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Oct 15, 2007

In need of a lookout tower

Legendary Alabama football coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant used to conduct part of his practices perched high above the pitch, watching proceedings from a privileged position, one of the many he enjoyed as arguably the best-known person in the state of Alabama.

Nothing sent his players into a state of frenzied terror more than hearing his booming voice amplified by a loudspeaker or, worse still, frantic footsteps as he flew down the ladder to tear into them for whatever misdeed the unfortunate souls had committed.

There are no such towers in Italian soccer, unless you mean ivory ones, but some managers really should consider have one of their own built; not for the purpose of a better view of practice, but with the same practical use as those seen by tourists along the coast of Italy; in order to spot the enemy before it comes to shore.

'Enemy' is perhaps not the most appropriate word in the circumstances, since it's Marcello Lippi I'm talking about, but bear with me and all will become clear.

Since leaving Italy after winning the World Cup 2006, Lippi, who's now 59, has been enjoying what basketball player BJ Armstrong once told team-mate Michael Jordan were the two scariest assets of them all: all the time and the money in the world.

Since I and, I suspect, most readers have no idea of what it is like to have either, let's just assume it is a good thing to be able to enjoy them.

Lippi certainly does appear to be doing just that. In the 18 months since seeing Fabio Grosso hit the winning penalty in Berlin Lippi has received the metaphorical keys to a dream world where no time-keeping is required, proper attire is whatever he feels like putting on in the morning and quality time with the family and grandchildren has meant more than just wishful thinking.

Between stints aboard his boat, a favourite pastime of his, along with quiet meals with friends from his hometown of Viareggio, on the northern end of Tuscany's coast, Lippi has travelled the world, signed on as a studio pundit for Champions League matches on Sky Sport Italy and unlocked the gates to his thoughts more than once for various media outlets; his days of treating every non-conformistic question as a personal challenge apparently over the moment Grosso's shot sent Fabien Barthez the wrong way.

Despite the gracefulness of his current life, Lippi does not consider himself retired, and has always maintained he will be back on the bench at some point. He hinted at a few offers from highly respected clubs (or was that national teams?) but made it clear he'd consider only 'serious clubs with a serious squad and serious plans'. Which obviously means Livorno, despite being half an hour's drive down the coast from Viareggio, never had a chance when they sacked Fernando Orsi last week.

This means as the grand old sage of Italian soccer, with a World Cup and a Champions League trophy among his possessions (despite the best efforts of burglars who last July were scared off by the alarm system) he's been hovering, through no particular fault of his, above a number of fellow managers throughout Europe, his name being mentioned whenever a top side tailspun into as many as a couple of indifferent results.

He's been 'surely' on the verge of being hired by Chelsea at least twice in the past year, and, of course, his friendship with Alex Ferguson has repeatedly meant he's been mentioned as a replacement for his pal at Manchester United.

Last Saturday Lippi reiterated the bit about 'serious' clubs when he appeared on a popular radio show, on which he also revealed that he does not know the meaning of the word 'never', so he will therefore leave the door ajar to the possibility of one day coming back to manage Italy. Before the news could reach current coach Roberto Donadoni, Lippi hastily added that he hopes 'things go well for Italy at the European Championships'.

Now, what should be made of this, besides Donadoni reaching for a well-worn piece of iron (if you're from Italy) or wood (if you're reading from English-speaking countries) and touch it for the umpteenth time since last July?

It is obvious Lippi left the national team too soon, and against his wishes. He had to do it, though.

Just before the World Cup, the Calciopoli scandal had erupted, and among the unflattering details were some revealing that pressure had been put on Lippi to call-up players in order to inflate their market value, or to leave others, mostly Juventus', out of friendlies so that they could rest.

One of the agents whose name came up was that of Davide Lippi, Marcello's son, and, to be frank, calls for his resignation before the World Cup on the grounds that his position had become morally untenable were not unreasonable.

Many Italians thought Lippi and Fabio Cannavaro, who'd spoken favourably of former Juventus director and main character in the scandal, Luciano Moggi, were not fit to represent the country. Others, with a line of judgment which was hard to question, countered by saying if they were guilty of dodgy dealings or at the least turned the other way while those things were being perpetrated then, hey, they were typical Italian and as such in a perfect position to fly our banner at the World Cup.

This, by the way, was why after the win in Berlin many missed the point in hitting back at those who had questioned Lippi and Cannavaro's credentials: it was never a matter of football competence and talent, but of moral judgement, and that had nothing to do with winning the World Cup or going out in the first round.

To his credit once the competition was over Lippi left the Azzurri, not because he was guilty of anything (he was never even charged) but because his decision allowed both the authorities and his son to act without the fear of a conflict of interest.

Since conflicts of interest have never meant much in Italy, the elder Lippi's move has to be praised, but of course the coaching itch has probably outlasted concerns over Davide's legal situation.

If and when Lippi's hat is thrown into the ring, it may land softly, as the space is already crowded. Long ago Carlo Ancelotti laid out his goal of managing Italy, 'but only after Donadoni [note: a former Milan and Azzurri team-mate] has left', and Fabio Capello's ambition and track record warrant that he be considered for the position.

And while Lippi has kept clear of the training pitch and has always added words of caution and encouragement for the current set-up, Capello's new role as a very talented and crisp-sentenced colour commentator for Italy's matches on Italian public television station RAI has meant he's been seen pitchside at some practices.

Something which may or may not have been well-received by poor Donadoni; if only he had one of Bryant's towers at his disposal, he could at least have seen it coming.


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