Italy has been creating and revering beauty for centuries, whether through grandiose art and architecture or expressing it with something as simple as a perfectly tailored suit. As such, "la bella figura"—literally “the beautiful figure”—has become an essential philosophy, one so deeply embedded in the psyche of the nation that it rules the lives of people on the peninsula far more intently than any law passed by the government.
The phrase has many meanings, but at its core is presentation; how one looks, how one comports oneself, how one makes the best possible impression in all things. It goes beyond image and outward appearance, but if anyone in football embodied the phrase to the world at large it should be Marcello Lippi.
While many Italians would perhaps look to Gianni Agnelli as the perfect example, the former Juventus and Fiat owner lived in an era where it was much more difficult to earn the international recognition that Lippi so clearly has.
Born in Viareggio—a small town in northern Tuscany—back in 1948, Lippi’s playing days spanned 12 years spent as a stylish central defender. He was never quite good enough to merit consideration for the Azzurri, but he was still recognised as an adept sweeper. An intelligent passer who was supremely comfortable on the ball, he would hang up his boots in 1982 and begin a career in the dugout to very little fanfare.
After starting with a role in the Sampdoria youth sector, he would go on to be fired three times as he coached eight teams with very little tangible success during his first 11 years in management. That would change when he was appointed by a declining and unstable Napoli in 1993.
Beset with behind-the-scenes problems in aftermath of their Diego Maradona-led glory years, Lippi would enhance his reputation by guiding them to a sixth-place finish in Serie A, earning a place in the UEFA Cup as a result.
That would in turn see him granted the opportunity of a lifetime 12 months later, as he was handed the reins of Juventus as Giovanni Trapattoni left the club for the second time. But he would not inherit a dominant vintage of the Bianconeri. It was a team struggling for an identity and without a league title since 1986, the longest drought the Turin giants had endured since the outbreak of World War II.
Lippi would prove to be the perfect man to lead them back to greatness, establishing Italian football’s grand Old Lady as the most feared side anywhere in Europe. It was a side that mirrored the man then charged with leading them; young, ambitious and yet to win anything of real significance, but with a hardened edge and a steely determination.
Young and unproven talents like Angelo Peruzzi, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Antonio Conte were supported by veterans such as Gianluca Vialli and Jurgen Kohler who knew exactly what was required if Juventus were to be truly successful.
Juventus would go on to win the 1994/95 Serie A title, clinching a rare double by beating Parma in the Coppa Italia final. Led by former Juve midfielder Dino Baggio, the same opponent would deny them a UEFA Cup win, emerging 2-1 victors in the two-legged final.
It was a season of immense satisfaction, and one that owed almost everything to the coaching style of Lippi, the man whose outward appearance—that embodiment of Italian style and grace—belied a steely determination that was characterised by his team on the pitch.
He may have resembled Paul Newman as he patrolled the touchline, smartly dressed and eloquently spoken, but away from the cameras, the players saw a very different side to him.
“Sometimes I think that my only real merit is that I am a royal pain in the ass every day out on the training pitch,” he said in an interview with the UEFA website some years later. “Sometimes, I go over the top, I admit that, but I still think that the bond between me and my players is something that you simply won't find in other teams. No coach and squad know one another inside out like we do.”
There is little doubt to that assessment, and his team was built far more on the rugged impact of players like Ciro Ferrara, Paolo Montero and Conte than on the attacking flair of Alessandro Del Piero or Zinedine Zidane. Yet Lippi knew he needed both, telling a coaching seminar in 2012 that in “selecting a side that must work together, you have to send away a talented player who will not merge into a team.”
He constantly preached the values of team dynamics over the virtue of a star player, telling his audience that "you must manage the individual performer, but only because that develops team unity."
Lippi would prove to be a master at doing just that, developing a tactical plan that allowed each member of his side to perform at their best, certainly far more concerned with evolution than revolution.
There are no incredible game-changing formations or tweaks to be found anywhere across his incredible career, instead it is a collection of teams that outperformed their rivals and almost always emerged triumphant. His sides were built upon a solid defensive unit, with the team ahead of them disciplined and aware of their own responsibilities whenever the ball was lost.
Even the likes of Del Piero and Zidane would adhere to that game plan, putting forth the effort that they are rarely given credit for but which was essential if they were to not follow Baggio’s undignified exit.
Lippi’s unquenchable thirst for trophies was passed onto his players—never satisfied and always seeking the next victory, becoming a relentless machine as he created a team capable of coping with the twin demands of domestic and European football.
The following season he guided them to the UEFA Champions League final. Meeting Louis van Gaal’s Ajax, they would eventually win thanks to a penalty shootout after the game ended 1-1 following goals from Ravanelli and Jari Litmanen.
It would be the first of three consecutive finals in the competition, losing 3-1 to Borussia Dortmund and 1-0 to Real Madrid in the subsequent editions, but Juve would claim the Club World Cup against River Plate in Tokyo.
They would win two more league titles before Lippi left for Inter in 1999, an ill-fated move that would last just 15 months. Unable to get the Nerazzurri players to buy into his philosophy, he struggled to replicate the success he enjoyed in Turin. He lambasted his squad after the first match of the 2000-01 season, and he was sacked by Inter president Massimo Moratti just a day later.
He would return to Juventus the following season, overseeing the arrivals of Gigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved and Lilian Thuram, once again leading the Old Lady to a title in his first season. A year later he would repeat the feat, also advancing to a fourth Champions League final where they would meet Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan.
This time the penalties would favour his opponent, and 12 months later, he would take charge of the Italy national team, picking them up after a disastrous showing at Euro 2004. Leading an incredible revival, he would once again end on a high, lifting the World Cup in typical fashion, overcoming the Calciopoli scandal to end Italy’s 24-year wait for glory.
Using 21 members of his 23-man squad and with no fewer than 10 different goalscorers, the 2006 World Cup was yet another example of his belief in the power of the collective over individual brilliance paying huge dividends.
After taking a two-year hiatus, he would return to the Italy post to oversee a poor showing in South Africa. Unable to replicate that initial success, he moved on to China where he guided Guangzhou Evergrande to three league titles and the Asian Champions League. Add in five Serie A titles, an Italian Cup win, the UEFA Champions League, a European Super Cup and Club World Cup and he boasts a personal trophy haul unrivalled by almost any of his peers.
It all began with that initial league title win with the Bianconeri—a victory that gave birth to a legend. But while his accomplishments led to thousands of people flooding the streets of Turin and Rome, the man himself had a very different way of celebrating.
Indeed, as his players partied late into the Berlin night following their World Cup triumph, the coach was nowhere to be seen. “I grabbed something to eat,” Lippi said afterwards (h/t ESPN FC's James Horncastle), “then went to my room and watched the entire game including the penalty shootout over and over again because that's my way of celebrating: watching the game again and enjoying it on my own with a lovely cigar.”
The 1994/95 Scudetto may have embodied everything that was to follow, a triumph that showcased everything their young coach would become, but that image perhaps surpasses it: Marcello Lippi alone in a room, enveloped in a cloud of smoke, savouring every moment of victory he has amassed over the past 20 years. He earned it.