Real Madrid vs Juventus a reminder of Carlo Ancelotti's tough time in Turin
"It's always a little special going back to Italy as a 'foreigner,'" mused Carlo Ancelotti after the draw for the Champions League semi-finals. Particularly to Juventus. The Real Madrid manager's relationship with his former club is a complicated one.
As a boy, he supported fierce rivals Inter. His childhood hero was their fantasista, Sandro Mazzola. Later, as a Roma player, he was involved in a series of bitterly contested title races with them in 1981, '83, '84 and '86. Then upon moving to Milan, where he would hang up his boots, his association with their dominance under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello did little for his popularity in Turin. He had helped make the Old Lady wait seven long years to be crowned champions of Italy again, their longest drought since just after the Second World War.
As a promising coach too, Ancelotti made his name by running her close for the Scudetto. In 1997, his Parma side were triumphant over Juventus at the Ennio Tardini and were ahead at the Delle Alpi, only to be held to a draw after Nicola Amoruso equalised with a dubious penalty. As runners up, they finished just two points adrift.
All this meant that Ancelotti didn't receive the warmest reception when he was chosen to replace Marcello Lippi in the spring of 1999. A section of Juventus supporters were particularly hostile. Walking to the club's offices a few days after his appointment, he noticed some graffiti on an obelisk in Turin's Piazza Crimea. Meant for him, it played on Ancelotti's background as a farmer's lad from Emilia and, to put it bluntly, his physical appearance. "Un maiale non può allenare," it read. "A pig can't coach."
Summoning the capi ultras before him, Juve's general manager Luciano Moggi told them to make nice. However, their suspicion of Ancelotti remained. He wasn't one of them; they knew it and he knew it as well.
Ancelotti, meanwhile, felt conflicted. His head had told him to take the job. How could he not? It was the best in the industry at the time and Ancelotti wasn't yet 40. Juventus had the tricolor stitched to their shirts. They had reached a third straight Champions League final the previous season and were back in the quarterfinals when he stepped in. They also had the world's most elegant playmaker, Zinedine Zidane.
Try as he might, though, his heart never warmed to the Old Lady. She left him cold.
"I have one great weakness," Ancelotti wrote in his autobiography, the tellingly titled I Prefer the Cup. "When I train a team, I become it's No.1 fan." That didn't happen in this case. "I have never loved Juventus and probably never will," he admitted. They were incompatible. "We were different in every way. I was a country boy. They were businessmen in suits and ties. A Swatch among three Rolexes. Plastic versus gold."
Just because it wasn't love doesn't mean there was ever any hate. "I respected them from the first to the last day," Ancelotti explained. He came to appreciate why Juventus were so successful. Unlike at future clubs, he was able to work in relative peace and tranquility. There was no inference or criticism from upstairs. He could coach as he wished and make the decisions he wanted. He learned a lot about himself.
A disciple of Sacchi, he used to stick rigidly to playing 4-4-2, a system with no room for a No.10. So unwilling to compromise on these principles, he had marginalised Gianfranco Zola at Parma, selling him to Chelsea, and vetoed the purchase of Roberto Baggio from Milan, who joined Bologna instead. "It was a lack of courage," Ancelotti acknowledged. "That courage finally came to me when I went to coach Juventus. And Zidane. Because I couldn't exactly leave him on the bench, could I?"
Reunited with him at Real, Ancelotti has said on more than one occasion that Zidane is "the best player I ever coached." Training sessions were like exhibitions. "He would invent things and we would just stand and watch," Ancelotti recalled. "I could do it because that was part of my job. His teammates stopped because that's what you do for an artist."
There was an aura around Zidane, almost a cult. Sat at his locker, this monkish figure was revered as if he were Juventus's Dalai Lama, the Siddhartha of soccer, the Buddha of ball, the route to a higher state of consciousness in calcio. Before every match, the dressing room was like an audience with a spiritual leader. Upon entering, club patron Gianni Agnelli, his nephews Lapo and John Elkann, then Moggi and Antonio Giraudo made straight for him. It was like a courtroom too, Ancelotti joked, "because everyone defended Zidane." No more so than Paolo Montero.
