Roberto Mancini once did an Italian television interview in which he was asked to sum himself up in one word. “Genius,” he said.
It was a response that sums up Mancini’s personality well: Cheeky bordering on provocative, with a self-confidence that his critics have interpreted as arrogance, and a fierce ambition. The man from the Italian town of Jesi, a few miles from the Adriatic coast, has always wanted to do more than just win. He wanted to make a difference.
Mancini’s entire career, as a player and a manager, has been about making a difference. In that respect, it’s easy to see why the challenge of managing City was so attractive to him.
Bringing glory to a club who had gone more than three decades without a trophy is just the sort of test that Mancini has always revelled in.
“I always prefer to work to bring success to a club that hasn’t won for many years,” he said in an interview not long after pitching up at Eastlands 17 months ago. He did it at Sampdoria, at Lazio, at Fiorentina, at Inter Milan. It is something, it seems, he was born to do.
Roberto Mancini was born on November 27, 1964, to furniture maker father Aldo and mother Marianna, a nurse. Raised as a Roman Catholic, his early life revolved around football and religion. When he wasn’t at school or serving as an altar boy at the local church, he was honing his football skills on the grass and concrete pitches of the nearby Aurora Calcio boys club.
Even then, he was marking himself out as a football hero. When he was eight years old, he had to attend his First Holy Communion on the day his team had a big match.
“It started well, but halway through the ceremony, we could not spot Roberto,” his father recalled. “He was nowhere to be seen.
“I knew he had sneaked off to the football match and I was very angry. So at the end of the service, I went over to the priest and apologised for my son leaving.
“But the priest told me not to worry. He’d asked Roberto to go and play because the team were losing!”
The story goes that the young Mancini saved his team from defeat that day. He had, it seemed, already decided that football was his calling.
That was why he was prepared to leave home when he was just 13 to join Bologna, having come to the attention of their youth coach Marino Perani.
“I was very young and it was hard, the first year,” Mancini later said. “My sons are older now, but if I think of them when they were 13, I could not imagine them leaving home. But football was my priority and it changed me.”
Mancini was still two months short of his 17th birthday when he was thrust into the unforgiving world of Serie A for his Bologna debut on the opening day of the 1981-82 season.
In a poor Bologna side, on the way to the first of two successive relegations, Mancini excelled.
He was their only ever-present and their leading scorer as they went down, netting nine of their 25 league goals.
Already, he had established himself as a prodigious talent. He won a move to newly-promoted Sampdoria, owned by Paolo Mantovani, a wealthy benefactor who had made his fortune in the oil industry. The ambitious Mantovani had dreams of challenging Italy’s football elite. City fans may just spot the parallel.
“I spent my life at Sampdoria,” Mancini said. “They hadn’t had much success. I played there for 15 years because I loved that club, and I wanted to win with them.”
Undoubtedly talented, the teenage Mancini was also volatile – and was not cowed by the reputations of others. During that first season with Sampdoria, he got involved in a spectacular training-ground ruck with team-mate Trevor
Francis, 10 years his senior and with a European Cup medal to his name.
“There was a little incident in a friendly training match that at the time I thought was something and nothing,” Francis remembered. “We had a disagreement about it on the pitch, but it continued into the dressing room.
“We had to be split from each other. Let’s just say all the players made sure it didn’t go any further.”
Away from the tensions of top-flight Italian football, in the days before he settled down with his wife Federica in 1990, Mancini was no angel either. A few months ago, he gave an intriguing glimpse into his younger life, when
railing against English football’s drinking culture.
“I do not understand players drinking until they are drunk,” he famously said last October. “We do not have that culture in Italy. We would prefer to go off with a woman.
“That’s what I liked to do after a match, and I tell my players now it is better that they go with a woman than drink.”
It seemed to work for Mancini, as success soon came at Sampdoria. The Coppa Italia was won in 1985, 1988 and 1989. Then came the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990, the Serie A title in 1991 and a European Cup final
the following year.
Sampdoria’s league triumph 20 years ago, the only one in their history, was a remarkable achievement in a formidable division, which included European champions AC Milan, big-spending Juventus, a Diego
Maradona-led Napoli and an Inter side containing world champions West Germany’s three best players – Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann.
Mancini’s strike partnership with Gianluca Vialli was crucial to Sampdoria success. Indeed, Mancini had become a key part of the club’s fabric.
When Sven-Goran Eriksson flew to Monte Carlo to be interviewed for the manager’s job in 1992, Mancini was part of the interview panel. He was the club captain, he often gave the team talks and he even helped to design the kit.
And yet despite all of this responsibility, he still had a capacity for flashes of temper. Eriksson remembers Mancini the player as being “awful” when it came to haranguing referees.
One match against Inter Milan in 1995 stands out. Having been denied an early penalty, Mancini went crazy at the referee, then flung off his captain’s armband and stormed from the pitch, telling Eriksson he was never going to play again.
Having been persuaded by his manager to return, the striker was soon sent off anyway, for a reckless lunge at Paul Ince. He collected a six-match ban.
It was Eriksson who shaped Mancini as a manager by taking him to Lazio. The striker spent three years at the Stadio Olimpico as a player, helped them win the Scudetto for only the second time in their history in 2000, before becoming Eriksson’s assistant.
A brief attempt to make a playing comeback at Leicester, facilitated by Eriksson, achieved little other than to introduce his then room-mate Robbie Savage to the delights of pasta. It was time for Mancini to make his mark as a manager.
He did that at Fiorentina, a club drifting towards bankruptcy, by guiding them to the Coppa Italia. He enjoyed further cup success as manager of Lazio, another club who were tightening the purse strings at the time. Then came four years at Inter, during which he won a hat-trick of league titles.
Even there, though, there was controversy, with the first title coming in the wake of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal which saw Juventus stripped of the crown and relegated. Mancini infuriated Juve fans by describing that first Inter title win as a ‘Scudetto of the honest’.
Despite an occasional talent for controversy, Mancini has always managed to succeed at clubs where success has been a long time in coming.
“For a player or a manager, it is an exciting challenge to try to make history at a club in this way,” he said.
History beckons again for Roberto Mancini at Wembley on Saturday. End City’s 35-year wait for a trophy, and his place in club folklore will be assured. Genius may yet be the word.