The influence of foreign coaches on the development of Italian sport

Gherardo Bonini, Sergio Giuntini and Nicola Sbetti


This chapter focuses on a decidedly new or little-addressed subject in Italian academic literature on sport, namely that of coaching culture, its training content and generational transmission, both in elite sportsmen and among the masses of practitioners, revealing that, once acquired, successful coaching practices constitute an identifiable patrimony of knowledge. In the past, the main works on the subject, compiled mostly by respected journalists, addressed the biographies of famous coaches and their characterizations within the stories of the teams they led, or appeared intermittently in considerations of greater cultural depth within the context of historical studies. Studies dealing with training methods have rarely analysed the precise filiations or the significant variations later adopted, in sum the key passages of ‘transmission of knowledge’.1 In this chapter, the authors aim to draft an overall vision of the Italian history of the culture of training, utilizing its most easily identifiable aspect, that of foreign influence, and highlighting how the Italian cultural heritage of coaching has become enriched and opened up internationally as a result of the recruitment of foreign coaches. In order to do that, after a brief historical introduction, the focus will be mainly on two global sporting disciplines, athletics and football, although the chapter will also critically explore team cycling, volleyball, and water polo. The contribution ends with some thoughts about a coaching trend that has been detected in recent decades.

Historical context

In Italy, the diffusion and relative standardization of sports were conducted with difficulty between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a country whose elite, effectively represented also by the press, wished, by virtue of the cultural tradition of its past, to have, and to be able to aspire to, a place among the first rank of nations on the international scene, even sport began to be perceived as a theatre in which Italy had to occupy an important space. However, sporting authorities faced the problem of how to achieve the adequate cultural preparation necessary to achieve this; in practice, how to develop the athletic and sporting potential of Italian youth.2 Different sporting disciplines approached this in different ways. Gymnastics played a leading role in the emergence of some sports, such as weightlifting, wrestling, athletics, and football.3 Later on, these disciplines, in contrast to a tendency towards closure that was typical of the gymnastic environment,4 embarked on an autonomous path, setting up independent federations and taking on difficult international challenges. For example, several weightlifters and wrestlers undertook, often on an individual level, trips to France and Germany in order to acquire the techniques with which to realize their talent.5 In football, despite the fact that in 1909-1910 a policy of Italianization of the clubs was implemented, the majority of teams continued to include foreign players.6 Overall, though, while looking carefully at the models proposed by France and Germany. Italy maintained the position that adhering to the gynmastic tradition of the management of the body, especially core exercises, would enable it to achieve international prestige in a singularly national and nationalistic fashion.

In terms of policy and development, there were sports disciplines, such as fencing, shooting, and horse riding, where Italian skill and superiority were already well-established.7 In fencing, masters from the schools ofNaples, Rome, and other cities had propagated a centuries-old avant-garde tradition and iconic champions of the last decades of the nineteenth century, such as Eugenio Pini and Agesilao Greco, had cemented an Italian tradition of athleticism.8 In developing its Olympic fencing, Italy had maintained, if not increased, its advantage over other traditions. In this discipline, the patrimony surrounding the culture of coaching was considered so embedded that there was no concern about the knowledge transfer that occurred when masters taught abroad, in Berlin, Vienna. Budapest, or elsewhere. Indeed, the respect given to them in foreign circles were reasons for pride and not regarded as a kind of ‘brain drain' as is often assumed in the contemporary era.9 Similarly, the riding schools of Pinerolo and Rome,10 as well as the district shooting centres, guaranteed that Italy retained its international profile. The nation’s successes in the first international competitions in shooting (from 1897) and gynmastics (from 1903) and the first Olympic achievements in equestrian sports, gynmastics, and fencing, corroborated these expectations, establishing a sort of formative autarchy.11 On the other hand, the first modern Olympic Games had demonstrated Italian inferiority in disciplines, such as swimming and athletics, where the Anglo-Saxon bourgeois had raised the competitive and technical level, with Italian competitiveness being only token at best.12 Nonetheless, unlike other countries, such as the other two members of the Triple Alliance, Germany and Austria, Italy did not resort to engaging an Anglo-Saxon coach to raise the standard of athletics.13

After World War I, international sport quickly became an important arena, where the results of the Summer Olympic Games (and from 1924 of the Winter Games), as well as in various professional competitions, first cycling and motorsport, then also football, were considered to represent national efficiency and prestige.14 In Italy, the Fascists assumed power in 1922 and they relied heavily on sport for their success. Despite subscribing to an outwardly hyper-nationalistic ideology, the fascist authorities were very attentive to the strengthening of all disciplines in Olympic and non-Olympic sport. Every organization coimected to the prestige of the regime quickly realized that to make the country one of the first nations in the world, strong in every field, Italian sport should bridge the gaps between preparation and results in important areas such as athletics and football by acquiring foreign assistance. In football, while the ideological position was that the national team was an important expression of fascist qualities on the pitch,15 in order to differentiate the Italian system from those of reputedly stronger competitors, the British and the Central European nations, the regime allowed clubs to hire foreign coaches, mostly from these countries.

Foreign coaches for athletic Italy

World War I and the Inter-Allied Games held in Paris in the summer of 1919 marked a watershed in the history of Italian sport and in the practice of training.16 The war assumed the role of a ‘war gymnasium' that, as a result of the clash between sporting civilizations, encouraged the spread of lesser known disciplines (basketball, volleyball, and baseball), first among the armies of the Entente and later in the various national civil societies. The Inter-Allied Games involving the victorious countries highlighted the clear superiority of the American soldier-athletes thanks to their modern training techniques. The crucial contribution of the American YMCA and of Elwood Brown, director of the athletic department of the American expeditionary force (AEF), had made possible the organization of the Games. Brown was supported by a significant range of specialists in different sports and their presence in Europe, which lasted for several years, proved to be decisive in training a new generation of European coaches. France learnt this lesson quite quickly and for the training of its representatives in the Inter-Allied Games it referred to the director of the YMCA, Louis Schroeder, before entrusting him with the training of the track team selected for the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920. Schroeder, who wanted to create a closer link between trainers and scientists, sought the support of sports and scientific authorities like the Marquis Melchior de Polignac, the patron who had enabled Georges Hébert to open his college for athletes in Reims, and Dr Richard Elie Mercier, who contributed to the birth of the journal Science et sport (1922) and who, with Paul-André Chailley-Bert, introduced one of the first French training manuals, La course à pied, in 1927.17

