FLORENCE, ITALY — Italian managers are on course to win three of Europe's five big leagues this season. Antonio Conte's Chelsea lead the Premier League, Massimiliano Allegri's Juventus are atop Serie A, and Carlo Ancelotti has already wrapped up the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. All this just a year after Claudio Ranieri made Leicester City champions of England for the first time in their history.
Woe betide anyone who thought the list ended there. "It's not just those guys," Renzo Ulivieri protested. "There's also Conte's former assistant Massimo Carrera, who's top of the league in Russia [with Spartak Moscow]. There are others all over the place. We're top everywhere."
At the time of writing, there are 19 Italians serving as managers across those five most prestigious European leagues. Contrast that with 15 Spaniards, 11 Germans and just seven Englishmen
It is Ulivieri's right to take pride in such truths. He has served as the president of the Italian Football Managers' Association for over a decade. Nowadays he combines that role with an even more influential one. In 2010, he was appointed as director of the Scuola Allenatori—the Managers' School—at the Italian Football Federation's Technical Centre in Coverciano.
Every aspiring manager in Italy must pass through here. It is the only place in the country where it is possible to obtain either a UEFA A licence—a pre-requisite for anyone who intends to coach at a professional level—or the subsequent UEFA Pro—mandatory for first-team managers in the country's top two divisions.
The Scuola Allenatori, though, long predates either qualification. Managers have been learning their craft here for more than half a century. It is a place that unites all those Italian tacticians presently leading the way across Europe and many more who came before them. Conte, Carrera, Ranieri and Ancelotti all studied here, but so, too, did the likes of Arrigo Sacchi and Giovanni Trapattoni.
So, was it the education they received at the Scuola Allenatori that set them up for such success? And if so, what might other nations learn from the model established here?
To put it another way: What is Italy's big secret?
Located on a verdant plot of land between rolling hills to the east of Florence, the buildings that make up the Technical Centre at Coverciano are designed to echo the Medici villas that dot the surrounding countryside—their pale yellow walls crowned with shallow-pitched red roofs. The feel is elegant rather than extravagant, but it’s strikingly beautiful.
It is home not only to the Scuola Allenatori, but also to a wealth of indoor and outdoor practice facilities, as well as Italy's Football Museum. Both the senior and junior national teams host their training camps here, and a variety of other bodies representing the country's managers and referees also use it as their permanent base.
The credit for its existence lies with one man above all others. Luigi Ridolfi not only conceived this place but also took a hands-on role in making sure it would be built according to his own vision.
Born into one of Florence's oldest and wealthiest landed families, he inherited the title of Marchese (Marquis) but was not one to sit back and revel in the easy life. He served for his country in World War I, even winning two medals for valour, before returning to his home region and becoming a patron to sports clubs and music festivals in the area.
In 1926, he launched the Fiorentina team that still competes in Serie A today. Around the same time, he became president of the Italian Light Athletics Federation. He filled that role for more than a decade before swapping it for a short stint in the equivalent position at the Italian Football Federation. By the mid-1950s, he had been elected as president of the former group for a second time while still serving as vice-president of the latter.
It was Ridolfi's breadth of experience across different pursuits that led him to wonder whether football could stand to learn something from the others. "Back then, it was the poorest of all sports," Dr. Fino Fini, curator of Coverciano's Football Museum, explained. "It was the least culturally elevated.
"Athletics was all made up of people who studied at secondary school [compulsory education in Italy at that time only ran through to the age of 14]. Secondary school, or even university. Basketball was the same. Not football."
To bridge this gap, Ridolfi came up with the idea of creating a national training base specifically for football players and coaches—something that did not exist anywhere else in the world. Crucially, he wanted it to be a place where students would have the opportunity to rub shoulders with people from different sporting backgrounds as well. For that to happen, he would have to make the Technical Centre into a place that other athletes would want to visit of their own accord.
It is no accident that the first, and grandest, building you see upon walking through the gates at Coverciano is the one that houses the swimming pool. Immediately behind that are two tennis courts. Take a left there and you will finally come across the closest football pitch, but even that is surrounded by a 400-metre track.
There was no ambiguity in Ridolfi's intentions. The Technical Centre was to become a hub for football—not the nation's running clubs or water polo teams. "But he wanted it to be frequented by athletes from all different sports," Fini said, "so that by coming here, by hanging out in the restaurant, in the corridors, you would get to know people who were culturally more elevated.
"In that way, the world of football would get to learn certain aspects of those different sports and those athletes—and, over time, become elevated itself."
Few people have a better insight into the success of that process than Fini. He began working as a doctor for Italy's national youth sides in 1958, the same year Coverciano was inaugurated, and he went on to work with the senior team as well for two full decades from 1962. He later served as director of the Technical Centre before taking up his role at the museum.
He credits the presence of diverse athletes as a key element in advancing Italian coaches' understanding of what their players' bodies could and could not do. By the late 1960s, Professor Nicola Comucci was teaching Coverciano's first-ever courses on how to prepare footballers physically to compete at the highest level.
