CHELSEA have been revived by Roberto Di Matteo, the interim head coach who has guided them to FA Cup glory and on Friday leads them on to a plane for Munich and Saturday'’s Champions League final with Bayern. The man who has re-galvanised Chelsea’s players gains his own inspiration from a special source.
“My family is where I get my strength from,’’ said the 41 year-old, sitting in his office at the Chelsea training HQ at Cobham. Reminiscing about his career-ending leg break in 2000 and sacking by West Bromwich Albion last year, he added: “My family is my foundation. Family is important to me all the time, not just after my retirement as a player and not just after what happened at West Brom.
“When I go home it puts a smile on my face. We are lucky. We have a healthy family. Yesterday we had a visit here from an 18-year-old girl from the ‘Make A Wish’ foundation with a brain tumour. It can just hit anybody, any family. Every day you hear a new story. I am very appreciative that my children are happy and healthy.
“I’m a family man but, time-wise, I’m a football man first. This job absorbs 80 per cent of my time. The rest is family. I try to shield my children as much as I can from my profession because I just want them to see me as daddy. It’s slightly easier with my daughters because they don’t really follow football. My son’s a bit more interested.
“They will come to Munich. It’s fantastic. I’m very happy they are coming. But I hope they are proud of me not because of Saturday. I want them to be proud because they see me and their mother as good parents. It’s a very difficult job to be a parent because of all the social networks that children have access to these days, and the information they have access to. We try to be strict.
“Hopefully we give them a good education, the love they need and we share with them the values that are important to us as a family. The values are to be respectful to each other, to be honest, to work as hard as possible at school and at sport and always to look after each other.”
Di Matteo represented Italy, his children were born in England, so what happens when the two sides meet? “They support the winner,’’ he laughed. “They have the English shirt and the Italian. They feel half-English, half-Italian. They will make their mind up. I will not force them to do anything. I speak Italian with my children. My wife is English from London, half-Irish, and speaks to them mostly in English.’’
Di Matteo is a true polyglot. “I speak German, Italian and English. In my heart my home is Italy. I grew up in Switzerland so part of my heart is Swiss. I’ve been here now for 16 years. I’m pulled. I feel truly European. My personality is influenced by all these experiences in different countries. My father had to leave Italy and emigrate to Switzerland for work. He was an employee in a steel factory. My mum was a cleaner in some offices. We had a good childhood. We were very close as family, maybe because we were abroad.
“I was brought up in a small Swiss town – Schaffhausen – nothing extraordinary. I did a diploma in business administration. I guess I’d have worked in a bank if I hadn’t done football. The town was fairly quiet. Maybe that was the beauty of it: there wasn’t much distraction.
“I just played football. There was only Swiss TV but sometimes on a Sunday they showed a little bit of Italian football. I followed Juventus mostly. That was the time of Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek.”
After playing in Swiss clubs, Di Matteo moved to Lazio, where he first encountered an English footballer. “I was very young when I joined Lazio and Gazza was already a star in European football. He was a character. He was a single person. He was always joking, taking the mickey. He was also a very talented footballer.
“I would love to see more English players playing abroad. You can experience a different style of football. In Italy, there is a lot of time that you use for very specific tactical work during the week. Learning a new culture and language makes you richer as a person and as a player as well.”
Di Matteo’s own travels continued in 1996 when Chelsea called. “The good thing about London is that people let you live quite a private life. That’s the thing I enjoyed most when I came from Italy. I had my private life back.
“In Rome you are public property 24/7. If you went out for a meal, you were always bumping into supporters, who always reminded you: ‘On Saturday you need to win for us.’ If we won the Rome derby, we made a lot of people happy. If we lost, I would stay at home for a couple of days.’’
Ensconced in London, Di Matteo loved his playing days at the Bridge, being immediately embraced by the fans, a relationship that remains as strong as ever. “I’ve had the bond with the supporters since day one. They made me feel very quickly at home. They have given me a lot and I have tried to repay them with performances. The fans in England are very loyal. They appreciate if you are an honest, hard-working guy.”
After his playing days ended prematurely, Di Matteo began another career. “I did my coaching badges here with the FA. They have been very supportive. St George’s Park will be a big help and support to the education of coaches and also because it will be centralised. I’m sure it will improve the level of education of future coaches.”
Soon he had started the game of managerial snakes and ladders. “I enjoyed my time at MK Dons. I learned a lot about the UK geographically. We went from Carlisle to Yeovil, Hartlepool and Oldham. The hotels were so-so. The budgets in League One weren’t great. But it was a good experience. I had a wonderful chairman in Pete Winkleman and the players were very good.”
After his time at West Brom soured, Di Matteo had a four-month spell without work before becoming Andre Villas-Boas’s No 2 and then replacing him as interim head coach. Now he is heading towards the Champions League final, bringing the best out of four players in particular, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech.
“Ashley has been unbelievable for me. He’s reached the highest level that we used to see Ashley play at. He’s the first one out on the training pitch and the last one back. He’s a fantastic professional, low maintenance, a very, very good character. I have enjoyed very much my relationship with him. Frank has the hunger. Frank again showed all his ambition, his talent and quality. We always say ‘big games need big players’ and Frank has shone in those big games.
“These guys have been successful because of their hunger, natural drive and ambition. Like Drogba. Petr has saved us a lot of times. He doesn’t always get the credit. People focus more on the goal scorer. He’s shown the best of himself. Great character. Very composed, very positive.”
Di Matteo is at ease with such stellar names. “I was lucky enough to play with some fantastic players. One of the greatest players in the modern era was Paolo Maldini, who had a 20-year career and he was very humble. [Gianfranco] Zola was another talented player who was very humble.”
Sir Alex Ferguson has often observed that man-management is more challenging now. “I agree with Sir Alex. Players are higher maintenance. Some on your team are lower maintenance but the requests and demands from players are much higher now.
“There’s more attention on them with the financial explosion of the Premier League. The TV rights have been sold globally so there’s much more interest in the players. They deserve the status because they are the ones who attract all the interest from people in the stadium and people in front of the TV.”
Hundreds of millions will tune in on DSaturday for a final that could prove cagey initially. “I don’t think either team is going to open up straight away. Bayern will feel they are playing at home, they know the environment, but I don’t think there are any favourites. It’s 50-50. It’s there for both teams to grab.
“Our defensive organisation has to be right to cope with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. But Bayern also have Mario Gómez, who has scored 41 goals. Thomas Müller is a threat as well. They have midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos who can score.”
A huge test awaits. And afterwards? “Holiday. Absolutely.’’ Family time.