He's an Italian who speaks pidgin English, but he is by far Ireland’s most popular man, especially after leading the Irish soccer team into the European nation’s championship finals next summer.
When they face off against Spain, the World champions in Poland in summer it will be an extraordinary moment for Ireland on the world soccer stage. Giovanni Trappatoni has made it all possible
Irish soccer managers have a love-hate relationship with the soccer-mad Irish nation.
Jack Charlton, an Englishman became a national hero when he led Ireland to the World Cup finals in 1982. Steve Staunton an Irishman was one of Ireland’s most criticised when he failed as a manager despite having been an amazingly popular player.
Giovanni Trapattoni, now 72, is in the Charlton mould. To the Irish nation he is Trap, the way Charlton was Jack and he is their latest hero.
The soccer team beat the odds to advance to the finals. In a country riven by economic calamities Trap is a bright shining light, a man who has put Ireland into one of the two biggest football tournaments in the world.
He is a practical man. He understood Ireland’s limitations and his sides do not play the beautiful game like Spain or Brazil. They are defensive, dour and technical, but they get results.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s new contract with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) may have been a ‘formality’ but the Italian will gladly tell you that there are only three certainties in this world – birth, life and death.
The 72-year-old is now guaranteed to accumulate over $13 million from his spell as Ireland football team manager by the time he passes the mantle on, preferably in his eyes to understudy Marco Tardelli, after the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
That figure, albeit with the substantial financial help of FAI benefactor big businessman Denis O’Brien, surpasses the earnings of previous bosses Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton combined.
It may come across as a startling statistic but Trapattoni has never engaged in the bargain basement of football management. His is a career adorned with big trophies and big cheques. A ‘good player but not a great player’ with AC Milan and Italy, he has been a far better manager.
So much so that he is still the most successful club manager in the history of European football after winning all around him with Milan and Juventus before spells abroad with Bayern Munich, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg with four years in the Italian job, and two tournaments, thrown in for good measure.
Yet those who know him best will tell you that the farmer’s son from a quite ordinary and very rural background is, at heart, a simple man. His upbringing in a little village outside Milan, where his father taught him his trademark whistle as they herded sheep, allows him no other outlook on life.
“In Italy we always say that the farmer lives a simple life,” said Trapattoni the day after his team
completed the win over Estonia and gave the country a reason to talk positively about Europe for once.
“The farmer lives his daily life with the consciousness of sacrifice and work, hard work.
“In practise and in reality, that is how farmers live. Before the game against Estonia, I received a very beautiful SMS from a friend back in Italy.
“It said ‘experience is the mother of all science’. The farmer’s life is the same thing. I appreciate it, I understand it. It is one of the reasons why I like Ireland, the Irish people. They know we must work hard.
“My attitude comes because I am the son of a farmer, I am old and that is clear. My experience in life tells me that, as a philosopher once again, there are only three certainties in the life. You are born, you live and you die. That is the only three certain situations. The others can change.”
Trapattoni’s ability to change the outcome of a football match is exactly what endeared him to the FAI four years ago when they called time on the Steve Staunton experiment and went looking for a manager with a proven track record.
Prompted by Eddie Jordan in early 2008, billionaire Denis O’Brien provided the finance necessary to lure the veteran Italian, winner of every club competition in Europe, even though at first he thought the Irish job was a lost cause.
“I have a professional reputation and I cannot destroy that, I am no idiot,” insisted Trapattoni recently. “I have improved Ireland, I know that. We saw the DVDs and the results from previous games. From Cyprus. It is all about results.
“I was with Inter, with Italy, in Portugal and Germany. I cannot destroy the reputation I have built. I myself have a professional responsibility and I cannot damage that.”
Taking Ireland to next summer’s European finals has ensured his reputation is safe but don’t expect any free-flowing football when Ireland return to the big stage. Like Jack Charlton before him, Trapattoni knows one way and only one way to play football. Approaching 73 next St Patrick’s Day, he is not going to change.
The show, as Trap also states regularly, can be found at La Scala in Milan. The result is everything for this Italian purist. “If you want the show, you go to the opera,” he says, playing air violin in the process.
“The football history will not tell you about the show, only about the result.”
Whatever about his style of play – and Euro qualification will paint over many cracks - Giovanni Trapattoni is a charming man, a Jack Charlton with charisma if you like.
