A more imposing figure than Francesco Rocca would be hard to conjure up, with his stern glare, bald pate and bow legs. The coach of the Italian U-17 side is a passionate man, a man who loves his football and his dedication to the game is plain for all to see. A little too plain sometimes perhaps, for his critics would say that this singular man makes unreasonable demands on his players. But therein lies the secret to his success.
"Sport is a school of life for youngsters, you must never forget that," he says. "And what are the most important things in life? Discipline, respect for others and good behaviour. That's what I teach my players. They know that if they don't fit the profile, they won't be part of my plans." The message could hardly be clearer.
A native of San Vito Romano near Rome, Rocca himself had a troubled career as a player. At the age of 18, he joined Roma, and his principal strengths were being able to run fast and for long periods of time - so fast and for so long, in fact, that his team-mates dubbed him 'Kawasaki'. Then, in 1974, he earned a call-up to the squadra azzurra as the national side was attempting to rebuild following their disastrous showing at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
The youngster won 18 caps in a row and was emerging as a fixture in the new-look team when he picked up a slight knee injury. The doctors advised him to stop playing for a while, but his insatiable thirst for the game was too strong. Unfortunately, disaster struck soon afterwards as he caught his foot in a hole during training. Ruptured ligaments was the diagnosis this time around, and Rocca never really recovered. Eight operations and five years later, he was forced to call time on his playing days at the age of 27.
"Passing on my experiences as a player"
"What I love about being a coach is passing on my experiences as a player," he explains, having successfully made the transition. "I was a player so I know what they're going through. If I can stop them from making the same mistakes I did, that's all I can ask for." With that goal in mind, Rocca approaches his task by adopting the toughest of stances, refusing to indulge his players in any way. His is an uncompromising approach, and it has earned him a fair amount of censure in the past. "A lot of people in Italy think I'm too severe," he says. "But I am how I am and I'm not going to change. For me, discipline is the key. That's just the way it is."
His philosophy does not end there, however, and nor could it for a man with such experience in the dugout. A coach with the Italian Federation since 1983, he has overseen youth sides of all age groups in his time. Added to that, he was assistant to Azeglio Vicini and then Arrigo Sacchi at the 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cups respectively, before shadowing Dino Zoff at UEFA Euro 2000. He has had time to watch football evolve, and he has a keen eye for the sport that so inspires him: "our youth teams now struggle in World Championships for one, simple reason: in physical terms, we're lagging behind other sides. So, I now centre my selection policy and preparation around physique."
He is not afraid to stand or fall with his theories either, combining his role as head coach of the Azzurrini with that of goalkeeping coach and fitness instructor. "That way, if we have bad results I take all the blame," he says, laughing.
Against Côte d'Ivoire, Rocca's starting eleven were highly impressive with an average height of 1.84m and an average weight of 74kg, and his forward line of 'shaven-headed giants' stood out in particular. Christian Tiboni and Salvatore Foti, two towering characters each measuring around 1.90m, combined perfectly to control the aerial game but also to wear the Ivorians' defenders down. "It's the first time I've tried that system and it worked very well," he declared after the 3-2 victory. "Physically, we lasted for the whole game and without doubt that made the difference in the end. The Ivorians were very strong technically and very athletic as well, but our hard work on the basics paid off."
Bulldozing strike duo
On the other side of the coin, diminutive creator and excellent technical player Andrea Russotto had to make way to accommodate Rocca's bulldozing strike duo. Starting on the bench, he came on at half-time… only to be hauled off again by his coach a quarter of an hour from the final whistle. The playmaker from Treviso was absolutely furious, and he made no effort to hide his anger. "Russotto is a very good player, but some days he is great and other days he is out of sorts. Today was one of those days. He failed to get to grips with the match," Rocca explained afterwards.
Always in search of perfection, however, the victorious coach was far from completely satisfied with his team's performance: "we suffered badly with just three in defence at the start, so we switched to four and that worked better. But we're in a very physical group and we're going to be put under pressure again by the USA." It is an attitude he seems to have instilled in his players, and even Foti, scorer of the winning goal, refused to get too carried away. "Of course this was an important victory, but we have to be tighter in defence," he stated. "It's not normal to concede three goals and we'll have to be a lot more concentrated at the back against the Americans."
Tough, ruthless and cautious though he may be, Rocca remains a man like any other and knows how to enjoy himself. "Naturally, I'm going to study how the Americans play but for now I'm going to savour this moment," he insisted, with a smile that bordered on the sarcastic - no doubt because he knew no one would believe him. And, true, few would be surprised if he was hiding a video of their set-pieces behind his back as he said it.