A similar scenario took place in Italy. During the conflict, the YMCA, coordinated by John S. Nollen, sent to the Italian front 277 officers and 1,500 workers, many of them with a sporting focus. Between January 1918 and March 1919, the YMCA distributed 30,000 balls for soccer, 2,500 for volleyball, and 1,500 for basketball to competitors in the army, an enterprise that was reflected in the popularity of these sports after the war. In this sense, at the end of the conflict, the YMCA proved a crucial resource for the Italian athletics in the light of the Olympic Games in 1920. Nollen served the Italian Athletics Federation (FISA) well, supported by the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), and FISA hired its first foreign coach, Platt Adams. During the Italian Championships in Milan on 11 and 12 October 1919, at a meeting held between CONI officers Felice Tonetti and Emanuele Croci with the FISA Vice President Carlo Del Bo, it was agreed on the need to entrust Olympic preparation to an internationally renowned figure. Immediately afterwards, Tonetti contacted Nollen in Rome, who telegraphed Adams, one of the coaches of US athletes at the Inter-Allied Games, in New York asking about his availability. Adams accepted a contract for eight months with a guaranteed wage of 4,000 Italian liras, with travel and accommodation paid for, and four YMCA assistants were put at his disposal. Given the difficulty of finding equipment in Italy, Adams was asked to buy items in America, to be paid for by CONI, and when he landed in Genoa in January 1920, he brought 150 pairs of spiked shoes with tips and fifty without, a hundred pairs of shoes for jumps and throws, a hundred for javelin throw, forty-one for discus, twenty for pole vault, and six for hammer.18

Born in Belleville, New Jersey, Adams competed for the New York Athletic Club and won the standing high jump in the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games with 1.63 m and was fifth in the triple jump in 1908 and 1912 with 14.07 and 14.09 m. respectively. He had also achieved noteworthy records in other jumping specialties. When he coached in Italy, Adams introduced the double scissor method in the liigh jump, usually known by different names depending on the specific variations used by the athletes, such as ‘Eastern cut-off", 'Lewden', ‘Sweeney twist’, and ‘Atlantic style’. As a result, Italian specialists improved their performances and eventually Giuseppe Palmieri improved the national record to 1.86 m. In general, however, either because of the short period of his contract or because of the backwardness of the Italian athletic movement, Adams' contribution to the evolution of Italian athletics proved modest, and the medals won by Italy at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 came from the walking races with Ugo Frigerio, from middle distance with Ernesto Ambrosini, and from the marathon race with Valerio Arri. In essence, the nation’s best results came from events which were not directly related to Adams' expertise.

The advent of fascism, which implemented extremist nationalistic and autarchic policies, did not hinder the use of foreign coaches and the first of many who served the Italian team was the Hungarian Jenb Gaspar. His recruitment coincided with the Treaty of Friendship signed in Rome by Benito Mussolini with Hungary on 5 April 1927. Gaspar, a law graduate and a member of the Magyar Atletikai Club (Hungarian Athletic Club) of Budapest, was a former high jumper with a personal best of 1.93 m and a fifth place in the 1924 Olympics. He was appointed in the Bologna session on 23 January 1927 by the Technical Commission of the Italian Athletics Federation (now FIDAL), despite the wishes of CONI, which would have preferred to rely on the American coach Michael Ryan, from Colby College in Maine. Gaspar was assigned to the national athletes and essentially started his duties organizing events in Bologna on 5 and 6 March 1927, followed by events in Modena, Forli. Rome, Naples, Palermo, Bari, Cesena, Milan, and again in Rome, up to 21 April 1927. Between 1927 and 1928, he dealt with the elite University team that he coached for one month in preparing for an event with especial interest to the fascist authorities, the World University Games of Rome 1927. Gaspar was a very organized and competent coach, both theoretically and practically, but he lost his post after the poor performances achieved by Italian athletes at the 1928 Olympic Games. However, as Marco Martini noted.

The historian who wanted to blame Gaspar for the not very brilliant Olympic results in Amsterdam, would still be on the wrong path. The decisions regarding the pre-Olympic trials, the forced minimum quota to be admitted in the number of would-be Olympic contestants, the selections for the rallies, even the rules in force within the collegiate training, and of course the formation of the team, were all managed and guided by the Technical Commission.19

After its experience with Gaspar, FIDAL again employed a foreign coach, this time from Finland, when the Florentine Marquis Luigi Ridolfi presided over the federation. The contract was signed at the Finnish embassy in Rome by the Secretary of FIDAL, Puccio Pucci, on 10 March 1933, and in September Marti Jarvinen, the javelin thrower, who was Olympic champion in Los Angeles 1932, moved to Italy. He was still an active athlete and later set his last world record by throwing at 77.36 m on 18 June 1936 in Helsinki. FIDAL hired also Paavo Karikko, followed a few months later by Ove Andersen and Renko Veikko. With them, should have been the Finnish shot-put record holder Armas Waldstedt, but he withdrew. Their task was to prepare the best athletes for the inaugural edition of the European Championships due to be held in Turin, Italy, in the summer of 1934. and they were assigned to various locations. Jarvinen was based in Turin, employed by the local Fascist University Group (GUF), Karikko resided in Florence, at the service of club Giglio Rosso (Red Lily) and the Pisa Sports Union, while Andersen operated in Naples, serving the club Virtus, the local section of GUF and Fasci youth combat (FGC), and Veikko was active in Rome, again dealing with the activity of local sections of the GUF and the FGC. They also acted as demonstrators on the first course in the history of Italian athletics aimed at federal trainers and promoted by Bruno Zauli of the Foreign Ministry in Rome in February 1934. Lasting a week, with lessons in the classroom and on the field, seventy-two students took part and forty-three gained an ’excellent' evaluation. Of the four Finnish coaches who worked in Italy, the most effective proved to be Karikko,20 who achieved great notoriety at home, during the World War II, as organizer of the Karhumaki Games, which incorporated military competitions in athletics, wrestling, boxing, and football. He scandalized the athletic community for openly criticizing the training methods of the ‘sacred monster’ and country idol Paavo Nurmi. He also worked in Switzerland, and in Italy, supervising middle distance, throwing, and jumping athletes, and he enjoyed many admirers, among them the influential Italian journalist Gianni Brera, who, in the manual of which he was the main editor, entrusted him with the teaching section dedicated to the javelin.21 Karikko also left his mark in the Italian high jump by introducing the ’Horine', which enabled Antonio Masera to succeed internationally.

