When Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti rang Marco Materazzi in July 2009 to offer him a new three-year contract, ‘The Matrix’ and his family were left gobsmacked. But their reaction was not out of happiness: it was disillusionment. Marco was 36 and preparing for retirement. At the same time, his wife Daniela and their three children were dreaming of a return to their beloved Perugia.
Marco’s signature meant three more years in the big city, but he made the right call: without it he wouldn’t have met his new idol, Jose Mourinho, and he wouldn’t have won the Champions League. As FFT meets the Italian at Inter’s training camp in the lush countryside of Como, he tells us that Perugia will have to wait even longer, with the 37-year-old contemplating one final season as a professional footballer.
Rumours have been circulating in Italy that the ex-Everton man could return to England to join QPR, but right now he’s undecided. “I’m always sincere, but this time I can’t announce anything because I really don’t know what my next move will be. I have another year on my contract with Inter, but I’ll probably leave because I like to play, not to sit on the bench.”
If not west London, many more exotic destinations have been offered to the centre-back: the USA, Dubai, Japan... all of them far, far away from Perugia. Whatever club he decides on, it will be the closing chapter of an extraordinary and often controversial career, which he reflects on with a broad smile as we hand him your questions...
You scored 12 goals for Perugia in 2001 – a Serie A record. How did your striker team-mates react to such a feat? And what’s the best goal you’ve ever scored?
Joe Goff, Newcastle
My Perugia team-mates couldn’t be invidious – I was scoring for the team. But that record gave me a little sadness, because I passed Giacinto Facchetti as the top-scoring defender. Daniel Passarella also scored 11 goals, and he was a great champ, but I was little interested in him. Anyway, there was a Nerazzurri destiny in that record: Giacinto is an Inter legend, Passarella had a big impact at the club and, finally, I arrived at Inter.
Of course, my most important goal was the Berlin [World Cup] final but as for my best two... I’ll say a rovesciata [bicycle kick] against Messina in the 2006-07 season and one against Czech Republic, again in the 2006 World Cup.
Is it true you started life as a midfielder? Did your early life in the middle explain why you scored a lot of goals for a defender?
Mark Koskei, via Twitter
Really, I began as a striker. I’ve always loved to score wherever I’ve played. So yes, I think that this attitude helped me as a defender.
I hear you’re a huge fan of Michael Jordan and Bono. Who is a greater hero for you? And are you better at basketball or singing U2 songs?
Dennis West, Hampstead
I love both of them. Michael and Bono are idols from very different sectors, but they are similar as human beings because they are leaders, not only in basketball and music but in life. I’ve met Bono three times, Michael just the once but – Bono, forgive me – I feel Michael is more similar to me.
Anyway, their greatness is that they are more simple and genuine than how they are described. If you want to meet them you have to pass thousands of agents and filters, but after that you find two real people who’d stay hours to chat. But everything around them is business; I’m sure they don’t love that.
What did you make of your time at Everton after being sent off three times in 27 games? You’ve said before that you are “more like an English defender” so does part of you wish you could have spent longer here?
Trevor T, via email
I do remember the three cards and one of them was absolutely unfair. The bans are severe in the Premier League so that season [1998-99] I played little. It wasn’t completely bad, because it meant I could go back home to Italy. Walter Smith was a great manager: he understood the foreign players and he let us go back home. He knew that I trained seriously when in Perugia and every time I was suspended, or during the national fixture break, I could came back to Italy. So every month that season I spent a week at home.
Yes, the experience was really important for me, even if the tactics were classical English, with nothing to teach the Italian. But when I saw United or Arsenal play, I did admire them – less so when they played against me!
You were born in Lecce, the ‘Florence of the South’, and spent many years in Umbrian capital Perugia, a notable artistic city. How did Liverpool compare?
Liam F, Essex
What can I say, Liam? In England there is just one city: London. But I lived well in Liverpool. There was not much to do, but the people were nice and open and fans of the ‘first’ Liverpool team [Everton] were fantastic.
Your nickname is ‘The Matrix’. Where does this come from and do you like it? Are you a fan of the films?
