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An audience with Marcello Lippi: World Cup-winning manager coaches the coaches on triumph of the team over the individual

Published on 11 January 2012

THE silver-haired man brushes down his elegant suit and gingerly accepts a pair of head phones.

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He raises an eyebrow when he is addressed sonorously as 'signore' when asked to take his seat. "In some senses in Italian signore can mean lord," says his interpreter, by way of explanation of Marcello Lippi's slight but perceptible reaction.

Jim Fleeting, director of football development at the Scottish Football Association, feels no urgent need to retract the word. The unspoken sentiment is that Lippi is lord of all he surveys in the auditorium of Hampden. The 63-year-old sits in front of an audience that seeks football enlightenment. This is Zen and the Art of Football Management.

The aspiring coaches include such as David Weir of Rangers, Alan Stubbs once of Celtic and now of Everton's coaching staff. There are others who are already in the maelstrom and seek a way forward such as Neil Lennon of Celtic, Ally McCoist of Rangers, Gus MacPherson of Queen of the South, Kenny Shiels of Kilmarnock and Steven Pressley of Falkirk. David Moyes of Everton sits near the back, Andre Villas-Boas sits at the front and four rows from Lippi is Walter Smith, Carmyle's answer to Tuscany's Silver Fox.

Manuel Pascali sits to Lippi's right, as an auxiliary interpreter. He is given an ovation at the end of the night. There is at that moment the frankly unworthy thought that this is the first time the Kilmarnock centre-half has received unreserved praise from a room full of coaches.

In a booth near the stage, an interpreter relays through headphones Lippi's words in English. The maestro's inability to speak another language has ensured the Italian, now 63, has never managed in any country outside his homeland. "I am a coach who likes to speak," he said on Monday night, in an event entitled An Audience with Marcello Lippi, organised by the SFA. "I have been offered fabulous opportunities, especially in English football. Much of coaching comes from the head, but it also comes from the heart. I would need to talk directly to my players."

Lippi is a thinker on the game. As a coach who has taken Juventus to five titles and a Champions League and led Italy to a World Cup success, he could hardly be anything else. His book Il Gioco delle Idee (The Game of Ideas) could be said to sum up his philosophy and used as evidence to reinforce the Italian's reputation as a football intellectual, but Lippi has always looked at his sport as an event played by human beings. He is keen to point out that he manages players and that, in turn, produces a team.

"Technical intelligence is important, but you must be able to communicate on all levels: tactical and psychological. It is about team dynamics," he said. "You must manage the individual performer, but only because that develops team unity."

Lippi, in a coaching career that started with the Sampdoria youth team in 1982, has developed a style that is both pragmatic and successful. He makes no apologies for the hard-earned reputation Italy has for producing defensive sides. "A nation should not be embarrassed by its roots," he said. "One should never try to lose that football ethos or identity."

This attitude of victories being built by hard labour is constantly stressed by Lippi during an increasingly intriguing question and answer session. Lippi has worked with great players including Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane but he has strong views about how genius should be integrated into a team. ''You have to manage a workforce. Everybody has an equal responsibility. Players, though, will relate to leaders and, first and foremost, they will recognise leaders. But you alienate individuals if you put too much emphasis on so-called leaders. 'Marginal players' are just as important."

He has a simple approach to dealing with players who can not conform to the work ethic. He insisted "motivation and dedication" were not problems with the great players he led to success, but added of any prima donna: ''Too much ego? Don't pick him.''

Lippi expanded on this theme: "You are selecting a side that must work together. You have to send away a talented player who will not merge into a team. You must make everybody feel important. But you must not make anyone feel more important than anyone else."

Asked what he looked for in his workers, he said: ''They have to be intelligent players. The manager must obviously recognise that intelligence, that talent and decide how to develop it."

He said he talked continually to players to try to explain what he wanted but emphasised that action was more persuasive than words. "You can explain tactics all day on a blackboard, but you must convince players that it works on the pitch. The confidence comes from that."

Teams also had to be fluid, he said. As an Italian, he believed in the key area of defence, but he indicated that it was strikers who dictated how a side played. "It is obvious," he said, pointing out that quick strikers would profit from a strategy that forced the opposition to hold a high line and that strong, physical forwards benefited from a pressing midfield that increased the chances of possession around the penalty area.

This technical chatter was delivered without bombast and with the realisation that coaches are only briefly the masters of fate and inevitably the victim of it.

Lippi, who expressed a desire to return to management, though not in a club role, has enjoyed a stellar career, but has also tasted failure. He was singularly unsuccessful at Internazionale, between two glorious spells at Juventus. "I was giving the same message, working in the same way . . . but it was not successful. It is difficult to assess precisely why."

It is the only moment when Lippi professes bemusement. But he turned almost immediately to what could be his most powerful message. "I have had difficult moments," said the coach who has taken sides to 14 major trophies, including the two big ones at club and national level. "But management is no different from life. It would not be enjoyable without ups and downs. The difficult time should be seen as the moment when an individual can rise. There lies the foundations for your greatest successes."

There is a pause before another message comes through the headphones. "I want to be on that rollercoaster again."

It is hard work becoming a legend, but the smile on Lippi's lips reveals there is fun, too.

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