Once the contract with the Finnish coaches had expired. FIDAL decided to engage American coach Boyd Comstock in preparation for the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The influential Italian official Zauli advocated for Comstock and

Foreign coaches and Italian sport 153 began making initial contacts in order to convince him to accept the position in late 1934. Brutus Hamilton, Head Coach at Berkeley, and Daniel Ferris, Secretary of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), acted as intermediaries in the United States. The negotiations turned out to be very complex due to the compensation requested by Comstock, which the Marquis Ridolfi paid out of his own pocket. Born in 1886, Comstock, a modest high jumper in his youth, had previously operated at the University of Southern California, from 1913 at Yale, and more lately at UCLA in Los Angeles. He was a great discoverer of talent and he had trained world record holders such as Howard Drew and Charles Paddock for flat races, Earl Thomson for hurdles, Harold Osborne for high jump, and as many as five Olympic winners, namely Alma Richards (1912), Richmond Landon (1920), Osborne (1924), Duncan McNaughton (1932), and Cornelius Johnson (1936). He also wrote a well-respected manual How to Hurdle (1925) published by the American Sport Publishing Company in New York. Comstock remained in Italy for seven years, having as his base the club Giglio Rosso that was presided over by Ridolfi in Florence, where he lived, while for the national team he preferred the training camp in Rapallo, on the East Liguria coast. Middle distance was not his strong suit, so that the Olympic champion of 1932, Luigi Beccali, accused him of causing his failure in the 1500 m at the Berlin Olympics 1936, by forcing him, so Beccali said, to drastically reduce his training regime before the event and resting him for a week before the Olympic race.22

Conversely, the value of engaging Comstock emerged above all in the methodologies applied to sprinting, hurdles, tin-owing, and jumping. Giorgio Oberweger was a disciple of Comstock and, after World War II, held the position of national technical commissioner for a long time. He underlined Comstock’s main qualities in this way:

For him, the technique was a continuous process, and the analytical spirit prevented him from formulating theories. However, he realized a fundamental one, about running, with masterful intuition. It concerns the circular style and those data on the coordination of movements that are the key to all athletics.23

For his part. Comstock stated clearly the philosophy that dictated his training system:

A good coach, just like an expert doctor, must first make a diagnosis and then, after having made a reasonable opinion, find remedies. If the diagnosis proves wrong, he will still have to examine for another time the patient (i.e. the athlete). This error judgment system gives excellent results. Of course, it is more difficult to grasp the mistakes made by a great champion, because the champion masks his defects with the excellence of the results.24

The teaching of Comstock penetrated the training system adopted in Italy by means of the athletes he coached and the assistants who learnt from him. The athletics of democratic and republican post-fascist Italy has hardly used any otherforeign technicians, even those from the most qualified schools in Eastern Europe. Vitaly Petrov, the coach of Ukrainian pole-vaulter Sergey Bubka, represented an exception and he led Giuseppe Gibilisco to the World title in 2003. The primary reason for not hiring Eastern Bloc coaches can be attributed to the Cold War and the revelations after the fall of the Berlin Wall which highlighted the use of large-scale doping practices in the former Communist nations.

Foreign coaches in football

At the beginning, two antithetic schools of thought influenced the development of Italian football. The first was linked to the Italian Gymnastic movement, which adapted the rules and the ethos of the English Football Association for its nationalistic goals. For example, well before the Fascist era, it was in the Gymnastic milieu that efforts were made to invent an Italian origin of the game with reference to the calcio played in Florence from the Renaissance or to the har-pastum played by the ancient Romans. The second perspective, on the contrary, was more open-minded and cosmopolitan; more anglophile. It was this second movement that created an autonomous football federation, which in 1898 started an embryonic league and in 1905 affiliated to FIFA. During the Belle Epoque, each of these two movements had their respective institutions and leagues with some differences in their regulations, the main one being the non-acceptance of foreign elements in the football league organized by the Gymnastic movement.25 Although, by the eve of the World War I, the Italian Football Federation had definitively won the institutional battle against the Italian Gymnastic Federation to control the game in the whole peninsula, from a cultural point of view the influence of the latter survived. For example, in 1909, it was under pressure from the football clubs with a gynmastic background, that the Football federation, in a process of indigenization, changed its name from Federazione Italiana del Football to Federazione Italiana del Calcio. Furthermore, despite a risk of oversimplification, it could be argued that in the evolution of Italian football there has always been a constant tension between nationalistic and cosmopolitan forces. This ambivalence between autarky and exoticism inevitably had an influence in the role that foreign coaches played in spreading a football culture in Italy.

