VILLA’S MAIN MAN

Chris Dunlavy takes a look at the ca­reer of Roberto Di Mat­teo

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Chris Dunlavy

TWENTY-three years be­fore Le­ices­ter City and Riyad Mahrez, there was FC Aa­rau and Roberto Di Mat­teo.

In May 1992, Die Un­ab­steig­baren (or rel­e­ga­tion dodgers) had clung to the Swiss top flight on goal dif­fer­ence, nar­rowly avoid­ing a do-or-die play­off. Twelve months later, they were Switzer­land’s most un­likely cham­pi­ons, in­spired by a slightly-built yet quick­wit­ted mid­fielder wise be­yond his years.

“Even as a 20-year-old, Robi talked about tac­tics and sys­tems,” said man­ager Rolf Fringer, who had in­her­ited the teenage Di Mat­teo at Schaffhausen and sub­se­quently signed him for both FC Zurich and Aa­rau.

“With his su­pe­rior foot­balling brain, he had the big stars un­der con­trol, even as a young guy.”

Im­prob­a­ble

Ryszard Ko­mor­nicki, the Jamie Vardy to Di Mat­teo’s Mahrez, was em­phatic. “He was the heart­beat of that team, the one who made us play.” said the Pole. “He was Switzer­land’s player of the year that sea­son and, with­out him, we wouldn’t have won it.”

Di Mat­teo would go on to play for Lazio, score at Wem­b­ley for Chelsea, win caps for Italy and, as a man­ager, clinch a Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle al­most as im­prob­a­ble as that tri­umph at Aa­rau.

Yet, if his ca­reer blos­somed in the tiny Ger­man-speak­ing can­ton of Aar­gau, it was rooted in Pescara, a pic­turesque Ital­ian town on the Adriatic coast.

Di Mat­teo’s par­ents, Fiorindo and Gianna, had de­serted Pescara to seek work in Switzer­land and it was there that Robi and his sis­ter, Con­cetta, were born.

Hol­i­days, though, were spent in Abruzzo, kick­ing around with the lo­cal kids or tak­ing part in foot­ball tour­na­ments. This for­ma­tive clash of cul­tures shaped both per­son­al­ity and destiny.

“The Swiss cul­ture is based on ed­u­ca­tion, both so­cial and aca­demic,” Di Mat­teo told FourFourTwo in 2014. “They have re­spect for the na­tion, for the peo­ple. They are ef­fi­cient and punc­tual. The Ital­ian cul­ture is more about en­joy­ing your life and be­ing op­ti­mistic.”

That blend, ac­cord­ing to Ko­mor­nicki, pro­duced “the most re­laxed and laid-back per­son I ever saw,” an in­scrutably placid ex­te­rior mask­ing a shrewd mind and fe­ro­cious am­bi­tion. “As a boy, he was in­cred­i­bly tal­ented but phys­i­cally very weak,” said Domenico Si­nardo, his youth coach at Schaffhausen, where Ger­many coach Joachim Loew was a team­mate. “But I told him ‘Robi, get stuck in!’ and he did. Even then, he had this de­ter­mi­na­tion. He be­lieves that you can ac­com­plish any­thing as long as you work hard and want it enough.” Above all, those days in the hills of Abruzzo formed an un­shake­able pride in his her­itage. In an era when only three for­eign play­ers were per­mit­ted, Di Mat­teo re­jected Swiss na­tion­al­ity in favour of an Ital­ian pass­port. “I would have stayed Ital­ian just to work in a fac­tory,” he said on his first call-up to the Italy squad in 1994. “This is my home.” Yet he would spend just three years there. Signed by Lazio in 1993, he played un­der Dino Zoff and along­side Paul Gas­coigne, for whom he was the butt of many a prac­ti­cal joke. Dili­gent and per­cep­tive with a vast range of pass­ing, Di Mat­teo was the Pirlo-es­que quar­ter­back who held the fort while oth­ers ram­paged. Yet a move to Chelsea in 1996 proved a lib­er­a­tion. “I saw he had more to give,” said then-man­ager Ruud Gul­lit, who de­ployed the Ital­ian as a roam­ing play­maker and was re­warded with 26 goals in 175 games. “And he proved it. He was a vi­tal player for me.” Di Mat­teo won two FA Cups and three League Cups dur­ing his time at Stam­ford Bridge, scor­ing in ev­ery fi­nal. Sadly, his play­ing days were cur­tailed in bleak fash­ion, a bro­ken leg in a Euro­pean game against St Gallen al­most lead­ing to am­pu­ta­tion. In­fec­tions, com­pli­ca­tions, nine oper­a­tions fol­lowed. “I re­mem­ber ask­ing the doc­tor about play­ing again and he said ‘Robi, right now we need to con­cen­trate on giv­ing you a nor­mal life again’. “I thought ‘My God, four days ago I was a foot­baller. To­day I’m look­ing at be­ing dis­abled for the rest of my life’.” For eight years, Di Mat­teo turned his back on the game. He stud­ied busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomic, opened two restau­rants in Lon­don (Chelsea Friends and Up­roar near Pic­cadilly), had in­vest­ments in Thai­land. “It was the Swiss in me,” he said. But the fire was grad­u­ally rekin­dled and, in 2008, af­ter a heart-to­heart with his English wife, Zoe, Di Mat­teo re­turned as man­ager of MK Dons.

Af­ter a third-place fin­ish in League One, Di Mat­teo joined West Brom and sealed pro­mo­tion to the Premier League. For fans used to the flam­boy­ant foot­ball of Tony Mow­bray, the Ital­ian’s more prag­matic ap­proach jarred, but his re­sponse was typ­i­cally droll.

“My phi­los­o­phy is to win games,” he said sim­ply, cit­ing the in­flu­ence of his for­mer Italy coach, Ar­rigo Sac­chi. “How­ever that may be.”

De­fi­ant

And never was that ethos more fully re­alised when, in 2012, Di Mat­teo – who had started the sea­son as as­sis­tant to An­dres Vil­las-Boas – led a de­fi­antly de­fen­sive Chelsea side past Napoli, Barcelona and Bay­ern Mu­nich to lift the Cham­pi­ons League crown.

“Sometimes, peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate what Roberto did that year,” said Gian­franco Zola. “But it was very spe­cial, unique. He took the team when it was strug­gling and won the FA Cup and the Cham­pi­ons League. He brought those play­ers to­gether.”

Now an As­ton Villa side at its low­est ebb in a quar­ter of a cen­tury is hop­ing to be sim­i­larly gal­vanised.

“Roberto is in­tel­li­gent with great an­a­lyt­i­cal skills,” said Fringer. “Most of all, he has ex­cep­tional so­cial skills. Peo­ple love him, and for this he will al­ways be a suc­cess.”

BIG-GAME MAN: Mat­teo scored in all his English fi­nals

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