Before leaving Juventus to take over the national side two years ago Marcello Lippi said that if he had not had a career in football he would have liked to have opened a pastry shop.

The image of Lippi dispensing dolce in his pretty home town of Viareggio on Italy’s west coast contrasts amusingly with his usual image as a tough-talking Tuscan. Friends admit he is brusque, detractors describe him as arrogant.

Lippi’s image as a bon viveur was highlighted recently by taped conversations in the current corruption trials when club officials compared him to Fabio Capello, his replacement at Juventus: “Fabio always talks about football and tactics,” they are overheard saying, “Lippi only ever talked about boats and women.”

In a troubled World Cup campaign Lippi has battled to isolate his charges from the enormous pressures washing over from back home, compounded by the shock of former Juventus player Gianluca Pessotto’s suicide attempt in Turin last week. Lippi’s passion for boats has provided rare light relief. The group-stage draw against USA prompted Italian newspapers to claim the silver-haired coach had already telephoned “his boatman to get the vessel ready for a sailing holiday”, reminiscent of the pessimistic “mamma, put the pasta on” jokes that plagued previous Azzurri expeditions.

The fact that the boat is still in dry dock owes as much to Lippi’s efforts off the pitch as to Fabio Grosso’s curving shot that finally beat Jens Lehmann and put out Germany in Tuesday’s pulsating semi-final in Dortmund.

“Lippi has been really great at keeping the squad united, pulling together against the background of all that’s been going on,” said former Italy player Sandro Mazzola this week.

Lippi has exploited the crisis at home – his son is under investigation for criminal offences – to consolidate an us-against-the-world atmosphere. Often impatiently interrupting journalists’ questions, he theatrically denounced the Italian media last week as “disgraceful”, then nonchalantly responded “calciopoli, what calciopoli?” (“football scandals, what football scandals?”) to sidestep foreign reporters’ claims that they were key in his building of his side’s esprit de corps.

Away from prying eyes, he has fronted down early discontent from top players, at different times axing both Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero, and issued a “put up or shut up” call on players discussing formations in public.

Of his 23-strong squad Lippi has used 21 players, only reserve keepers being left out. Eleven goals have been shared among 10 different players. “The coach has been really great at making us all feel equally important members of the squad,” said Marco Materazzi this week. Lippi showed unusual magnanimity: “I want to make a special mention of those members of the squad who have appeared less than others. Their approach and commitment in training and in general has been excellent.”

Lippi’s coaching career began with the youth team at Sampdoria, where he had been a moderate sweeper as a player, before moving on to coach a series of lower-division sides on his way to Napoli, whom he took into the Uefa Cup in 1993. Then began his romance with the Old Lady of Turin – Juventus. In eight years with the club – split by 15 months at Inter Milan and a season out of the game – he won eight Serie A scudetti and one Champions League trophy.

One match into his second season at Inter he angrily criticised the players’ performance. “They should be hung up on the coat pegs in the dressing room and given a good kick up the backside,” he told reporters, only he used a more vulgar word than “backside”, and on live television. It was not in keeping with the elegant style expected by Inter. Club owner Massimo Moratti applied his own boot to give Lippi almost an entire season for boating.

He took over the Azzurri from Giovanni Trapattoni after Italy’s woeful performance at Euro 2004. Despite a farcical debut losing to Iceland, he has welding together an Italy side that has now gone 24 games unbeaten. His Azzurri set-up includes trusted lieutenants Ciro Ferrara – ex-Juventus – on the staff, with Lazio keeper Angelo Peruzzi another Lippi stalwart.

The wily, silver-haired Lippi stands just one match from footballing eternity. In Italy, a World Cup win would silence his many critics once and for all.

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