January 17, 2014 12:01 pm

Interview: Carlo Ancelotti

The manager of Real Madrid talks about handling the pressure, the players and the demanding billionaire owners
Carlo Ancelotti©Ben Roberts

Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, photographed at the team’s training ground in Valdebebas

“I have a lot of power,” grins Carlo Ancelotti, manager of Real Madrid. “Here I can decide: training at six in the morning! Training 11 in the night! But my style is not to impose. I would like to convince the players of what they are doing. This takes more time.”

We are sitting in the coaches’ office at Madrid’s spiffy new training ground, just north of the city. The Italian, his chubby frame bulging out of a bright blue Madrid tracksuit, is puffing on a cigarette, confident that the club president isn’t about to walk in and catch him smoking, as happened at a previous club. Florentino Pérez, Madrid’s president, mostly leaves his head coach alone. Ancelotti landed in Spain last summer, his fourth country in four years after jobs at AC Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain. Though he’s much lower-profile than peers such as José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger, Ancelotti has won football’s biggest prizes. Now his task is to win Madrid the Champions League, its record 10th – the mythical la decima. There is nobody better than this international crisis manager to explain how to handle superstar players (currently Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale), difficult club presidents (previously Silvio Berlusconi and Roman Abramovich) and hysterical media. Here are the management secrets of a nice guy.

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Simon Kuper

To gather them, I have got a lift from Madrid’s airport with Paul Clement, Ancelotti’s assistant manager. The burly English former gym teacher met the Italian at Chelsea, and is tipped for a solo managerial career soon. Clement’s car purrs through the soft winter sunshine to the training ground, where even on this quiet afternoon a couple of dozen journalists, television cameras and autograph hunters are waiting by the gate for something to happen.

Yet inside the training ground of the world’s richest club, life feels tranquil. Everything possible has been done to keep the hysteria outside the gate. Clement parks opposite a gleaming white Batmobile-like sports car belonging to Bale, the Welshman whom Real bought from Tottenham Hotspur last summer for a world-record fee of more than £85m.

The main building is almost empty. In the coaches’ room, Ancelotti’s son Davide, a polite, slender young man who works on his father’s staff, is reading the pink Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. The surrounding hillsides have gone a wintry brown but outside the window of the coaches’ room a dozen groundsmen are tending Real’s impossibly green practice field. Ancelotti keeps his staff happy: the previous evening, he took 50 colleagues to the Basque restaurant Mesón Txistu and picked up the bill himself.

Today Ancelotti distributes excellent espressos, sits down and lights up. His mobile phone vibrates frequently but he ignores it. Talking slowly in his serviceable English, sometimes doodling with a green pen, he exudes an unhurried calm.

“Carletto”, the farmer’s son from Emilia-Romagna, has spent his adult life in pressurised environments. A canny midfielder in Italian football, he learnt leadership from his coaches, notably the Swede Nils Liedholm, who managed him at AS Roma in the 1980s. “When we played in the north, we wouldn’t go by plane, because he was afraid of flying,” says Ancelotti. “We took a train, from Rome to Milan. The train left Rome at midnight. But Liedholm went to bed early! So he would get on the train at 9.30pm and go to sleep at 10. The players would get on at midnight and not sleep. The worst preparation!” On match day the team would get to the stadium hours early and hang around the changing room. To relax the players, Liedholm would get Roma’s doctors to tell jokes. Later, as coach, Ancelotti usually did the pre-match jokes himself – even before Champions League finals. He knows a truth about top-level football: most players don’t need to be motivated. They need to be calmed down.

From Liedholm he learnt how to treat players as adults. Other coaches taught him how not to do it. Ancelotti remembers: “I had managers who said, ‘You have to do this because I tell you to.’ I didn’t understand this. I cannot be – come si dice? – authoritarian.”

In 1987, when Ancelotti was 28, already with ruined knees, Milan’s coach Arrigo Sacchi brought him north. Sacchi saw him as an on-field “conductor of the orchestra”, a midfielder without pace or exceptional skill but with a football brain. “Usually the most intelligent player is a midfielder,” Ancelotti says, and lists the cleverest he has managed. “I could say [Andrea] Pirlo, I could say Xabi Alonso, Thiago Motta, Didier Deschamps. All midfielders.”

