From Tuscany to Chelsea – The making of Maurizio Sarri
Oliver Brown travels to Italy to trace rise of obsessive coach who attracts rare devotion
At the south-west corner of Figline Valdarno's central piazza, under the searing Tuscan sun, there is a bar proud to remain fiercely and forever Naples. Here at Caffe Greco, hundreds of miles from the city itself, they serve coffee the Neapolitan style, with a ristretto strong enough to fire up the drinker like a shot of breakfast gasoline.
Every spare surface, from the counters to the walls, is festooned in Napoli's signature sky-blue, with photographs of Diego Maradona driving home the owner's allegiance. Look closer at all the mementos, though, and the common thread is not the devilment of Diego, but the stern, brooding face of Maurizio Sarri.
This little place is the temple of Sarri, so in thrall to his cult of personality that he has his own statuette on display. Should he earn even a fraction of the love at Chelsea that he received during three seasons in charge of Napoli, it will become a pilgrimage site.
The setting is apt: Sarri lived above the bar as a child, learning to kick a football outside. "A few times they risked breaking the glass," laughs Lorenza Renzi, who used to cut his hair at her salon three doors along.
Sarri is not a Tuscan by birth. He grew up in the Naples suburb of Bagnoli, after his father, Amerigo, moved to take a job in a steel plant there, and acquired many facets of the complex local temperament.
Characterised as Italy's "southern drama queen", Naples is a city awash with superstitions. In one small flat, said to be the spot where Catholic saint Maria Francesca died in 1791, women who are struggling to conceive flock to sit on the "Miracle Chair", where they have their stomachs crossed by local nuns in the hope that they will be blessed with a child.
In his eccentric way, Sarri is cut from the same cloth. "At Napoli, he was given a huge cake with a cornicello - a red pepper, a traditional amulet to protect against the evil eye," says Agostino Iauinese, who founded Caffe Greco 20 years ago in homage to his friend. "He took it off and put it into his pocket for good fortune."
Such stories are stitched throughout his managerial career. One of the more outlandish has it that at Tegoleto, a tiny club in the Arezzo province, he accidentally bumped a player's BMW in the car park on the morning of a game. But his team won and so, the next time they faced the same opponents, he allegedly did it again. "That's not the only one," Iauinese smiles.
"He'll also make sure he has a shave 48 hours before each game. For a long time, he would walk to all four corner flags before he went to stand in the dugout."
As a coach, Sarri could not be less out of central casting if he tried.
Diplomacy? Forget it. "In his early days, Maurizio didn't want his players wearing fancy, colourful boots, so he painted them black," explains Iauinese, who first came to know Sarri during his stint at lowly Cavriglia.
"He's very straight, very strict on these things." A born football man?
Hardly. As a child, Sarri looked more likely to choose cycling as his sporting passion. He rode for Pedale Figlinese, the local team, while his father spent two years as a professional on the roads, winning the one-day Coppa Ciuffenna in 1949 and 1950.
This time, Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, has chosen a manager who cuts against convention, who gave up a lucrative banking job to accept barely one fifth of the salary in lower-league football, and whose fanaticism about footballers' conditioning is contradicted by his own obsessive chain-smoking.
"The cigarettes are his one defect," says Enrico Bonatti, a retired lithographer, who has known the Sarri family for decades. He acknowledges the problem Sarri could face in English stadiums, which impose stringent smoking bans, but adds: "A few Italian journalists are trying to sort out a room for him at Chelsea so that he can still do it."
Bonatti, nicknamed Bocca (mouth) for his garrulous conversation, is Sarri's "man Friday", the figure who keeps his life in order away from the cameras' glare.
Figline Valdarno is a somnolent town, where the heat makes it difficult to do much past 11am, and where old men nurse their coffees for hours on end in the morning shade. Sarri, it would be fair to say, is wired differently.
Even when he returns home to Vaggio he is his usual whirl of activity, relying on Bonatti to walk the dog - a large white mongrel that he adopted from the streets of Naples - and to arrange his library, which features all the works by his favourites, Charles Bukowski and Maurizio de Giovanni.
