Every time we meet, I always doubt who I'm talking to, is it the amazing former footballer or the great coach who has won so many things. Who is before me?
You have to decide that for yourself. I like to think a bit of both, although I prefer the first option. After all, playing football is the best thing there is.
Was it difficult transitioning from being a player to a coach, how did you manage it?
At the beginning, it was difficult, but I slowly did it with the help of a psychologist (laughs). I managed to do even though at the start it was difficult. When you're young it's not so easy to work as a manager.
When you played, you were called a tough player. In my opinion, you were a player with character. How is your current relationship with the team?
My relationship with the team is good. I always try to be sincere and say what I think. I don’t try to avoid giving criticism when it is justified, even if I'm talking to great players. And perhaps this is my advantage because I can understand and have been in those situations. I always try to be myself and try be very honest with the players.
After working in Italy, England and Turkey, you are now in another part of the world, what can you tell us about Russia and the football there?
Russia is a huge country and I see some of it when we travel around the country, St. Petersburg is a very beautiful city too. The league can still grow and develop I think, although it has greatly improved in recent years. I hope all the new stadiums built here for the World Cup will help Russian football to develop even faster. There are many young and talented players who can improve, but at the moment the Russian championship has not yet hit its highest level.
What can you personally do for the development of Russian football?
I came here seven or eight months ago when the team was undergoing large changes. The team lost almost all of the club’s best players, those players who had led the team to great success previously. This year we are trying to build something and we've brought in several young players. This year has been quite difficult but I think that we are on the right track and the team can become stronger in the future.
Life consists of overcoming challenges and that drive us forward. What is the challenge for you now?
Always when I start working with a new team my main task is winning. This is all I’m thinking about. If you can win playing good football, then that is even better. That’s our main task and to do something good here in Russia. Wherever I was before, I managed to do something right, but our goal as always is to win.
Very often when managers go abroad to work, they bring with them players who they are familiar with or their compatriots. But you brought a number of players from Argentina, Kraneviter, Driussi, Rigoni, Paredes and Mammana. Why was this?
It's not so easy to come to Russia. There are some issues. Firstly, the team cannot be only foreigners. There must always be at least five Russian players on the pitch. Therefore, it is not always easy to bring in top players. I think that there is an opportunity to build a young team here with players who might not be well-known to the whole world as they are still young. But it is possible to create a team with a bright future.
Do you miss your life as a coach in England and Turkey, there you played a lot of games abroad and travelled a lot?
If I were a player now, then I certainly would have travelled more. But in my time I was very lucky. I started my career at Bologna, and then spent fifteen amazing years at Sampdoria. This team was my family, my teammates were all like brothers to me. I was lucky at that time to be part of the best football in the world because all the great players back then played in Italy. It was a completely different time then. If I were a footballer now, I would like to travel more. After all, travelling around the world, getting to know other people and other cultures allows you to grow and to become a better person.
Football has changed a lot, with new types of contracts, with more open borders. But has it changed for the better?
Well, I don’t know. In my opinion, the best years in football were the 80's and 90's. Now there is more money in football and some mid-level players earn like they are champions. But, in my opinion, the 80s and 90s were the best years.
Now you are one of the main characters in St. Petersburg, a beautiful and historical city. Can you feel the history around you?
Of course! After all, St. Petersburg is really a very beautiful city. When I first arrived here, I did not have much to do and so I visited many places. In this city you can feel the history all around you.
Tell us about your St. Petersburg.
My St.Petersburg is first of all my work. I spend most of the day at the training base, but every weekend I have a look around the city and visit different places. In the evening I go out for dinner and meet friends. That’s an ordinary day for me.
Do you ever go and watch ice hockey?
Yes, I’ve been to watch SKA and found it very interesting. SKA are one of the strongest teams in the world.
Did you see Kovalchuk and Datsyuk play?
Yes. Of course. Now if I have time I like to go to watch the basketball too. In general, St. Petersburg is a very beautiful city, and there is always something to do. There are also lots of places here where you can eat delicious food.
What about the spaghetti here?
I do not eat spaghetti
And borscht or beef stroganoff?
Borscht, to be honest, is not for me, I’ll leave it for someone else. I prefer our own cuisine.
In Italy our fans have to pretend there’s no World Cup this summer, but as it’s being held in Russia and football fans from around the world are coming here, what is the feeling in the country now? How are the stadiums and how are the preparations in the country going?
It seems to me that this will be a very good World Cup in terms of organisation. Some very good new stadiums have been built and they have the experience of organising things, nobody wants to fall flat on their face and I do not think they will here, because everything will be done to the highest level. I'm sorry that the Italian team will not be there of course. The Italian national team was expected to be here and Italy’s absence at the World Cup is a great loss.
