Manchester: Roberto Mancini is thinking back to his childhood and trying to remember if there was ever a time when he was not quite so obsessed with winning. Eventually, he concludes there was not. His cousin learned the hard way when the nine-year-old Mancini lost a game of table tennis one day. “He’d beaten me,” Manchester City’s manager recollects. “So I threw my bat at him and it hit him on the head.”
Il Bimbo, they used to call him at Casteldebole, the Bologna youth academy. The photographs of the time show Mancini with bobbed brown hair and the first hint of a moustache. ‘The Boy’ was 13, the youngest in the academy. “It’s 35 years ago but I still remember it well,” he says. “When you leave your family that young, it makes you strong very quickly. I had big problems in the first year. I missed my family, I wasn’t happy. It was difficult. I remember my first day at my new school. I had a look, decided I didn’t like it and walked out. They made me go back the next day and I realised I could not keep running away. For a year it was very difficult. Just imagine, at 13, leaving home. But I kept at it.”
It is the kind of story that might help to explain why Mancini is so hard on his players when he suspects they are not taking their careers seriously enough. He has, after all, made the sacrifices himself. He is also, by his own admission, an inconsolable loser. “I’ve always been the same. I’ve had the same mentality ever since I was playing with my friends at school. I want to win. I only want to win. I don’t like to participate at anything and not finish first.”
We are talking in the Etihad lounge at Manchester airport as Mancini contemplates City going into Sunday’s game against Chelsea 15 points behind Manchester United and rapidly disappearing in their wing-mirrors. There is frustration, defiance, a little bit of anger, too. Mancini, it quickly becomes apparent, is becoming increasingly aggrieved by the permanent debate about his position. He talks of players who “think it’s enough to play 50 per cent”. There is also fresh criticism of Samir Nasri and, to a lesser extent, Joe Hart.
Yet some of his harshest words are reserved indirectly for an old target, Brian Marwood, until October the man in charge of City’s transfer business. “It’s important to realise we have made some mistakes,” he says. “I have made some mistakes and the players have made some mistakes. But the first reason is because we didn’t do what we should have done in the summer transfer market — we worked really badly in the market.”
Next summer, with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Beguiristain now in control of recruitment, he hopes and expects it will be different, but there is also a revealing insight into Mancini the politician, the man who finishes this interview by saying that one day he plans to become a football club director. The one flicker of indignation during two hours in his company comes when I ask how he gets on with the two people above him. “Txiki and Ferran? They are not above me,” he points out. “Above me there is only Khaldoon [Al Mubarak] and Shaikh Mansour.”
What really stands out is that he speaks of City’s new chief executive and director of football in a very different light to their predecessors. “Ferran came from Barcelona and understands what it needs to be a top club,” he says. “Txiki played football and knows football. They are good men. For this reason, I am optimistic about our future. We now have people who know their football. We need some players and they are working on it. At this moment it’s better our focus is on the last three months but the club knows this and I know this.”
Edinson Cavani is his first choice. “I like him, but all the world wants him,” he says. “There are big players. I don’t know what can happen. [Luis] Suarez plays for a top team like Liverpool. Cavani plays for Napoli. There’s [Radamel] Falcao but, again, all the managers like him. Neymar is a good player, he’s young, but I don’t know if he’s ready to play in England because the football is totally different. I think he will go to Barcelona or Madrid where the football is more technical. But Cavani and Falcao would work in England. They have experience. Both players are 26, 27. They are good enough to play in England.”
His suspicion is that some of the players who won the league last season have been guilty of complacency. Nasri is the case in point. “I think Samir has fantastic qualities. With his quality, he should always play well. Every game he could be the difference. A player of this quality could be one of the best players in Europe. But it’s not happening.
“Sometimes a player thinks it’s enough what they did the year before and doesn’t understand that every day they should improve. If you are a top player you know you can improve until the last day of your career but sometimes you get players who think it is not important to work and this is their worst mistake. Samir can do better than this year. He is a top player but he has not been playing at his level.”
He regards Pablo Zabaleta as probably City’s best performer, “playing very, very well”, but accepts that the list of contenders is short. As for Hart, he wants to put the record straight. “Listen, I believed in Joe when nobody else did. I put him in the goal when everybody thought it was impossible that he could play ahead of Shay Given, who at that time was one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. I love Joe. If not, I wouldn’t have put him in the team two years ago.
“But it’s simple. If Joe continues to make mistakes, he goes on the bench. I’ve done it with Samir, [David] Silva and [Carlos] Tevez this season and it can happen with Joe. The problem is the goalkeeper makes a mistake, we have lost the game. Joe has the quality to be the best goalkeeper anywhere. He is the best goalkeeper in England but in the situation Manchester City are in, if you want to stay at the top, you need to work hard and think only about football. He needs to think only of his job and that is being a goalkeeper.”
It is unusual to hear a manager who is willing to question his players so publicly and it is different, I point out, to someone such as Arsene Wenger, who will always try to protect his own in difficult times. “But I’m not Arsene Wenger. We’re different. I want to win. I think every player should be strong enough to take his responsibility and, like this, you can improve. You don’t improve if you have a manager saying ‘aah, don’t worry, you made a mistake but it doesn’t matter.’”
