Sid Lowe – The Guardian
The Everton manager on the killing of George Floyd, racial inequality, and returning to football in the Mersey derby
Everton’s manager Carlo Ancelotti is preparing for Sunday and what the fans hope is the first of many Premier League Merseyside derbies for him. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
“Look,” says Carlo Ancelotti, leaning towards the screen, a glint in his eye and a grin beginning to creep across his face. “I used to have a coach that said: ‘Coaching would be the best job in the world … if there weren’t any games.’” And with that Everton’s manager sits back again and starts laughing. Lockdown was good, then? “Well, my stress has gone down, definitely,” he says, smiling – the kind of person who never appeared particularly prone to pressure anyway, just a raise of an eyebrow while all around him others lose their heads.
“Throughout my career I’ve been able to control the stress as a manager and enjoy it all,” Ancelotti says, the easy charm that helps define him and the warmth quickly communicated, even on an iPad. “But it’s true that with this situation I’ve had more time to concentrate on myself. I’ve got problems with my knees, so I’ve tried to improve that, going on the bike a lot. I feel good physically and [mentally] I’m better, for sure. This period has been crazy but it helps you think, see what matters. I’ve got four grandchildren who’ve spent every day with their parents, a different relationship. My wife and I have been together all the time. In that sense it’s been good. I’ve had time to think.”
Some might wonder what the point is, what they are doing it all for. Ancelotti spent 16 years as a player and 25 as a coach at the world’s biggest clubs. He has coached everyone – there’s a moment when he’s running through an extraordinary list of extraordinary footballers when you realise it would be easier to name those with whom he hasn’t worked – and won everything. There are five European Cups [three as a manager] and four different league championships among 30 winners’ medals. He has been paid handsomely, too, so it would be tempting to conclude that he doesn’t need it any more; that, having seen the other side, there are better things to do.
“Better than coaching? Noooo,” Ancelotti shoots back. He is laughing, but he’s not joking. “You coach because what you want is to play. I’d like to play the game, not prepare it, but I’m 61 and if you can’t play coaching keeps that passion alive. I’m missing football. The fact that I couldn’t go to training every day was a nightmare for me. But I have done other things.”
Such as? “I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. I like history and I’ve watched a lot: about the Spanish civil war, Cuba, the Russian revolution, fascism in Italy. I’ve tried to understand, learn about the last century. What we are today is what happened in the past, although watching those documentaries there’s one simple [conclusion]: how lucky we are to live where we do and in the era we do. There’s freedom but we make life more complicated, we don’t think about those around us. I’m Catholic and one of the key teachings is to treat others as you would treat yourself. But we [think] just about us.”
Football has an important role to play in educating people
Another documentary he has watched is James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro. He has followed events in the US, where he has family, after the killing of George Floyd. He says there are lessons to be learned and that changes have to be made. “Right now there is a very big, very serious problem in America. And the police are part of that problem, that’s the thing. If I have a problem with anything, the first thing I do is go to the police: the police have to be a protector, and that hasn’t happened. The police have made the problem even greater and it can only be resolved if we all realise this is very serious. It’s not just one policeman who has lost his head, it’s much bigger. It’s more systematic, it’s not the first time and it has to end. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln declared everyone the same: blacks, whites, there is no slavery – 1862. Over 150 years ago and we’re in this situation, that can’t be possible.”
Premier League shirts will, of course, have Black Lives Matter printed on them again this weekend. “Football has an important role to play in educating people,” Ancelotti says. “Millions follow footballers, watch what they do, hear what they say.”
Nor is sport immune to the impact. Ancelotti mentions Claude Makélélé, his assistant at PSG, and his former player Clarence Seedorf, but says the comparative lack of black managers is an issue to be “confronted”, while he has tackled abuse directly. Ancelotti was the Napoli manager when the defender Kalidou Koulibaly was sent off against Internazionale in December 2018, the second yellow card handed out for sarcastically applauding the referee, who had not intervened despite the Senegalese centre-back receiving racist abuse.
Ancelotti asked for the game to be stopped and spoke out publicly afterwards, forcing the issue in press conferences and insisting that he would lead his team off if it happened again. When it happened the first time, he recalls, the focus was on defending his player.
What did you say to him? “That we were on his side, we were with him: we would fight with him, that it wasn’t right that he should have those problems and that we would try to change things,” Ancelotti says. “Kalidou has a strong character and he was angry. Sad, too. It wasn’t new for him, which made him even sadder. He felt anger and sadness. It’s 2020, that can’t happen.
“We asked for the game to be stopped, three times. We spoke to the referee’s assistant but they didn’t listen. At the time, the rules were not so clear, the protocol. But then the press pushed it and the rules on suspending games changed. It didn’t happen again; Koulibaly didn’t get that abuse again.
“If you challenge people, push them, make them think, things can change.”