His personality is warm and engaging. His smile is infectious. His language, a mixture of English and Trapattoni known by Irish journalists as Trappish, is always colourful. Ball is ball, ball is round, football is football – these are just some of the regular gems.
Fluent in Pidgin English, he loves to quote Italian sayings, even if they make no sense whatsoever when he asks interpreter Manuela Spignelli to translate.
A particular story about a chicken’s bum and a hen’s egg had the room in stitches before the friendly game against Italy in Liege last summer.
“We are not philosophers, we only need the words for our job and our job is football manager,” said Trapattoni. “When I first studied English my teacher, an American, said that all I need are the words for my job. That is all that concerns me.
“A maximum of 200 or 300 words allow you to give meaning to your job as a football manager but it can be less. We are not here for a debate on politics or the economy or social issues, obviously not.
“There are specific words that refer to football and, like my teacher says, as a manager I only need the words for this sector.”
Trap is known to stand up and enact what he is trying to say, often scoring the header from a very quick corner which Italy notched up at the 2002 World Cup finals before the Gods and FIFA conspired against him, as he sees it, and they were dumped out in rather controversial fashion by co-hosts South Korea.
Away from the public eye though and Trapattoni is ruthless. Skilful Andy Reid was axed from the squad for leading the sing-song through one tune too many on the night of a World Cup qualifier against Germany in Mainz.
Journalists were told at a press conference two months ago that Kevin Kilbane’s services were no longer required after over a hundred caps for his country. One of the press present at the conference broke the news to a stunned Kilbane via a text message.
Reputations don’t count for much in the Trapattoni ‘schema’. You only cross this man once as those who long for the good old days when Irish players bonded at the bar have quickly discovered.
“I have told the players a number of times since I came here that they need to change their drinking habits,” confessed Trapattoni, a man who has consistently preached the need for a winning mentality since his coronation ceremony at the RDS.
“They have to have a little more responsibility in their work and their mentality. To live this type of intense life you need to be a very well balanced professional.
“It is okay to have a drink after a game. That is the habit, not in Italy but in this part of the world. But if you are falling over you cannot train properly the next day. That is what I repeat to the players.
“It is important for the players to have one evening off after a game but then they must prepare properly for the next five or six days. They have to stay professional – for themselves and for the Irish fans who pay for the tickets to see their team.
“They must be professional. I believe we have changed this mentality, maybe only a little bit but we have changed it.”
A deeply religious man who also happens to be incredibly wealthy, Trapattoni is not bothered by any need to earn more than he does from the FAI-Denis O’Brien agreement.
For all Ireland’s current success and appeal to the marketing community, he won’t even look for any nice little earners a la Big Jack and his contract precludes him from writing a book about his roller-coaster ride with Ireland. He has a good lawyer but no agent.
“I have never in my life used an agent,” he admitted. “Maybe that is a pity because you can earn more with an agent and I have had many, many opportunities.”
The two year extension to his current deal with the FAI will take Trapattoni up to 2014 and all the way to Brazil if he can negotiate a path around Germany, Sweden, Austria, the Faroes and Kazakhstan in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers.
By then, his football journey will surely be coming to an end. “I am 30 years in this profession and there is always the result, you sleep for one night on the result then immediately you have to achieve the new situation,” he said. “For us the next situation is the European Championships and I believe we can achieve something at this tournament.
“That is my job now and my job keeps me young. The expectation will be big but we can do well.” If they do, they will put a much needed smile back on Irish faces.
The day before Ireland guaranteed qualification for the European finals, with a 1-1 draw at home to Estonia, Trapattoni received a surprise visitor to the team’s base at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links.
Former manager Mick McCarthy, in town to work as an analyst for Sky television, wanted to say hello to one of his successors. He also wanted to say well done.
They shared a coffee in the lounge of the North Dublin hotel and they shared their experiences as manager of a country which demands, never mind expects, its football team to punch above its weight.
Before he left, Mick McCarthy made a small presentation to Giovanni Trapattoni. The bottle of champagne was to mark Ireland’s first qualification for the Euro finals since Big Mick helped beat England in 1988, their first qualification for any finals since McCarthy led Ireland to Japan and Korea in 2002.
Trapattoni appreciated the gesture. He can only hope that the waters leading up to Euro 2012 are calmer for Team Ireland than they were en route to those stormy World Cup finals.