When you talk about the Italian team, you seem to talk as if it’s your dream.
You know, when you work abroad, you can see the shortcomings of your country. When you’re in Italy, you often criticize it. But when you are far away then you miss it. Watching the games of the national team, it takes me back again in those times when I was young, in the 70 and 80s, when I watched the games of the Italian national team. No one knows what will happen in the future.
But would you like to manage Italy in the future?
I think that to manage your country is a unique opportunity and is very prestigious. But now I have a contract with Zenit and we need to do our best to try and win for Zenit.
Many great players in modern football didn’t achieve what they wanted to for their national team, can managing your country make up for that?
Some good players didn’t get to play for the national team, because there were several good players in their position. It happened like that to me, there were three or four players in the same position and all playing at the highest level. At that time, there were so many great players that the coach had to choose some and leave out others. Of course, this was tough to take.
You’ve won trophies in three different countries, Italy, England and Turkey and have won something with every club you’ve worked with. What's your secret?
As I said, I always start working with the idea of winning. Always. Even when it's not a team that wins.
But how do you win?
To win, you need to do all that you can and more. To be better than what’s usual. After all, when you are playing against a stronger opponent, you need to come up with something extra. So my idea is to always win, even when we are playing against the favourites. To work every day, to try to get better, to always think positively and to sometimes get angry, because it's also part of the job. We must always try to win.
Do you often get angry?
No, not often.
What could make you angry?
Other than a bad pass? (Laughs.) When a player enters the pitch and is unfocused and lazy, maybe this, because I think that playing football is the best thing in the world. Your career does not last long and when you stop playing, you really miss it. I speak from my own experience. Unfortunately, some young players do not think about this. They are young and think about other things. You should get on the pitch, train, have fun, play with the ball, you do the same things you did in your childhood, only now you get paid for it and when you were younger you wanted to spend the whole day like this.
When you have the opportunity to play in a team with excellent players this is one of the best things there can be. To train and get ready for an important match together, it's awesome. But If a player comes and isn’t willing ... I do not like this. Things happen, I understand that. But then it's better if he comes and says: "Coach, I was late last night ..." So overall, these are the situations that can make me somewhat angry.
You used the word "awesome". In your career as a manager there were a couple of amazing moments. For example, when you led to Inter Milan to the title and then Manchester City too. Which of these two achievements is more valuable to you?
I have to say that I'm tied to all the teams I’ve worked with. My first success as a manager came at Fiorentina. I remember the match in the final of the Italian Cup against Parma, who were much stronger than us. All wins are dear to me.
As for Inter, this is a team with a great history, but it could not win things even with world-class players. But Inter invested time and money. To a certain extent, Massimo Moratti (ex-owner and president of Inter) is responsible, he invested in the creation of the team, he brought important players. He worked hard and worked well. And we succeeded. Therefore, I have some very good memories.
As for Manchester City, this is another story. It was a team that almost never won anything and in the first months it was not easy. But even there we managed to acquire players who, in my opinion, were very good, but no one else had bought them. David Silva, for example. Nobody had bought him, despite the fact that at Valencia he achieved great success. He was not looked at by either Real Madrid or Barcelona, Yaya Toure, who was released from Barcelona and another one is Aguero. These are the players who are still playing, but it’s seven or eight years later. At Manchester City it was good that we created that team almost from scratch. In a year and a half we became one of the best teams in the Premier League. Therefore, of course, I have very good memories from that time.
There is an opinion that without outstanding players the team can’t win. But do you feel that now the most famous managers in the world are more interested in buying players and paying less attention to the education of young talents?
No. It all depends on the team where you work and on the requirements of the club's management. Sometimes you just do not have time to bring up a young player and let him get out on the pitch. I personally always hope that a team will help young players, there are midfielders and attackers with great talent. However, there are never enough defenders, I do not know why. I believe that you can always find a balance. Because, you are right, without outstanding players it is impossible to win. You can be the best coach in the world, you can have brilliant ideas and you can be able to put them across, but without good players, it's hard to win. Therefore, you need intelligent, talented players and you can add younger players to the team and let them grow.
We all really like to talk about formations, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, but we do not understand anything about this and just love talking about the numbers. But does football really come down to formations?
Football does not change. Now, of course, everyone always wants to change things. But there are still eleven players in the game, that's why each team has its own formations, but as you said, the players are always more or less the same, as are the positions.
Is there a player whom you’ve always wanted to work with, but never have?
