Inside Coverciano, the thinkers’ factory producing world-class coaches

Inside Coverciano, the thinkers’ factory producing world-class coaches

On the outskirts of Florence, near the foot of the beautiful Fiesole hills, there is a regular assembly of several aspiring minds. Every year, these aspiring coaches get together at the Centro Tecnico Federale di Coverciano in the hope of passing their UEFA Pro License, or Il Master, as it is proudly known in these parts.

It is the highest certification one can receive here, and for Italians hoping to break into management in either of the country’s top two tiers, going through this rigorous, mind-testing process is mandatory. Many of the great names in Italian coaching history have walked through these halls, and when many of them left, they enjoyed unprecedented success.

Italian managers are based all over Europe. In the recently-concluded season, 19 Serie A clubs employed homegrown managers – the most in any of Europe’s top five leagues. Spain’s top-flight was the next best, with 18 clubs employing Spanish managers, with the other two opting for Argentines. Ligue 1 only had six non-French coaches, while the Bundesliga started with more German managers than it ended with. The Premier League, though, only had five English managers.

It’s clear why so many clubs prefer having an Italian in charge of their team. Over the last few years, calcio’s coaches have enjoyed plenty of success at home and abroad. In England, Roberto Mancini, Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte won the Premier League – in 2012, 2016 and 2017 – with Conte going on to add the FA Cup in 2018. This year, Maurizio Sarri guided an underwhelming Chelsea team to Europa League success. In France, Spain and Germany, Carlo Ancelotti has enjoyed domestic and continental success, winning two league titles, two domestic cups and a Champions League along the way.

On the peninsula, Massimiliano Allegri took Juventus to new levels, winning five league titles, four Coppa Italia and leading his team to two Champions League finals. Other success stories have come in the form of Simone Inzaghi – a quickfire and, at the time, derided replacement for Marcelo Bielsa at Lazio – who, in two seasons, nearly led his club to a return to the Champions League and won the Coppa Italia. Gian Piero Gasperini led Atalanta to the Champions League last season on a tight budget, while Marco Giampaolo impressed at Sampdoria, paving the way for a move to AC Milan.

Aside from their nationality, all these coaches have one thing in common: they have all been schooled at Coverciano. Traditionally famous for being the training base for the national team, it is here that the country’s players from all age groups come together for international duty, but also where coaches are primed ahead of their careers.

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The stunning architecture of the venue is fitting relative to its locale. Many of the graduates that go through the course are former professional players and the most recent crop, who took the course last July, included the likes of World Cup winners Andrea Pirlo and Alberto Gilardino, former Napoli man Paolo Cannavaro and Florence’s favourite son, Gabriel Batistuta. 

The venue has a long history, dating all the way back to 1957. Luigi Ridolfi, a name synonymous with sport, was the co-founder of the facility, with the idea of creating something unique in Italy. Coming from one of the wealthiest families in Italy, Ridolfi had an elongated history with athletics. Prior to his Coverciano venture, he founded Fiorentina in 1926 and the Giglio Rosso Athletics Society a year later. He was also the president of the Italian Athletics Federation for 16 years between 1926 and 1942, while he held the same post at the Italian Football Federation for a year in 1942.

Before all of his sporting ventures, however, he was part of the Italian army during the First World War, obtaining medals for military valour, before being promoted to second lieutenant at the end of the war. An accomplished individual, he held many honours domestically and internationally, with his most popular involving the Olympics and IAAF.

Coverciano’s founding partner was Dante Berreti, who was popular in Florence and later the later held the role of vice-president at the  Italian Football Federation. Together, Ridolfi and Berreti had a shared objective: bring coaches from different areas, backgrounds and beliefs together to share ideas and make it a hotbed for innovative thinking.

For that to succeed, the centre, in its formative years, wasn’t solely restricted to football, something you’re reminded of when walking past a swimming pool and tennis courts to reach the first grass pitch.

For the aspiring coaches that step through these halls, there are two facets to the Coverciano test. In the first, they spend a month travelling to and from the venue. For four days a week in the gentle warmth of the region, they must work hard and study, forming their methods, fine-tuning their unique ideologies and proving themselves worthy of passing a rigorous coaching exam. Then, they must go through the oral exams, conducted by the director of the managers’ school and his team. The prospective manager is tested on various topics ranging from in-game tactics to communication to man-management. 

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The most insightful part is the thesis each manager needs to present. This must be informative and exclusive and can be done on any football-related subject of the manager’s choosing. Few other football institutions anywhere in the world require a thesis of this kind – at least in such depth – which helps make Coverciano such a distinctive establishment. In the oral exam, the manager must explain and defend their thesis, suggesting what makes theirs so valuable and how it can be useful in the modern and help shape the future.

Renzo Ulivieri is the director of the managers’ school and is the man behind the tests. The 78-year-old is a former Napoli and Parma manager, and when talking to Rory Smith of the New York Times, he explained some of the Coverciano ways. He claims that there are two phrases that are entirely prohibited in the manager’s exams. One is “in my day”; the other is “my football”.

They are seen as taboos in the centre and go against everything Ridolfi wanted this institution to be. Coverciano and its students are always looking to create; they’re looking to innovate, and for that, dated ideas are forbidden. The thinking must be about today and tomorrow, and not what worked yesterday.

