Having accrued innumerable honours during his 47 years in football, it might be expected of Giovanni Trapattoni that he would be beginning to wind down. Not a bit of it. At 68, this most experienced and respected of coaches still has an insatiable thirst for the game, and is currently relishing the challenge of ensuring that ambitious Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg realise their lofty aspirations.
“I often wonder when I’ll quit football, but I still don’t have the answer,” explains the man who began his managerial career back in 1974 with AC Milan.
Ask him how he cultivates his youthful passion for the game year after year, and the veteran coach does not need a second thought: “By constantly trying to set new objectives and meet new challenges. It’s not just the idea of winning that excites me. It’s more about getting my team to play one-touch football and getting players to fulfil themselves in positions they didn’t start out in.”
The idea of winning certainly remains high on his list of priorities too, and with Lothar Matthaus as assistant he recently marked his first season in Austria by steering SV Red Bull Salzburg to the national title. Given that his current club are the richest in the country, some might be tempted to downplay the achievement, but Trapattoni rejects that idea out of hand. “It’s never easy,” he declares. “The team was completely overhauled, I was discovering a new culture and we had to build a squad. You try getting players from 13 different countries to get along!”
On the last point, legendary former goalkeeper Dino Zoff is in no doubt at all about the irrepressible 68-year-old’s credentials. “Trapattoni is the ideal coach for brining a squad together,” he commented, and he should know, having long served under the master during his playing days.
In Austria, Trapatonni did not take long to win over a whole new set of admirers. Still in great shape, he won instant respect by leading from the front during the team’s endurance and stretching exercises, and in the realm of tactics he once again proved himself to be one of the game’s great thinkers.
Settling on the best system for his new outfit, he distanced himself from the idea there is a magic formula that can be applied to every team. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to change formation down the years,” he says. “Most notably, I’ve gone through 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, not to mention 4-2-3-1 with the national side.
“You have to use your experience and know international football well to be able to blend into different cultures. You need to get acquainted with the language, food and habits of the country and, above all, never improvise in an attempt to get yourself accepted. Otherwise, you end up like a bull in a china shop.”
Trapattoni put his expertise to good use at Salzburg and wrapped the league up with relative comfort, thanks to a 20-point lead five matches before the end of the season. It was the club’s first domestic crown since 1996/97 and, for their well-travelled trainer, yet another addition to an already-impressive list of honours.
In a coaching career spanning 33 years, he has managed eight different teams (Juventus, Inter, Bayern Munich, Cagliari, Fiorentina, Benfica, Stuttgart and Salzburg) and clinched 23 trophies, including ten championship titles in four different countries. Aside from his recent Austrian conquest, seven of those league triumphs came in Italy (six with Juve, one with Inter), one was achieved in Germany with Bayern in 1997 and one in Portugal with Benfica in 2005.
That illustrious record puts Trapattoni third on the all-time European list alongside Austrian coach Ernst Happel, who also reached the summit in four separate championships (Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria).
Far from finished, he could yet catch Hungary’s Bela Guttmann, who secured titles in five countries (Hungary, Italy, Brazil, Portugal and Uruguay) and perhaps even the record-holder Tomislav Ivic of Croatia, a league winner in six (Yugoslavia, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Portugal and France).
Similarly, Trapattoni’s 23 trophies place him third on the podium of European coaches behind two Scots, Sir Alex Ferguson having claimed 33 and Jock Stein 26. Ukraine’s Valeri Lobanovsky also boasts 23, with Ottmar Hitzfeld of Germany close behind on 22.
In fact, Trapatonni’s only experience of failure came during his four-year spell with the Azzurri. Between 2000 and 2004, he contested 44 matches with the Italian national side, winning 25, drawing 12 and losing seven. Respectable figures perhaps, but the team fell frustratingly short in the two major tournaments they entered with Trapattoni in the dugout. Beaten in the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, they fared even worse at the UEFA European Championship two years later, bidding farewell to Portugal after the first round.
“I’ll never coach a team in Italy again, but the idea of trying a new experience in another country definitely tempts me,” asserts the man himself. “That said, here [at Salzburg] they are counting on me for the Champions League next season. It could be interesting to be get past the qualifying round and contest the group stage.” Already focusing on his next challenge, Giovanni Trapattoni shows no signs of losing his appetite for success.