
With Mancini 28 and at the peak of his powers, Sampdoria’s time at the top came to an end. Sven-Göran Eriksson came in to replace Boškov that summer and led the club to Coppa Italia glory in 1994. Despite that, Samp couldn’t keep up with the Milan and Juventus powerhouses, with Inter also building for glory.
Read | How Del Piero and Totti heralded Italy’s new wave of Fantasistis
Mancini stayed, however, in spite of interest at home and abroad and established himself as an undisputed Sampdoria legend. Despite being unable to galvanise more glory in Serie A, his own form rarely suffered and he inspired a generation of Sampdoria fans.
It was inevitable that Mancini’s wandering mind would eventually seek a new challenge and, after 15 years of loyal service, he swapped the Luigi Ferraris for the Stadio Olimpico, reuniting with Eriksson at Lazio.
Mancini, now 33, quickly became Eriksson’s chief on the pitch, still able to influence proceedings with his mind as sharp as ever. He was important in the dressing room, too, grounding the likes of Alessandro Nesta as the club lifted the Coppa Italia in his maiden season. Buoyed by Pavel Nedvěd, Alen Bokšić and Matías Almeyda, this was a Lazio side on the up, and Mancini was influential, scoring crucial goals.
As he settled into the club, he thoughts began to turn to management. With his natural ability to lead and passion for the game, he would study Eriksson’s methods, often inviting himself to offer opinions on the players around him. Eriksson later said: “I took him to Lazio with me and he wanted to be a manager even while he was a player. He was the coach, he was the kit man, he was the bus driver, everything. At Sampdoria, he wanted to check that everything was in place before training. Sometimes I would have to tell him, ‘You have a game to play on Sunday, you will be exhausted if you have to control everything.’ But he was like that.”
Mancini would guide the club the following season to UEFA Cup glory, shining in the final against Mallorca. He was now merely a cog in a Lazio squad that ranked as strong as any in Italy. Marcelo Salas, Siniša Mihajlović, Dejan Stanković, Fernando Couto and Christian Vieri had all been added in their inevitable push for Scudetto glory.
While they fell short in 1998/99, the following season would be very different as one of Serie A’s greatest title races unfolded. I Biancocleseti had strengthened yet again, with the likes of Juan Sebastián Verón and Diego Simeone joining. Mancini by this point had become one of Eriksson’s unofficial assistants, with his playing time limited and his form in decline. Despite showing flashes of brilliance, it was clear that his mind was moving to the dugout.
A short but ill-fated loan move to Leicester followed in 2001 but Mancini was done. He had given the game 20 years of outstanding service on the pitch, bringing unprecedented glory to both Sampdoria and Lazio along the way.
Read | How Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio won the great Serie A title race of 1999/2000
Despite Mancini’s phenomenal achievements at club level, his 36 caps for Italy represent something of an under-achievement for a player of his ability. His form at club level was never quite enough for a player who perennially lived in the shadow of Roberto Baggio and later Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti.
At Italia 90, after leading Sampdoria to European glory, Mancini was a peripheral figure in a squad that looked to Baggio for inspiration. While Il Divin Codino was arguably the world’s best number 10, Mancini was the peak of his powers, forming a brilliant partnership at club level with Vialli, who too was in the squad and started at number 9 before Toto Schillachi had his 15 minutes of fame.
Four goals in those 36 caps offer no evidence of what Mancini could have done for Gli Azzurri. At a time of flux for the national team with in-fighting within the squad and at boardroom level, his anger at a peripheral role was often vented in public, much to the dismay of those in charge. Despite many calcio fans clamouring for Mancini to be given a greater role, he was never first choice for the national team after Italia 90 and made only 16 more appearances.
Perhaps Mancini’s failure to have shone for Italy, as well as his success at lesser-fancied sides, is what holds him back when the greatest number 10s during the Football Italia years are discussed. Baggio was a genius like few others, Del Piero and Totti heralded a new wave of fantasistas, and the various foreign imports all shone so much brighter than the former Bologna prodigy due to who they played for.
However, what should never be in doubt was Mancini’s singular brilliance. While his natural ability fell agonisingly short compared to Baggio, he married an aggression at number 10 with leadership that few have executed so well. He was a captain throughout everyone one of his 15 years at Sampdoria, even when the armband was someone else’s.
Most impressively, in a position at the time – and since – that was renowned for mentally fragile players, he was the glue who held Sampdoria together. He recognised a lack of effort when he saw it and could lift those around him with both his actions and his words. He scored important goals, inspired a generation of fans, and went on to forge a successful managerial career. Not that anyone had any doubts.
Roberto Mancini is worth cherishing for, in a game so different to calcio in the 1980s and 90s, we may never see another player of his kind again