Ancelotti provided much of the intelligence of the “Grande Milan” that won two European Cups playing perfectly orchestrated attacking football. When he entered coaching in 1992, he was a believer in Sacchi’s 4-4-2 formation. He says: “In my experience, it was the only way to play football.”

Nils Liedholm©PA

The joker: Ancelotti learnt the value of pre-match jokes from AS Roma coach Nils Liedholm

He became Sacchi’s assistant manager with Italy’s national team, then joined Reggiana in his home region. Though the club was tiny, he initially found the stress of management almost unbearable. “I said at the end of the first year, ‘I do this three or four years, and after this, holiday.’” Chuckling, he quotes Liedholm: “The coach has the best job in the world, with the exception of the matches.” But gradually Ancelotti learnt to live with the pressure, to the point where he now claims: “My ass is earthquake-proof.” The knowledge that he can be sacked any day no longer eats at him. Nowadays he even enjoys matches.

After Reggiana he coached Parma. There he had the chance to sign the “divine ponytail” Roberto Baggio. But Baggio wanted the role of playmaker, or “number 10” – a position that didn’t exist in Sacchi’s system. Ancelotti recalls, “I said, ‘No, you have to play striker.’ Baggio went to another club. That year Baggio scored 25 [actually 22] goals – for Bologna! I lost 25 goals! Big mistake.” The incident changed Ancelotti’s thinking: no system, he decided, was more important than the players. He became adaptable by conviction.

He joined Juventus, and then Milan. Managing Berlusconi’s club entails managing Berlusconi. Ancelotti – who in his autobiography jocularly calls Berlusconi “He” with a capital H – did this masterfully. He grasped the key fact: since Berlusconi owned Milan, the coach’s job was to please Berlusconi. Ancelotti says: “The tradition at Milan is to play a good style of football – differently from Juventus, where the most important thing is to win. When Berlusconi bought Milan, it was this.” Accordingly, Ancelotti constructed a very attacking line-up. “This was the only reason to play Pirlo, Seedorf, Rui Costa, Kaká, Shevchenko at the same time.” Here was another discovery: no system is more important than the club president.

Many managers tolerate no intrusion from their chairmen but Ancelotti let Berlusconi tell the jokes in the changing room. Before Milan played Juventus in the Champions League final of 2003, Ancelotti even allowed Italy’s then prime minister to sit in on his team talk.

Carlo Ancelotti©Contrasto/Eyevine

Ancelotti the player: a midfielder with a football brain

“I handed out sheets of paper with the formation and the plays,” wrote Ancelotti in his autobiography. “He wanted copies for himself. (Later I saw them published in a book by Bruno Vespa; the chairman passed them off as his own…).” Ancelotti recounts all this with humour but indulging Berlusconi was an essential career move. Better yet, Milan beat Juve on penalties. Ancelotti became one of just six men to win the Champions League as both manager and player.

. . .

In 2005, in Istanbul, he lost the trophy to Liverpool in an unforgettable final. Milan led 3-0 at half-time, then conceded three goals and lost on penalties. Yet later that night, a relaxed Ancelotti could be seen sitting in the hotel bar, chatting cheerily with acquaintances about the sights of Istanbul. He’d done his work. Now he was off duty. Looking back, he says: “The team had done the maximum to win this game. So I couldn’t be angry. I think this was destiny.” Anyway, he adds, “Football is the most important of the less important things in the world.”

He says he has no regrets about Istanbul: “What can you do when in six minutes they score three times? It’s impossible to change something, because there is no time. I was a manager for 800 games in my career. If I had to choose two games that my team played really, really well, it would be this game. Another was the semi-final in 2007 against Manchester United.”