When talking to Paolo Bandini for Bleacher Report, Ulivieri stressed the need for a constant desire for creativity; for that, this literal school of coaching that educates ambitious managers surprisingly doesn’t have any books: “The coaches who come to study on our courses do not receive any books. What’s the point? If I were to write a book, that could take me two years. So by the time I give it to you, it’s already two years old. It’s out of date.”

He continues: “You need to renew certain core principles about football, which are very old, and which always remain. But then you need to start over from zero, because, again, if I were to teach the football that my coaches taught me, that’s 50 years out of date. What I actually need to teach these guys is how football will be in ten years’ time. I need to predict the future.”

Ulivieri himself went through the ranks at Coverciano and had a journeyman career within Italy. In total, he had 22 managerial stints across a 42-year career that included three separate spells at Bologna over two decades. Having gone through the full range as a manager, including relegations, handling superstars, disputes, mid-table obscurity and managing across the various tiers in the Italian football spectrum, few would argue that there are worthier candidates for the post. He’s also affable, intelligent and passionate.

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He also gets involved in the training, educating himself along the way. He’s unafraid to speak his mind to the young coaches and often works with the girls’ teams. Having been at the helm for nearly a decade, he has seen many a champion pass through and, looking at his track record, will surely be seeing a lot more in the future.

The coach’s thesis is one of the most interesting aspects of Coverciano. When Antonio Conte graduated in 2006, his thesis was titled “Considerations on the 4-3-1-2 and the didactic use of video”, highlighting the pros and cons of the 4-3-1-2 formation, defensive and attacking setups, transitions and how a team should operate with and without the ball.

Conte describes several in-game situations and considers non-playing factors such as psychology and the league table, making vast use of diagrams. Known to be obsessed with detail, this 38-page dissertation is the perfect representation of his methodology. 

Go further back in time and you can see Luciano Spalletti’s thesis, titled “The 3-5-2 gaming system”, which, as suggested by its name, is a breakdown of the famous formation. This explains why the 3-5-2 is such an important formation in the modern game, gifting a few insights on the right exercises and drills used to implement it successfully, and even contains a section with various terminology with relation to the style.

Later in his career, Spalletti would successfully use the 3-5-2, leading him to successes in Rome, league wins in Russia with Zenit Saint Petersburg, before taking Inter back to the Champions League after several years away. 

Beyond these two examples, there are also other interesting theses. Carlo Ancelotti’s 1997 writing was titled “The Future of Football: More Dynamism”, highlighting the changes the sport would see in the future and containing charts and graphs that supported how increased activity on and off the pitch would alter the game in the future. Then there’s Roberto Mancini’s 2001 study – “Il Trequartista” – examining the role and importance of the attacking midfielder. Over the course of his career, especially at Manchester City, Mancini has made good use of creative players.

Maurizio Sarri, meanwhile, gave an early indication of his meticulous planning and the importance of training sessions. In his thesis “The weekly preparation for the match”, he wrote: “In a typical week there are seven training sessions. Two have physical targets. Two are to correct mistakes from the previous match, one for the whole team, the second for individual departments (defence, midfield, attack).”

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Going further back in time, there’s the famous study of the zonal marking system by the great Fabio Capello, compiled in 1984. The theses are available to read and take inspiration from for the upcoming coaches, proving to be an adequate replacement for the lack of books. It could be said that learning from the teachings of the aforementioned names is enough to educate the next generation and motivate them in some way to produce something of their own.

Apart from the education of future coaches, the centre also hosts all age groups of the national teams for both men and women. Furthermore, this Università del Calcio also assists in the training of prospective referees, sporting directors and physiotherapists, amongst other football-related professions. The state-of-the-art venue provides room for relaxation as well. Beyond from the football pitches, there are tennis courts, a swimming pool, auditoriums for seminars, meeting halls for the suits of the FIGC, a library consisting of all the great theses, and the offices of the heads of Italian football. 

The most intriguing, however, is the Museo del Calcio, opened in 2000 and consisting of six main rooms. One room keeps hold of the two World Cups won in the 1930s as well as original kits of several of its players. The second room consists memorabilia of some of the game’s legends, including Diego Maradona and Pelé. The third room celebrates Italy and provides information on how the game and its equipment has changed overtime. The fourth, fifth and sixth rooms delve into their more recent glories: the 1968 European Championship, the 1982 and 2006 World Cups, and some of their close calls in 1994 and 2000. This is a glittering venue that celebrates football above all else, protecting the past while looking to the future.

Based in the most scenic of locations, Coverciano has a strong history of polishing some of the finest Italian minds, With the likes of Conte and Sarri taking on new roles, all eyes in Coverciano will be on how their graduates do.

Despite that, some criticism has been aimed at the centre due to the failures of Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern Munich, Roberto Mancini at Inter and, most significantly, Gian Piero Ventura’s Italian botch-fest, which resulted in the country’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 – but many are still adamant that the methods are right.

Having produced World Cup, Champions League winners and domestic league winners ranging from England to Germany and France to Russia, there is little reason to doubt this institution of winners. It’s surely only a matter of time before a new generation of Italian coaches come to the fore and take calcio to new levels once again.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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