In 2016 Bayern Munich faced a very difficult task. The club had to find a successor to Pep Guardiola. Only one was considered: Carlo Ancelotti. For us players, this meant a change from one side. What Ancelotti said in a week, Guardiola said in three hours. On the other hand, as for his predecessor, it was also true for Ancelotti: as a player, he feels comfortable because he feels that the coach is ready to put his methods at the disposal of the team. That’s why it’s happening everywhere.
In a poll on who is the best coach in the world, very few would say Carlo Ancelotti, even in Italy. Yet he has a unique record. He is the only one to soon win the title in the five major European leagues: with Milan in Serie A, Chelsea in the Premier League, Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1 and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, while with Real Madrid it is on the verge of winning the League.
There isn’t even a coach who has won the Champions League more often, three times, or with more clubs, twice. Ancelotti is also one of seven men who have held this trophy high as a player and as a coach. As a player, he prevailed because he possessed extraordinary strategic skills. Ancelotti was part of the legendary Milan team under Arrigo Sacchi, who taught the concept of football to great individual players. Ancelotti was on the field when a revolution took place, when the operating system of the modern ball game was programmed: the zonal marking oriented to the ball, that the plan is always current.
This experience is the prerequisite for a superior coach. Any coach who hasn’t played at the highest level is missing something that Ancelotti has experienced. And so his deep knowledge of the game, the players, the professional football milieu comes from within. A dogmatic coach is not. All their teams have a tactical level, think from the defense. But as a player, you have your freedom. Ancelotti is better at handling extreme characters.
Ancelotti also met with powerful men such as Silvio Berlusconi, Roman Abramovich, Florentino Pérez and Nasser al-Khelaifi. After a few weeks in Munich, he approached me and asked me who had more to say, Uli Hoeness or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. It was important for him to know who was giving his thumbs up or thumbs up at the club.
At the time he was driving us, it sometimes seemed chaotic along the way. After all, it’s children’s stuff. Ancelotti was supposed to provide discipline. He was given a list of five points that players should pay attention to in the future. After training, he took me aside, showed me the list and said, “Now they’re going to take me by the balls.”
Then Ancelotti stood in the street in front of the team, looked at a piece of paper and said, “I have an order from the council to read a list.” What he said, his tone, the way he looked, expressed: “This is not part of my job, I am not coaching a youth team after all. But if the bosses want I did it, I have to do it. Some players argued that signing thousands of autograph cards a month was too much for them. Ancelotti said, “It would be the same for me.”
Ancelotti is independent. He has charm, humor and a certain nonchalance. He manages to keep his distance. He often sat in a restaurant with his family for an hour and a half after the final whistle and ate tortellini. Ancelotti, the son of a farmer in Reggiolo in northern Italy, used to help with the farm from an early age. It embodies what is possible in football. You can come from the bottom to the top and shine on a big stage. Yet he never takes himself too seriously.
Those who are now wondering how it can be successful in five countries with five languages need to know: footballers do a lot of things non-verbally. And Ancelotti has mastered the 50 important words needed in this game in every language. First class football is international. Real, PSG, Chelsea, Bayern and Milan are different in style only in shades. Ancelotti is the ideal solution to hire such teams.
In Madrid, he certainly loves the exuberant universal talent of Karim Benzema, the intelligence of Luka Modric’s play, the precision of Toni Kroos ’footsteps. Benzema’s mistakes, on the other hand, interest him less, and they no longer want to teach Kroos to defend. As the Real coach, he is aware that a misfortune can happen, such as the 4-0 defeat against Barcelona. Genius is simply not available in every game. Ancelotti knows that and the players know he knows it. They support each other because he is one of them.
He doesn’t lose his temper after defeats but stays in front of his players. Team and coach are one unit, this is a merit of Ancelotti. The 3-1 victories against PSG and Chelsea have shown that Real Madrid can win not only the league but also the Champions League. I played my last year under Ancelotti. When I told him I was finishing my career, he asked me to reconsider. He said he could play at this level until the age of 40. When he realized that I had made up my mind, he tried to act as his assistant coach. But he wanted to take some distance.
He loves what he does and loves football and footballers. That’s why everyone likes to play for the great coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in the Guardian. That is is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is published in several European countries. Luca Lezzi of La Repubblicawhich helped with the search for this column.