VILLA’S MAIN MAN
Chris Dunlavy takes a look at the career of Roberto Di Matteo
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.”
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.”
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.”
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