Tomorrow, 17 March, is not a date on which the Irish need any excuse to paint the town green. It is, after all, St Patrick's Day, arguably the most famous and unquestionably the most lustily celebrated of all the world's national holidays.
Yet at the same time as they are toasting the missionary who brought Christianity to their island, these emerald-clad revellers might also raise their glasses to another foreigner whose birthday coincides with their patron saint's feast day. Giovanni Trapattoni, who turns 70 tomorrow, has certainly done enough in his 10 months as Republic of Ireland coach to suggest that he remains well worth celebrating.
Under the veteran Italian, a Republic side beaten 5-2 by Cyprus during a disastrous UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying campaign have been remoulded so successfully that they currently share top spot in their FIFA World Cup™ preliminary section. The fact that their fellow group leaders happen to be Italy merely adds intrigue to the challenge facing a man whose 35 years in the dugout have yielded a haul of domestic and European trophies that only Sir Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein can match.
As he prepared to celebrate this landmark birthday, Trapattoni spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his views on football, his future in the game and the task of taking Republic of Ireland back to the FIFA World Cup.
FIFA.com: With four games played in Group 8, you are unbeaten and sit joint-top with Italy. Is it fair to say this was just the kind of start you were hoping for?
Giovanni Trapattoni: Yes, I have been very happy. The team has played extremely well and achieved some very important results in our early matches. Now my hope is that the players continue with the same spirit, mentality and attitude that has been so important to us so far.
Really, there has been a globalisation of football, and my view is that
it has been good for the game. If you look at football in Europe
especially, the standard is now very high,
What attracted you to Republic of Ireland, and is it a job you are enjoying?
I am enjoying it very much. I could have chosen another country but I felt that I had all the right circumstances here. Importantly, I also had Liam Brady (Trapattoni's assistant), a man I know and respect, and someone I knew could help me with the specific demands of coaching here. Furthermore, I know English football well and already had knowledge of many of the Irish players. What I saw in them is that their mentality is like mine: their heart is fantastic. I liked that immediately and I was sure that we would be able to work well together. When I first met the players, I told them they had to trust me because I had the experience to take the team forward. Fortunately, they accepted me with enthusiasm.
You have already managed clubs in Germany, Austria and Portugal, and now you are in charge of a foreign national team. Is there a unique challenge in coaching abroad?
I always respect the fact that, although I was brought up in the Italian way, every nation has its own mentality and culture. This has always been especially true in football. But over the past 10 years, I actually think football has changed a great deal in this respect. Now you have so many players moving to clubs outside their own country that nearly every dressing room has many, many cultures mixing together. Really, there has been a globalisation of football, and my view is that it has been good for the game. If you look at football in Europe especially, the standard is now very high, particularly in leagues like England and Spain. A lot of money has come into the game in these leagues and it has been used to combine all these different cultures in some exceptional teams.
You mention Liam Brady, who played under you at Juventus in the 1980s, and you have also added Marco Tardelli to your coaching staff. How important are these two men in achieving your goals?
For any coach, his assistants are always very, very important, and I am extremely fortunate to have two great champions here. Liam was captain of Ireland's national team for many years and played very well for me in Italy, and Marco, as everyone knows, is a world champion. It's important for the players to have men like that whom they can look up to. Liam has also been very important because he has been able to explain to the players certain small details about training and our tactical system better than I can at the moment.
Your fellow countryman Fabio Capello has also made an excellent start since taking charge of England. Do you feel Italian coaches have a special aptitude for this kind of job?
I think it's not so much that Italians have a particular talent, but rather the product of the experience Fabio and I have, especially our experience of coaching abroad. Fabio has been in charge at Real Madrid, one the biggest and most famous clubs in the world, and I have coached at clubs like Bayern and Benfica. In these jobs, you have to deal with many football cultures and that prepares you well for coaching a foreign national team. But I don't have all the answers of course. Experience only helps.
My sons and daughters are happy for me to continue. But my wife is
always asking me: 'When will you finish? When will you finish?'
With Luis Aragones winning EURO 2008 at 69 and Sir Alex Ferguson leading Manchester United to European and world titles, do you think the value of experience is now being fully appreciated?
I think it is true to say that experience is back in fashion right now. My view is that that football is a school - you never stop learning. Perhaps people like myself and Mr Ferguson have just spent a little longer at school than most!
What was the reaction of your friends back home when you were drawn against Italy in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers?
Oh, I had many, many people contacting me after that draw was made (laughs)! And they all told me the same: that it is not so important Ireland wins these games! Honestly though, I was very happy; I consider myself lucky to be facing Italy. It's an honour. It will be a strange situation for me because I am a proud Italian, but I am also a professional and very proud to be coach of the Irish national team, so it will be no problem. But I do expect that I will be a little emotional when the national anthems are played.
You are about to turn 70. The inevitable question is: will this be your last job in football?
Who knows? I'm a believer that you leave these things to God, and I have to thank Him for the fact that I am still healthy and motivated enough to continue working. Beyond the challenge of taking Ireland to South Africa, I have made no plans, so let's see what happens.
Are your family happy for you to keep on working?
Well, my sons and daughters are happy for me to continue. But my wife is always asking me: 'When will you finish? When will you finish?' I just tell her: 'In the future!' She is always trying to pull me away from football, but not with much success (laughs).
Finally, can we expect to see Giovanni Trapattoni and Republic of Ireland in South Africa next year?
I think we can make it but we will also need some luck, both in our matches and in terms of the fitness of our key players. I can't tell you for sure that we will be there I'm afraid, but I am confident.