In search of the real Claudio Ranieri

30 Apr

Claudio Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri managed 15 sides in his career before taking over at Leicester at the start of the 2015-16 season

True to stereotype, the Italians are a superstitious bunch.

We have driven an hour north of Rome to meet Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri’s brother Carlo and his son Giorgio. But as we get closer to Formello, suddenly our calls are not being answered.

We arrive in the picturesque hilltop town and wander the narrow cobbled streets. Still no answer.

A guy in a leather jacket points towards the towering walls of the Palazzo Chigi and says: “The Ranieris live just over there in the old town.”

He gives us a couple of alternative phone numbers to try. But there is still no answer.

So we buy an ice cream and take in the views, looking out over the crumbling, sun-baked walls of the town, back towards the distant skyline of Rome.

Formello, where some of Claudio Ranieri's family live<!–

Formello, where some of Claudio Ranieri’s family live

It feels like a strange place to come to talk about a man who has been a lifelong Roma fan; this is where arch-rivals Lazio come to train.

The sun is setting and it is getting chilly. It is clear no-one wants to chat today. We get in the car and drive back to the capital. On the way, we get a message: “Sorry, but no interviews.”

The family do not want to curse the final weeks of Leicester’s extraordinary Premier League season.

The Foxes are seven points clear at the top of the table with three games to go and will secure their first top-flight title if they beat Manchester United on Sunday. Even if they lose at Old Trafford, they can wrap up the title on Monday if second-placed Tottenham lose to Chelsea.

In a cream-coloured villa on a hill in the heart of Rome, Rosella Sensi is sitting on a gilt chair in a reception room filled with antiques. The electric gates and the heavy wooden doors cannot keep out the sense of apprehension.

“Can you permit me not to say anything until the next few matches are over?” she says when I ask what it would mean to Claudio Ranieri to win the Premier League title.

As president of Roma Football Club, Sensi gave Ranieri what was then his 12th managerial job in 2009. Ranieri led the team he has supported since childhood to within a whisker of winning the Serie A title.

View of Rome from Rosella Sensi's neighbourhood<!–

A view of Rome from Rosella Sensi’s neighbourhood

“When you have something more like that you can give to the club – that you’re also a supporter – that was very, very important” says Sensi.

But Ranieri cannot claim ever to have been a Leicester supporter – so what is the secret to the 64-year-old’s success with the Foxes?

“He never gives up – he works every day, every moment. I think that is his secret,” Sensi says. “I remember when we had matches, I couldn’t speak to him because he was concentrating so hard.

“He was very serious at work. But I did see him laughing!”

Dino Zoff is laughing too. The 1982 World Cup winner and former Juventus star has just been asked why Ranieri is known around these parts as “Il Romano Inglese” – the English Roman.

“He is of course very tied to this city – he was born here, grew up here, so it’s natural it should be a big part of his identity,” Zoff said.

“But at the same time he has been able to go about things with a certain steeliness and focus which are perhaps not typically the most Roman characteristics!”

Dino Zoff at his sports club on the banks of the Tiber<!–

Dino Zoff at his sports club on the banks of the Tiber

We are sitting on the banks of the Tiber at Zoff’s exclusive, men-only sports club. He is 74, and still mischievous.

“I used to play against him during our playing careers – he was a footballer, but as a manager one could perhaps say he has had a bit more success!” he said.

“In Italy, there is a tendency to over-analyse and over-complicate. To make football like a game of chess. He makes things clear and plain and that’s a great gift.

“I, of course, don’t want to jinx things because it’s all still to play for, but they are doing brilliantly.”

There it is again. That Italian superstition.

But in the neighbourhood where Ranieri was born, there is no such reserve.

There is a shady square in San Saba, just a stone’s throw from the Circus Maximus. On the corner is a vibrant flower stall, where Amleto Cristofori is helping his friend sell bunches of blooms.

San Saba church where Claudio Ranieri used to play football as a child<!–

San Saba church where Claudio Ranieri used to play football as a child

“We were both born right here. I lived 50 metres away and he lived just down the road in Via Giotto. As small kids we used to go to the parish church here to play.”

Amleto gestures towards an impressive brick church behind a wall. Inside the grounds is a scruffy yard where young Claudio, Amleto and their friends came for a kickabout.

“Even then he had an English sense of humour,” Amleto said. “He was softly spoken, polite and reserved.

“He has done so well, he made it as a player and then as a manager he has coached some big clubs and now in England with a team like Leicester he is close to winning the title. It’s incredible, really incredible!”

“Come on Claudio!” he shouts at our TV camera. “You can do it! You’re going to be a star!”

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