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Aug 6, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 15: Lippi

Partying hard long into the night after their dramatic triumph in the 2006 World Cup final, some of Italy's players were wondering where their coach Marcello Lippi had got to. The 58-year-old wasn't in the lobby or the bar of their Berlin hotel. Where could he be?

Italy coach Lippi savours the moment.
Lippi proved a saviour for Italy at the 2006 World Cup

"I grabbed something to eat," Lippi recalled, "then went to my room and watched the entire game including the penalty shoot-out over and over again because that's my way of celebrating: watching the game again and enjoying it on my own with a lovely cigar."

It conjures a great image: Lippi sat in a darkened hotel suite, the orange glow from a Mercator smouldering between his fingers and wisps of smoke rising from it, catching in the flickering light of the TV as the action replays before him. This was a time to savour.

Hours earlier, Lippi had held the World Cup aloft. Two decades earlier he had lifted the polished silver Champions League trophy with Juventus. At the time, no coach had ever managed to win both. Lippi stood alone in the football pantheon until Vicente del Bosque matched the feat in 2010.  How then had he arrived there?

A former libero with Sampdoria, Lippi started his coaching career in the club's youth ranks. It was 1982, the year Italy won the World Cup. A sign of destiny, perhaps?

Lippi couldn’t have known that, nearly a quarter of a century later, he’d be the next to lead his country to glory. The time frame is important to our understanding of him. Lippi’s coaching education is broader than most. He worked before, during and after the revolution brought by Arrigo Sacchi. So think of him as a bridge between the old gioco all’italiana and the new, a blend of the traditional and the modern.

His teams knew how to man-mark and to play zone. They invited opponents onto them and counterattacked but could also take the game to whoever they were playing and press them in their half of the pitch. Balance was everything. Lippi's starting XIs were never fixed. They were always in discussion and would be adapted according to the opposition.

 

His rise would coincide with that of Fabio Capello. They would dominate an era. To illustrate that point they won five Scudetti a piece between 1991 and 2003. Lippi did the double in his first season at Juventus, ending a nine-year wait for a title that felt like an eternity. Champions League glory came the following season, and at the first attempt too. It was to prove the only final that Juventus won of the three in a row they reached.

That in itself was a formidable achievement. Suspicions were held about that team. They were harder, better, faster and stronger than the rest, and some people, notably Zdenek Zeman, asked why. For others at the time, however, they were a major point of reference, the benchmark to measure yourself against.

"Juventus were an example for my Manchester United," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "I had my players watch videos of Lippi's team and would say: 'Don't look at the tactics or technique, we had that too; you need to learn to have that desire to win'."

When United met Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semifinal, provoking that look of despair from Gary Neville as ITV broke the news that they'd be facing each other again, Ferguson remarked in his autobiography that, even though he’d heard "nothing but good reports about [their new manager Carlo] Ancelotti", it was a "godsend that Lippi was not in the Juve dugout."

Lippi would soon return to his post. Trailing Inter by five points with six games remaining, he won the Scudetto once again at the first attempt, this time on the final day of the 2001-02 season in one of the most dramatic Serie A title races ever. A year later, Juventus were back in the Champions League final, Lippi’s fourth at the club. But they lost on penalties at Old Trafford to Ancelotti’s Milan.

On reflection, Lippi won a lot. He could, however, have won so much more. Unlike his great contemporaries, Capello, Ferguson and Ottmar Hitzfeld, his major successes came at only one club.  Lippi's time at Inter, remember, was a failure -- but then it also was for so many coaches between Giovanni Trapattoni in 1989 and Roberto Mancini in 2006.

To win the World Cup, however, and in the circumstances in which he did, with Calciopoli as the backdrop for Italy, forging a great team spirit -- arguably the most important trait of his management -- supersedes all that. His decision to return and defend his title in 2010 in a bid to become the first to retain it since Vittorio Pozzo by taking more or less the same squad to South Africa as four years earlier was a folly, ending in the biggest humiliation Italy have suffered since losing to Korea in 1966.

It’s a shame then that things went that way for Lippi, who is now at Guangzhou Evergrande in China, still winning championships. He's a great of the game and, as Ferguson wrote in his biography: "Such a good-looking bastard he makes most of us look like Bela Lugosi."

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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