Francesco Magnanelli joined Sassuolo in 2005 and has been part of their climb through the Italian leagues, and remains an important part of the squad that has risen to second in the Serie A table after eight weeks of the 2020-21 season. The Neroverdi captain spoke to Football Italia about his early days at the club, the influence of President Giorgio Squinzi, who passed away aged 76 in October 2019 and how life at Sassuolo has changed since the club established themselves in Serie A.
What’s the first thing you remember when you signed your first contract with Sassuolo?
“It was a special moment, I was very young and I hadn’t played a lot before. Sassuolo was the only chance I had. I was very happy, but I wasn’t sure Sassuolo would be the right team for me. I needed to play, and I started doubting about my real potential. I didn’t know if I would be a footballer. In the end it was the best choice I could ever make. Fate and a bit of good luck put me in Sassuolo’s way, it was a good encounter.”
What was the alternative to being a footballer?
“Honestly I don’t know. I’ve always thought I could transform my big passion into a job. That’s the only thing I thought about. I didn’t have many alternatives. I strongly believed in it. I wasn’t kissed by an incredible talent, so I had to do a lot. I’ve put all myself into it.”
Did the club have the ambition to play Serie A football one day?
“Initially, I don’t think so. The history of Mapei and Sassuolo is a history of gratitude. The company wanted to help the club and the city. The club always wanted to do well. They’ve always developed without spending crazy money but doing things well without making us miss anything. They had to build everything from the beginning.
“We were a non-professional club, we had no structure for bigger leagues. Day by day, reaching results and promotions, they understood that we could achieve big things. The Squinzi family was really determined. All together we’ve reached amazing results.”
What kind of president and what kind of president was Giorgio Squinzi?
“The doctor was unique. He always managed to transmit us his values, his work ethic. He was ambitious and humble, a perfect match. He did things well and he had clear programs, always with the head held high.
“He taught us that great results are not only reached with money or with big champions but also with the work and with the right people. Maybe also doing things the old way. He was an absolute champion, we must follow his path and his values, and we are trying to do it.”
Did he ever had to convince you to stay at Sassuolo?
“There were a couple of moments I thought I could leave. Honestly, I’ve never received offers I couldn’t turn down but there were situations where I could improve my contract or play for a bigger club. My journey here has been special, the club have been very strong and have always fought for victories. I’ve always been stimulated by this mentality, I knew I would have had a special career here, that’s why I’ve always stayed.”
How have the club changed their structures, their training facilities and all those little details that we can’t see from the outside?
“Of course it changed massively but the most important thing is that the heart has remained the same. Our roots are the same. The club is evolving and adapting to the biggest stages. There have been physical and mental changes. In the past, for example, the club mainly relied on Italian players but after a while they understood they also need foreign players to make a further step and compete with bigger clubs, on and off the pitch. Things have changed but the heart and the soul are the same, I think this is our secret.”
Magnanelli was only 21-years-old when he moved to Sassuolo from Sangiovannese, where he had been coached by a young Maurizio Sarri. The Tuscan is not the only big coach who Magnanelli has worked with during his career as the likes of Massimiliano Allegri, Stefano Pioli and Eusebio Di Francesco came through the Neroverdi over the years. Magnanelli played under them all and overcame a knee injury to help Sassuolo into Europe for the first time.
You gained promotion to Serie B in the 2008-09 campaign with Massimiliano Allegri in charge. What kind of coach was he at the beginning of his career?
“Allegri was a great coach, you could tell he had something more than the others. He was able to interact with players in unique way, the managing of the dressing room was also remarkable. He was clear headed when he had to read the games. He didn’t bring lot of new things but for many reasons he is one of the best coaches.
“When he left we knew he would have had a great career. He knows how to deal with people, he was born with it. He is the number one for how he approaches players and media.”
In the 2009-10 campaign you came close to gaining Serie A promotion with Stefano Pioli on the bench. What did he teach you?
“I was lucky because he had been also my coach at Chievo, in the Primavera team. He’s been a very important coach for me. He taught me so many things also off the pitch. He is an extraordinary person with incredible values and the same is true of his staff. He has evolved tactically during his career.
