“When I look at the footballing media, it appears we live in a world much different than reality,” snarled a miserable Roberto Mancini back in November 1995, when I asked him about the game. “The game is not what it used to be. There’s too much television, too many pointless games and far too much big business involved,” added the Sampdoria captain. In fact I was asking him about the listless 0-0 draw I had just witnessed between Samp and Middlesbrough, where he was subbed just after the interval, not about the game in general but…
Not long ago when asked to describe himself in one word he answered: “Genius.” Whether joking or not, it certainly was another illustration of a man with an implacable belief in himself and his point of view. A way of thinking that the only way is his way.
For Mancini the player it was never just enough just to win, he had to push himself and his teammates to make that victory complete. “If he saw that his teammates weren’t doing things right, he went berserk,” said former Samp Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. “He never took it out on his opponents, only his teammates.” Not quite true, Sven, as there were also many altercations with officials.
One notable incident came during a tight game with Inter in November 1995 when, heavily tackled in the area, the referee completely dismissed the No 10’s protestations. Mancini ragingly indignant broke free from teammate Gianluca Pagliuca’s restraining arms, screamed up to the referee, ripped off his captain’s armband and shrieked into his face, ‘Cheat’, before storming off the pitch, not even noticing his red card.
Another time he allegedly promised journalists he would ‘murder the referee’. While in another incident he urged: “real fans to climb the fences and attack the referee.”
Never one to ride the road of redemption, to say he was full of passion, a control-freak and utterly refused to suffer fools gladly, would be an understatement. Several arguments with club colleagues even ended in physical fights, as former teammate Trevor Francis could testify.
His old friend Gianluca Vialli claimed his controversial captain’s actions could be explained because of his heartfelt commitment for his team, a love for the shirt. “Roberto is a man who is instinctive but above all he is a man who has to tell the truth,” he recalled.
Moving to Sampdoria from Bologna in 1982 a then 18-year-old Mancio started a 15-year love affair and helped stimulate I Blucerchiati’s golden era.
Mancini’s story cannot be complete without mention of the ‘Gemelli del Gol’, the Goal Twins, the nickname for himself and Vialli. It was a friendship and partnership that started in 1984 and symbolised that marvellous Samp team from the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
That team coached by the legendary Vujadin Boskov also had top internationals like Pietro Vierchowod, goalkeeper Pagliuca, Giuseppe Dossena, Attilio Lombardo, Antonio Cerezo, etc and all topped off by the Goal Twins. It was a story of dressing room friendship, a jokey close-knit team whose chemistry lit up glorious nights in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris and contributed significantly to their success. Establishing himself as one of Serie A’s greats, Mancini was the fulcrum of the team, a true fantasista, who could turn a game in one illuminating moment.
“He’d developed this wish, this skill to always give the last pass,” said Vialli, who scored 85 goals for Samp with many provided by his calcio twin. The pair complemented each other with Vialli scoring and Mancini providing the feints, the outrageous dummies, the sumptuous back-heel flicks and of course scoring a few sensational goals himself, 156 in 545 games.
With his unparalleled vision Mancini was the bandiera of a winning Samp and certainly no-one can call into question his devotion to them. “I spent my life at Sampdoria,” he said. “They hadn’t had much success. I played there for 15 years because I loved that club, and I wanted to win with them.”
The first trophy he and the club won was the 1985 Italian Cup, the first of four. He also led them to a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, an Italian Super Cup and their first and only League title in 1991.
In the following season’s Champions League they reached the final only to be narrowly beaten by Barcelona 1-0 in extra time.
It was the end of an era as Samp became financially troubled. Yet despite this, Mancini stayed until 1997, before moving to Lazio for four years, winning a second Scudetto and starting on a managerial career that has led success and, from last weekend’s Milan derby, a second stint at Inter.