World Cup 2006: The professor versus the patrician

When later tonight two men lead out their charges for the World Cup final showdown at Berlin Olympiastadion, football aficionados will be scrutinizing their every move on the touchline to see how these affect the direction or outcome of the game. Though this encounter may have thrown up seemingly different characters at the helms in each camp, Raymond Domenech, the phlegmatic Frenchman with origins in Catalonia and Marcelo Lippi, the urbane, cigar-loving Tuscan with the patrician looks may however share a lot more in common as suggested by their circumstances. While for both winning the big prize is indeed their biggest prayer right now, it may not even be enough to redeem their well-filleted reputation in their respective countries. For different reasons, both have been thoroughly undermined by their countries’ media and their publics before even setting foot in Germany, and even as progress on the field is being achieved, huge doubts remain.

Curiously, Domenech, the no-nonsense left-back as a player and Lippi, the cultured centre-back, do not even rate football as their first love. For the former, it has to be acting, while the latter would give anything to go fishing. However, in coming to lead their respective countries to the pinnacle, both arrived at the job via different routes. In a country where almost half of the working population is employed by the state, Domenech rose through the ranks of football bureaucracy. While he’s had stints as coach with Mulhouse and his hometown club, Lyon, he actually made his name as one of the football eggheads at the popular Clairefontaine academy and as coach of French youth teams, where he’s had the opportunity to groom generations of French football superstars, including most in his present team. In 1998, he was an assistant to the World Cup-winning Aimé Jacquet and who, despite formidable opposition from the likes of Michel Platini and some other influential ex-players, insisted on the appointment of Domenech as the national coach to succeed Jacques Santini. On the other hand, Marcelo Lippi took the seemingly poisoned chalice of the Azzuri coach from a formidable background in club management, having been one of the most successful club coaches in Italian football history, especially with his time at Juventus. Though, he’s worked throughout his life in Italy, he’s well-renowned internationally for his coaching techniques, emphasis on players’ fitness and his motivational methods.

As stated earlier, both didn’t come into the tournament with great confidence from their countrymen; in fact, calls for their sacking were ringing in their ears as they landed in Germany. Domenech’s problem is not only because of his questionable dependence on tarot cards and horoscope (which is said to be the basis of his dislike for Scorpios and Leos – the former more than the latter) or what is considered to be his disrespectful way of picking the team; there is a general consensus in the French press, following the not-so-glorious qualification campaigns that the man is tactically naà¯ve. When Zidane, Thuram and Makelele retired from international football shortly after his appointment, the press interpreted this to mean they were actually protesting his appointment. And when they decided to return, the story is that they did so irrespective of what he thought. Makelele’s revelation that he spoke to Zidane rather than the Domenech before returning to the national team seemingly confirmed the widely-held view that the returning senior players under Zidane have seized control of the team. Domenech did very little to change this perception, especially when some of the players he’d originally chosen for pivotal roles, for instance, Vikash Dhorasoo consequently got relegated to the nether regions of the bench. To add insult to injury, his whole pre-tournament mountaintop happy-family retreat idea for the French team backfired when Gregory Coupet, the Lyon goalkeeper (whom most people expected to take the No1 jersey) rebelled against the idea of the coach anointing Barthez. It didn’t help that the press reported Barthez’s choice as imposed by the ex-retirees. Domenech’s only response was to say Coupet had lost his head.

If Domenech’s idea of success is to play along as prisoner of the most influential group in his camp, Lippi was, in spite of his jolly uncle demanour, a strict disciplinarian who leaves no one in doubt as to what he wants, even though he isn’t averse to arms-around- the-shoulder treatment when he thinks it necessary to achieve the aim of the group. From the very beginning, he showed that he knew the problem was not only that of age, but of mentality. He quickly decided that the 2002 World Cup scar was still there and that it was important to discard members of the team more vulnerable to that trauma, bring in fresh hungry faces and develop a new group culture. Apart from the blip of losing 1-0 to Slovenia, Lippi’s team breezed through qualifiers and they were just about feeling confident enough to dream big when the Italian football scandal struck.

