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Marcello Lippi : Man or myth?

Coach to European Cup champions Juventus, winners of the 1995/96 Italian League and Cup double, Marcello Lippi is at the top of the tree. But, as Dave Taylor reports, he's had his share of defeat.

The last time Marcello Lippi was given his cards was back in '91/92, just after he had taken Atalanta to within one point of a European place.

In his short Coaching career, he has had 10 clubs in 11 years and been sacked by three of them.

Unfazed and unbowed by his departure from Atalanta, he moved to Napoli where, against all odds, he proceeded to catapult the cash-strapped club in Europe.

Since then, the silver-haired, cigar-smoking genius hasn't looked back. In 1994 he was headhunted by Juventus, and in his first season not only lead them to their first title since the glory days of Michel Platini, but also to the Italian Cup.

Lippi replaced world star Baggio with the unknown Del Piero. Not a bad idea afterall...

Amid the excitement, he sold Roberto Baggio - the world's best footballer - to the club's biggest rivals, replacing him with 19-year-old Alessandro Del Piero. The fairytale continued as Juve ended last season by beating Ajax to lift the European Cup.

So what's left to do? Quite a lot, according to the man himself.

"I want to stay with Juve as long as possible", he says. "I also want to regain the title and keep the European Cup this year."

Not much to ask, then.

Fundamental to any understanding of the cult that has built up around Lippi, is some knowledge of his past. Born in the Tuscan seaside resort of Viareggio, he played for his home-town club as a junior before joining Sampdoria at the age of 19 in 1964

He spent 12 years with the Genoa club - apart from a brief interlude with Savona - starting with the junior side and rising through the ranks to become the first team captain. Making his Serie A debut on September 27, 1970, it was only six months later that he won the first of his two international caps for Italy's B side. It was as far as he was to get with the Azzurri.

According to his critics, Lippi lacked aggression, even though his elegance outshone many of his contemporaries.

"It wasn't a problem, not being picked again", he insists. "My only aim was to become the club's number one flag carrier."

However, if Lippi didn't appear to have problems, the club had plenty.

In 1977, after ignoring several warning signs, Sampdoria were relegated.

"I worked hard for the squad on and off the field during my five years as captain. Periodically, we wouldn't get paid, and I had to confront the management and keep the lads on an even keel. It wasn't easy", he admits.

Lippi knows how to keep his head cool even in tense situations
Lippi knows how to keep his head cool even in tense situations.
The club remained in Serie B for a further five seasons, but in 1979/80, Lippi returned to Tuscany with Serie B's Pistoia. At the end of his first season, he led them into the promised land of Serie A as captain.

He remained there until the summer of 1981, when he moved to Lucca who were floundering in Serie C2. It was his last move as a player, and towards the end of the 1981/82 campaign he decided to call in a few debts. When he left Sampdoria for Pistoia, President Mantovani had said: "When you're finished playing, return here because I'd like you to work for us."

In 1982, Lippi took over Sampdoria's youth team, and in his first game they were beaten 5-0. Grinning, he recalls the ironic remark of Samp's first team manager, Fulvio Bernardini: "If you could only do just a little bit better next time..."

Working with juniors like Ganz, Lanna and Gambaro, the youth team Coach turned the uncut stones into first team gems while waiting patiently for his chance. The first team job came and went several times, passing into the hands of Ulivieri, Bersellini and, finally, Vujadin Boskov.

Lippi continued with a shrug, but his faith had been broken:

"I had not made any mistakes, and my rapport with the President was perfect. I needed to become my own man, and I realised that a Coach rarely rises through the ranks with the same club. I needed a new experience to push me into first team management even at the bottom", he recalls.

Lippi returned to Tuscany in 1985, where he did, indeed, start at the bottom with Fourth Division Pontedera. He then moved on to Siena, Pistoiese, Carrarese, Cesena, Lucchese, Atalanta, Napoli... the progression continued.

But at Siena and Cesena he was sacked; in his first job at Pontedera there was a player's revolution; and Siena had a team equally as desperate. At Pistoiese, he had to persuade his side to play with determination, even though they knew they weren't going to get paid. It wasn't until he joined Carrarese, his fourth club in as many yearsm that he tasted some success.

"I did well at Carrara. We finished seventh in C1, well enough for Parma to start looking at me, but they chose Nevio Scala. Cremonese looked too, but they went for Tarcisio Burgnich. Finally, Cesena came calling, and I signed up for them within four hours of meeting their President," he recalls.