The subject turns to his own position. Does it annoy him it is always in the news? “I don’t understand it. Seriously, for what reason? Since we started to win, in May 2011, Manchester City are the best team in England, are they not? We won three trophies, Manchester United two, Chelsea two, Liverpool one. No other team has won more than us.
“Now we are in second position and still in the FA Cup. We hope we can win the league and never say never but if we finish second, OK, we made some mistakes but we have still done a good job surely if, in three years, we have finished second, first, second. So I don’t understand it. I could if we had won nothing for three years. It would be difficult for me to stay then. I couldn’t stay in a team where I wasn’t doing a good job. But I have done a good job here.”
At his press conference on Friday Mancini was asked about reports linking City to the Malaga manager, Manuel Pellegrini. After an expletive, he replied: “I can’t continue to answer questions about this.”
Chelsea, he says, show it does not always work to change the manager. “For me, Carlo [Ancelotti] was the strange one. Carlo is one of the best managers in the world for me. He won the league and the FA Cup and then they sacked him. It’s difficult for a club that change every year, every two years. [Sir Alex] Ferguson’s a totally different situation because he started to work for United in a different time. Now he’s like a seat in the stadium, the grass on the pitch. He’s part of United.
“I want to continue my work. I always wanted to work in England. OK, I don’t think Manchester is Rome, where there is always the sun and it’s a different type of city. The rain is a problem, but do I like Manchester? Yes. I have a good feeling here. There might not be 100 restaurants but I have no problem with it. I like to go out on my bike. That’s when I do my thinking. Two or three hours on the roads. That’s when you get time and you can think without problems. I know Alderley Edge, Wilmslow, Hale. It’s nice. My wife likes it, too. Sometimes we go down to London to have a look around. I like the people here because they let you walk. Sometimes they might ask for a signature but they have respect for you.
“In Italy, the press is different because all the journalists think they are all managers. Not only the journalists, in fact. We have 55 million football managers in Italy. In England it’s different. Maybe the British press like to know more about private lives but it’s not a problem for me. England is the place where every manager wants to be, in front of 40 or 50,000 people every week. It’s beautiful.”
Talking of the press brings us to the Mario Balotelli issue. “Mario not being here, that must be a big problem for the paparazzi and The Sun,” Mancini says, smiling. “I’m happy for him that he’s scoring goals for Milan now. I was sure he would score a lot because in Italy the championship is not difficult like it is in England. For the last 10 years, Italian football is only so-so. For him, it’s easier. He was born there, he knows Italian football.
“I just think that Mario didn’t understand that, for him, Manchester City was a big, big chance. City in the next five to 10 years can be the top club in the world. He didn’t think about this, he didn’t think about his future. He’s a good guy. He’s not 16, true, but 22 is still young and when you’re young you make mistakes.
“Mario had a difficult life when he was a child. That is a big reason why he is like he is. He was lucky because he found a good family but at 22 you don’t have life experience like someone of 35. I tried to give him everything I could. He was like my son. I’m just sorry because I think Mario could have done more for Manchester City. But we still won the league and FA Cup with him and that’s important.”
Replacing Balotelli will be the priority in the summer. “We are fighting against a team like United who are used to winning every year. We don’t have their experience. We need to work hard, every day, every week, because we need to improve. But it’s the same in the transfer market. We worked badly [last summer] and I don’t know why because when you win the league that is the moment to bring in another two or three top players to improve the mentality.
“New players want to show they are better than the old players and it means the old players have to play better than the previous year. Instead, we didn’t do it. Football is full of this history. You win the title, then you think it’s enough to play 50 per cent and you don’t arrive the next year. It’s always more difficult to retain the league than win it. We arrived at the top. The problem is to stay there a long time. You do that only if your mentality is strong.”
Missing out on Robin van Persie is still the one that hurts. “This is the difference. Only this. We are missing 10 to 15 goals. We score those goals and it’s worth another eight or nine points. And Van Persie is a United player.”
At Southampton recently Mancini was so disgusted by his team’s performance he did not even go into the dressing room afterwards. How does he live with a bad defeat? “English people and Italian people are totally different. For some English managers, whether they have won or lost, once the game is over it’s finished. For me, it’s not finished. For 24 hours if we lose the only thing in my head is: ‘Did I make mistakes? What could I have done differently? Why did we lose?’ For 24 hours my mind is working like this. I’ll get a few hours of sleep but not much. I live for football. It’s impossible for me to accept a defeat. For that 24 hours I need to understand what’s happened.”
He is 48, the first worry lines appearing on those tanned features. How long will he stay in management? “It depends on my mind. There are other positions at football clubs and I could do another job. For now, I like being a manager. I like being angry every day. I’d like to do this job until I’m 60 possibly then maybe work with a chairman somewhere.”
Before then, he is intrigued by the possibility of managing England one day. “It can happen if they want to win. It does appeal. And if I am managing England and win the World Cup or the European Championship I want to be knighted. No statue, but a knighthood is enough.”