The smartest guys on the pitch

‘Usually the most intelligent player is a midfielder. I could say [Andrea] Pirlo, I could say Xabi Alonso, Thiago Motta, Didier Deschamps. All midfielders’

In 2007, after Milan had reached the final again, Milan’s squad gathered around a big screen at their training ground to cheer on Liverpool in the other semi-final against Chelsea. “We were shouting and howling against Chelsea,” says his autobiography. “Liverpool team hats and toy trumpets were pulled out at one point.”

The cheering worked. Liverpool beat Chelsea, and in the final in Athens, Milan got their revenge for Istanbul, winning 2-1. Afterwards Ancelotti and the players told jokes all night, trying to fix the victory in their minds forever.

At multinational Milan, Ancelotti learnt to coach players from everywhere. Once he had to brief his squad on a practical joke being prepared at the expense of newcomer Mathieu Flamini. “First you tell the Italians, in Italian,” he recalls, “then you tell the Brazilians, in pseudo-Italian, and then you tell Beckham, with grunts and gestures.” (Like most Ancelotti jokes, this one is told fondly: Beckham is a friend.)

The cross-cultural skills would come in handy. Ancelotti had dreamt of staying at Milan for ever but Berlusconi reduced funding, the team declined and in 2009 Ancelotti joined the exodus of highly skilled Italians fleeing a bad economy. Chelsea’s owner Abramovich had hired his combination of people skills and tactical nous.

Ancelotti remembers: “The first time I met Roman Abramovich he said, ‘When I see Chelsea, I don’t recognise it is Chelsea – the identity, the style of play.’” Ancelotti’s job was to give the team an identity. In London, he says, “The only problem was the language. Difficult to speak, difficult to show emotion. But the team was organised.” Chelsea won the Premier League in 2010 and then went into the FA Cup final against Portsmouth aiming for the league-and-cup “double” – a feat the club had never achieved.

. . .

Before the final, Ancelotti did something unusual: after naming the starting 11, he asked them to decide the match strategy themselves. He recalls: “Everyone said one thing. For example, [goalkeeper Petr] Cech said, ‘You have to control the space behind, to avoid the counter-attack.’ That season we played 60 games, and 60 times I made the strategy. So I think the players understood very well what they had to do.”

Roberto Baggio©Getty

Mistakes: At Parma, Roberto Baggio wanted the role of playmaker. “I said, ‘No, you have to play striker.’ Big mistake!” Baggio went on to be a top goal-scorer for rivals Bologna

Still, why try something so risky before a crucial match? “I was sure the players followed the strategy, because they made the strategy. Sometimes I make the strategy, but you don’t know if the players really understand. Sometimes I joke with the players: ‘Did you understand the strategy?’ ‘Yes, yes!’ ‘Repeat, please!’” Chelsea beat Portsmouth 1-0 to complete the double.

Ancelotti has often contrasted his own flexibility on tactics, his lack of ego and his chilled manner with a manager who could be the anti-Ancelotti: Mourinho. When Ancelotti’s Chelsea played Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010, Ancelotti reports in his autobiography, “We met in a corridor at the San Siro [stadium] and we made a pact: no more bickering, no more controversy. Six words, a handshake, and in 10 seconds we had an understanding.” After Chelsea won the English league, Mourinho texted Ancelotti: “Champagne.” After Inter won the Italian league, Ancelotti texted back: “Champagne, but not too much.” Nonetheless, Ancelotti’s autobiography ironically invokes Mourinho as “the Great Communicator, He who Knows, the Lord of the Press Conference, the Immense Provocateur, the Special Coach” etc. This, by contrast, is his self-description: “Here comes the fat boy with a bowlful of Emilian tortellini.”

No manager lasts long at Chelsea. In 2011 Paris Saint-Germain’s new Qatari owners lured Ancelotti to France. There he encountered a new set of national peculiarities. He says: “The problem of the English player – sometimes it’s difficult for them to understand that they don’t have to work 100 per cent in training. There are some training sessions where it’s important not to work 100 per cent. The French don’t understand why they have to work 100 per cent every day.”

Paris wasn’t professional enough. “PSG was a good experience because it was the first time in my experience to build something new. It’s different to arrive at Chelsea or Real Madrid, where you have already a good organisation of the club, a good team. At PSG you have to build everything from a low, low level,” and he rubs his hand over the table to indicate ground zero. Some past club executives have accused him of being lax with players but in Paris, Ancelotti was interventionist.

