A runners-up finish in Turkey with Galatasaray. A respectable if unspectacular season-and-a-half attempting to turn Inter’s tanker around. A disappointing year without distinction at Zenit Saint Petersburg. And now a stint in international football, where coaching careers often go to die. It is not typically what most Premier League title-winning managers do next, but then Roberto Mancini has always tended to do his own thing.
That was certainly the reputation he earned during his three years in Manchester which, though tumultuous, reshaped the city’s football landscape. If Pep Guardiola is the ideal figurehead for the present day Manchester City with their designs on world domination, then so was Mancini for the insurgent, sharp-elbowed City when they were looking to shake their nouveau riche tag at the turn of the last decade.
Mancini’s bullish, direct manner and dictatorial idiosyncrasies would cause problems further down the line but it was what City needed to begin with. There was more than a little uncertainty inside the club when, for example, no more than a few weeks after his appointment, he vowed to tear down the ‘34 Years’ milometer-style banner in the Stretford End which recorded the length of their rivals’ long trophy drought. It was bold but he eventually made good on the promise and only allowed it to tick over another year.
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Once it came down with the FA Cup win in 2011, United supporters’ groups briefly discussed replacing it with a new banner reading ‘43 Years’, referencing the time that had passed since City’s last league title. Wisely, they decided against it, correctly predicting that Mancini could quickly put a stop to that ticker, too. The riches of the Abu Dhabi takeover had made the key difference – that was undeniable – but success was not inevitable and had to be moulded by the manager.
As well as endearing himself to City as a club, Mancini also forged a bond with the city itself. He watched Coronation Street to not only help him learn English but the particularities of the Mancunian accent and dialect. Upon his departure, he took out a full page advertisement in the Manchester Evening News to thank local City fans for their support over the previous three years. “Blue is my colour,” he said, while still in the job. “First at Samp, then at Lazio, at Inter Milan and now, here.”
The years since – never staying more than two seasons in a club job – could be read as a long search for a new home. After that somewhat nomadic journey not entirely befitting a coach of his status, blue is his colour once again – quite literally – with the Azzurri. Yet even Mancini’s relationship with his home country and Italy’s national team is complicated.
As a player, his international career was unfulfilled – just 36 caps and a measly four goals – and hit by repeated setbacks. An unauthorised night out in New York while on a summer tour in 1984 was the first and probably the most damaging. Mancini remembers his evening in the city that never sleeps as “beautiful, full of lights; it was heaven for a boy like me”, one who grew up in small Jesi in north-east Italy in a highly devout and church-going family.
Yet that night would be the end of his international career under Enzo Bearzot, a World Cup-winning coach two years earlier, who was waiting for him at the team’s Central Park hotel the next morning. Exiled from the 1986 World Cup, he returned under Bearzot’s successor Azeglio Vicini but was still waiting to score his first Azzurri goal by the start of Euro 88. A squad member at Italia 90, he did not play one minute. By 1994, he found himself exiled again.
Mancini speaks with his squad ahead of the Euros
Now as manager of Italy, he is making up for lost time. Trusted with the recovery from failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, which was regarded as one of the most traumatic episodes in Azzurri history, he leads them into Euro 2020 with a quiet confidence. Qualifying was perfect, with 10 consecutive wins and only four goals conceded. Their unbeaten run across all competitions stands at 27 matches. Milan and Turin will host the Nations League finals in the autumn and Italy will hope to win it.
The promise of the last few years is in no small part down to Mancini’s attempts to move past an ageing core, and blood through the next generation of talent. That saw plenty of young players called up, though with a few more experienced heads given second chances, too. There was, briefly, even a romantic attempt to revive the creative tension of his days in Manchester by rehabilitating Mario Balotelli’s international career. It did not work but then plenty more has.
The special faith, care and attention that he has shown to Federico Chiesa, son of his former Sampdoria team-mate Enrico, has helped the Juventus forward blossom into one of Italian football’s most exciting players. Nicolo Barella, who would perhaps have a greater reputation outside Italy if Inter had not struggled in the Champions League recently, looks ready to make a name for himself at international level. The balance and blend of youthful exuberance and hardened experience bodes well for what could be a memorable summer.
Whatever happens, though, this will be a return to one of the grandest stages in European football for a manager who has won four league titles from three of the continent’s top leagues within recent memory. This is the stage on which a coach of Mancini’s gifts belongs, a stage he departed from too soon, and one that he could remain at for a while yet.
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