"He likes having a book in his hand, rather than a tablet or a Kindle," Bonatti says. "He only uses a computer for football, as he studies for the next game, often drawing his plans. In the house, he has an incredible collection of televised football games."
Such is Sarri's reliance on him, Bonatti discloses that he will be travelling to London on August 20, to continue his duties there.
For all that Sarri has vaulted into sporting aristocracy with his £5.7 million-a-year contract at Stamford Bridge, he is not the type to forget those who have helped him en route. "He doesn't give himself airs or anything," Bonatti argues.
"He's quite a private person. He likes to stay among good friends." Family ties are crucial, too. His wife Marina and son Nicole who, together, run an electronics company near Florence, have carefully constructed their lives around his.
When he switched to coaching full-time, he reflected: "They told me that if I thought it was a way to find serenity, then I had to do it." If Sarri is unaffected by new-found fortune, then this owes much to his background in international finance.
Throughout the Nineties, Sarri, who studied accountancy, worked with private clients at Banca Toscana, an institution later swallowed up by Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
He enjoyed postings abroad, from London to Luxembourg and demonstrated, according to Aurelio Virgili, his right-hand man at the time, "the DNA to be successful".
But it was hardly a lifestyle that captured his heart. For a start, friends attest that he was always more comfortable in a tracksuit rather than a tie. "He would tell me that his work was the football, and his hobby was the bank," Bonatti says.
In one sense, the two vocations were mutually complementary, with both requiring a meticulous, schematic approach of those who wanted to reach the top.
Not for nothing was Sarri once known in football as "Diabolik", in honour of a popular Italian cartoon character, notorious for his ruthless plotting.
At Sansovino, a club he elevated from regional championships to Italy's fourth tier, he was heralded as "Mr 33", having reputedly prepared no fewer than 33 set-piece routines. While such details might paint him as a suffocating obsessive, he is capable of inspiring intense devotion among his followers.
Iauinese, who has turned his Tuscan cafe into such a shrine to Sarri, is undying in his reverence for the man. A lifelong Napoli fan, who makes a 600-mile round trip every fortnight to Stadio San Paolo, he describes how the regret at his departure for Chelsea cuts deep.
"Every time the team played, the fans would hold up a banner saying, 'Maurizio Sarri is one of us'. When I was there, a couple of weeks ago, people were saying to me, 'It's like a son has died.' As he was walking around the ground for his last game, he was crying. Aurelio De Laurentiis, the chairman, seemed to think that Maurizio had become so popular, he was almost a rival."
In part, this powerful connection arose from Sarri's ability to represent the people of Naples, both through his values and his intense, sometimes volatile, character. "Italians in the north and south are abusing each other all the time, but Sarri was like a shield for the Neapolitans," Iauinese says. "During one game, he told the referee: 'If you don't stop all the insults against us, I'm taking these players off'."
Not that Sarri is averse to some ugly verbal jousting himself. In 2016, he was accused by Inter Milan's Roberto Mancini of calling him a "f****t" and given a two-match ban. Among those who know him best, though, he is guilty less of crude belligerence than bracing directness.
"There's a Tuscan saying," chuckles Iauinese. "If you go up against him, he'll hit you up against the wall."
Clientele at Caffe Greco are eager to know how Sarri's appointment has been greeted at Chelsea. "With trepidation," I reply.
After all, given the player rebellions that disfigured the reigns of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, the decision to recruit a mercurial 59-year-old, tobacco-addicted control freak hardly smacks of an investment in the club's long-term future. All the portents are that Abramovich's cycle of perpetual revolution will continue. But his disciples here are quick to cite evidence to the contrary: his record of acting as a father figure to Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne, his strength in never tolerating a bad apple in his team.
If there is an abiding impression of Sarri back in Figline Valdarno, it is that he remains a man wholly without artifice. "His dad had a message for him, shortly after he signed for Chelsea," Bonatti says. "'Just remember,' he said, 'we'll always be the same people we were'." Soon enough, Chelsea will find out whether they should take those words as reassurance - or as a warning of the storms to come.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)