There are a lot of such players. To name one in recent years, when I returned to Inter, we had the opportunity to buy Paulo Dybala, but we did not get him. In my opinion, this was a big mistake, because at that time Dybala was as valuable as a Picasso. He is a player of the highest ability and in time he will become a great. Not to buy him was a big mistake, because there was an opportunity. This is an example from recent years.
What can you do for such a player? What can you teach him? How can a player like Paulo Dybala become better with you?
From the technical point of view, I can teach him a lot. Like all those talented players who became coaches. They can teach technical things, movements, body positioning, lots of things. I can also help them in life. After all, in our lives we all make mistakes. Yes, everything. During my time at Sampdoria, we did a lot and more. So it seems to me that anyone who is fortunate enough to have this experience can teach a player how important things are on the pitch and off it.
Can you tell us about your biggest disappointment in football? The FA Cup final against Wigan at Wembley? Or losing the European Cup final against Barcalona at the same Wembley Stadium?
That final with Sampdoria was at the old Wembley. It was another Wembley.
But there were disappointments?
In my opinion, football is similar to life. There are good moments and there are bad, and it’s part of everyday life. I don’t remember the bad moments, because even if you lost the match, at least you still played in it, just unfortunately, your opponent was stronger and you lost, it happens. There were times when I made mistakes and there were times when I did everything right. There were wins and losses. But, it seems to me, this is the beauty of football. You can’t always win or always lose. Some moments are very happy, others are not. But the most important thing is to be in the game.
Where do you keep your trophies?
Oh, I don’t know. I hope they are with my father, I hope he has them.
Is there a player you trained, invested a lot of time in and he did not turn out as you had hoped?
I think it’s incorrect to name names. But it seems to me that this is part of football. There are players with a lot of potential, who do not know how to use it one hundred percent and there were a few, yes.
In which country did you face the hardest test?
To be honest, I have never faced serious problems. It’s always gone well. At first, when you move you have to get used to the new situation and I was always happy everywhere. Be that in England or Turkey, both were excellent and I like it here too.
Would you return to the English Premier League?
Yes, I would return. I like working in other leagues, gaining experience, but it's obvious that the English Premier League is probably the best league in the world. I would return there, but to work with a team that has not been champions for a long time, because to train those who always win…....
What is so good about the English Premier League? Why does everyone want to play and manage in the Premier League? Why is this an example to follow?
Because it's a great league. Because the players give one hundred percent both in the game and in training. Because the stadiums are always full. Because there are fans at every match, there is enthusiasm. Wherever you play, they are always crowds. And everything that surrounds the game adds to it. The Premier League is huge.
You mentioned a lot is missing in Italian football. Can you summarise things in Italy now?
As I said, I lived through the best years of Italian football, and it is obvious that it can’t be like before. Over the years, many things have been done wrong and they are now trying to fix it. I believe that this is possible to fix it. In Italy football is very important for all fans, but I don’t know if football will ever be the same as it was once before, but if we work hard, I believe that we can improve Serie A and get back to the right level. Because it is unfair that Serie A is less important than the French or Spanish leagues.
Please, specifically tell us at least one thing that can be fixed.
For starters, the stadiums, the stadiums and pitches are very important. Because if the stadiums are beautiful, then people will go there. There are many other things. For example, in England, they do not broadcast as many matches as they do in Italy, so people go to watch football at the stadium. In any case, a lot of changes are needed, it's hard to name just one problem.
They say that one should never try to have an ideal love and that you cannot always marry the woman of your dreams. Will we see you managing Sampdoria one day?
I do not know. Sampdoria was my life ... Let's just say I would not want to come and spoil everything. Because those years with my friends on the team, with the club's management, with the fans and all our shared history... If, after returning things did not to work out, it’s better that I don’t return. If someday there are reasons for going and creating something special, then yes, perhaps I would return. Otherwise, no.
I want to end the interview with the question with which I started, I remind you that you are a coach who has had many victories. Do you like yourself in the role of a player or coach more?
I liked myself much more as a player. After all, the player is in control of the outcome and for a manager the outcome depends on others. You can be a great coach, but mistakes always happen and others don’t always interpret you correctly. When you are playing out on the pitch, you make the decisions. As I said for young players there is nothing better in the world than playing football. There is nothing better than becoming a professional footballer.
In addition to the snow and ice in St. Petersburg, There have been many great people from this city. I will mention three: Peter the Great, Dostoyevsky and Putin. And, perhaps, by the time of your departure from this city your name will join these greats?
I do not know, I can only hope that when I leave here, I will leave good memories behind me, as other managers here did, like Spalletti and Villas-Boas, they wrote their names in the history of Zenit. I hope it will be the same for me. But sometimes it happens in a different way. The main thing is to work hard and with dedication, this is the most important thing. What will happen next ... I hope for the best.