Giannini: I set the bar high
© AFP

There are few players who have earned the kind of devotion that Giuseppe Giannini inspired among fans during his illustrious playing career. The personification of grace and elegance on the pitch, Il Principe scored 57 goals in 365 matches for Roma, Napoli and Lecce and won 47 caps for Italy, forming part of the side that finished third in hosting the 1990 FIFA World Cup™.

Since moving into coaching, Giannini has not enjoyed quite the same level of success as he had on the pitch, taking charge of a number of lower-league clubs in his native Italy before being appointed Lebanon boss in the wake of their elimination from the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifying competition.

Sitting down for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the 49-year-old spoke about his latest coaching job, his experiences on the international scene, the current state of Italian football and next year’s world finals.

FIFA.com: You enjoyed an exceptional career. Is there any achievement that stands out?
Giuseppe Giannini: There’s no doubt it has to be the 13 years I spent with Roma, my favourite team. Playing for Italy is also up there. I had the chance to rub shoulders with stars like [Roberto] Baggio, [Roberto] Mancini, [Gianluca] Vialli and [Roberto] Donadoni. It was a golden age for La Squadra Azzurra and I learned a lot from players like them.

You were nicknamed 'The Prince'. Who came up with it and what does it mean to you?
My Roma team-mate Chieri (Odoacre Chierico) called me that because of my elegant style of play. Paolo Roberto Falcao was playing for us in those days and his nickname was Il Divino. The nickname stuck for the rest of my career and I’ll always be associated with it. To be honest, I don’t like it that much because I’d rather keep my feet on the ground, but I’m proud of it all the same. Roman people like to pay tribute to players by giving them these nicknames and it’s something you see in society in general and in sport.

You took over from Carlo Ancelotti as Roma captain. How did you cope with the pressure?
I was only 24 at the time and Agostino di Bartolomei had won the league title with Roma before Ancelotti came along. I grew up in a wonderful footballing environment with all these stars at Roma and I made the most of it. I learned what responsibility meant, how to keep my cool and how to handle myself with the club’s directors and my team-mates.

Do you follow Roma these days? What do you think of the current team?
I only follow them when I’m in Italy because I don’t have the time when I’m in Beirut. The team’s stronger than it was last year, the players are more focused and you can sense they want to put last year’s mistakes behind them.

It was a painful defeat and very hard to swallow. It hurt because we were only a step away from the Final, after a month of battling our way through the competition.
Giannini on losing to Argentina in the Italy 1990 semi-finals

How do you think Serie A compares to Europe’s other major leagues? Which do you think is the most exciting?
In Italy, the title isn’t decided until the very end of the season and the competition’s tough, with quite a few teams in there, including the mid-table sides. Fiorentina have become contenders under Vincenzo Montella, and then you’ve got Roma and Lazio, as well as Inter, AC Milan, Juventus and Napoli, who are always there. In the other leagues the title is always between just two or three clubs. Real Madrid and Barcelona are dominant in Spain, though Atletico Madrid and Villarreal can cause them problems. It’s the same in England, where only Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea can win the championship.

Let’s talk about the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy. What memories do you have of it and how important was it for you to play in a tournament like that?
It was a fantastic experience. Our training camp was close to where I live, in Marino, and we played twice at the Stadio Olimpico. The Roman fans gave me a lot of encouragement and there was a huge amount of pressure on us too. There was a lot of passion wherever we went, but I was used to that.

Which match stands out for you?
(Laughs) The semi-final against Argentina in Naples obviously. It was a painful defeat and very hard to swallow. It hurt because we were only a step away from the Final, after a month of battling our way through the competition. You have to look on the bright side though. We finished third without losing a match in normal time, while Argentina went on to lose the Final.

What were the mistakes that stopped you reaching the Final?
We didn’t make any obvious errors in that match but we expended too much energy in the group phase. We won our first two games and we should have rested some players for the match against Czechoslovakia. We gave into the pressure, though, and sent out our first-choice players to try and win the game, a decision we paid for in the semi-final.

Franz Beckenbauer told us in a recent interview that Germany were happy to meet Argentina in the Final because Italy would have been tougher opponents. Is that the way you see it?
Absolutely. It’s never easy to play someone in their own backyard. We were well organised too and had a group of players who’d been together in the U-21s, like Mancini, Donadoni, Vialli, [Paolo] Maldini and [Fernando] Di Napoli. We really worked well as a unit. Germany would have had their work cut out.

Brazil host the FIFA World Cup next year and will start the tournament as favourites. From your own personal experience, what kind of pressure will they be under?
The host nation has to learn how to handle the pressure and turn it into something positive. The World Cup lasts for a month and you have to be completely focused the whole time to get results in games that are all very similar. Every home team starts off as favourites, but that’s not enough in itself. Brazil have got some great players who can take them to the Final.

Italy qualified for Brazil 2014 last week. How far do you think they can go in the finals?
There are four teams who are usually the favourites to win the World Cup: Italy, Argentina, Germany and Brazil, though there are a few other sides that can spring a surprise. The current Italy team has what it takes to do well and our players always rise to the occasion. To my mind the favourites are Brazil, Germany, Italy and the South American sides, such as Argentina. Spain have gone off the boil and are paying the price for the fantastic run they’ve had, winning the European title twice and the World Cup.

You’ve not been as successful a coach as you were a player. What do you put that down to?
When I retired I got away from football for a couple of years to recharge my batteries, and then I took some courses to get my coaching badges. I’ve had some good experiences and some not so good ones, but I’ve taken something from all of them. Where I’ve gone wrong is in not waiting for the right opportunity. I’ve had lots of offers and coached clubs in the lower divisions when I would have learned more by starting off as an assistant coach, just like Mancini and Ancelotti did. Some of those decisions were debatable but I still don’t regret anything.

How did the Lebanon job come about and what were your reasons for accepting it?
My friend Roberto Mancini put me in contact with one of his Lebanese friends. Then, over the winter I talked to the President of the Lebanese Football Association. I started finding out about the championship and the national team, and the amazing results they’d been getting played a big part in my decision. Football is becoming more and more popular in the region as a whole and the 2022 World Cup is going to be held in this part of the world, so I’ll need to brush up on my English (laughs).

What are your objectives?
I set the bar high as a coach, just as I did when I was a player. Our next game is against Kuwait in the Asian Cup qualifiers and it’s a very important match for us. I’m getting the team ready for the qualifying competition right now. They got some good results with Theo Bucker (Giannini’s predecessor in the post) and it’s not easy to change the way a team plays in such a short space of time. All the qualifiers matter to us but the double header against Kuwait in the next two months is absolutely vital. If we can win the first game in Beirut, it will set us up nicely for the return.

Quite a few Lebanese players are playing abroad now. What benefits does that have for the game here?
I hope we’ll see even more players go abroad in the future and that they’ll apply themselves and help their colleagues in Lebanon to develop. It should help them gain experience and improve their performance with the national side.

Having played for a big club and taken part in the FIFA World Cup, what do you try and get across to your players?
There are five of us in our coaching team and we’re working together to pass our experience on to the players and reach our objectives. Bucker did a good job before me and the results we’ve been getting up to now bode well for the future.