José Mourinho. Rafael Benitez. Leonardo. Spot the difference? Welcome to IBWM, Paul Visca.
With his flicked-back hair and the black shirt (collar unbuttoned, no tie) under the classic black suit jacket, he swished into the press zone and the cameras began to click, whirl and whoosh. For a city that becomes the centre of world fashion twice a year, December 29 was a two weeks before Men’s Fashion Week; however, the man at the centre of the attention would never be out of place striding down the catwalk: Leonardo was back in the city that had been his home for 13 years.
The one significant difference was that he was no longer at the Most Successful Club in the World, but at the Rossoneri’s historic rivals, Inter.
To highlight the importance of the event, even Massimo Moratti made an appearance at the official unveiling, something the club president had been loathe to do for the previous 13 coaches. The cream turtleneck sweater with sports blazer provided a fine riposte. Old-moneyed elegance and fashion-house chic juxtaposed.
Five straight wins, four in Serie A, for the Brazilian, World Cup winner in USA’94, in charge of a revitalised Inter. A team that seemed out of contention for the title was now sending the fear of the Biscione amongst those who foresaw the scudetto still stitched on a striped shirt, but not a black and blue one.
Before Round 21, in the mountainous north-east, the 41-year-old admitted the his recently-adopted team were on an impressive run, but that he was no saviour. The 3-1 defeat to Udinese, the team playing the most entertaining football the country has seen since Luciano Spalletti’s gallant Roma, provoked no outcry.
What caused gasps of shock in Italian footballing circles was not the lack of reaction by the reigning Italian, European and World club champions despite being outplayed by a gifted young side, but a week earlier, at the pre-match press conference before the fixture against Bologna on January 15 (this time Fashion Week was in full flow), the suave image-conscious all-rounder let it be shown that he is human after all.
Having forgotten to remove his dental plate before taking his place in front of the waiting journalists, he thrust his fingers in his mouth and pottered around until the intrusive device was taken out and slipped into his designer jacket pocket.
And herein lies a clue to understanding why Rafa Benitez never fit in at Inter and was never accepted in Italy.
The Spaniard arrived in the summer with the (un)enviable task of replacing the Man Who Restored the Cup with Big Ears after a 45-year absence to the Nerazzurri trophy cabinet.
That moment in late May in Madrid when Mourinho stayed on an extended leave in the Spanish capital to negotiate the basis for his new adventure in football, the bond he had created with his players was captured by the touching embrace between the Portuguese and respected international hardman, Marco Materazzi. Tears and all.
Filling that emotional void was to be no easy task for Benitez. Imagine how difficult it is to replace a man who even seemed to have the power to move the forces of Nature as far away as Iceland to work an advantage for his side?
As early as the pre-season US Tour, Benitez faced a players’ mutiny. Samuel Eto’o advised the former Real Madrid youth coach that he wanted to play nearer the opponents’ penalty box, not as a wing back like the previous year. An outburst from Cristian Chivu against Roma, the first defeat of the season, questioned the coach’s authority. Injuries increased in correlation with the players over-30 winding down after a season played at the peak of their physical possibilities. A World Cup in between didn’t help.
Walter Samuel ruled out for the remainder of the season was a blow, but the absence of the two players that allowed Inter to make that important step towards world domination, Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, was perhaps the most costly to team dynamics. Substitutes Jonathan Biabiany and Coutinho filled in, but both impressed and disappointed – as their age dictates.
The former Genoa players’ return to full match fitness – against Napoli in the first match after the Christmas holiday – coincided with Inter playing their best football of the season.
That was also Leonardo’s first game at the helm. The pre-match warm-up spoke volumes about the two coaches’ philosophies. No longer were the players asked to perform a gruelling syncopated series of exercises, they were now free to loosen up as their experience guided them; Dejan Stankovic delighted the home fans, displaying the full extent of his long-range shooting prowess.
Yet, in that party atmosphere, the Curva Nord unfurled a banner before kick off which read, “Thanks to Benitez from those who always backed him. Now club, players and fans, for the good of Inter, complete backing to Leo.”
Thanks for winning two out of the three trophies he was asked to: the Italian Super Cup and the World Club Cup. Compliments, if any were forthcoming, for winning the tournament in Abu Dhabi were always destined to be short lived. But had they lost, it would have created endless embarrassment.
Embarrassment did follow, though.
“I deserve respect. I have taken on board all the blame; however, the club promised me three new players, yet nobody has arrived.”
“Either the club brings in four players in January or we go ahead with only me to blame. Or the club finds a solution with my agent.”
The man had to go.
Leonardo, like every other coach at Inter except one, has received a welcome gift from the transfer market, even in this day and age of Financial Fair Play. “Everything has changed with Leonardo,” gushed Maicon. “Nothing has changed except instead of Benitez there is now Leonardo,” contested Eto’o, who also alluded on a popular variety show that some players did not give coach unlucky 13 their all.
But none of this counts. Well, it does, but only to a certain extent.
Socks are to blame. Those cheeky little South Park brats portrayed on socks – Benitez’s socks. And to be seen by all and sundry as he sat in the dugout, contemplating the nuances of the latest tactical switch. Italy is a country where colour combination is not a matter of choice, it is de rigueur. Socks are taken seriously. Such a lack of appreciation for one’s appearance could never be accepted, especially in a city that epitomises style, especially at a club that needs revamping to remove that musty staid feeling. Champions are chic.
Socks are serious, no joke.
P.S. Until the Dental Plate Incident, Leonardo could do no wrong. Now the old flame for Mourinho is burning bright and Guardiola is back in vogue – and these two know their style.
You can follow Paul on Twitter @paulvisca.