Claudio Ranieri has always been a modest man, as well as a family man.
It is characteristic that at the high point of his career, on the brink of an achievement that has grabbed the attention of football worldwide, he was flying back from visiting his mother in Rome.
“Prima la mamma, poi la Premier” — mum first, then the league — were the headlines in Italy yesterday, where Ranieri’s every little joke and gesture have been noted down and savoured since the turn of the year.
The story of his little bell — dilly ding, dilly dong — has done the rounds of TV shows and news reports.
At Cagliari, the club where he made his name by taking them from the third tier to the top flight in two seasons, they have been celebrating for weeks.
Pride of place on Cagliari’s Facebook page goes to a message from their former manager — “yours is the first result I look for” — wishing them all the best in the battle for promotion. With three matches to go, Cagliari just need a win.
Italians, of course, always love an Italian who succeeds abroad. It’s part of their DNA.
But they are especially loving the fact that a man who had his share of failure has turned the table on his critics in the “home of football”. And like the rest of us, they love it even more that a modest man should finally enjoy real success with a modest club, and with a group of largely unknown players.
Some caustic critics have claimed that Ranieri has a lot to be modest about, notably the disastrous spell in charge of Greece which preceded his appointment at Leicester.
But while he may ‘only’ have won two cups in the 25 years since he left Cagliari for Napoli, not many managers have taken clubs to a top-four finish in four countries — Italy, Spain, France, and England — and finished as runner-up in three.
When you consider that two of Ranieri’s second places were behind Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ and José Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan, his role as fall guy comes into perspective.
There were hard knockbacks as well. He lasted barely six months at Atletico Madrid, and his second spell at Valencia went horribly wrong, when he tried to do too much too quickly, and the Italians he signed proved unable to adapt.
But in his first spell at the club, and then at Chelsea, Ranieri built the foundations for sides that went on to great things.
He took over at Valencia when they were 17th in La Liga and transformed them. He disposed of underperforming stars — Romario was the biggest name — and developed outstanding young players, among them Claudio Lopez and Gaizka Mendieta.
Ranieri changed everything from the training regime to players’ meal arrangements and diet, and Valencia went on to reach the Champions League final two years running under his successor, Hector Cuper.
At Chelsea, Ranieri took the club through a critical transition, before the arrival of Roman Abramovich and a record-breaking spending spree, in which the manager was basically presented with a set of star players and told to get on with it.
His real achievement was qualifying for the Champions League before all that money arrived, when the club was in serious danger of going bankrupt.
It is fair to say that his success at Leicester was totally unexpected — by him, as well as everyone else.
It is also fair to say that Ranieri has learned from experience. He did not impose new systems or new tactics, he built on what was there.
Giorgio Pellizzaro, for years Claudio’s right-hand man and goalkeeper coach, but who had to withdraw from a job with Leicester for family reasons, says: “In my two weeks there we had realised the quality of some of the players, but the idea that we could climb so high was unimaginable.”
The family spirit Ranieri has cultivated and built on at the club is not coincidental.
He was the same as a player, according to his teammates from Catanzaro, the small-town club in Calabria where he spent most of his career.
They still keep in touch, almost 40 years later; not only the players, but the families as well, with regular reunions at Claudio’s home in Tuscany.
“The secret was the wives”, says Giorgio. “They were all friends back then and they remain friends to this day. There has never been the slightest shadow of jealousy or envy among us.”
They were a team of workers, who played for each other. And that has been the core of Ranieri’s approach ever since, even though he has also worked with stars.
“Destiny is giving Claudio what he deserves,” says Fausto Silipo, who played alongside him in the Catanzaro defence.
“He’s a great coach, and also a man. A man with a capital M, always ready to help anyone.”
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