Carlo Ancelotti had not been Everton manager for long when one of his new charges had a question for him. Had he, the player wondered, been a professional soccer player himself? Since Ancelotti was Ancelotti, he ironically amused himself about it.
Another man might have pointed out that he was a two-time European champion and found himself at the heart of one of the most revered teams in sporting history. As Jose Mourinho, a manager who was never a player, said in another context: “That’s football heritage.” Another man may have simply wondered why the ignorant Everton footballer just hadn’t thought to google his new manager .
Anyway, Ancelotti’s active days are part of an amazing resume. He now has six Champions Leagues, as many as Liverpool and Bayern Munich, just one less than AC Milan. And four of the seven Rossoneri came with Ancelotti either in midfield or in the dugout. He has conquered Europe in five different decades, and if that’s enough to make many dictators envious, it will probably never be matched. He has an unmatched four wins as a manager.
Take the idealists Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff together, add the pragmatic pairing of Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi and they’ve managed just as many European victories together as Ancelotti alone.
“I’m the record man,” said the Italian. From someone else, that would have sounded like boasting. Ancelotti only looked slightly amused. He has so many records that some people notice: For example, no other manager has won the Champions League 19 years after him. Ancelotti has managed to carve out an image for himself as the amiable everyman of management, forever lucky enough to fill one of the game’s most coveted roles, collecting silverware and rewards alike while savoring the fine dining.
His second spell at the Bernabeu may have polished that image. “I have to say that it’s easier to win a Champions League with Real Madrid than with any other club,” he reflected. Maybe, although that’s not the experience of Mourinho or Fabio Capello, to name just two. Ancelotti’s first European Cup with Real was the first in 11 years. His second came when he took charge of what appeared to be the worst Real side in a generation, if not two.
“I think the fact that nobody thought we could win helped us,” he said. That may be true, but there were obvious dangers in writing off the most successful club and manager in the history of the competition.
Perhaps, despite his medal collection, Ancelotti is slightly underestimated. At a time when everyone seems to want a coach with a philosophy, he renounced his own, dropping many of his Arrigo Sacchi influences and the 4-4-2 formation allowed by his mentor’s AC Milan team helped size. He was successful at the San Siro with four playmakers and a Christmas tree formation, but he’s not married to anything; only players, and no one has made as many great ones as Ancelotti. Which in turn is another reason why his own contribution can be underestimated.
The Italian manages to make management seem easy. He picks good players and they win games. And yet his legacy at Real for the second time is such that this Champions League is his all-time best. Karim Benzema is the late-blooming superstar who doesn’t break into the A-list until his mid-thirties. Luka Modric is even older, but as Paolo Maldini has shown, footballing retirees can thrive under Ancelotti. Vinicius Junior had scored just 15 goals in three seasons at Real before Ancelotti arrived: another 22 have earned him status as one of the game’s most devastating wingers and an ultimate winner to celebrate, but this group looked weaker than Real at the time Year 2014 and Milan 2003 and 2007.
Real was probably an outsider in four consecutive duels. They dealt a blow to the Ancien Regime by defeating the nouveau riche in three ranks, beginning with Paris Saint-Germain. They reined in the Premier League with a hat-trick from Scalps at Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. They flew against football fashion, didn’t press like Jürgen Klopp or fit like Pep Guardiola.
And by the end, the laid-back godfather of football had once again proven his authority. Don Carlo was the king of quiet, and when it’s not always entirely clear what he’s doing, it’s increasingly difficult to deny that he’s one of the greatest managers of all time. Not that Ancelotti seems particularly concerned about where he stands in the pantheon.
Life is to be enjoyed instead and this season’s enduring image came after Real won La Liga. There was Ancelotti, surrounded by players three or four decades his junior, wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigar. Management should be stressful but nobody told the nonchalant winner.