The scandal drilled a huge hole into Lippi’s reputation, even at the pre-trial stage. Lippi’s relationship with the man at the centre of the scandal, Luciano Moggi had him talking to investigators for hours. Luciano Moggi is suspected to have pressurized Lippi over players to choose for the national team and on when to play or not play Juventus players in the squad, depending on Juventus’s needs. Also being investigated is GEA, the biggest football agency run by Moggi’s son, Alessandro, which is suspected to have been used by Moggi to control and intimidate players and coaches. There’s also suspicion that he’s used the company to control the transfer market and also as an instrument to manipulate the outcome of matches. Lippi’s son, Davide is an employee of the company and Lippi himself is said to be in the company’s books, but he’s strongly denied this. The mess is such that calls for Lippi to resign and for some of the players being investigated to be dropped were the popular thing as they departed for Germany. In fact, it took the personal intervention of Guido Rossi, the newly-appointed Italian football federation commissioner for Lippi to remain at the post for now.

Once in Germany, both teams started off rather dully, France more so than Italy. The games against Switzerland and South Korea were so bad, that there were genuine fears that France might not qualify for the next stage, even though to have a chance depended on beating the hapless Togolese team. Italy won its first game against Ghana, but it witnessed an out of character Lippi getting animated on the touchline. The second game against USA was a tough encounter which saw De Rossi sent off for deliberately elbowing McBride. Reminiscent of Domenech’s comment that Coupet had lost his head, Lippi said De Rossi needs the computer chips in his head changed. In the meantime, he said he’d left the player “to boil in his own soup”. Lippi quickly passed the message to the squad that the last thing they needed was to be upbraided for unwholesome play with the pressure they were already under. He reined in his own emotions and used the game against Australia to show the depth of his tactical knowledge, even though they were down to ten men before the hour mark.

Just as the second half began, Lippi had substituted the wasteful Gilardino with the pacy Iaquinta and then six minutes later Metarazzi was harshly sent to an early bath. But Lippi did not panic. He waited another four minutes before sending in the only other fit centre-back, Barzagli in place of Luca Toni. And this was at a time Italy had looked more dangerous in attack. Having used up two substitutions, Lippi waited for twenty minutes without Australia making any substitution. He knew immediately by then that Australia weren’t very keen on winning in regulation time. They were working on the notion of breaking down the ten men of Italy, even if it means doing so in extra time. Hiddink, himself a wily campaigner, was saving his fresh legs for that period. However, at that point, Lippi made the decision to substitute the shocking Del Piero, replacing him with Totti. Some of the Italian fans actually greeted Totti with boos, but Lippi knew he was taking a calculated risk. Totti is the Captain of the side and he was one of the worst affected by the debacle of 2002. He had deliberately not showed too much faith in him in the two earlier games, so if there was a game for him to prove himself, it was this one that could determine whether Italy make the next stage or not. He banked on the idea that the pressure of sending Totti on when he knew he had only fifteen minutes to change things with a man down and with no wish to go into extra-time or penalty shoot-out could work positively. When Grosso galloped into the Australian box in the dying minutes of injury time and earned that penalty for Italy, Lippi, Totti and the whole of Italy knew everything depended on the Captain. Totti calmly soaked in the pressure and slotted the ball in the net. At that moment, Lippi knew he’d killed the ghost of the Far East and that it was time to put into effect the second stage of his plan.

This second stage meant Lippi turning his attention to managing off-field affairs to the team’s advantage. He knew he had to take a leaf from Enzo Bearzot’s book of 24 years ago, but the more crucial thing was how he was going to adapt this to his own experience and personality. Like Bearzot, he converted the Italian adversity and pressures of the scandal at home to strength by creating a siege mentality; but, unlike Bearzot, he paradoxically didn’t blank out the media, because he knew he had to craft an image to win minds at the same time. His media conferences increasingly became exercises in self-deprecation, charmingly moaning about the walking wounded in his squad and generally lowering expectations, while calling for national support. He threw open Italian training sessions to fans, publicly declared his group “a family” and then made certain members of the squad, like Del Piero and Zambrotta go back to Italy on a highly publicized emotional visit to Gianluca Pessotto, the Juventus team manager recovering in hospital after falling from the window of his office in Turin. Thereafter, Lippi dedicated the quarter-final victory over Ukraine to Pessotto. All this further strengthened the group and the effect of such careful psychological knitting was to be seen in that game against the Germans.

