HE WAS A creative midfielder who never piled on the goals but was rather known for his ability to make his teammates look good. He was a wonderful dribbler in a pre-YouTube age when plays were rarely watched repeatedly millions of times by fawning fans. He was the go-to player on set pieces, able to deliver pin-point balls in the penalty area to a teammate. He was also a player, and later a manager, not afraid to step outside his comfort zone and try new things. Former French star Michel Platini even once called him “the best Italian footballer of the 1990s.” And yet, the name Roberto Donadoni doesn’t always come to mind when reading such descriptions.
Donadoni first made a name for himself when he signed with AC Milan in 1986 from Atalanta – whom he helped win promotion from Serie B in 1984 – and later for Italy at two World Cups and at the 1988 and 1996 European Championships. “My greatest satisfaction,” Donadoni once said, “comes from making the pass that leads to the goal.”
Donadoni has made it a career of being unassuming. As a player, he anchored the storied Milan teams of the late 1980s and early-90s, coached by Arrigo Sacchi and later Fabio Capello, gobbling up nearly every domestic and international trophy available in that era. A classy player known mostly as a right-sided midfielder, Donadoni possessed stamina and pace. He did all the things that don’t make it onto the scoresheet – but it was those nuances to his game that often help determine their outcomes.
He played in front of famed Italian defenders like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassotti as well as behind the star strikers of his time such as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and George Weah. After his retirement at age 37, Donadoni became a manager and got the chance to coach Italy in the years immediately following the World Cup triumph of 2006 as well as Italian clubs Napoli, Cagliari, Parma and, most recently, Bologna.
Akin to his time when he roamed the Milan midfield before a packed house of 70,000 fans at the San Siro, Donadoni has unassumingly joined the ranks of successful Italian coaches who have made a name for themselves around the globe. Like his playing days, he doesn’t get the recognition afforded to Antonio Conte or Carlo Ancelotti, a former teammate of his at Milan.
“He is a man anyone would love to have for a friend. He was a great player and is a wonderful coach,” observed Sacchi, who now works as a television football pundit in Italy. “His coaching style is positive and he is a positive person. I coached him for about 10 years, between Milan and the national team, and I had to never reprimand him. He always gave it his all.
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“He was very generous with his teammates. He always ran, suffered and fought for his teammates. He was a positive example for them. He was the type who always got to training early and was very serious in his approach. He had a great work ethic. Overall, he had what it took to play a team sport. It, therefore, doesn’t surprise me that he has gone on to be a good manager.”
These days, Donadoni paces the sidelines each weekend as Bologna manager. Still known for his mop of curly hair – now cropped a bit shorter and noticeably greyer – Donadoni is more than a good manager. He gets the best out of his boys, the same trait he had as a teammate. He also radiates positivity in subtle ways, and has helped Bologna overachieve at times, even flirting dangerously close with the top half of the Serie A table.
For a club with Bologna’s rich pedigree but limited financial resources, a spot in the Europa League would be considered a triumph. While that might not happen this season, Donadoni has said he is confident his is a team that can still surprise people. “I take the glass is half full approach,” he recently told reporters. “The table? There are still many games and many points up for grabs. Our mentality needs to be to always focus on the team we are going to play next. If we do this, we can amass the points needed to finish among the top 10 this season. We have to maintain the right mindset and the right spirit.”
The words echo what Donadoni said when he first arrived at Bologna. After defeating Atalanta 3-0 in his debut for the Rossoblu in November 2015, Donadoni told reporters after the match: “Along with technique, the psychological aspect is going to be decisive.”
After taking charge of the team, which had lost eight of its 10 league matches, Donadoni amassed an impressive 30 points from 18 games during the 2015/16 season. His 4-3-3 formation allowed for more flexibility on the wings – a position he was very aware of from his playing days – and allowed for greater ball movement in the offensive third. Although he didn’t have the squad that Sacchi assembled, Donadoni knew that using the flanks, along with more passing fluidity, could make his line-ups competitive on a weekly basis in a league that still favours stout defending over all-out attacking.
But Donadoni doesn’t like talking tactics. He prefers psychology. “I always expect great effort from my boys, that’s the only thing that lets us talk of relaxation. Bologna must have confidence in itself and not be conditioned by external factors and events,” he told reporters at a news conference in February 2016. “In football, people often look for tactical solutions, but I think a team’s bedrock certainty comes primarily from its psychological condition. I had a lot of experiences confirming that and now I have a duty to pass that on to my players. As for me, there’s very little I can determine.”
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Donadoni also isn’t afraid of failure. Although he is most-remembered for his triumphs – notably three European Cups and six Serie A titles – Donadoni missed a key penalty against Argentina in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, forcing Italy, playing on home soil, to miss out on the final. Four years later, at USA 94, he was in the team that lost to Brazil, on penalties in the final. Those were both stinging defeats, but Donadoni maintained the right mindset and the right spirit after those matches. He has proven to be a manager who practices what he preaches. “I think Bologna can do well,” Sacchi said. “It did well in 2016. It’s a team that has ability and maturity.”