Around this time Lippi sat his coaching exams at Coverciano along with Scala, Moro, Ferruccio, Scoglio, Savoldi, Bignon, Mazzola and Maseli. Lippi, Rampanti and Bignon came top of the class. Armed with his licence, he took over at Cesena in Serie A, where he kept the club one position above relegation.

Halfway through the following season, however, he was sacked for the second time.

"The sack is like a gigantic smack in the mouth for a young manager, and it is normal to have to restart at a lower level," he shrugs.

He returned home to Viareggio for the '91/92 seaon to manage Lucca for their first term back in Serie B. He stabilised the Tuscan non-achievers, leaving them in ninth place, and went to Atalanta and his third sacking. Napoli followed, and then the Old Lad. The rest is history...

"My coaching career has been colourful, and two experiences have been useful: with one club I was sacked after 17 games; another at the end of the year. Both of them ended up worse off then when I left them, and my conscience is clear. I am sure that the problems of the two teams were not down to the manager," he grins.

The experience, the hiccups and the adventures have all contributed to this remarkable Coach and his personality. From the beginning of his reign at Juventus, Lippi stressed that each of his first them squad had to be fit and capable of playing the full 90 minutes. He will not carry dead wood or allow sentiment to cloud his judgement.

Lippi relies on the reliable Peruzzi to keep the balls outside the goal
His serious study of the capabilities of his individual players and their reactions under specific conditions is typical of his astuteness. He exploits his assets to the full and works out plans to fit the players at his command. If that fails, he goes out and buys them to fit his specific systems.

"Today's squad is much stronger than those of the past. We make sure that the new players are imbued with our mentality. If we do it well, which I think we do, then naturally the team is stronger than before.

"I believe we have the right players for the right jobs. In the past couple of seasons, I saw many players playing roles they weren't used to, but someone like Attilio Lombardo for example has the right technique and intelligence for today's Juve. He is a player who can do many things at many levels."

"I also brought in Vladimir Jugovic, an intense man who knows the way to goal. Apart from his classical work in the middle of the field, he was bought to find goals from that position and so far it has worked."

To Lippi, every player is different, and his method of motivating his team is straightforward: he doesn't set them targets. Having been set unrealistic targets himself in the past, he simply tells them to go out and try their hardest.

And what of Lippi the tactician? At Juventus he is said to have changed his tactics more often than any of his predecessors, but that doesn't hold water. He simply plays to the strengts of his team and the weaknesses of others. Certainly, the style of his teams has changd over the years, but its roots are still in the passing game.

He prefers to use the width of the pitch - Lippi's is not a long ball game; he doesn't like football played in the air. His method is constructive, and he likes his players to play the ball forward before they play it square or behind. His teams have always been determined, and there are similarities between the great Liverpool side of the '70s and '80s and the Juventus of today.

The coach making sure orders are followed...

His team encompasses neat passing and forceful play when needed; each player contributes to attack when they go forward and defence when they are on the retreat. Lippi also shows great loyalty to his side and that also brings more out of them.

So what about Vialli's departure?

"I am sorry to see Gianluca leave. He is an intelligent boy, a true exception. He worked hard even in the most difficult circumstances, but it is the way things are in football," he shrugs philisophically.

"He almost left before I started work with Juve. Immediately after signing for them, I had dinner with him. He'd had an unhappy two seasons and wanted to leave. He asked me if I could help him return to Sampdoria. I told him to lift his head up and insisted he could be the strongest player in Europe if he tried."

"He did, and we were both rewarded for his dedication by the Scudetto and the European Cup. Juventus owe him a lot."

Does Lippi rate the current team line up as the best?

"It's possible, but let's not forget the side that beat Milan 2-0 at the San Siro last year. In both cases it was the true Juve. We have seen the very best of this club this year especially in the Champions' Cup. We played a magnificent game in the Final and I was extremely proud for us."

Last year Gianni Agnelli complimented Lippi on his success in the Championship and the Italian Cup, and Lippi explained that it would be hard to repeat.

"Not without reason, but as fate would have it we won the Champions's League. However, during the course of the season we lost something by the roadway [the scudetto]. We won't next time," he insists.

And you'd better believe it...

This article is entitled "Marcello Lippi : Man or myth?", taken from Football Italia, issue 9, September 1996. The images are not original.

Related links:
Football Italia
Football Italia magazine section