“A good manager can make a team 10 percent better,” said Trapattoni a long time ago. “A poor manager can make it 50 percent worse.”
The merits of that dictum don’t need explaining to long-suffering Irish fans whose excitement about the new appointment appears to be well grounded. As the most successful club manager in modern Italian soccer, he brings a resume like few others in the world and trails the happy knack of winning just about everywhere he’s gone. At each turn, he’s shown himself to be a hard taskmaster, a refreshingly frank speaker, and somebody singularly unafraid to ruffle feathers. The growing constituency of supporters fed up with the pampering of modern players will relish the arrival of somebody whose press conference critique of one of his Bayern Munich players ended up being turned into a popular rap song.
Trapattoni doesn’t stand on ceremony because he doesn’t have to. Born on St Patrick’s Day, the son of a peasant farmer turned factory worker from outside Milan, his own playing career was founded on a willingness to do the unglamorous midfield drudgery that allowed more gifted colleagues to shine with the ball. Others grabbed the headlines but his peers still wax lyrical about the impressive man-marking jobs he performed on Eusebio in the 1963 European Cup final and Pele in a famous friendly against Brazil. Little wonder then many of the controversies in which he’s starred on the way to picking up 10 league titles in four different countries have involved spats with attacking players unhappy at the amount of defending he required of them.
“The important thing is to be able to look people in the eye and say you gave it everything,” said Trapattoni. “I tell the players: ‘Trainers come and go. It’s you who must be responsible.'”
Paolo di Canio, David Platt and Jurgen Klinsmann are among those who discovered to their cost there’s the right way, the wrong way and Trap’s way. Whether Robbie Keane and Andy Reid will join the long list of complainants remains to be seen. What will not be at issue at any point though is the Italian’s credibility. It would take unbelievable temerity for any current Irish international to question the opinions of a man who has won everything, managed some of the greatest players, and in the late 1970s, put together a Juventus team regarded as arguably the best Italian club side of all time. If that achievement alone cemented his place in the pantheon, he’s also a guy who was still ambitious enough in his mid-fifties to move abroad for the first time. “As an Italian coach in Germany, I was trying to change a mind frame – a congenital condition,” said Trapattoni of his two sojourns in the Bundesliga. “I met with resistance, because you don’t change a mentality in two or three months. I wanted them to get accustomed to thinking tactically, developing the play and seeking options. I had to let them play their way and gradually blend in my tactics.
“The players said: ‘We always trained like this, played like this, and we usually won.’ I said: ‘Europe is moving forward – we need to take off blinkers and advance.’ After my first year, they began to change a little, but it was a cultural clash. I tried to get into their reality and to offer something. In Germany, they follow a fixed plan. In Italy, we are more flexible.”
The German media often made fun of his struggles with the language but he still became the first Italian to win a foreign league title in 1997. More recently, he led Benfica out of the wilderness to their first Portuguese championship in 11 years and then brought his current employers Red Bull Salzburg their first Austrian title in over a decade. While there have been intermitten failures in between – most notably with the Italian national team – the career path is punctuated by constant stops to pick up silverware. If it may be asking rather a lot to expect him to deliver Ireland a trophy, qualifying for the 2010 World Cup no longer seems such an impossibility.
The campaign should be nothing less than gripping too. This is a guy who berated the players at Salzburg for not trying, castigated Munich’s cast of stars for being lazy, and told Roy Keane he needed to move to Serie A in the summer of 2000 to improve as a player. Devoutly religious and an ancillary member of Opus Dei, he was once mooted as a possible coach for a team of priests that the Vatican was thinking of establishing to play professionally in the Italian leagues. Just like previous speculation linking him with, amongst others, the management of Manchester United, Spurs and Germany, nothing came of that.
For all the justified glee about the FAI finally, incredibly, happening upon a genuine icon of the game, his international failure with Italy may give some cause for concern. Apart from the fact several of the biggest names in the squad were seriously dissatisfied with the regime, he arrived at the 2002 World Cup with the players only 70 per cent fit. His fitness trainer Fausto Rossi – who joins him in the Ireland set-up – told journalists he tapered the training so they would peak for the final. They went home embarrassingly early instead, and at least part of Trapattoni’s motivation for taking on the new position may be the opportunity afforded to prove his many critics in that squad wrong when Ireland meets his home country in qualifying.
“I believe coaches are like fish,” said Trapattoni. “They are good when they are fresh, but after a while they smell.”
Some in Italy vouchsafe that his sell-by date has long passed and it’s common to hear him damned with faint praise there as yesterday’s man. That may well be proved the case but if an association is going to hire an elder statesman, better it hires the best available. Trapattoni certainly looks like that.