Often quiet, Donadoni isn’t someone who screams at players. He can be pensive when others bark. Some mistake this quality for disinterest. Rather, it is a quality that has gotten him far. His taciturn nature shouldn’t be mistaken for being a pushover. In March 2009, when he was named Napoli manager, Donadoni would fine players who came more than 10 minutes late to practice, for each time a mobile phone rang during team meetings, or if players failed to properly place their shoes in the right dressing room compartment.
He has also brought discipline with him at Bologna and gotten the most out of budding stars such as strikers Simone Verdi and Mattia Destro. The Italian has nurtured both players during his time at Bologna and the results show. Both players have had overtures from clubs throughout Italy during the recent transfer window, but decided to stay – at least for now – with the club.
“I always ranked players based on their skills and ability to give of themselves,” Sacchi said. “Therefore, all the players I coached could have gone on to be managers. It isn’t so much based on intelligence, but his willingness. I have watched him coach and run training sessions and I have to say I enjoyed it because it was well directed.”
Donadoni can also be as passionate as any fellow Italian. As a player, he celebrated goals with gusto, hugging teammates and expressing his emotions by accompanying a smile with pumping his fist in the air. He also demonstrated displeasure – mostly at himself – whenever a pass went awry in the final third or his whenever his team would concede a goal. As a manager, he regularly calls out at his players from the technical area, making sure they adhere to his strict tactical orders.
The former midfielder also took risks throughout his career as both a player and coach. In 1996, after 10 years with Milan, Donadoni signed with the NY/NJ MetroStars of the then-new Major League Soccer. His talent made the team better, but his under-the-radar approach wasn’t what a new league needed. Donadoni was no Pelé, who led the New York Cosmos to a title in 1977 and had been a wonderful ambassador for a country that had not embraced football en masse until his arrival. MLS, in its infinite wisdom, needed flash and pizazz, not class and refinement.
Writing in The New York Times shortly after Donadoni’s arrival in May 1996, sports columnist George Vescey noted: “Midfielders like Roberto Donadoni do not score goals regularly, so how can he catch the attention of the American public? The so-called ethnics and the under-30 crowd could appreciate the two arching missiles that landed at the feet of his left wing, and the cannonball of a free kick that missed the goal by inches.”
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Indeed, Donadoni became a fan favourite, although never a household name in the United States. The country’s football cognoscenti recognised the Italian but the everyday baseball fan never did. Donadoni dazzled so much that he earned a call-up back to Italy’s team ahead of Euro 96. After two seasons in New York, he returned to AC Milan, where he played until 1999. He finished his career, like so many ageing players, looking for one last money grab. He moved to the Middle East after signing with Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia, helping the club to the 1999/2000 domestic title.
As a manager, Donadoni has endured a nomadic existence. He has coached nine teams since 2001 after winning his first job with Lecco in the amateur ranks. He went on to manager Livorno (2002-03), Genoa (2003), Livorno (2004-06), Italy (2006-08), Napoli (2009), Cagliari (2010-11) and Parma (2012-15). His time at Parma ended with the club’s bankruptcy after the 2014/15 campaign.
Donadoni was sacked as Italy manager after the Azzurri were eliminated from the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 following a penalty shootout loss to eventual champions Spain. He had refused to quit from the post following the team’s elimination having signed a contract extension just prior to the tournament. “I did what I did as manager … I really don’t know what it means to quit, honestly,” he told reporters at the post-match conference in Vienna.
The Italian FA decided soon after that elimination to exercise a clause in Donadoni’s contract that called for the manager to be fired should the team fail to reach at least the semi-final stage. Donadoni ended his Italy coaching stint with a 13-5-5 record, but his sacking was not much of a surprise. His tactics – particularly his 4-3-3 formation – had come under increased scrutiny by pundits and fans alike at the time. The team’s 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands in the tournament opener was the most lopsided result the team had endured in nearly three decades. Or so it seemed. With Gli Azzurri now reaching a new low this year, Donadoni’s tactics may well have ensured a path to Russia.
Donadoni, currently in his third season at Bologna, helped the club finish 14th at the end of the 2015/16 season – after the team had been promoted from Serie B in 2015 and fired its coach Delio Rossi at the end of October – and 15th in 2016/17. Last season it finished dangerously close to the drop zone, although the team never looked like to was really at risk of relegation.
Despite Donadoni’s career accomplishments, there has been talk that this could be his last season on the Bologna bench. The team’s owners, led by Canadian businessman Joey Saputo, could decide to go in another direction by the time summer rolls around. In typical fashion, if that were to happen, Roberto Donadoni will continue to fly under the radar, just like he did as a player, but proving himself through his likable personality, intimate football knowledge and unbridled passion for calcio.