We’re all Luciano Spalletti, his Fiat Panda and his pet duck in the Serie A race

Luciano Spalletti looks like your grandad Credit: Alamy
Luciano Spalletti looks like your grandad Credit: Alamy

Luciano Spalletti has been the bridesmaid of Italian football too many times; please let him win it this time.

 

Who’s this then?
Luciano Spalletti is a 63-year-old born in Certaldo in Tuscany and is currently the manager of Napoli, who sit at the top of Serie A unbeaten and who cruised through their Champions League group handing Liverpool their arse in their home game at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium. He drives a Fiat Panda and has a pet duck. He’s bloody brilliant.

He wasn’t a professional footballer and played for Serie C clubs such as Entella, Spezia, Viareggio and Empoli, finally quitting the game to be head coach at Empoli, who were then in the third tier of Italian football. He led them to the top flight after two consecutive promotions in 1995/96 and 1996/97.

For several years he moved from club to club, bossing Sampdoria for a year, in two different spells, moving onto Venezia for 18 fairly terrible months, then to Udinese for a dreadful three-month spell. Next up for Spalletti was a six-month tenure at Udinese for a 40% win rate before moving back to Udinese. This was odd in itself as his 11-game first spell had produced just two wins and an 18% win rate.

But he turned things around in the next three seasons, pulling them from 14th up to sixth, seventh and in 2004/05, fourth place in Serie A and a Champions League place, thanks to 21 goals from David Di Michele.

This performance with an unfancied club got him the gig at Roma, who he managed for 224 games across over four years. He used Francesco Totti as a false nine back when no-one had really heard of the false nine (even though Uruguay had probably used it in the 1930s) and others such as Pep Guardiola would be wrongly acclaimed for inventing it.

He achieved three consecutive second-place finishes at Roma, won the Coppa Italia twice and the Supercoppa once. Along the way he broke the record for consecutive wins, notching 11 in February 2006. He won consecutive Serie A ‘Coach Of The Year’ awards in 2006/07 and 2007/08. Totti scored a remarkable 32 goals in 2006/07.

However, after finishing sixth in 2008/09 and a poor start to the next season, he resigned.

His next gig was at the newly minted Zenit St Petersburg. He was there for three-and-a-half years, 184 games and 57% win rate, winning two league titles and two cups. But as he’d not won anything for three seasons, he was sacked. He took 20 months out, then returned to Roma for 198 months, got them to third and second, managed Edin Džeko to 39 goals, and qualified for the Champions League. It was his thankless task to effectively retire the superhero, Totti – something he did was no little deft and grace.

His next job was at Inter Milan in June 2017 for two seasons and two fourth-placed finishes. But it wasn’t a happy marriage, the club wanted Antonio Conte to come in and look like an angry gnome, so Luciano split in summer of 2019 and took two years out before taking over Napoli. Last year they finished third.

This wasn’t good enough for Napoli’s ultras who wanted him sacked, so much so that when his Fiat Panda was stolen, they said they would get it back if he promised to resign. They felt that having led the league for part of the season, they had fallen away to third and wanted someone to blame. I bet they’re glad he didn’t now as this season they’ve played 11 league games, won nine and drawn two.

The fact is, while others have been hailed as heroes, he has been Italy’s nearly manager, never winning Serie A but finishing second and third many times. Will this be his year to scoop the title? Some are wondering if Napoli will be a good bet for the Champions League and their ‘sprezzatura’ style has yet to suggest that is especially unlikely.

 

Why the love?
James Horncastle, Italian football’s long hair, has said of our man, “Luciano Spalletti is one of the influential, innovative, counter-cultural coaches that Serie A has produced in the past 15 years, and we are belatedly getting some recognition as to what a fine strategist he is.”

Presumably his career in football management has left him with a healthy bank balance which makes his choice to drive a Fiat Panda all the more endearing. Proof that the coolest people are never the people who try to be cool. He also has a huge football shirt collection and the aforementioned pet duck. He could easily have been Chelsea manager, as Roman Abramovich talked to him about it while he was at Roma, but he didn’t feel he was ready to do it as he speaka-no-English.

His Napoli team this year is one of the best to watch in Europe playing an expansive zippy, wide sort of a game with Georgian Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who arrived from FC Dinamo Batumi this summer for €10-12 million, leading the way with seven goals and eight assists.

Kim Min-jae, signed from Fenerbahce for €18 million to replace Kalidou Koulibaly, has started very well. Giacomo Raspadori was brought in on loan from Sassuolo and is playing superbly well with five goals so far. The whole team is playing to a well-designed plan.

Guillem Balague has said Napoli are “a team that plays to an idea, everybody thinks the same way, it doesn’t reinforce individual talent, you all have to think one way – run after the ball, counter attack, but six stay behind the ball – things that don’t make you shine personally but benefit the team.”

And Spalletti himself is endearing himself to lovers of European football by playing up to the camera pitchside, making all sorts of hand gestures and also by wearing what appears to be some sort of space-age shell suit, which for a 63-year-old man, is quite a distinctive look which evokes thought of the competitive granddad shouting at his grand kids playing football for the school.

 

Three great moments
Some of his cryptic hand gestures.

His Napoli side thrash Ajax

Rangers brushed aside.

 

Future days?
His current contract ends next summer and it seems likely he’ll get some sort of extension offered if this top form continues. Obviously, injuries may take their toll and you do wonder if Napoli have the depth of quality in their squad to cope if they do. They haven’t won the title since 1990 in the Maradona years and he is their best chance of doing so.

He’s so nearly won Serie A so many times, most neutrals will be rooting for him to do so this campaign, not least because Napoli are such a fantastic side to watch and are playing with style and panache and that is down to Luciano Spalletti.

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