During the Belle Epoque, foreign players, in particular those of British, Swiss, and Austrian backgrounds, were instrumental in teaching the game, which, until at least the eve of the World War I, remained almost completely amateur. As Pierre Lanfranchi has highlighted, an important moment of change in the Italian football coaching culture was, in the summer of 1912, the employment of William Garbutt by the main Italian football team of the time: Genoa Cricket and Football club.26 While Garbutt was just one of the many British managers who contributed to the development of a football culture in Continental Europe and South America, his appointment making a real impact on Italian football and marking a turning point in the game. Generally described as ‘the first true football manager in Italy',27 he was decisive in promoting a ‘shift towards professionalization' in Italy and an

Foreign coaches and Italian sport 155 innovation ‘in training methods’ with the introduction of new exercises, which were soon adopted by other coaches.28 For example,

To develop the dribbling qualities of the players, he used to place a number of posts in the middle of the pitch. Each player had to dribble around them quickly with the ball at his feet. For heading, he attached a ball on a length of elastic and the players had to jump for it a number of times.29

Even before the arrival of Garbutt in Italy, for the match lost against France in March 1912, an Englishman from Nottingham, Henry Goodley, was on the selection committee for the national team. Interestingly, he was not only a selector but also an international referee and in May 1913 in the game against Belgium found himself faced with a conflict of interest.30 Furthermore, in order to prepare for the football tournament at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, a single head coach was appointed instead a larger committee for the first time. Significantly, the man chosen for the task, Vittorio Pozzo, was probably the most cosmopolitan figure involved in Italian football and the most familiar with the tactical innovations being adopted in Britain.31

Another consequence of the success of the British coaches was the appointment of Garbutt as trainer of the Italian national team from December 1912 to May 1914, although his coaching role was limited because the selection of the team remained the responsibility of a committee. Despite the general acknowledgement of British superiority, the Italian Football Federation was not prepared to delegate the control of the national team completely to a foreigner. However, when in 1924 Vittorio Pozzo was recalled back to coach the Italian national team, he wanted as his assistants the two leading British coaches in the Italian league: Herbert Burgess and William Garbutt.32 Broadly speaking, in the years after the World War I, the success of Garbutt at club level stimulated the employment of other British coaches, who introduced several innovations, not only linked to tactics, but also regarding training methods. For example, the Scotsman Willie Aitken, manager of Juventus from 1928 to 1930, was the first to introduce the modern system of ‘interval training’.33 The legacy of this British cultural hegemony over Italian football shaped the language of the sport and even today players still use the word ‘Mister’ to refer to their coach.34

However, by 1929/1930 season, British coaches were no longer in a majority in the Serie A. Among the foreign football managers, there were six Hungarians, five Austrians, and only four Britons. The geographical and political proximity, together with the process of professionalization of Danube football, facilitated the migration of Austrian and Hungarian coaches into a league that, outwardly at least, was not yet professional. Throughout the 1930s, the Hungarians, despite the racial laws of 1938, remained by far the most represented nation among the foreign coaches in Italy and one of them, Arpad Weisz, not only won three national titles but also published in Italian an influential textbook about the game.35 Another Hungarian Jew, Egri Erbstein, who, like Arpad Weisz lost his job after the introduction of racial laws but was able to survive the Holocaust, became themost innovative coach in the aftermath of the war. Despite his premature death in the Superga tragedy (4 May 1949), he was instrumental increasing training workloads, introducing tactical innovations, and, influenced by the work of the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga, using some rudiments of psychology.36

By the end of 1950s, the success of Hungarian coaches had gradually declined. The Iron Curtain, the decline of the Aranyacsapat (Golden team), and the failure of Lajos Czeizler. the Hungarian coach who was Technical Director of the Italian national team in 1953 and in 1954, were among the causes of this disaffection. Another reason may be the success of South American, especially Argentinian coaches, during the 1960s. This new wave was a direct consequence of the personal success of Helenio Herrera. With his authoritarian approach, his modern and almost military training methodologies, with a special attention to psychological aspects and a focus on medical and nutrition issues, the Franco-Argentinean was an innovator. He tried to promote a healthier lifestyle to his players and he also introduced the notion of a pre-match retreat. In taking a holistic approach, Herrera epitomized the role of the modern coach and he became a model for others,37 being nicknamed ‘il Mago' (the Magician). In order to reproduce his impact, the Juventus club hired as a manager another Herrera, Heriberto, from Paraguay whose slogan was ‘order and discipline' and he introduced a very physical style of play based on running without the ball. Coaching a team with very few highly talented players, he managed to win the 1967 league beating Helenio Herrera's Inter by just one point.38

Helenio Herrera was also the last foreign coach to work with the Italian national team, even if in 1962 it was only for a couple of weeks. In 1966-1967, he shared this privilege with Ferruccio Valcareggi, eventually winner of 1968 European Nations Cup.39 After Herrera, despite the presence of several successful foreign coaches in Serie A, such as the Czech Cestmir Vycpâlek, the Swede Nils Lied-holm, the Slav Vujadin Boskov, the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson, and the Portuguese José Mourinho, no one was even close to sitting on the Italian national team bench. The success of the Italian national team in the second half of the twentieth century and in the first decade of the twenty-first century, plus the recent success of Italian coaches abroad, has helped the construction of the myth that the Federal centre of Coverciano is, as the New York Tinies once wrote, a ‘pipeline of champions’.40 This debatable belief in the superiority of Italian coaches in World football has been particularly strong in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when there has never been more than four foreign coaches in a season in Serie A, with the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons witnessing no foreign managers at all.

Nevertheless, the temptation to assign a top club team to a foreign gum like Helenio Herrera, is still very strong, and can sometimes be successfill, as with Portuguese José Mourinho and Bosnian Vladimir Petkovic. Often, the actual impact of these appointments is complicated, as in the case of the Dutch Frank De Boer and the Spaniard Luis Enrique and the Argentinian Hector Cuper, because of the low levels of patience of Italian Club Presidents. Although the Italian football leagues are invaded by foreign players and the press often refers to possible coaching appointments for the main clubs of renowned international figures such as Spaniard José Guardiola or German Jurgen Klopp, their engagement would seem to be out of the range of Italian financial and managerial resources and in the 2020-2021 season, there were only three foreign managers. Moreover, it is improbable that a foreign manager will guide the Italian team, notwithstanding this trend characterizes national appointments in many other sporting disciplines. A similar consideration applies to the female national team, especially given that in the last ten leagues in the Italian female Serie A there has been just one foreign coach (who lived in Italy) for half a season. The experience of former Italian women football star Carolina Morace as trainer of professional men team Viter-bese for one month in summer 1999 aroused many polemics and much attention,41 highlighting the existing obstacles in Italy for a woman, in the case of Morace a fully qualified trainer, to manage men's sport. Brigitte Fink, Head Coach of the Italian luge team during 1990s, experienced similar difficulties, although, outwardly, it was differences over technical and managerial approaches that led to her resignation, and not, as far as we can know, gender issues.42 Historically, women had found more positivity in the luge environment43 than in other sports but the appointment of women to manage male athletes remains problematic.