Late for the bus one day and unreachable by phone, Zidane risked being left behind. Only in the job a few weeks, Ancelotti was telling the driver to depart when Montero asked to talk with his manager. "Let's get going first and then I'm all yours," Ancelotti said. "No," came back the reply. "That's the point, you see. Without Zidane we're not going anywhere."
To not win anything with a player like Zizou in his team for two years felt like vindication for the fans who had sprayed a Turin landmark with the warning that pigs might fly before one would lead their club to another championship.
There were fine margins between success and failure. Ancelotti had accumulated 144 points in two seasons at a time when Serie A was the most competitive league the world has ever seen and boasted an 18-team division, too. Yet he twice came up short, finishing second, and at Juventus where the motto is "winning isn't important, it's the only thing that counts," second is the first loser.
Ancelotti considered himself to be unlucky. A sudden deluge waterlogged the pitch in Perugia on the final day of his first full season. Temporarily suspended, it still went ahead in unplayable conditions. Juventus lost and Lazio improbably claimed the title. Nine points ahead with eight games to play, Ancelotti's team had choked and been mismanaged.
In his final campaign, Juventus blew it again. Two-nil up at home to Roma in May 2001, Hidetoshi Nakata came on for the visitors and changed the game. He pulled one back and then Vincenzo Montella followed up on his rebound to equalise, rescue a point and maintain their lead at the top of the table. Had it not been for an in-season rule change regarding the number of non-EU players a team could field, Roma coach Fabio Capello wouldn't have been able to throw on Nakata.
The end was nearing for Ancelotti, but such was the protection afforded him by the triad of Moggi, Giraudo and Roberto Bettega that he never saw it coming even if the writing was on the wall for the everyone to see. "Look, Carletto, you're gone in the summer," the local beat reporters had warned him months before. Ancelotti didn't believe them. "Don't joke around," he said. Juventus had recently extended his contract, for God's sake. "We're serious," the journos insisted. "You're a dead man walking."
Naive to it, this was a lesson in what to expect from the likes of Berlusconi, Roman Abramovich, the Qataris in charge at PSG and, of course, Florentino Perez.
Ancelotti has always wondered about Juve's motives for offering him a new deal. Did they do it to ensure any insecurity wouldn't distract him from the title race they were in at the time? Of interest to former club Milan was it part of a strategy based on the idea that "We no longer want him, but you can't have him either?" Or was it to do with cultivating the (false) impression that he would be staying in order to help persuade his former Parma proteges Gigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram, with whom Ancelotti had a great relationship, to choose Juventus for the following season? We may never know.
Satisfaction would be had two years later when Ancelotti won the first major trophy of his coaching career, the Champions League, which came at Juve's expense; Milan were triumphant on penalties in the final at Old Trafford.
There's a tempting conclusion to draw here. Last week AS columnist Santi Segurola wrote about the Spanish perception of Juventus. They are the "least European" of Italy's Big Three, at least in their eyes. Helenio Herrera's Inter brought the curtain down on the glorious Alfredo Di Stefano era at Real by vanquishing them in the 1964 final in Vienna, while Milan are Los Blancos' closest rivals in terms of Champions League trophies, European Cups and intercontinental trophies.
To elaborate further as to why Ancelotti didn't work out at Juventus, consider this: he is the "most European" of coaches, if not necessarily the least Italian. Recall how he has won as many Champions League titles (three) as he has league championships (three) -- "I Prefer the Cup" -- and how the latter has always been made slightly more of a priority than the former in Turin. It's enough to compare the number of Scudetti Juventus have celebrated (31) with those Inter and Milan (18 each) have over the years.
One thing is for sure: the notion that a pig can't coach has been proven one big porky pie. "The pig is sacred," Ancelotti smirked. And Champions League glory has been his consecration as a managerial great.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.