“Smart people are always able to learn new things. I believe he is a little bit underrated, he’s always done a good job in every team he’s coached. Even at Inter, people still love him even if he was sacked. He is an important coach who has had a great career.”
Your career hasn’t been all peaches and dandelions. In the 2010-11 Serie B campaign Sassuolo changed three coaches. Did you players feel the responsibility for it?
“It’s obvious, it’s a sporting failure. Even if you don’t have a good feeling with the coach is you that go onto the pitch and must solve some situations trying to gain results. We didn’t do it that season but at least never gave up, we weren’t relegated. It is normal to have these kind of seasons during such a long journey. These situations had been helpful for the future. It’s right to make mistakes but you must learn from them.”
Another tough moment was in your first Serie A season, Eusebio Di Francesco was sacked and replaced by Alberto Malesani, and then Di Francesco returned to eventually avoid relegation. Which was the hardest moment?
“Being relegated from Serie B or Serie A could have been dramatic, also in terms of investments, even if the club never mentioned it. When we were fighting for Serie B survival, I always had the feeling we would have made it. The team had the potential to gain survival.
“On the contrary, we trembled in Serie A, the first top-flight season in the club’s history. The club made important signings in January, Di Francesco returned and maybe during the break he thought about things he could improve. When he returned he was a better coach. We gave something more and we wanted to gain survival with him. It was a crucial season for us.”
You scored your first Serie B goal in March 2011 in a derby clash against Modena. Was it a sign of destiny? Which is the most important derby for Sassuolo fans?
“Maybe the derby against Modena was not one of the most felt. Lot of people from Sassuolo used to support Modena because they used to play in Serie A and Serie B while we were a non-professional club. The rivalry has become bigger over the years. We managed to overcome them. We strongly wanted to take what we had deserved through hard work.
“Modena have a big tradition and I hope one day they will return to certain levels but in the last few years we spoiled their party. My goal against them was a big satisfaction, I still watch it sometimes in some local TV.”
The other important goal was in May 2017: a goal against Cagliari on your return from a serious knee injury. At the half time of that game you had said you felt like you never left the pitch. Do you still have the same feeling?
“Absolutely yes. I’ve been lucky because that was my first important injury, I’ve never had a lot of physical problems during my career. The day I got injured against Fiorentina at the Artemio Franchi I looked at the fixture list inside the team bus on our way back home. I fixed the date I could return to action. And I made it, it was a great satisfaction.
“I was feeling like a lion in a cage. I never felt pressure around me, I created the pressure for myself. I wanted to return for the return-leg game against Fiorentina. Four months after the injury I resumed training with the team and after five I scored a goal. That day was great. I’m not saying the injury was worth because it wasn’t an easy time but it repaid the efforts I had put in to recover. My family was at the stadium when I returned and scored, I still remember it with great affection.”
How did you sleep the night before the first European game with Sassuolo in 2016? Did you look back at what you achieved?
“I usually sleep very well [he laughs], I don’t feel the pressure of the game the day before. I try to gain strength and serenity during the training sessions ahead of matches. I try to take care of every detail. That year was magical. We reached a European qualification but we had to wait for the Coppa Italia final between Juventus and Milan to know if we would qualify. We had ended training the week before the game, the Serie A season was over. We only had a break of 15 days because the Europa League play-off would become two weeks later.
“I was excited because we would play in Europe for the first time, I trained at home during my time off, and we enjoyed pre-season training. European games are magical under every aspect, from the training on the eve of the game to the different kits used in the competition. Even small details like those give great emotion to a player like me, who has played in lower leagues. We played into amazing stadiums. I wish I can play in Europe again before I retire.”
Is it the target you have for this season or you don’t talk about it?
“Is not that we don’t say it because we don’t want. Right now, we are focused on one game at time, we have fun, and we want to do things well. We’ve been playing together for three years and we know it takes time to reach certain results. Sitting second in the table after eight games changes nothing.
“We are happy, but our target is to have fun in every game, with ambition, working more than the others. Then we’ll see. We have a strong team with talented players, a great coach, and a great club. We want to do better than the last season, therefore fight for a place in Europe.”
The second part of the interview - in which Magnanelli discusses playing under Roberto De Zerbi and the futures of Domenico Berardi and Manuel Locatelli - is available here.