You’ve recently signed a contract with the Russian national team which means that not only are you preparing for this year’s World Cup in Brazil but also for the 2018 event in Russia. Then what?
Once the 2018 World Cup is over it will be time to stop.
But you said that in 2006. And in 2008 you said that you’d retire and devote yourself to travel, which is your passion.
I love to travel and I told the truth when I said that. But then I received an offer from Russia that was so exciting that I couldn’t refuse. I need constant challenges.
Let’s talk about your early life. Your football career began with your father, Guerrino, who was an elementary school teacher. The legendary Gipo Viani, manager of AC Milan, wanted to bring you to the Club as a young boy but your father had already made a commitment to SPAL and could not bring himself to break his word. Stubbornness, pride and a sense of honour are all qualities that you have shown as both a footballer and coach – have you inherited them?
Yes absolutely. My father was a great reference point for me, even though I left home at 15 to play football. His life story is an example of strength and courage. He survived the Nazi concentration camps and came home weighing just 40 pounds. He taught me that your word is your bond, that a handshake is as good as a signature.
A positive attitude, tactical intelligence, determination, the ability to engender team spirit and to understand the psychology of the individual – which of these qualities has most helped you in your career as a coach?
All are important. In football the first thing you have to know is how to figure out who you have available to you, then you need to instill team spirit. But my real secret is all in one word: respect. Respect for everyone. I always say to my kids that if they treat a waiter badly they should think: ‘This man could be my father.’ Would they like it if someone treated their father like that?
There are a lot of Italian waiters in England and you made around 30,000 of them very happy on 14th November 1973. Tell us about that.
We were at Wembley. Italy beat England for the first time on their own turf, winning 1-0 thanks to a goal from me. For days the British tabloids had been demanding that a victory, which they assumed would be English, should be dedicated to Princess Anne, daughter of the Queen, who was getting married on that day. But they were also saying that in the stands there would be 30,000 Italian waiters, because that was what Italians who came to Britain did back then.
Well, even after so many years I can still experience the exact emotion that I felt when I scored that goal. It was for all those 30,000 Italians – it was the best gift I could give to my fellow countrymen – and it was pure happiness.
Yet you are often seen by football fans as hard, icy, impenetrable and impervious to emotion.
With my close friends and my family I am like a completely different person.
And, as mentioned, travel is also a great passion of yours
Yes, I’ve travelled to every corner of the world for work so I should probably be tired of it. But for me, the travel is a like a holiday – I can only sit still for a while. I love discovering the ruins of ancient civilisations and one of the reasons why I love Sardinia is that you cannot match the beautiful sea and culture, such as visiting the Nuraghe (the ancient buildings of Sardinia) and, of course, to come back to Forte Village.
Back to football then – you’ve trained many of them in different countries: Italy, Spain, England, Russia. How do they differ in your opinion?
People assume that, basically, players are all the same wherever they’re from. But there are actually significant differences, especially in their lives off the field. To simplify it: Italians adore the discos and women, the British love their pubs and they like a little bit too much to drink. The Russians? They’re still new to me, but it seems to be true that they are a bit parvenu or nouveau-riche.
Over the course of your career, who of all the players you’ve managed would you say you’ve enjoyed coaching the most?
I’ve trained so many players that all my favourites would probably be enough for two or three teams! But if I had to choose I’d go with Paolo Maldini and Billy Costacurta. I’ve seen them grow as players from when they were just 14 years old to become champions. It’s been a great pleasure for me to see their development over the years.
For several years you’ve looked away from Italy and been very critical of it. Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel for our country?
Since I’ve lived outside Italy I’ve actually felt more Italian than I ever have before. I’m sorry that the country is going through this big crisis but now I’m glad that it’s got a new young leader who has ideas and enthusiasm, someone who does not think only of his own backyard but the good of the country.
So it’s fair to say you’re not a great fan of Silvio Berlusconi then?
No I’m not but I do like Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. I don’t just look at someone’s political colours.
Finally, if not football, what would you be doing today?
I’d be an aircraft pilot. Aviation is my other great passion. Unfortunately I have never managed to sit at the controls of an aircraft, but one day, who knows?