Coaches without frontiers?

The appointment of Fabio Capello as coach of England between 2007 and 2012, a national football team that had once been world champions, caused a sensation in Italy. While foreign coaches had guided Italy in the past the idea of a foreigner coaching the national football team appeared to be implausible in the twenty-first century, although many non-Italian coaches managed Italian teams in other sporting disciplines. Football aficionados asked, could a foreign coach demonstrate the requisite desire for victory and dedication without his/her belonging to the country? Could a foreign coach ever become ‘one like us' and generate the spirit needed among both players and supporters? Away from football, the answer appears to have been that they could, as demonstrated by the coaching of the Italian national rugby team that oscillated between employing Anglo-Saxon and French coaches,44 but there are sectors of the sporting landscape, in particular in those disciplines in which Italy considers itself a world leader, in which the employment of foreign coaches seems to have been precluded. Being an Italian national seems to be an essential requirement for anyone involved in selecting and preparing for the World Championship cycling road race. This approach can also be witnessed in other countries with a strong tradition and profile in road race cycling such as France, Spain, Belgium, and Holland, not least because the selector’s role involves a very heavy workload during the course of a competitive season.

Cycling has significant popular support and it is rooted in traditional national values, with its techniques and strategies intimately linked with the national consciousness. The experience of recent decades suggests that being Italian has remained a fundamental tenet for appointment to the World Championships, although in other cycling competitions, especially after the introduction of sponsoring brands in professional cycling following World War II. the coach is selected on the basis of competence and charisma since these competitions are not directly connected to national identity. The manager of the national team must be aloof from partisanship, capable of communicating and smoothing out misunderstandings, convincing in indicating a road map of common interest, and looking beyond the cainpanilismo (parochialism) that has divided Italian cycling over the years. In the immediate post-war years, Alfredo Binda embodied this approach, proving able to smooth out the historic rivalry between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.45 Alfredo Martini led the national cycling team from 1976 to 1998 with considerable success. He was a figure of clear and impeccable charisma able to create total commitment among team members, combining a degree of paternalism with the ability to transmit notions of self-sacrifice, mutual solidarity, and discipline during the World Championship race. His approach allowed the permeation of nationalistic values within the team without the need for the excessive rhetoric of the past.46 He created a specific coaching culture that has been maintained by his successors, Franco Ballerini, Paolo Bettini, and the incumbent leader Davide Cassani. This patrimony has continued to focus on the central notion of sacrifice for the team and for the nation and it is highly unlikely that it will be replaced by a ‘coaching project’ that might be more successful because it was led by a world-renowned, but, non-Italian coach.

Coaches for a ‘Hard Work-out’

In other sectors of Olympic sport, which have grown consistently in terms of economic interests and media attention after opening up to professionalism, a different approach prevailed when appointing a national team coach. This was to identify and select a charismatic and highly professional figure without consideration of nationality with the aim of raising the level of performance and, consequently, the prestige and competitiveness of the team. Emblematic in this regard is the case of the signing of the Argentine coach Julio Velasco by the Italian federation for the men’s volleyball team and he remained in charge between 1989 and 1996. It was not the first time that Italian volleyball had resorted to the experience of a foreign manager. Even during the Cold War years, the men’s national team had made use of coaches from the Communist bloc (1954-1970), which fact had not aroused great controversy, both because of the true amateurism of the sport and because the figures involved had no high-level record of accomplishment that induced suspicion about their methods.47

Velasco was determined to implement his game project,48 learnt by observing the American coach Doug Beal who had attracted worldwide attention with the successes of the American national team.49 Arriving in Italy in 1982, the Argentine coach had led the team from Modena to national and international triumphs from 1985 to 1989. Before him, the South Korean player and coach Kim Ho Chui had been a conduit for a kind of transfer knowledge in the sport. Chui arrived in Italy in 1981 and raised the standard of his Parma team by implementing numerous variations, initiatives that were replicated by others in an emulative chain of

Foreign coaches and Italian sport 159 learning and updating. Velasco managed to apply the systematic application of a programme designed to elevate the standard and specialization of each player in his or her role, training them to grow their skills, through the continuous search for an optimal performance for every technical part of their performance. It was a new culture of working in volleyball aimed at training a highly professional player, capable of providing teammates with an absolute level of performance, and able to respond appropriately at critical moments according to the specific phase of the game. Velasco often stated that he aimed to instil in players the desire to fulfil their role to the very best by anticipating the likely intervention of teammates and to not only make clean and error-free technical movements but to have in mind the next play in the game. The collaboration of the player within the team while without the ball was important.

Another revolution made by Velasco in the way the Italian national team played was the separation of roles, the specific division of tasks. Everyone had to cover the phases of the game, but not all had the same role. He also addressed the psychological growth of the player and his mental strength. Each player had to combat any lack of concentration during the game and particular care was taken to increase the psychological strength of players in absorbing the partial defeats and setbacks suffered during the game, so as not to affect the emotional and psychological potential of the athlete with respect to the overall game outcome. The testimony of the players from the Velasco era speaks unequivocally of an experience draining of mental and physical energy, of an acquired capacity for growth, as well as of a process of hyper-professionalization. Velasco had a generation of exceptional talents at his disposal. Many of them have become successful coaches and have replicated, albeit with individual variations, especially with respect to discipline, the teaching of application, the fight against competitive and mental discontinuity, and the improvement of roles and related skills that he instilled in them.

