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Roberto Mancini has a deep sense of personal unfulfillment with Italy

Roberto Mancini has a deep sense of personal unfulfillment with Italy

Roberto Mancini has a deep sense of personal unfulfillment with Italy

Taking pride of place on a wall in the entrance hall of the late, great Sampdoria president Paolo Mantovani’s palatial Genoa home was a family tree. And between Mantovani and his wife, Dany, guests would be amused to find a picture of Roberto Mancini.

Mantovani was the classic father-figure chairman, but ‘Mancio’ had a special place in his heart. Before every away game, Sven-Goran Eriksson and his predecessor as Sampdoria coach, Vujadin Boskov, would receive a phone call from Mantovani asking if Mancini was playing. If not, the owner would invariably skip the match. Eventually, Gianluca Vialli, Mancini’s close friend and one half of Sampdoria’s so-called ‘goal twins’, rang Mantovani to seek an explanation.

“Why do you only ask about Mancini, why don’t you ask if I’m playing?” Vialli said. “You only run and score goals,” came the reply. “Mancini . . . that’s art.”

The tales reveal the extent to which Mancini was indulged at Sampdoria, the club he graced for 15 years, who he helped to their only Serie A title in 1990-’91, 12 months before defeat by Barcelona in the European Cup final at Wembley. It was an indulgence he never enjoyed with the Italy team as a player and, as Mancini prepares to return to the scene of his single greatest disappointment when the Azzurri face Austria at Wembley today for a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, there is, it seems, a much bigger itch to scratch.

When Mancini was appointed Italy coach in 2018, he talked about being given a “second chance”. Fuelling and, indeed, shaping Italy’s re-emergence and hopes of a first European Championship since 1968, at least in part, has been the former Manchester City manager’s quest to soothe an acute sense of personal unfulfillment with his country.

“Given that I started my international career very young, I could, potentially, have played for Italy in four World Cups and four European Championships, and I wish I had,” he said.

Thirty-six caps represents a relative pittance for a player who was a star in Serie A for two decades, and his own volatility and intransigence, the presence of Roberto Baggio, Italy’s entrenched conservative approach and emphasis on the collective over the individual and, perhaps, too, Mancini’s “outsider” status all had their part to play in marginalising a figure who was used to getting his own way.

“Roberto has many qualities and one peculiarity: despite being quite introverted, he wanted – and still wants – to be the centre of attention,” Fausto Pari, Mancini’s former Sampdoria team-mate, says.

“That’s how it was for him in Sampdoria. In our national team, he always achieved less than his skills enabled him to because he felt like he was just one of many.”

Mancini’s Italy career is book-ended by his omission from the squads for the 1986 and 1994 World Cup. In both instances, he only had himself to blame. It was in May 1984 when Italy swung through North America for two friendly matches against Canada and the United States.

Coach Enzo Bearzot wanted to put some of the country’s young talents to the test. The pick of those was Mancini. The prospect of a golden international future lay ahead.

But all that came crashing down when Mancini defied Bearzot’s strict instructions to stay at the team hotel in Manhattan by joining the senior Italy players on a night out in New York. After rolling in from the legendary Studio 54 nightclub at six the next morning, the 19-year-old found an incandescent coach waiting for him.

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“I got the worst bollocking of my life,” Mancini would recall later. “He called me every name under the sun, telling me he had not slept out of worry, and he wouldn’t be calling me up again.”

What Bearzot wanted, in fact, was an apology, but it never came. Years later, the coach collared Mancini at an awards ceremony to ask why he had never bothered to pick up the phone. “I was too ashamed,” Mancini said.

The naivety of youth was no excuse a decade later. By then, Arrigo Sacchi was in charge of Italy. Mancini accused Sacchi of breaking a promise to give him 90 minutes in a friendly against Germany in Stuttgart in the build-up to the 1994 World Cup by replacing him with Gianfranco Zola at half-time.

After the flight home, Mancini exploded at Milan’s Malpensa airport. “You didn’t keep your word,” Mancini raged. “Don’t call me up ever again. I’m done with the national team.” Suddenly, aged 29, Mancini’s Italy career was over.

Mancini, of course, had watched on from the substitutes’ bench, not once getting on the pitch at Italia ’90 as Baggio took centre stage.

“He was an untypical player, and it was hard to line him up with Baggio,” said Azeglio Vicini, Bearzot’s successor and Italy’s coach at that World Cup. “I totally understand his bitterness. He deserved more.”

All these years on, the national team now need Mancini as much as he needs them. His pain has become Italy’s gain, and they hope it will lead them to glory at Wembley, not only today but in a few weeks’ time, too.

Italy v Austria,
Live, RTÉ2/BBC1, 8.0

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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