David Beckham©Getty

The language barrier: 'First you tell the Italians, in Italian, then you tell the Brazilians, in pseudo-Italian, and then you tell Beckham, with grunts and gestures'

The team was divided into ethnic factions. “We had the South Americans, the French, the Italians,” he says. “The relationship is not easy. The South Americans like to play with each other. The Italians the same. The players were not used to having a winning mentality. Training was at 11am usually. The players were used to coming at 10.30am, training – and at 12.30pm, 1pm, to leave the training ground. To change this was not easy, to tell them: ‘You have to stay after training, to eat properly, to drink properly, to rest.’ You cannot miss one day. It was important to have [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, the best player with good professionalism. He was a model for others to follow in training sessions, because he concentrated every time. We took six months to have results.” In 2013, PSG became French champions for the first time since 1994.

Almost immediately, Ancelotti was off to Madrid. In the small world of top-class football, Pérez had been greeting him for years with the words: “Carlo, someday you will be my coach.” In 2006, Ancelotti had even signed a contract with Madrid but Milan hadn’t let him go. Last summer the time came. Madrid needed an antidote to Mourinho. The Portuguese had coached Real for three years, imposing his characteristic defensive football and trying to crush uppity players.

Abiding by the San Siro pact, Ancelotti will not criticise Mourinho but he does say of his own task at Madrid: “The goal is to play football a little bit differently, because the culture of this club is to play” – he blows out his cheeks, searches for the right word – “spectacular football. The supporters here are exigent. They don’t like to see counter-attack. They like to see a team that has control of the game, with possession. We are trying to follow the history, the tradition of the club.”

One thing that makes Ancelotti attractive to big clubs is that in a profession dominated by big egos, he is happy to adapt to his surroundings. In each new country, he looks for little differences. “In England, in general, teams have less tactical skills defensively,” he says. “In France, the teams are hard, physically, because there are a lot of African players. And in Spain, teams have the pleasure to play football. You have to adapt your methodology to these differences.”

Adapting when moving countries sounds obvious but many players and managers cannot do it. “It’s not easy,” says Ancelotti, “above all for players that leave England. I think of Ian Rush, Michael Owen.” The Welsh striker Rush returned from a bad year in Italy in 1988 complaining, “It was like another country.” Likewise, Owen left Real Madrid after a year, homesick for English food and weather.

Gareth Bale©Getty

The £85m man: Welshman Gareth Bale, Madrid’s recent record-breaking signing, is adapting well. “He is a humble man,” says Ancelotti

So how is Gareth Bale adapting to Madrid? “Bale didn’t have a lot of problems, because he is a humble man, not very demanding. He doesn’t want too much.” Can he speak any Spanish? “He is starting to speak. My job is to help him be comfortable on the pitch, comfortable with teammates. We have a lot of players that speak English.”

One of them is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese is Madrid’s best player but hardly an easy-going guy. Ronaldo wants Madrid to play the way he wants. How does Ancelotti manage such a big talent? “For me, it’s managing people. Managing Ronaldo is the same for me as managing Carvajal or Morata [two of Madrid’s more junior players].” In fact, says Ancelotti, superstars tend to be easier to manage because “usually they are more professional than the others. Ronaldo is really professional.” Ancelotti blows out his cheeks in admiration. He’s thankful not to have to police his star. “I don’t like to control the private life of the player, because I’m not the father, I’m not the brother.”

Footballers are much more professional nowadays, Ancelotti says, than when he played in the 1980s. The average player today “controls more his private life, his style of life”. And the average player today eats less pasta. Under Liedholm at Roma, Ancelotti marvels, “We arrived at the hotel before a match and everyone could choose from the menu! There was no diet. When I played, the feedback was: the best training was, the day afterwards you wake up with pain in your legs. If you were not able to go upstairs, it means that was fantastic training!” He guffaws. Nowadays players wear GPS devices in training, and physical trainers calibrate the right workload for each player day by day.