In a dynamic similar to that of Velasco, the management and technical career of the Yugoslav and then Croatian Ratko Rudic at the helm of the men's national water polo team took place in an historical context. Italy had won the Olympic title in 1948 and 1960, the latter under the guidance of the Hungarian Bandy Zolyomy, as well as the 1978 World title, having as coach Gianni Lonzi, who had introduced a culture of application and high workloads. In 1990, the highly motivated Rudic decided to accept the contract with the Italian swimming federation. He clearly had a personal ambition to win an Olympic title with Italy, which he had won at the helm of Yugoslavia in 1984 and 1988.50 Rudic imposed an iron discipline and the 'logics of sacrifice’, a key concept stressed and accepted by the Italian federation.51 Similar to Velasco he strove to train players not to have moments of competitive and mental discontinuity during the phases of the game, and to have a proactive and active attitude, entering the game always alert and ready to commit to a collective team game, while eliminating psychological passivity. Rudic developed harsh training regimes and strict rules of common work. Furthermore, he convinced the federation to draw up a general programme aimed at major competitions, finding collegial space for the national team and the youthsector. The national team became the hub of water polo activity. On a personal level, in a sporting discipline characterized by aggressive behaviour and physical contact, Rudic always strongly defended his players in the national and international press. In the Rudic era, Italy won the Olympic title in Barcelona in 1992 and the World title in Rome in 1994. At the end of his engagement with the Italian national team in 2000, he went on to pursue championships with both the United States and Serbia. Many of Rudic’s players subsequently became coaches and the current leader of the Italian national team, Alessandro Campagna, who also coached Greece for the 2004 Athens Olympics, has established his programme very much in line with Rudic’s teaching.

Final remarks

An overall and concise review about the impact of foreign coaches on the development of sporting disciplines in Italy can only be positive, not only because of the number of prestigious successes achieved, but also for the undoubtedly increased capacity of the Italian sports community to develop consolidated structures and training techniques to achieve at the highest level. While some foreign interventions had no immediate or obvious result, these training projects reflected a serious, qualitative, and targeted investment from sporting organizations,52 as well as a willingness to commit from both involved parties (coaches and athletes), and the responsibility for any relative failures must be shared equally between all the parties involved, case by case.

In the contemporary period, the culture of work and sacrifice have become common parameters for team sports coaches, although on a personal level one distinguishing feature seems to have been the need for positive psychological interaction and an affinity with athletes. It is interesting in this respect to think about some cases in individual sports where the foreign coach has been avoided in favour of a coach who is a parent or a close relative of a top-level athlete, a combination that has been successful in Italian sports. Perhaps the most interesting case was Karl Dibiasi, father of Klaus, triple Olympic champion in diving from 1968 to 1976. A successfill trainer in the post-war years, Karl apparently moved back to Italy from Austria where he had gone in 1939, a sensitive change of nationality that was connected with his desire to put into practice a more ambitious training project.53 In athletics, the most striking cases are those of Marco Tamberi, father and mentor of his son Gianmarco, a top-class high jumper, and that of Salvino Tortu, father of Filippo, Italian record holder of 100 m. In coaching terms, this type of familial partnership theoretically guarantees an excellent psychological result, but sometimes it lends itself to an equally possible intrinsic defect, namely an emotional breakdown between mentor and athlete.

In conclusion, we hope that this contribution, by its experimental nature, will pave the way to further research, deepening the themes within different sporting disciplines in order to compose a richer and more detailed picture. In particular, future work needs to explore coaching influences in participation sport and the composition of technical programmes for sports schools. Another essential line of research is to explore how Italian coaching cultures have historically been linked to gender issues, a field that is already beginning to receive some attention.54


  • 1 The German trainer Theodor Siebert is the uncredited originator of many methods usually adopted in education courses as well as in Italy. See Gherardo Bonini, ‘The Father of German Weightlifting: Theodor Siebert’, MILO. The Journal of Serious Strength Athletes 15 (2007): 113-17.
  • 2 Angela Teja, Marco Impiglia, ‘Italie’, in Histoire du sport en Europe, ed. James Riordan, Arnd Kruger, and Thierry Terret (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004), 205-6.
  • 3 For weightlifting and wrestling see Livio Toschi, The Myth of Strength (San Marino: EWFTWF, 2001 ) and for football, Sergio Giuntini, I calciatori delle palestre. Football e società ginnastiche in Italia (Turin: UNASCI, 2011).
  • 4 Antonio Lombardo, ‘Premessa’, in Storia degli sport in Italia 1861-1960, ed. Antonio Lombardo (Rome: Il Vascello, 2004), 5.
  • 5 Tullio Camilletti, silver medalist at the 1906 Athens Intercalated Games, was a product of the German school, see Marino Ercolani Casadei, Livio Toschi, 33 atleti nella storia (San Marino: AIEP, 2006), 17-18.
  • 6 Giuntini, I calciatori dellepalestre, 92.
  • 7 Simon Martin. Sport Italia. The Italian Love Affair with Sport (London: I: B: Taurus, 2011), 19-20.
  • 8 Greco trained consistently with weights. See Renzo Trionfera. ‘Salta ogni spada di ftonte ad Agesilao Greco’, L’Europeo 9 no. 4 (23 January 1955): 24-25.
  • 9 Johannes Orlowski, Pamela Wicker, and Christoph Breuer, ‘Determinants of Labour Migration of Elite Sport Coaches’ .European Journal ofSport Science 16. no. 6 (2016): 711-18.
  • 10 Enrico Landoni, ‘Federico Caprilli e la svolta copernicana della monta naturale: da Tor di Quinto a Pinerolo’, in Ouaderni della SISS, ed. Marco Impiglia, Vol. VII (2018), 69-81.
  • 11 Several references in Lombardo, Storia degli sport in Italia 1861-1960.
  • 12 In 1900, athlete Colombo admitted iris lack of technique and in 1908 the misadventure of marathon racer Dorando Pietri testified to a failure in background culture, see Marco Martini, Storia dell’atletica italiana maschile (Rome: FIDAL, 1995), 37, 256-57.
  • 13 Between 1912 and 1913, Germany and Austria hired an American coach for the national athletic team, Alvin Kranzlein and Bill Copland, respectively; see Gherardo Bonini, ‘Otto Herschmann. A Biographical Reassessment', in Playing Pasts, ed. Dave Day (Manchester: MMU and Leisure History 2020), 101.
  • 14 See for example Barbara J. Keys, Globalizing Sport. National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2006).
  • 15 Marco Impiglia, ‘Fussball in Italien in der Zwischenkriegszeit’, in Fussball zwischen den Kriegen, ed. Christian Koller and Fabian Brandie (Vienna: LIT, 2010), 168-82.
  • 16 See Sergio Giuntini. Lo Sport e la grande guerra. Forze annate e movimenti sportive in Italia di fronte al primo conflitto mondiale (Rome: Stato maggiore esercito, Ufficio storico, 2000).
  • 17 Thierry Terret, Les Jeux interalliés de 1919. Sport, guerre et relations internationales (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003), 121-23.
  • 18 Gustavo Pallicca, Ifigli del vento. Storia dei 100 metri ai Giochi Olimpici (Legnago: Grafiche Stella, 2009), Vol. 2, 94.
  • 19 Marco Martini, ‘Jeno Gaspar', Atletica Studi 2 (2011): 73.
  • 20 Karikko was a schoolfriend and sporting colleague of Urko Kennonen. who was a good athlete before becoming President of the Finnish athletics federation from 1932