Before the game, Germany had all the obvious advantages. They had the massive support of the whole country and they were playing very attacking football and had just beaten the dreaded Argentines. They also knew that if it came to penalties, most people would vote for them to win it. Moreover, in spite of the 3-0 defeat of Ukraine, the Italians by this time hadn’t convinced most people that they were in Germany not to play negative, defensive football. When the German media began the mind games by labeling Italians lazy parasites, Lippi did not immediately respond. But on the eve of the match, he had his captain, Cannavaro and the non-playing Nesta respond in high moral tones. Gattuso, whose parents had actually worked in Germany and who indeed had lived there himself added his own tuppence for good measure. Lippi was building something inside the players, but his own mien betrayed nothing. While Klinsmann was boasting of a German win, Lippi was talking about Frings’ absence being of no consequence to the Germans (even though everyone knew he was a key player). When the German media and players declared Dortmund a lucky venue because they haven’t lost there, Lippi retorted that as a club manager, he’d twice won there.

Sven-Goran Eriksson could have learnt a thing or two from Lippi about how to use your calmness or cool temperament to good effect. Lippi stood throughout on the touchline, with the pained, anxious expression of a father expecting his children to bring the bacon home. But as much as the worries were written all over his face, he wasn’t stomping around, barking orders or kicking water bottles. None of his players looking over would have failed to notice his expression. It was a combination of cultured pressure and confidence – a look that fired the boys on the pitch, but which the German bench misread with Klinsmann doing all the theatrics. Lippi knew that the Germans were expecting to see Italians engage in gamesmanship and all sorts of underhanded tactics to win, but instead, Lippi instructed his players to concentrate on the football. He knew the eyes of the world were on Italy and with what is going on at home, playing to the stereotype won’t help. He knew the Germans were expecting a very defensive Italy, but he surprised them by taking the battle to them from the word go. He did this by making sure he had an extra man in midfield, instructing Camoranesi to stop the German left-back, Lahm going forward to join the German attack.

Lippi didn’t make any substitutions until he was sure what the Germans were doing. He was content to push his team on the attack, asking all the questions, because he knew that was bound to bring a response from the Germans sooner or later. Surely, in the 72nd minute, Klinsmann finally realized he needed to bring in Schweinsteiger whom he ought to have started on the wings in the first place. Borowski is a central midfielder who could also play in front or at the back, but playing him on the wings and indeed starting him ahead of Schweinsteiger was indeed a disaster. So, when the latter came in for the former, Lippi’s response was to replace the tired Luca Toni with Gilardino. The Germans thought nothing of this since it was seemingly like for like, but Lippi’s idea was to increase the tempo of the Italian attack even more. Klinsmann then recalled Schneider and introduced the pacy Odonkor who began to have some joy on the right. But Lippi didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he used the cover of the 90th minute yellow card against Camoranesi, who was already losing his discipline, to introduce Iaquinta. To the Germans, this must have seemed like a panicky move to protect Camoranesi from another yellow since it was obvious by this time that the game was going into extra-time. What they didn’t know was that it was a well-calculated move by Lippi to exploit the space always left behind by Odonkor while bombing forward and at the same time use Iaquinta’s pace to provide support for Gilardino and other players moving forward. By the time Lippi was going to make his third and final substitution of bringing in Del Piero in place of Perrotta almost at the end of the first extra-time period, the Italians had an all-attacking formation that simply camped in front of the German goal area. The Germans held on as the Italians bombarded the area. But less than two minutes before the final whistle, just as the Germans were thinking this surely was going to a shoot-out, Lippi urged his men forward and Pirlo, who had been anonymous throughout the extra-time period and who was seen last limping around the pitch, suddenly popped up outside the German box to intercept a clearance; he found Grosso and the wingback found the only part of the net Lehmann couldn’t reach. It was 1-0! An attempt by the shocked Germans to immediately rally round by pressing forward was immediately punished when the immaculate Cannavaro found Gilardino. The latter ran down to the edge of the German box, got blocked by Mertesacker, but managed to feed the onrushing Del Piero who blasted the ball into the underside of the roof of the net for the second goal. It was a quintessential Italian job on the enterprising Germans, but no one could begrudge them that victory.