If you listen, too. In an era of footballing ideologues, managers almost as cult leaders dedicated to an idea – although Ancelotti is swift to outline the nuances and flexibility in Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp – he is a little different. He says that while his staff have been in constant contact with the squad, personally he has tried to give his players space during lockdown, not wanting to overburden them in a period that is difficult enough as it is. Nor is he a manager to drive home messages incessantly. “I prefer to listen than to talk sometimes,” he says, a single, simple phrase that seems to encapsulate much about him.
“A coach has to be close to players, understand them. You have an idea of the game, but they’re the ones playing. If the relationship is good, they will understand clearly; if it’s not good, that becomes harder. You have to be able to communicate, be open, flexible not rigid. If you’re too rigid, the player won’t be convinced.”
It helps when the players you are listening to are his. The list is quite something: Ronaldo, Kaká, Gullit, Van Basten, Zidane … It’s not long before he interrupts and suggests sticking to goalkeepers only but even that doesn’t help much. He is 10 names in – Pickford, Casillas, Cech, and Van der Sar included – when he says he’s worried he will forget someone. OK then, is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you would have liked to?
“Yes, of course.” There’s a pause for thought. “Messi.” Another pause, a grin, and he adds: “If only to compare him with Ronaldo. In Italy, Totti. I started at Roma and have a lot of affection for them and he was an idol there. I would have liked that.”
All of which might make the leap to Goodison Park look an unlikely one. An Evertonian friend, he is told, is terrified you will leave; that your aspirations should be loftier than this. Ancelotti was dubbed the club’s Hollywood manager. Which raises a question. Well, two questions.
The first is dispatched quickly – “I’d like to be Robert De Niro” – the second takes a bit longer. What brings you of all people here of all places? “The attraction of working in the Premier League again and the club’s plans. We’re getting closer to being able to compete with the best and the project is very interesting. We’ve got a young team and the spinal cord is good, from the national team. Holgate, Mina, Michael Keane. Very reliable players. There’s André Gomes, Lucas Digne. And two very, very strong forwards.
“It’s a young team, it’s growing. It’s clear we have to invest to compete but the club wants to do that, we’re planning the new stadium, I think the club’s going to grow very fast. We also have a strong fan base; the relationship is very close. We’ve invested in the community, and that’s important. We have events where we go to see people, there are [open] days when they come to our training session: kids, people with learning difficulties, with problems. When lockdown started, we called people.”
It is easy to imagine Ancelotti telephoning incredulous supporters out the blue. Hello Ethan, it’s Carlo. Ancelotti laughs. “Yeah, sometimes they didn’t believe me, but you have a chat and it’s fine. Sometimes people say they can’t believe I’m coaching this club, but I feel really good here. It’s a family club and I’m always happier when you feel that closeness and support. The staff here are genuine Evertonians; there’s a strong sense of belonging.”
Players such as Leighton Baines, in the process of extending his stay, and Séamus Coleman take on a particular significance, he says. “We wanted Leighton Baines to sign a new contract. First, because he’s an important player who can help us. Second, because they’re an example for everyone.” Future coaches, too? After all, if anyone can spot one, it’s Ancelotti. “Leighton Baines could be, Coleman could. I think Sigurdsson could be. Delph could be a good coach. They’re people who see football.”
For now, it’s Duncan Ferguson and Ancelotti’s son Davide. “He’s always loved football; we talked about it endlessly at home, although he doesn’t remember me as a player. That passion was always there but he didn’t reach the level he wanted [to play], so he decided quite early to go another way. He studied sports science, did a course in Germany and started as an assistant. He hasn’t just made it because of anything I said. He never did ask me what I thought about being a coach, but if he had, I’d have told him that [line] about coaching without matches. Then I’d have said: ‘Go on, do it; it’s good.’
“And Duncan is an extraordinary person with a deep love for the club. His experience helps his relationship with the players, he has knowledge and understanding of the game, and he is very charismatic. He’s very direct, very clear, and I’m really happy with him.
“Our future is clearly delineated. The pandemic has created all sorts of problems for the game but that won’t change our plans for the future. Our decision [to take salary cuts] was something we felt was right to do: if you can do something to help those who live alongside you, you should. We did it, we’re happy, and we carry on: that has no impact on our development. The idea is still to improve the team with signings, we’re clear on that. We don’t have a lot of time before next season but what we need to do to improve the team we’ll still do, no doubt.”
First, though, the restart – and Sunday’s derby. “Ah, yeah,” Ancelotti jokes, almost as if he’s happily forgotten the fixture to which Everton come back. “That’s one thing the pandemic has damaged for sure. Everyone wants the fans there: we need the noise of the ground, it changes things emotionally. But I think the game itself will be the same. A derby is a derby.”
What will it be like? “I don’t know.” There’s a long pause, then an even longer one. He puffs his cheeks out, rolls his eyes, mentally scanning 1,583 matches. “Honestly, I don’t remember if I have played or managed behind closed doors,” he says eventually. “I don’t know, I don’t think so.”
It has taken a while, but at last there it is: one thing Carlo Ancelotti hasn’t experienced in football. At least not until Sunday.