to 1947, as well as Prime minister from 1950 to 1953 and from 1954 and 1956 and finally President from 1956 to 1982.

Gianni Brera, Atlética. Scienza e poesía dell'orgoglio físico (Milan: Sperling & Kup-fer, 1949), 129-36.

A. Berra, O. Eleni, and G. Reineri, Nel nostro futuro cento anni di gloria (Milan: EDB libri, 1982), 99.

Gianfranco Colasante, Bruno Zauli. 'll рій coito йото di sport' (Rome: Garage Group, 2015), 119.

Augusto Frasca, Infinito Oberweger (Rome: Tipografía gráfica, 2000), 101.

For Italian football history see for example: Antonio Papa and Guido Pánico, Storia sociale del calcio in Italia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2002).

Pierre Lanfranchi, ‘Mister Garbutt: The First European Manager’, The Sports Historian 22, no. 1 (2002): 44-59.

Antonio Ghirelli, Storia del calcio in Italia (Turin: Einaudi, 1990), 40.

Lanfranchi, ‘Mister Garbutt’, 51.


Carlo F. Chiesa, Il secolo azzurro (1910-2010) (Bologna: Minerva. 2010), 220.

See Mauro Grimaldi, Vittorio Pozzo. Storia di un italiano (Rome: Societá Stampa Sportiva, 2001); Vittorio Pozzo, Campioni del Mondo. Ouarant’anni di storia del calcio italiano (Rome: CEN, 1960).

Chiesa, Il secolo azzurro, 270.

Gherardo Bonini, ‘Trainers’, in Encyclopedia of British Football, ed. Richard W. Cox, Dave Russell, and Wray Vamplew (Ilford: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002), 354.

Papa and Pánico, Storia sociale del calcio in Italia.

Arpad Weisz, II gioco del calcio (1930) has been re-printed with editorship Aldo Molinari (Bologna: Minerva editore, 2017).

John Foot, Calcio, 1898-2010. Storia dello sport che ha fatto I'Italia (Milan: Rizzoli, 2010), 249-50.

Ibid., 250-56.

Aldo Agosti and Giovanni De Luna, Juventus storia di una passione italiana. Dalle origini ai giorni nostri (Milano: Utet, 2019), 164-68.

Chiesa, Il secolo azzurro, 281. html (accessed August 24, 2020).

La Repubblica, September 13, 1999.

See the autobiography of former Olympic champion Armin Zoggeler, Ghiaccio, acciaio, anima (Milan: Mondadori, 2015).

Susan Barton, ‘Sliding Sports’, in Routledge Handbook for Sport, ed. John Nauright and Sarah Zipp (London: Routledge, 2020), 335.

Gherardo Bonini, ‘Rugby. The Game for Real Italian Men’, in Making the Rugby World. Race, Gender and Commerce, ed. Tim Chandler and John Nauright (Ilford: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999), 88-104.

Gianni Cerri, Coppi 1949 (Milan: Compagnia editoriale, 1978).

Alfredo Martini and Marco Pastonesi, La vita é una ruota. Storie di resistenti uomini donne e biciclette (Milan: Mondadori, 2014).

See the section on national coaches in Alessandro Gullo and Maurizio Nicita, L 'oro del Volley. Storia della nazionale dipallavolo dalDopoguerra ai trionfi mondial! (Santhiá: GS Editrice, 1999), 304-18.

All the information related to present Velasco coaching project for volleyball are contained in a conference that he lectured in 2019 and under the reference com/watch?v=U01 JGdL3iNM (accessed January 30, 2020). For historical references, Gullo and Nicita, L 'oro del Volley.

Darlene Kluka and Steve Hendricks, ‘Volleyball’, in Routledge Handbook for Sport, ed. John Nauright and Sarah Zipp (London: Routledge, 2020), 111.

  • 50 FIN News, the annex to the journal II Mondo del nuoto summarized the Rudic project in September 1994, 12-14.
  • 51 Ibid., 13.
  • 52 In 1970, art director D'Amico released II Presidents del Borgorosso Football Club in which the famous actor Alberto Sordi starred as a South American football coach that was based on Helenio Herrera. In this parody movie, the coach failed miserably, but the film criticized rather some xenophile club Presidents who lined coaches superficially resembling successful models, but, in reality, were incompetent.
  • 53 Gherardo Bonini, Another Dibiasi, Karl, another phenomeon! (forthcoming), www.
  • 54 See G. Virgilio and S. Lolli, eds. Donne e sport. Rifiessioni in un ’ottica di genere (Citta di Castello: I libri di Emil, 2018); Sergio Giuntini, La rivohizione del corpo. Le italiane e lo sport dalla 'Signorina Pedani ’a Ondina Valla (Ariccia: Aracne, 2019); Antonella Stelitano, Donne in bicicletta. Una finestra sulla storia del ciclismo femminile in Italia (Portogruaro: Ediciclo, 2020).


Agosti, Aldo, De Luna Giovanni. Juventus storia di una passione italiana. Dalle origini ai giorni nostri. Milano: Utet, 2019.