"When there was an athlete here visiting from, say, light athletics, Comucci would see how he moved, how his gait was, how he ran," Fini said. "He would note down how this athlete ran in a well-rounded way, how he kept his head up, looking forwards.
"A footballer might have a body lean—to the left, or to the right. You need to get that body shape right—maybe by using a shoe that's designed in the right way. Then from another sport, you could learn that there are different ways to fall down that are less damaging. After a challenge, you can roll over, you can hit the ground but keep turning over. You fall, and you fall well."
Such concepts are widely understood today. But this was new territory for football in the 1950s and '60s, placing the Scuola Allenatori some way ahead of the curve.
That, in itself, is an important thing to recognise about Coverciano. Right from the outset, the underpinning ethos of this place has always been one of innovation and openness to novel ideas. It owes its existence to Ridolfi's willingness to try something different. Might it owe its success to the willingness of its custodians to do the same?
Renzo Ulivieri has a simple strategy for making sure that students at the Scuola Allenatori do not copy somebody else's ideas. Do not give them anybody else's work to reference in the first place.
"The coaches who come to study on our courses do not receive any books," he said with a grin on his lips and more than a hint of mischief behind the eyes. "What's the point? If I were to write a book, that could take me two years. So by the time I give it to you, it's already two years old. It's out of date."
There is nothing outdated about Ulivieri. Despite turning 76 in February, he retains an energy and an urgency that are compelling. Before we have even had time to shake hands, this man, who managed more than 15 different clubs, was already pontificating on what makes a successful coach. Even after sitting down to commence the interview proper, he never paused long enough to take off his own coat.
"When people first get here, for the first two or three weeks they are usually very confused," he continued. "And that's a little bit because I want things that way.
"You need to renew certain core principles about football, which are very old and which always remain. But then you need to start over from zero, because, again, if I were to teach the football that my coaches taught me, that's 50 years out of date. What I actually need to teach these guys is how football will be in 10 years' time. I need to predict the future."
More accurately, what Ulivieri believes is he must collaborate with his pupils to see if they can work it out together. Some lessons are taught in the Aula Magna at Coverciano—a modern lecture theatre with an interactive display—and others out on the pitches nearby, but in either circumstance, they are always two-way conversations.
"I'm constantly learning from my pupils," Ulivieri said. "When I give a lesson, it's not like I explain something and that's it. Or that they get to ask me two questions. They talk as well."
They also write. One of the final hurdles a student must clear to qualify from the UEFA Pro course at Coverciano is submission of a thesis on a subject of their choosing. The requirement is uniquely Italian. You can get the same qualification elsewhere in Europe without producing any kind of dissertation at all.
This is not some cruel twist dreamed up by Ulivieri but rather a long-standing tradition that predates the UEFA qualifications altogether. Up until 1998, domestic football federations still handled licensing of coaches. For a little more than 20 years before that, anyone aspiring to work at the highest level in Italy was obliged to put themselves through an onerous syllabus at Coverciano which became known as "il Supercorso."
Students were required to attend as many as 900 hours of lessons and seminars—almost four times as many as they do for today's UEFA Pro. So great were the logistical challenges of squeezing all this into a 12-month block that course leaders eventually opted to spread the Supercorso out over two years instead.
The requirement for a written thesis was introduced in stages—a truth revealed by a visit to Coverciano's small library. Here, between shelves full of books that Ulivieri would never give his pupils to read, you can find copies of the work that each coach submitted before receiving their final qualification.
And so we can discover that Claudio Ranieri's dissertation, from 1990, was not truly a dissertation at all but rather a comprehensive diary, listing every activity he conducted with his Cagliari players over the course of a preseason training camp. By contrast, 16 years later, Antonio Conte prepared a 38-page discourse under the title: "Considerations on 4-3-1-2 and the didactic use of video."
Thumbing through the latter document, it is easy to see how the modern obligation to prepare a thesis might be beneficial to a young manager. Conte spells out the advantages and disadvantages of the 4-3-1-2 in explicit detail, breaking down how it can operate in and out of possession and under countless different circumstances.
On one page, he discusses three different styles of pressing systems that could be used in a given match situation, along with five considerations that might help to decide which is most appropriate—including the league standings, the state of the pitch and the "psycho-physical condition of the team." As with most other thoughts expressed throughout the document, these words are accompanied by a diagram.
Ulivieri believes the value of a thesis is that it allows the aspiring coach to develop thoughts as he writes. But football is a constantly evolving game, so he also requires his students to take the more obvious step of getting out and watching live matches. He encourages them not to limit their scope to domestic games but also to go and see what is happening overseas.
"Vado, vedo e faccio vedere," he said at one point, words that translate to "I go, I see, and then I show people," but which in their rhythm almost seem to echo Julius Caesar's famous "Veni, vidi, vici" phrase. Much like their Roman ancestors, Italian football managers have come, they have seen and they have conquered. Just don't ask their leader to write a book about it.
