Sunday 18 February 2018

James Lawton: Italy adores the native son who reflects the best of themselves

Claudio Ranieri’s achievements dominated Italian media this week Photo: Reuters
Claudio Ranieri’s achievements dominated Italian media this week Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

English football will no doubt long remember the brilliant caravan of Claudio Ranieri but back home in Italy all the signs are that it has the wheels to run for ever.

On Monday he flies home to receive the Enzo Bearzot trophy, a fabled reward for coaching excellence, and in his native Eternal City of Rome they will read out a citation which will surely see him once again blinking back his tears.

The bauble was named Bearzot after the pipe-smoking coach of the national team delivered a glorious triumph in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Italy played superbly to beat favourites Brazil on the way to victory over Germany in Madrid and Bearzot was said to have "released the caged bird of Italian football."

In Rome Ranieri will be told, "You have become a symbol of Italian excellence abroad."

He will also acquire a status not even granted Bearzot. In a career which took him to 15 clubs - including Italian giants Juventus, Inter Milan and Rome and Roman Abramovich's newly acquired Chelsea - and the Greek national team, Ranieri was known affectionately as 'L'uomo del calcio' - The man of Football.'

Now that has been upgraded to L'uomo del Miracolo - The man of the Miracle.'

For weeks, as Leicester City pressed on in their improbable Premier League championship drive, Italy lived from one crescendo of anticipation to another before Tottenham were forced to yield the title last Monday night.


Then, all else appeared secondary in a nation long obsessed by the nuances of the game in which they have won four World Cup titles. Juventus's latest juggernaut run to the Serie A crown, even spectacular revival by 40-year-old national hero Francesco Totti of Roma, belonged in the margins of television and newspaper coverage.

Ranieri buttons appeared in jacket lapels across the land and in the cramped streets of his Roman youth pasta was served coloured in the blue of his English champions.

The normally sober national newspaper Corriere Della Sera carried a front page picture of Ranieri wearing one of his more quizzical expressions alongside a headline which said "Mr Leicester's face says, 'How did I do it?'

According to the newspaper he simply followed an ancient tide of history. "The road which opens up England and goes straight to the heart of this story was constructed 2000 years ago by the Roman Empire. It put Leicester on the map and now a modest commander, Claudio Ranieri, has transformed it into the eighth wonder of the world.

"And still he has the look in his eyes of a kind, amiable man who spent his childhood in the narrow streets of the San Saba district of Rome and amid the shelves of his dad Mario's butcher's shop with his mother Renata taking care of home. At 64 he has still been able to extend his piece of the old empire. Indeed, he has become the King of the World."

While Ranieri smiles benignly at such excess by his compatriots, and ponders all over again the fine line between winning and losing, he also carries a little wonder in his voice when he retraces the steps which took him to this week's extraordinary success.

In an interview which ran nation-wide, he declared: "I do my job with a lot of passion, a lot of love - yes, in some matches I have cried, I am not ashamed to say so. Sunderland was one of the furthest journeys for us - it takes seven hours to get there by bus. When we arrived there was another bus with elderly people all dressed in our shirts; that moved me, yes.

"Although we are in the Champions League next season we know that we will have to fight just as hard to gain a place in the top 10 of the Premier League. We will not be engaging big stars but players who will not destroy our dressing room."

One Italian questioner was intrigued by the possibility that Ranieri had invested in the 5,000/1 odds against capturing the Premier League but if he was disappointed in his dream of some ultimate marriage of chance and speculation there was some reward in the answer.

"No," said Ranieri, "but only because I wasn't aware of the odds. I don't know what is written in my contract. I do not do this job for money, otherwise I would not have left Monaco for Greece - maybe it was wrong leaving there (he was driven out of Athens after a catastrophic defeat by the Faroe Islands) but I wanted to understand what it meant training a national team.

"Now I know and maybe I should have remembered what we say in Rome. It is that you don't cure your thirst by eating salted ham."

Italy's adoration of their native son plainly has much to do with his easy ability to conjure what they believe, not without a certain justice, to be the best of themselves ... a love of life fused with an understanding of its passing and sometimes disappointing nature.

In football, as in life, he seems to be saying, you have one main obligation. It is to take the best of it and try to survive the rest.

He says: "We have done something indescribable in Leicester and it as though the whole world has turned to us - America, Canada, Japan, China, Africa ... all of them. Leicester, the Cinderella which has neither the wealthiest nor the most talented players has transmitted its power and made football an enthusiasm for so many people who did not think about it much before now.

"They are people who have just fallen in love with our story."

So, he was asked if, at a relatively old age he still believes in fairytales?

"I've never believed in fairytales but I knew that sooner or later I would win a championship (he won the Italian and Spanish Cups with Fiorentina and Valencia) and I have never lost faith or hope. And now I've won one, it is a stronger feeling than mere enjoyment and satisfaction.


"Maybe you could say it gives me a moment of intimate satisfaction. If I'd won it earlier maybe I would have forgotten about it already. When I look back I wonder how many would have wanted a career like mine. I began as an amateur and no-one ever gave me a gift, I never received anything for nothing."

Ranieri has most charmed his female compatriots with the grace of his feelings for his wife Rosanna and his 96-year-old mother. One commentator observed that his visit home to his mother, after the Leicester president put his plane at his disposal with the title race still undecided, "had a very human feel."

Ranieri said: "Football for me is a passion, a hobby, but it allows me to live and I try to stay the same. I went to Rome on the presidential plane because he put it at my disposal. Otherwise, if I needed to take the metro I would have done.

"I think it is totally normal to want to see your mother. My wife? In July it's our 40th anniversary and one day they will make her a saint for putting up with me for so long. What did she say when we won? Nothing - I was with her and that was enough."

Claudio Ranieri won the Premier League against enormous odds. However, if the race had been simply about charm surely not only romantic Italians would have refused to offer better than evens.

Irish Independent

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