A midfielder with AC Milan during the glory days of the late 1980s and early '90s, Roberto Donadoni called time on his 18-season playing career in 2001. Since then he has been successfully devoting his energies to coaching, spending two years at the helm of Italy’s national team and the last two in charge of Parma.
Still only 50, Donadoni is passionate about the task of passing on his vast experience to the young players under him, a facet of his tenure at Parma, a club that has been in the doldrums since their 1990s heyday but are currently enjoying something of a renaissance with Il Dona.
A member of the Italy side that finished runners-up at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, Donadoni is not the kind of person who gets carried away too easily. However, if he manages he steer I Gialloblù back into Europe, he might find it hard to play down the plaudits. FIFA.com spoke to him about that exciting prospect and more in an exclusive interview
FIFA.com: Let’s talk about Roberto Donadoni the player first of all, of whom Michel Platini once said: ‘He is the greatest Italian player of the 1990s’. Is that an exaggeration?
Roberto Donadoni: I was obviously very happy to hear that, but it’s always been very simple for me: I was always a team player. I tried to help my team-mates while playing to the best of my potential.
You were born in Lombardy and you spent most of your playing career at AC Milan. Is the club an important part of what you have become today?
No question. I’ve been a Rossoneri fan for as long as I can remember, and even when I played for Atalanta later in my career I was still supporting AC Milan. The years I spent with Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello were essential to my career as a player. Both of them taught me so much. I try to play the same role today, passing on the same messages to the players I coach.
You won virtually everything there was to win with AC Milan. What is your happiest memory of those prosperous times?
The first European Cup win in 1989 is what comes to mind straightaway. That was my first major title, the first big adventure of my career. It wasn’t just the trophies, though. What stands out most of all are the memories and the rapport I had with my team-mates at the time. In those days Milan dominated Italian football and their best players played for Italy too, as you might expect. The understanding was already there. It’s a little like Spain today with the Barcelona players.
You hung up your boots at the end of the 1999/2000 season and made your debut in the dugout with Lecco in 2001. Why did you make the move into coaching, and why so quickly?
It was my wife who talked me into it. When I decided to stop playing, all I wanted to do was have a bit of time to myself and just relax. But after a while my wife asked me, ‘Why don’t you try and get your coaching certificate?’ I took her advice and the opportunity to coach Lecco came up when I was about to finish my course. The club’s directors offered me the job and I accepted it straightaway, even though Lecco were in Serie C at the time. I said to myself that it was the best way to find out if I was cut out for coaching and I enjoyed it right from the start. It was nice to be involved again, and it was a pleasure to work with youngsters who were keen to learn things from me.
A lot of your former team-mates have gone on to become successful coaches themselves. How would you explain that?
It definitely helps when you know the ins and outs of the sport and you’ve got an international career under your belt. If you ask me, all of my ex-team-mates have a little bit more than most coaches: they’ve got experience, they automatically inspire respect and they get their message across more quickly. I think that’s the key to the success they’ve had.
Paolo Maldini is one former colleague who has yet to follow you into coaching...
Paolo hasn’t made that decision so far, though I know that he’s keen to get back into the dressing room and get involved again. I don’t know if he wants to go into coaching but I’m sure he has a lot to give to football.
You took on the Italy job in July 2006, just after Marcello Lippi had led the team to the world title. Do you think you were ready for the task or did it come too soon?
It certainly came about quickly, but I didn’t become head coach of the national team just like that. I’d already worked for a few clubs. It really was a great privilege, and the start of a great adventure that means an awful lot in my career. We qualified for EURO 2008 before being beaten on penalties by Spain in the quarter-finals. It was an important and positive phase in my career for me, and when I left La Nazionale they were still second in the FIFA Ranking, which shows that it was a job done well.
What was your relationship like with the players?
When I took over there were still some players in the side whom I’d played with. I think that made it easier for me to shape the team and build up a good relationship with the players from the off. I get quite emotional when I think about that whole period because I was charge of my country’s team. I’m very proud to have had that opportunity.
You brought experienced players like Massimo Ambrosini, Antonio Di Natale and Christian Panucci back into the fold, and you also launched the international careers of Giorgio Chiellini, Alberto Aquilani and Fabio Quagliarella. How did you go about the job of detecting promising young players?
I think that when you’ve played at the highest level you acquire a special insight into people, which allows us to find that little bit extra. After all, anyone can make players run around and teach the basics. Experience plays an important part on a human and a psychological level, but what really makes the difference is the ability to let young players develop their personality.
What is your view of the changes taking place in Italian football, with several clubs and the national team itself playing a more attacking type of game?
I think it’s really great to see. I know Cesare Prandelli well, having played alongside him at Atalanta. He has a huge amount of experience and I share his vision of football. It’s a vision that’s helped him get good results. Obviously it’s not easy to create a positive mindset. It takes time. I don’t think every club has taken it on board yet, but I’m sure it’s going to happen.
Cesare Prandelli has called up two Parma players in Marco Parolo and Gabriel Paletta. Do you also see that as a success?
It’s a source of satisfaction for everyone at the club, and for them especially. Like I said, I try to pass on everything I learned in my time as a footballer to my young players, and when I see people getting the call to play for the national team it gives me even more energy and strength.
Are Parma on the point of getting back to where they were in the 1990s?
No. I don’t think Parma can be as big as they were during their glory years. The club has invested a lot already, but you have to spend even more on the top, top players, who are getting more and more expensive.
Can you see Italy reaching the Final of Brazil 2014?
It could happen. Obviously it won’t be easy, but I think it’s possible. Italy have definitely got the potential and technical ability to go all the way. It’s all going to depend on the form the players are in at the end of a long season.