Football coaches are no less prone than the rest of us to being dazzled by a bright personality. The recent graduates of Coverciano I speak to are in no doubt as to why their education was a success. "Ulivieri is so good at what he does," former Milan striker Pippo Inzaghi, now working as manager of Venezia, gushed. "His course was so important for refining my ideas."
Without diminishing Ulivieri's work, however, it is clear that something here runs deeper. Having only led the Scuola Allenatori for six-and-a-half years, he can hardly take credit for Ancelotti's or even Conte's work.
Dig a little further, and what you find is a sense that Ulivieri, as well as the others who teach alongside him, are extending a tradition that already existed. One that promotes collaboration, open-mindedness and that constant desire to evolve, but is also unafraid to get stuck into examining the tiniest minutiae of how a football match works.
It is a spirit that Elisabet Spina relished. The first female coach in Italy ever to record the maximum score of 110 marks on her UEFA A exams, she knows a little bit about perfection.
"The thing about Coverciano is that I struggle to think of a single person there of whom I could say, ‘This person is a bit out of sync with the rest of the environment,'" Spina said. "Every teacher has that same desire, which doesn't always exist in football, to see things through and make sure that they reach the right end.
"Sometimes, when you work with a bigger staff at certain levels, you come across something that jars. Something that doesn't fit. So you don't manage to get the best from the group, because of that one thing. It was never like that there. Everyone shares the desire never to stop challenging themselves, and the long-sightedness, the willingness to get into the details."
Her final word here is an important one. For all that we like to romanticise football management into grand duels of emotional rhetoric and tactical mastery, the reality is that success or failure in elite sport nowadays is most often determined by fine margins; the ability to react that fraction of a second faster or pick the right pass in the key moment.
In discussing the practicalities of the course, Spina mentioned at a certain point that Ulivieri retained certain core footballing principles as unchanging. Naively, I imagined these as a series of values, a neat set of bullet points that might be painted onto a placard and affixed to a changing-room wall.
When I asked Ulivieri to name them, however, he blows out his lips and suggests that there were too many principles to list and that most were mundane. He gave the example of a player on the ball who comes up against an opponent. The principles in this instance are simple: "they can either try to dribble past or play a pass."
The greatest challenge for today's football manager, in Ulivieri's opinion, lies in helping players to make the right decision in those circumstances more often than not. "The player is subjected to a continuous mental challenge," he said. "Beyond coaching the body, we need to coach the mind."
How to achieve that is an ongoing puzzle. But it begins with a willingness to challenge oneself constantly. "On the course, Ulivieri always told us that 'developing a complete thought is really tiring,'" Spina added. "But that is what it takes to succeed. Not stopping just at what you can see."
It is a concept worth keeping in mind when exploring Coverciano. You would not know at a glance, for instance, that the window panes in the gym are made with a crystal that allows them to withstand being smacked with a football. Nor that the floor of that same building incorporates a series of iron pivots designed to give it an elasticity similar to that of a real grass football pitch.
Both were installed at the behest of Luigi Ridolfi, who had travelled all over Europe before commencing work on the Technical Centre, seeking out the most advanced materials and technologies available at the time. If it feels as though the pursuit of perfection is woven into the fabric of this place, that's because it quite literally is.
There is a wall in the Football Museum devoted to Italy's 1982 FIFA World Cup-winning team. Here you can admire the blue shirts worn by such champions as Marco Tardelli and Bruno Conti. Alongside them, though, is a more curious sight: a grey-and-white striped jacket with a tie folded through the middle. Beneath it, in a separate glass frame, are a pair of black suit trousers.
It is the matchday kit of Italy's then-manager, Enzo Bearzot. And perhaps it is also an insight into the way this country thinks about football. The coach matters every bit as much as his players here, or even a little bit more. An accompanying cabinet of assorted memorabilia places two photos of Bearzot front and centre, along with a pair of his old tobacco pipes.
Was it the existence of Coverciano, and the Scuola Allenatori, that helped to foster this reverence for the role that Italians fondly refer to as "il Mister"? That much is trickier to unpick. Ulivieri believes the national obsession with tactics and strategy speaks to some deep-rooted element in the national psyche.
"Italians are naturally disposed to be this way," he said. "It's an art. An art of the Italian character, and very much Neapolitan character—the art of making do … It's a discourse on social justice. Of politics. The little guy can beat the big one. Through tactics, sometimes this happens. If the big team always wins, then football will end."
At a time when Juventus are trampling their way towards a sixth consecutive Serie A title, that line should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. But what is undeniable is that Italy takes pride in producing great managers. Articles are devoted to the results being achieved by Conte, Ancelotti, Ranieri et al almost daily in such newspapers as La Gazzetta dello Sport.
So is Italy's big secret this magnificent school—founded by a man ahead of his time, who always thought two steps ahead and believed in seeking out the devil in the detail? Or is the Scuola Allenatori, in itself, the physical manifestation of one nation's irrepressible love of the tactician?
In the end, it all boils down to that old dilemma about chickens and eggs. While the rest of us are busy looking for answers, Ulivieri and his team at Coverciano will stay focused on making sure that their graduates keep on ruling the roosts.