Italy manager Roberto Mancini has won the Enzo Bearzot award. It’s the 9th edition since the award’s inception in 2011, and it’s a strange full circle for Mancini’s career; accepting the award named after a legendary Italy coach who made sure Mancini could never taste success in an Azzurri shirt, when Mancini himself was once a truly gifted player. The award is generally used to recognise those that have done Italian football’s reputation a good turn.
Eusebio Di Francesco won the award last season after giving Serie A excellent press coverage with his mastermind Roma Champions’ League run in 2018. Ditto Massimiliano Allegri with Juventus’ run to the CL final in 2015. Ditto Carlo Ancelotti in 2014, taking home the CL title - and the decima - with Real Madrid. So what has Roberto Mancini done to become the second Italy CT taking home the award this year?
Launching Italy’s youth on the senior level likely has the biggest part in it. Then there’s Mancini’s personal mission to drill his teams into winning the most duels in every game. It’s a slow process to get there with Italy once day-to-day training is out of the window, but I’ve come to learn that getting first to the ball before your opponent counts for a lot. If you don’t have that, you don’t have much of anything.
And Mancini’s team have been morbidly efficient in getting first to the ball when it matters, over the years. When he put together under-budget Fiorentina and Lazio teams as the new Serie A coaching talent on the block in the early 2000s, the physicality of Mancini’s teams punching above their weight was endearing. Then he became relentlessly successful at physical flattening Serie A opponents with Inter Milan, and it was infuriating. Watching Manchester City throw money at Mancini, just for him to mould the Sky Blues in his Terminator-football style seemed like a waste of riches too. But he’s always gotten the job done, and I don’t say that back-handedly. I’m thrilled for Mancio to win recognition as Italy’s light emerging from the dark times of calcio.
I don’t even know why I like him after all these years, but I do. I know a big part of it has to do with his take-no-prisoners style at post-match interviews when he’s had enough of journalists beating around the bush - one 2016 interview stands out where he comically tore Mikaela Calcagno’s head off. When Mancio’s had enough, he just can’t hide it. There’s something reassuring about just, that as his presence on the national team is like a homecoming feeling. Mancio will be the first person to say his taskmaster-style of coaching was influenced by Bearzot himself, despite their differences at the time.
‘I Put My Faith In Players’
“It’s useless to name names,” the new minted Italy CT Mancini told Paolo Condò in a GQ Italy magazine interview of mid-2018. “But often the player who allows himself to bend the rules isn’t the one who has a reputation for being difficult.”
Condò asked Mancini on players’ professionalism, and whether anyone stood out as likely to go on an all-night bender before international duty, like a 19-year old Roberto Mancini had done on a night in New York that landed him in Bearzot’s bad graces.
“Without doubt I’ve had cases,” Mancini said. “Always made known [in training] because I don’t consider my players to be under my control. I put my faith in them. It’s immediately noticeable in training who’s had a good night’s sleep and who’s spent the night away. Even among the twenty-somethings, who sometimes think themselves invincible to the early morning hours. You can hide one bad night, but two is impossible.”
“[If a player ever had an all-nighter like I did], I would act like Bearzot had [with me], more or less.”
New York, New York - 1984
The year was ‘84, and a freshly-turned 19-year-old Roberto Mancini was the big risk being called up to Bearzot’s senior Italy squad. Yes, Mancini was just a few months removed from a semi-final run with the Italy U-21 side and already a Serie A professional at the time, but it wasn’t the same level of risk that Mancini himself took with promoting Zaniolo to the seniors, after the latter’s successful run to the U-19 final with Italy last summer.
Back then, it was a 19-year old Mancini breaking into the reigning World Cup champions of Bearzot. There was precious little room for revolution, but Mancini’s cerebral talent demanded a look all the same. Bearzot had an eye to the World Cup defence of 1986 in mind already, and a two-fixture North American friendly tournament - against Canada and the USA - was as good an opportunity to look at some new blood.
Mancini, still a teenager at the time, had already racked up 82 Serie A matches and score 21 league goals. His first season at Bologna saw him find the back of the net in Serie A 9 times, at 16 years of age. That was all Sampdoria needed to sign Mancini and make him a part of their core team for the surreal trophy-laden years to come; and it was all Bearzot needed to bring Mancini off the bench for his senior Italy debut against Canada in May 1984. The Azzurri won the match 2-0, but that would be the last of Mancini in an Italy shirt until Bearzot’s resignation in 1986.
Even after Mancini recovered his international career somewhat in the late 80s, his reputation for being difficult - whether merited or not - stuck because of his falling out with Bearzot. And it was all owed to one all-nighter in New York, where Mancini couldn’t turn down Marco Tardelli’s invitation to paint the Big Apple tricolore.
“I was happy to get out,” Mancini told GQ, “without even thinking about the consequences. We went to Studio 54, the kind of club with bouncers who decide whether you’re dressed smart enough to get inside, and they either let you in or not. It wasn’t as if we were the most elegant, but young athletes obviously yes, they give you the OK and lift the velvet rope for you. I was so happy to be there I almost thanked them. Just to be clear, a night at Studio 54 was all a kid ever wanted at that time.”
But by the time Mancini stumbled back to the Italy team hotel at 6 that morning, the picture of his career was very different by morning breakfast with Bearzot.
“I sat there silently taking the worst bollocking of my life,” Mancini said. “He told me all sorts, that I hadn’t slept because I was too into myself, that I’d acted like a jackass, that he’d never call me up again. Not even if a scored 40 goals a season.”
“At that time I was a kid,” Mancini continued, “but today I’m a father. And so I understand perfectly the sense of responsibility he was trying to warn me about, and that seemed so baffling to me at the time. Realistically, times have changed. Today New York is a tourist spot and all the players have been there several times on holiday. The idea it’s a forbidden place is practically gone. In the middle of any tournament, it’s normal that a player will ask for a day off now, and they get one. They go to the fashionable restaurants, but they’re always back at the hotel by midnight. It’s a different job nowadays.”
Realistically, Mancini fell out with other coaches and his Italy career had more close-calls (and misses) than just running foul of Bearzot. But the mid-80s were really the time for a young Mancini to make his mark if ever, when the competition in attack was about enter a changing of the guard and Mancini had his best shot at starting a World Cup campaign that eventually eluded his entire career.
“Years after the New York incident I ran into Bearzot when he was retired by then,” said Mancini. “I didn’t ask him anything, it was him who came to me insisting: ‘Why did you never call me to apologise?’ I was still salty. I didn’t apologise because I was too embarrassed by my behaviour, and I was sure he’d still be angry with me in any case.
“Bearzot ran his fingers through whatever hair he had left. ‘All I was waiting for was a phone call from you, to call you back up to the national team’ [said Bearzot to Mancini]. ‘But without your apology I couldn’t do anything, and that’s how you lost your call-up to the World Cup in 1986.’”
“I wanted to die,” Mancini summed it up.