Barton, Susan. ‘Sliding sports', hi Routledge Handbook of Global Sport, ed. Jolm Nauright and Sarah Zipp, 330-42. London: Routledge, 2020.

Berra, A., O. Eleni, and G. Reineri. Nel nostro future cento anni di gloria. Milan: EDB libri, 1982.

Bonini, Gherardo. ‘Rugby. The Game for Real Italian Men'. In Making the Rugby World. Race, Gender and Commerce, ed. Tim Chandler and Jolm Nauright, 88-104. Ilford: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999.

Bonini, Gherardo. ‘Trainers’. In Encyclopedia of British Football, ed. Richard W. Cox, Dave Russell, and Wray Vamplew, 353-56. Ilford: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002.

Bonini, Gherardo. ‘The Father of German Weightlifting: Theodor Siebert’. MILO. The Journal of Serious Strength Athletes 15 (2007): 1, 113-17.

Bonini, Gherardo. ‘Otto Herschmann. A biographical reassessment’. In Playing Pasts, ed. Dave Day, 101. Manchester: MMU and Leisure History, 2020.

Brera. Gianni. Atletica. Scienza e poesia dell’orgoglio fisico. Milan: Sperling & Kupfer, 1949.

Cerri, Gianni. Coppi 1949. Milan: Compagnia editoriale, 1978.

Chiesa, Carlo F. Il secolo azzurro (1910-2010). Bologna: Minerva, 2010.

Colasante, Gianfranco. Bruno Zauli. 'll piii colto uomo di sport’. Rome: Garage Group, 2015.

Ercolani, Casadei Marino, and Toschi Livio. 33 atleti nella storia. San Marino: AIEP, 2006.

FIN News, annex to II Mondo del nuoto September 1994.

Foot, Jolm. Calcio, 1S9S-2010. Storia dello sport che ha fattol’Italia. Milan: Rizzoli, 2010.

Frasca, Augusto. Infinite Oberweger. Rome: Tipografia grafica, 2000.

Ghirelli, Antonio. Storia del calcio in Italia. Turin: Einaudi, 1990.

Giuntini, Sergio. Lo Sport e la grandeguerra. Forze annate e movimenti sportive in Italia di fionte alprimo confiitto mondiale. Rome: Stato maggiore esercito, Ufficio storico, 2000.

Giuntini, Sergio. I calciatori dellepalestre. Football e societa ginnastiche in Italia. Turin: UNASCI, 2011.

Giuntini. Sergio. La rivoluzione del corpo. Le italiane e lo sport dalla ‘Signorina Pedani’ a Ondina Valla. Ariccia: Aracne, 2019.

Grimaldi, Mauro. Vittorio Pozzo. Storia di un italiano. Rome: Société Stampa Sportiva, 2001.

Gullo, Alessandro, and Nicita Maurizio. L ’oro del Volley. Storia della nazionale di palla-volo dal Dopoguerra ai trionfi mondiali. Santhià: GS Editrice, 1999.

Impiglia, Marco. ‘Fussball in Italien in der Zwisclienkriegszeit’. In Fussball zwischen den Kriegen, ed. Christian Koller and Fabian Brandie, 145-82. Vienna: LIT, 2010.

Keys, Barbara J. Globalizing Sport. National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Kluka, Darlene, and Hendricks Steve. ‘Volleyball’. In Routledge Handbook for Sport, ed. John Nauright and Sarah Zipp. London: Routledge, 2020.

Landoni, Enrico. ‘Federico Caprilli e la svolta copernicana della monta naturale: da Tor di Quinto a Pinerolo’. In Quademi della SISS, ed. Marco Impiglia, VII. 69-81 (2018). file/quaderni-siss-7ZQDS7_83-129.pdf

Lanfranchi, Pierre. ‘Mister Garbutt: The First European Manager’. The Sports Historian, 22 (2002): 1.44-59.

Lombardo. Antonio, ed. Storia degli sport in Italia 1861-1960. Rome: Il Vascello, 2004.

Martin. Simon. Sport Italia. The Italian Love Affair with Sport. London: I: B: Taurus, 2011.

Martini, Alfredo, and Pastonesi Marco. La vita è una ruota. Störte di resistenti uomini donne e biciclette. Milan: Mondadori, 2014.

Martini, Marco. Storia dell'atletica italiana maschile. Rome: FLDAL, 1995.

Martini, Marco. ‘Jeno Gaspar’. Atletica Studi 2 (2011): 73.

Molinari, Aldo, and Weisz Arpad. Ilgioco del calcio. Bologna: Minerva editore, 2017.

Orlowski, Johannes, Wicker Pamela, and Breuer Christoph. ‘Determinants of labour migration of elite sport coaches’. European Journal of Sport Science 16, no. 6 (2016): 711-18.

Pallicca. Gustavo. Ifigli del vento. Storia dei 100 nietri ai Giochi Olimpici. Legnago: Gra-fiche Stella, 2009, Vol. 2.

Papa, Antonio, and Panico Guido. Storia sociale del calcio in Italia. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2002.

Pozzo, Vittorio. Campioni del Mondo. Quarant’anni di storia del calcio italiano. Rome, CEN. 1960.

Stelitano, Antonella. Donne in bicicletta. Una flnestra sulla storia del ciclismo femminile in Italia. Portogruaro: Ediciclo, 2020.

Teja. Angela, and Impiglia Marco. ‘Italie’. In Histoire du sport en Europe, ed. James Riordan. Arnd Kriiger, and Thierry Terret, 203-38. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004.

Terret, Thierry. Les Jeux interalliés de 1919. Sport, guerre et relations internationales. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2003.

Toschi, Livio. The Myth of Strength. San Marino: EWF/IWF, 2001.

Trionfera. Renzo. ‘Salta ogni spada di fronte ad Agesilao Greco’. L Europeo 9, no. 4 (January 23, 1955): 24-25.

Virgilio, G., and S. Lolli. Donne e sport. Riflessioni in un ‘ottica di genere. Città di Castello: I libri di Emil, 2018.

Zöggeler, Armin. Ghiaccio, acciaio, anima. Milan: Mondadori, 2015.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >