I’d left the doctor with bad news. I was 68. I’d figured that losing one’s memory at such an age wasn’t surprising. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis was brutal, but I was more saddened that I would need to retire from football than I was that I was terminally ill. At that point, I had been managing football teams for over 30 years. And the news nearly beat me, the very day I received it. But I regrouped my mind, and kept working as a manager for another two seasons. I made sure I had more trophies by the time I’d retired.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with disaster in my career. My playing days were ended by a kneecap injury at the age of 28, when most strikers are in their prime. I certainly was at my best when it happened. The game was against our arch rivals. My nemesis opponent was the man who did it, and he did it deliberately, and was given a red card, and nothing else. When an assault charge would’ve been more appropriate. That injury was enough to land me disabled and in a depression for three years. In those days, footballers didn’t make the astronomical sums of money they do today. I had to work in awful jobs, as football was the sole qualification I had. I became an alcoholic, and gained weight, and if I hadn’t been dragged out of it, I would’ve died at a young age.
Two things dragged me out. One was an old colleague and friend, named Francesco Balti, who convinced me to work with him as his assistant manager. The other thing was the lure of football itself. The maddening, addictive, eclectic nature of the sport. Francesco and I had taken hold of one of the minor teams in Rome, who were in the second division. It rejuvenated both of us, and we did brilliantly with what we had. We just missed out on promotion to the top league in our first season, and got to the semi-finals of the national cup. Our performance was enough to take us to bigger places after only a year. We were signed by Lazio as manager and assistant the following summer. I remember feeling so ashamed to leave that smaller Rome team, after we’d raised them from nothing. We nearly brought them a trophy and had thousands of hearts in our leadership. Then we broke them when we left. Because we wanted a more realistic chance of success. And they hated us when we bailed. Violently hated us. Therein lies the dark aspect of football.
It got much worse when Francesco and I went to Lazio. Not just the violent hatred: all of it. We were cast into the hierarchy of a huge club in a top European city. The members of such elites can be seething tyrants when they expect performances from you. Those at Lazio were certainly that. We were very close to being fired only a few weeks in, when we were nearly beaten by our city rivals Roma. During that game, I’d never felt more terrified in my life. The brutal tackles, the tension that halted my breast whenever Roma got the ball, the disaster when they scored. The constant awareness that something could whack me in the head, thrown from the Roma fans behind me. Yet physical impact wasn’t as bad as the words they hurled. They knew my career had been finished by the kneecap injury, and they’d devised a song with lyrics especially for that. I tried not to listen, but I enveloped a rage; I wanted to retaliate, to cry. Then I did retaliate, because Lazio scored just before the final whistle. 1-1 equaliser. The goal saved my job, sent our fans into pandemonium, and silenced the Roma fans about my busted knee. And I jumped around with Francesco, and a photographer caught a snap of us mid-celebration. Which went up in the local paper next day. I looked like a clown, but I didn’t care.
When I talk about the violence of football: that’s a crisp example. Football is ugly and barbaric, and yet those of us that love it keep returning to it for a masochistic fix. The violence got so bad at times that I wanted to leave. I couldn’t even live within Rome itself; I bought a house in the country instead to avoid the threat of the Roma hooligans. If they saw me walking about the city centre, what would they have done to me? There were stories of when fans from foreign countries came over during the European tournaments. The hooligans would hunt them with knives and slash them across the buttocks, then run off. Which was considered a minor assault by their standards … Thus, with Lazio, I learned what top-level football could be like from a coach’s perspective.
And I wasn’t even the top man: Francesco was. He had double the load of stress. And quickly after we were paired at Lazio, our relationship began to peel away from friendship, replaced with the bare status of colleagues. Francesco changed. He became irritable and grouchy, even disrespectful to me in front of our players. He and I had played on the same teams since we were boys. He was a brother, a clever, handsome man. But being Lazio manager altered him irrevocably, and our bond died. It was me as well, of course. I decided to leave Lazio as Francesco’s assistant after two years, when I was offered a job elsewhere in Italy: Parma offered me their post as manager. The offer to take the sole helm of a club was too tempting, and my relationship with Francesco had deteriorated to such an extent anyway. We had one final argument, wherein both of us regressed to childish, insulting behaviour, none of it even about football. Which guillotined our relationship. And we never spoke as friends again.
It didn’t help, in my following years at Parma, that I was now competing against Francesco in the same league. He and I created a rivalry, of which, I’ll admit, I was just as willing to contribute to. At that time in history, Lazio had won more than Parma had in terms of trophies. In fact, Parma had no trophies to its name back then. Yet rather focusing on changing that fact, I was obsessed with the head to head battle with Francesco Balti. I wanted to beat him in every game. And I didn’t. He beat me in our first four meetings. And he smiled with a glare and handshake after every final whistle. When I did finally beat him, I became that same writhing lunatic on the touchline, and celebrated in his face. And yet, throughout the entirety of my managerial career in Italy, I never beat Francesco statistically. His Lazio team beat me far more times. And I bet he was smug with that knowledge when he entered his grave, last year. I know I would have been.
I also know that I am a far more successful manager than Francesco was. The success of which started after I moved to Germany, where I managed Hamburg. I was still fairly young for a manager, and it was a gamble to move to a different nation. Back then, foreign managers in Europe were rarely given managerial roles. But I’d done well at Parma. Though I had no honours, I’d guided them into a consistent league position, and a few famous wins against the big teams had contributed to my image.
I won the German Cup with Hamburg in my first season. Suddenly, the press loved me. They were calling me a prodigy, a genius, and I drank their gushing language. I lived freely in the city centre, this time. And all the locals adored me and chanted my name, and I loved them in return.
And for a time, I loved a young woman. Her name was Karin. So much that I married her and had a child with her within the space of a year. This all happened within the glamour of that first season when I won my first trophy. Karin had the longest, laciest eyelashes. She gave me German lessons, with humour and grace. She was intrinsically quiet and she could not stand football. Not because she disliked it, she just found it “too edgy” and she only sometimes listened to it on the radio. But she encouraged me with my success and admired me for it. When our little boy was born, she named him Henning. He came into the world just as the summer had started and the football season had just finished. And during that summer, we were a trio of beauty, and nothing could prune us from our little planet. With the dense German summer outside our open windows and the fast rejuvenation of a great city. I learned the marvel of fatherhood and the wonder of a child’s learning eyes. The next season with Hamburg VS came and went, and though I didn’t win anything that year, to come home to a new family after each day at work was glorious.
Just after Henning reached his first birthday, I was offered a job in Rotterdam, Netherlands. To coach Feyenoord, who were at that point the biggest club I’d been approached by. I accepted, and took my wife and child to Rotterdam. In the first meeting with the Feyenoord board, they told me they wanted me to win the league, by beating the giants Ajax Amsterdam to it. The message was clear that I had one year to do it in, and if I didn’t, I’d get the sack.
Rotterdam was completely different from Germany. In terms of culture, and the style of football. I lost my first match with the club, and that particular defeat, which was very unfair and unlucky, put an obsessive hook in me which never departed. From then on, winning the Dutch league was all I concentrated on.
I never settled in the city, and neither did Karin or Henning. She was unhappy and exhausted with the toil of a baby. He couldn’t sleep, meaning we all couldn’t sleep. Meaning I was jittery at training and on match days. I couldn’t focus on tactics, or my new players. Thus, I resented Karin and Henning for getting in my way. I began to avoid going back home, to put more work into the club. This angered Karin, to such an extent that we began to argue every time we met.
Throughout this turmoil, and my selfishness in choosing football over my family, I didn’t even notice when Henning started to get ill. It started as a chest condition, which turned into a spate of fevers. Karin had never been particularly strong physically, and was often ill herself during childhood. And I used this to blame her for a long time after what happened to Henning. Which was absurd, and just a way to defend myself for not being there when my boy needed me. I wasn’t even there when he was first taken to hospital. I was in Amsterdam instead, watching Ajax destroy my Feyenoord side 3-0. I got the news about Henning after the match, and went to the hospital, to meet a wife who was too furious to speak to me, and a child who was too ill to wake up.
Henning had pneumonia. He died two days later. I resigned from Feyenoord. Karin divorced me, quite righteously so.
I returned to Italy, broken. Returned to booze and depression, worse than ever. I’d just sit inside, and I had a lot of money to spend on drink and get fat. The Italian clubs at that period in football history were doing brilliantly, especially A.C. Milan. They were the team I played for when I was 28, which made it all unbearable. I stopped watching the TV and following the papers. My shame over ditching a poor team in Rome for a richer one, over destroying my relationship with Francesco, then again with my wife, and the death of my baby, made me turn away from football. I didn’t deserve football. And I would have given up, and died, and gone to Hell instead of joining Henning in Heaven, had I not received a phone call, one afternoon within that miserable era.
I held the mouthpiece to my face, the room filled with the stench of beer. I didn’t recognise who it was at first. Filippo – an old defender I’d played with at Milan. Great player, and friend. We spoke for an hour, and he told me about his life and he made me laugh. He gave condolences for what had happened. I think somebody had tipped him off about how bad my state was; he had an agenda in calling, but I was welcome to it. Filippo had been playing in Sweden in his twilight playing years, as a defender for Malmo. He was 36, near to retiring, and much respected at the top team in Sweden. But the club weren’t doing so well, and had just sacked their manager. They needed somebody to come in for the final few months, and win the league for them. If I wanted it, Filippo would put a word in for me.
Sweden was cold, but the cold was what I needed. I won what they needed me to win on that first arrival, and two more league titles consecutively. I was a man again, and reassured I was good at something in my life, even if I still didn’t deserve a gift.
Following the success at Malmo, the radars of other European clubs twinkled nearer my dot. I became a ping-pong ball across the continent from then on. The Berlin Wall had recently collapsed; Europe was developing, and with it, the culture of football was expanding, making it easier to be a freelance man. After Malmo, I went to Panathinaikos, living in shimmering Athens for a year, where I won the league. Next, I went to Bordeaux, where I failed, where the fans hailed me as a natural loser, a flake, who had already been given too many chances. I was simply not genius. But, somehow, after that, I got a job in Spain, as manager of Real Betis. Of all the nationalities I’ve experienced, the Spanish are those that treat football most like a religion. Tens of thousands of fans, flashing in green and white, singing your name after you’ve won them the Spanish Cup. I was their God. Then I moved to Glasgow, Scotland. To manage Celtic, where the team colours were the same, but the culture of the place a polar opposite. Where there was none of the same class in the atmosphere or talent on the pitch. Where I was taunted for being a Catholic by Celtic’s arch-rivals Rangers. What else were they expecting, from an Italian man? Fans who quote the Bible, yet have never read it. I, who have, yet am not religious. I won the double very easily that season at Celtic and quit at the end of it, out of spite. Then moved to Red Star Belgrade, in Serbia, which was still pulsing from the break-up of the Balkans. I was afraid to go there but did it anyway. Serbia, where the fans are not fans so much as militant choirs, armed in perfect rhythm with their voices. I failed in that environment, so applied for a job in London, and got it. Let me tell you that there is no press as horrific as the English press. The Spanish football press live like they’re in orbit, and the Italians are too pretentious. But the English journalists don’t even understand the sport themselves. I didn’t last there long.
I figured I’d trade continents after Europe. And picked the most disadvantaged one: Africa. I wanted to manage an international team; with all the languages I knew and places I’d been I felt I could go anywhere. Nigeria accepted me before the World Cup Qualifiers. The sheer lack of wealth in Africa astounded me. We’d play huge games to nigh empty stadiums; the local folks simply couldn’t afford to come. But the fans who did come were the most appreciative, who were only there to enjoy the sport, rather than see it as violence or revenge. I qualified with Nigeria and sent them to the World Cup, the first Italian man to do so.
There was another more important first for me that year. I found a young player and I drafted him into the Nigeria squad. A midfielder named Mohammed Eze. I witnessed him playing at the age of seventeen and instantly knew he could play at senior level. And it worked. He was the reason we qualified, with his goals and assists. Eze Eze Ezeyyy, the Nigerians sang to him as he played. Mohammed was wiry, electric, bird-like on the field, and insanely shy off it. He lacked confidence and didn’t realise how good he was. I encouraged him to be arrogant with the ball, to experiment as he played. He was so young that he didn’t fit in with the older players at that stage. I told him he could come talk to me whenever he wanted. I’d show him replay tapes of how he’d performed, what he was doing well and how he could improve. Then when we flew off to the World Cup, Eze erupted. This crazy Nigerian prodigy. I let him flourish, and he got Nigeria out of the group stage, an unprecedented feat for an African team. We were beaten by Argentina in the next round, but Eze had made himself a worldwide star. Shortly after the World Cup, Borussia Dortmund got in contact with a managerial offer. And during the same phone call I said I would bring Mohammed Eze with me along to Germany.
It was hard for him at the very start, moving to Germany, without knowing the language. He was the youngest and the only black kid on the team. He suffered from homesickness, and he wanted to head back to Africa. There were times when he’d even stay at my flat, not saying anything, lying on the couch. But I persisted and kept telling him that his talent and flair would be his life-stream. And we lit Germany up with it. Dortmund returned to being a power, and we brought the teeth back to the league titans Bayern Munich. I would go lightheaded when I saw my boy play. And I wasn’t aware of how stunned I was with him at that time. I eventually realised, even though it was so glaring, that I loved him not just for his talent: I saw Mohammed as my son. ‘My boy’, ‘my boy’, I called him that, and I was too stupid to see how my favouritism for him affected the other players. I built the team tactics around him so that his skills would best be nurtured.
I’d failed my son Henning, and now I had this gifted footballer who I was subconsciously trying to redeem myself with. But it wasn’t just about self-redemption; I had a true love for Mohammed. Those years with Dortmund and Eze were amazing, and it climaxed with the German Cup final, against the devils Bayern Munich. I was sure that we’d win. We were even favourites to win. I’d won this same cup with Hamburg, many years before, I was convinced I’d reclaim it. But Bayern beat us. And in the following summer, Mohammed Eze signed for Bayern Munich, and left me. I’d lost a son, again, no matter how hard I’d tried. I’d made him what he was, and he left me for the enemy. I was staggered by that, and after that betrayal, it was as if all the hurt in football simply wasn’t sore anymore. I knew the pain, but I just accepted it. Bayern won the league the following two seasons, with Eze as their new star player, and his mentor was left forgotten.
But I came back. And won the league with Dortmund after Bayern’s two titles. I’d never won such an illustrious league before, and I was 68. As I mentioned at the start, I’d just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I won the league again the next year, and then I retired from Dortmund because the illness was getting too heavy to control. I cited this reason at my final press conference, and I left Germany much-respected, and received acclaim from around the world in my departure.
I returned to Italy, to my little hometown. With the olive oil, the funky vineyards and the bicycles on the silent hot streets. It was quiet, and for once I enjoyed the peace, and my body needed to rest. I could feel my mind degenerating. But before it dropped so low, I received a phone call from Mohammed Eze. He was his usual quiet self, and we talked about trivial things at first, him building up to what he really wanted to say. He thanked me for my support, and he hoped he hadn’t hurt me. And with his words, as a man of 70, it was only then that all the rivalry and mucky hatred of football was cleansed from me. Mohammed really was my son, and I his father. I told him he could call me whenever he liked if he needed advice.
And he does still call me to this day. Despite my failing memories and old body. My memory is going, very rapidly now, but certain memories cannot depart from me.
These days, I’m not much good to anybody aside from my equally brittle and old friends. I’ve never remarried because I’m too ugly. I have friends in Italy, Spain, France, England, Serbia. I travel to them, drink wine and play cards, and laugh at how bad my memory is. They still call me the ‘Don’ in Nigeria after our World Cup campaign.
I was a better football manager than I was a player, as proven in my trophy cabinet. When I was a boy, I would’ve wanted this differently. If I hadn’t had that rival player break my kneecap at 28, none of this would have happened. Life is irony, and I’m so glad that it is. I hope that by bringing joy to millions of people, with something as simple as football trophies, I’ve managed to atone for my past failures with family and friends. I hope that my contributions to football will never be failed memories.