In the meantime, Domenech suffered through 90 minutes against Togo. But in the end, he was salvaged by two goals from Vieira and Henry, two players he’d chosen himself, even though the latter is a Leo. Domenech admitted his relief and went into a Vieira praise- song via a swipe at those who didn’t trust his judgment when he chose him. But in typical Domenechspeak, he showed his fear of playing rampant Spain in the next round by stating: “I expected to play them but not in the same scenario. I thought they would finish second and we would finish first”. To Domenech, it didn’t matter that his projections would still have had both teams meeting at that stage, what was important was for him to use that opportunity to deploy a Gallic putdown against the team from his parents’ country. In Domenech’s mind, everything French is first, others are only ever good enough for second place. But in the mind games business, Domenech, the good actor that he is, never play the same role, depending on the opponents. For instance, after dispatching Spain to be confronted by Brazil, he made a great show of telling the world how his aged stars are at a disadvantage against the young, celebrated Brazil. Yet, even though France had the oldest squad with an average age of 29.8, Brazil weren’t far behind with 28.5. But Domenech’s statement was aimed at lulling Brazil into a sense of self-defeating comfort. Now, while it was obvious that Zidane pulled the strings that sent out the Spaniards and the Brazilians and converted the all-important penalty that took out the Portuguese, Domenech, unlike the rest of the footballing world, had not been forthcoming with praise. Rather, he chose to remind us all that the match against the Azzuri is a World Cup final and not Zidane’s testimonial!

In the mind games and media build-up to today’s final, the Italians’ strategy has been to overwhelm Zidane with high praise, which could be interpreted as an indirect way of saying they know he’s the one in charge of the French team and not Domenech. Whatever the motive, it’s bound to put huge pressure on Zidane and the French. And judging from the French reaction, this may indeed be the case. Zidane refused to appear at an already scheduled pre-match press conference and Domenech was left trying to justify his absence (and that of other players) by claiming they’re only focusing on the final game and do not need any distractions. “They’re preparing in their own bubble. They suffered so much criticism after the last World Cup. They are in their fortress they’ve built around them. Until the match is over they’ll be inside this vacuum”, he said. On Zidane’s absence at the conference, he explained: “I can understand why he didn’t come. Like with all the players he doesn’t feel the need to explain what he’s doing, he just wants to get on and do it”. As for himself: “I’m sticking to my focus. I’m not listening or reading anything about the World Cup, it’s been like this for the past month. If you start looking left and right you can get overtaken by psychosis. I’ve been there, I don’t need this outside pressure”.

It would be a great fairytale ending for Domenech, the bumbling professor and the stone that has been rejected to lead Zidane’s Dad’s Army to victory here, but my head tells me the Italians are more mentally prepared for this. I also think they have more goals in the team than France, considering that 10 different players (comprising 3 defenders, 2 midfielders and 5 forwards) have scored 11 goals. The only goal they’ve conceded is the Zaccardo own goal against the US in the group stages. On the other hand, the French have scored only 8 goals, all of whom are scored by only 4 players – Henry (3), Zidane (2), Vieira (2) and Ribery (1). They have also let in two goals, one against South Korea and the other against Spain. Some of us may want to argue that the French had tougher opponents, especially in their last three games, which could be a fair point; but there’s no doubt that without Zidane, Vieira and Henry being at the top of their game, France would struggle. I don’t think their bench inspires much confidence, though one would expect Trezeguet and Wiltord to do a decent job when called upon. Yet, whether that would be enough is another matter.

No doubt, the French have the players and flair to overwhelm the Italians, but are they really as united in this mission as portrayed? Reading between the lines of Domenech’s statement, I do not think he’s fully in charge of what is going on there. Zidane, who claims to have returned to the national team because a dead friend appeared to him in a vision and urged him to do so may be inspired to give his all for a last hurrah; but this is a team game, if you aren’t all working from the same sheet, things can quickly go pear-shaped on the big stage. So, the two amateur mystics leading the French better get their act together, otherwise the solid Italians will seize the day.

Whatever happens though, this is bound to be a great spectacle.