MILAN - "My father used to say that in life you need to be able to be happy with what you’ve got. I’ve always said that if I never eat more than one steak a day, what do I care about the whole cow?" This metaphor, offered in an interview with Gianni Mura in October 1997, says much about Luciano Spalletti’s sense of realism.
At that point, Spalletti was at the start of his coaching career, in charge of Empoli in Serie A just four years after the end of his playing career. Having taken over as interim coach at the Stadio Castellani, Spalletti saved Empoli from relegation to Serie C2 in 1994 before agreeing to coach the Allievi side. At the same time, Spalletti and his brother were running a sofa and bed company by the name of Trio. He would spend hours driving the truck around Vinci, before strapping on his football boots to teach football with authority and experience gleaned from his 20-year career in Serie C.
Spalletti was born in Certaldo, like the writer Giovanni Boccaccio, and grew up in Sovigliana, a neighbourhood of Vinci not far from Empoli. After he led Empoli from Serie C1 to Serie A in just two seasons, graffiti appeared around town proclaiming: "Sacchi plus Zeman equals Spalletti." Spalletti, unsure if he was even ready to coach in Italy’s top tier, was embarrassed. Yet he soon proved that he had what it takes. He honed his trade every day on the football field, combining relentless hard work with obsessive analysis – the kind of attention to detail that only the top coaches have.
On top of his skill and experience, one of Spalletti’s greatest assets is the way he is able to look at a player and quickly understand their strengths, weaknesses and everything in between. Spalletti is able to identify as-yet untapped areas of talent and encourage a player to explore them, promoting individual growth within wider, collective development. It is the group that benefits from individual improvement, after all. Inter’s new coach is not one of those managers wedded to a particular formation or system: Spalletti is more interested in timing, in the way defenders, midfielders and attackers move as one and move between each other, in players overlapping and covering. Spalletti takes an active role, developing and demanding his players’ talent.
Like many footballers, Spalletti grew up passionate about football. If he had had things his way, every single day of his childhood would have been spent with a ball on the improvised pitch behind Via Marconi in Sovigliana. But he grew up, shedding sweat on the provincial grounds of Serie C and learning that in order to achieve something in life, you must do two things: show respect for others and – above all – roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. It’s something Spalletti’s father Carlo taught him and something he has never forgotten.
As Udinese boss, between 2002 and 2005, Spalletti qualified for the UEFA Cup twice and the Champions League once, creating a team that none of the locals will ever forget. But it was his move to Roma that sealed his rise. No longer was he the young debutant unsure of his ability to make the step up to Serie A. In the capital, flanked by his ever-loyal, ever-present assistant Marco Domenichini, he won two Coppa Italias and one Italian Super Cup, while Inter dominated Serie A.
After a spell at ambitious Zenit, an experience which gave Spalletti international recognition, he returned to Roma, breaking several records in his second season before again bidding the Giallorossi goodbye.
The Tuscan coach is now considered one of the best in Europe and, for those that love the game, listening to him speak about football is a pleasure. No other manager, at least in Italy, is so succinct in their analysis and explanation of a game. It’s a clear sign that football runs through Spalletti’s veins.