Greatest Managers

Greatest Managers, No. 12: Trapattoni

August 6, 2013
By James Horncastle

In the football landscape, Giovanni Trapattoni stands like a grand old oak tree. He’s been around for generations, outlasting many of his peers, not least Sir Alex Ferguson, who retired at the end of last season three years his junior. Still going at 74, the lines on Trapattoni's face tell a story like the rings of a tree do, and his story is one of almost unrivaled success.

Christopher Lee/Getty ImagesThough recent years have brought more disappointment than success, Trapattoni's no stranger to silverware.

A member of the great Milan team that won everything at the beginning and the end of the 1960s, Trapattoni's outlook owed a lot first to Gipo Viani and then the great Nereo Rocco, coaches often regarded as the founders of catenaccio for whom the result was everything. "May the best team win," one journalist said to Rocco. His response: "We hope not."

It wasn't as black and white as that. If Milan could win playing well they would, but the No. 1 priority was to win regardless, and Trapattoni was an extension of Rocco on the pitch. If there was a tactical plan to be carried out, he'd do it diligently, man-marking Pele, Johan Cruyff and Eusebio out of games.

It was from Rocco too that Trapattoni learned not to overcomplicate things. "The ball is round," he's fond of saying, often with the caveat that, like a magician's hat, "sometimes it has a rabbit in it.".

His famous aphorisms might often be confusing -- remember the one about the egg, the hen and the hot bum? -- but he is simple and to the point with his players. "Trapattoni could make himself understood even to the Japanese," claimed Arrigo Sacchi. Is it any wonder then that Trapattoni has won league titles in four different countries (Italy, Germany, Portugal and Austria), a feat only matched by Ernst Happel and Jose Mourinho?

 

A coach from the age of 35, he replaced Cesare Maldini as a caretaker at Milan, stood to one side and then returned with Rocco flanking him. Spotting potential, Juventus president Giampiero Boniperti appointed Trapattoni. And so began a golden era in the club’s history.

Juventus claimed six Scudetti in the decade between 1976 and 1986. All four UEFA club competitions were won. No one else has achieved that at the same club. The 1977 UEFA Cup -- the first of three that Trap would lift in his career -- was conquered with an all-Italian team and is more fondly remembered than the 1985 European Cup, which, although Juventus' first, was overshadowed by the tragedy of Heysel.

Trapattoni left for Inter the following year and at the time became only the second person after Jozsef Violak to have ever coached each of Italy's Big Three. He won his seventh Scudetto there in 1989 -- no one, incidentally, has led teams to more -- and did so by setting a record points total in the age when Serie A was an 18-team league and it was two points for a win.

That was the zenith of Trapattoni's career. He made Bayern champions of Germany in 1997 but would never win another Scudetto back home in Italy. Had Gabriel Batistuta not been injured and Edmundo stayed in Florence instead of absconding to Rio for Carnival, Trapattoni probably would have won another at Fiorentina in 1999. Alas, it wasn't to be.

His time in charge of Italy was a disappointment too. Hard done by at the 2002 World Cup when referee Byron Moreno played no small part in their round of 16 exit to co-hosts South Korea, the inability to get out of the group stages at Euro 2004 did for Trap and remains a regret.

After getting back on the horse at Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg, he was a Thierry Henry handball away from taking the Republic of Ireland to the World Cup in South Africa and qualified them for Euro 2012, their first major tournament in 10 years.

Though conservative - "Don't say cat until you've got it in the sack" -- and tactically very rigid -- another of Trap's great sayings, incidentally, is "The players are free to do what I say" -- few coaches have been quite as effective at getting results as he has, and that's credit to his organisational skills, his powers of motivation and knowing what it takes to get players to believe they can win and for that to become their mentality.

"Our football is prose, not poetry," Trap said. Call it the book of winning.

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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