Today’s disciplined professionals don’t engage in power struggles with managers, says Ancelotti. Has he ever had a player he couldn’t work with? “No.” Or a player who couldn’t work with him? “No.” He puffs on his cigarette. Madrid’s players are obedient, and smart enough to adapt even if he changes formation mid-match: “When you manage top players, they understand quickly.” Xabi Alonso in particular is practically a coach on the field.

Madrid have wonderful players, and the highest revenues of any club in any sport in history (€521m last year). So why haven’t they won the Champions League since 2002? Ancelotti dodges the issue with another chuckle: “I don’t know. This is a question even the club is asking itself. In 10 years they didn’t reach the final. This is a little bit strange. But they played three semi-finals in a row. This is not bad.”

Ancelloti with Silvio Berlusconi©AFP

The president problem: There is no one better than this international crisis manager to explain how to handle difficult club owners such as Roman Abramovich and Silvio Berlusconi

To make Madrid’s wait even more irksome, Real’s next Champions League would be its record 10th. Ancelotti is tasked with delivering la decima, starting with the round-of-16 encounter with Schalke of Germany next month. Oh, and Real must also win the Spanish league, in which they currently stand third. How does Ancelotti cope with the daily pressure? “Because I have experience of this world… I’m not so depressed when the result is not good, I am not so happy when results are good. I don’t feel there is a lot of pressure on my shoulders because I love this job. The pressure on a manager is normal.” Then he walks me to reception and arranges my taxi.

One of his predecessors in Madrid’s hot seat, the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, whom Ancelotti resembles in girth and tranquillity, once explained how any manager in Spain should deal with the inevitability of being fired. “Finiquito” is what Spaniards call it. In Hiddink’s telling: “Being sacked isn’t considered a disgrace here. It goes like this: you’re called in to see the club president. ‘Mister,’ he says, ‘mister, it’s better if you don’t continue.’ He hugs you, and says, ‘Go see the treasurer tomorrow.’ The next day you go see the treasurer, you get your cheque, you go to the corner of the street and you’re given a suitcase full of money. Boom, done in one go. In Spain you’re killed romantically.”

No doubt Ancelotti will eventually experience finiquito – perhaps after winning la decima, more likely before. He won’t treat it as a disgrace. It will be just another anecdote to serve up to old friends over tortellini one evening in Emilia-Romagna. Then he’ll get another top job, because few other leading managers are internationally adaptable nice guys who can rub along with everyone from Ronaldo to Berlusconi.

. . .

Ancelotti: The career

Reggiana 1995-96: Begins his club coaching career

Parma 1996-98: Returns to the club as manager, having played there in the late 1970s

Juventus 1999-2001: His sacking is announced halfway through the last league game of the 2001 season

Milan 2001-09: Becomes one of only six people to have lifted the European Champions Cup as both player and manager

Chelsea 2009-11: Completes ‘the double’, winning the Premier League and the FA Cup

Paris Saint-Germain 2011-13: Wins the French League

Real Madrid 2013-

. . .

Ronaldo©Getty

Star players:‘I don’t like to control the life of the player, because I’m not the father, I'm not the brother’

The method

Mike Forde was Chelsea’s director of football operations when Ancelotti coached the club from 2009 to 2011.

Here is his analysis of Ancelotti’s leadership style:

● The Italian, says Forde, practises “servant leadership” – he gives people a say in designing the strategy and vision. That gives them a stake in the process and increases their commitment to him.

● Ancelotti can listen. He stays “in the moment” with people. Forde says: “No interruptions, no outbursts, just a very calm and considered guy. People enjoy talking with him and therefore feel comfortable volunteering personal information about themselves.” This helps him manage them with less conflict.

● Ancelotti takes the situation seriously but not himself, says Forde. By not showing the pressure he is under, he protects others from stress.

● Many leading coaches have well-tried operating models that have brought them success. They are accordingly reluctant to change methods. Ancelotti has remained humble and curious enough to keep adapting and learning.

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A shorter version of this article will appear in Performance magazine, published by Leaders in Performance.

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