Lee Darke, Derry
‘The Matrix’ came from a survey on the Inter website. But then I watched the film and I understood that this name was a real honour. I’d love to be like Neo. What do you think, am I a Keanu Reeves lookalike? [FFT isn’t so sure, so moves swiftly on...]
As a tough defender, who is the most physically challenging striker you’ve ever played against? Vieri, perhaps? Or Shearer?
Sahilynation, via Twitter
Batistuta – even if Vieri and Shearer are very similar to Gabriel. I count Bobo [Vieri] as one of the five best strikers I played with. I’m so lucky, because I played with the greatest. The other three would be Ronaldo, Eto’o, Totti. When Batistuta arrived in Italy nobody believed in him; when he left, he was a phenomenon. He was built like a tank and he shot from every angle, with the right and the left foot. It was impossible to relax with him. He won too little considering his class, but he made his choices in life.
You’re famous for having many tattoos. What do they all mean and which other footballer has the best tats? Beckham, maybe, or Raul Meireles?
Justin Thomas Nixon, via Twitter
I don’t look at other men’s tattoos. I envy more those who do not have any: what wasted skin! Me, I’d like to wake up one morning without any tattoos and start again! But I do love my tattoos because every one is a moment in my life.
The next one? I am having a Japanese geisha drawn by my close friend John Richmond. I like to have tattoos dedicated to my friends: I have a phrase from Vasco Rossi; Valentino Rossi’s helmet; a phrase of Giuliano, the leader of the Italian band Negramaro; one of Mourinho. I would like to also have one of Michael Jordan, but while I’m waiting for that, I’ve got a tattoo of his shoes.
You were clearly emotional when Mourinho left Inter for Real Madrid. What made your relationship – and that of your former team-mates – so special? You even made the Special One cry, for God’s sake!
Danny Faber, Dallas
My emotion was more anger than anything. I knew that without him we wouldn’t repeat such a winning season. Looking at Real Madrid’s season, I think he also has some regrets [Madrid lost out to Barcelona in the league and Champions League]. I am 110 per cent sure that with him we would have won at least the UEFA Super Cup and the Scudetto.
On your website you wrote that your recent meeting with Eric Cantona was “like a dream”. What makes King Eric such an inspiration to you?
Joseph Murphy, via email
Cantona is like me: a true man. He always says what he thinks. He goes straight against the system – and not only in football. How many times did he go on strike for his people? He is so different from all the people who stay silent just for personal interest. A man like him who thinks with his own brain is an idol to me.
Why do you think Rafa Benitez failed to succeed as Inter manager?
Paul Castle, via email
Maybe he wasn’t the right manager for this team. I read that I had a role in his sacking, but this is false. He made his departure all by himself with his declarations after the Club World Cup. He said that we were old, but look at the last part of the season and tell me if the strength, heart and will was that of an old team. [FFT: Why didn’t you participate in the Club World Cup celebrations?] The victory of that cup was more mine than his. [Benitez denied Materazzi a late run as substitute in the final with Inter winning 3-0.] He played two matches against two average teams, leading a team that in those days was at the top and could only win. My only regret was to miss the ceremonial photo with my mates.
Are you still best mates with Rino Gattuso? As two fiery southerners, what is it like when you get together?
David Nutall, Manchester
Correct, we are very similar. I got really annoyed when everybody compared his chorus of joy [“Leonardo is a man of s***” , sang during the Milan title party in May] to me wearing the Berlusconi mask [after winning the Milan derby, which offended close supporters of the Italian PM and AC Milan owner]. It was a stupid act from Berlusconi’s yes-men in the media, and two days afterwards Silvio laughed about it with me, despite what everybody said. When it comes to media, Inter is the least protected club, and comparing the two incidents demonstrates how the media establishment tried to make it sound like I was attacking Berlusconi just so they could try and curry favour with him by saying, “Look, he’s attacking Berlusconi, our prime minister”. I wasn’t. It had nothing to do with that; it was because he is the owner of our biggest rivals. There’s a big difference.
Does it annoy you at all that people only remember your World Cup final in 2006 for the Zidane incident, when you actually scored a goal – and a penalty in the shootout – and had a good game?
Adolfo Martinez, via email
For me, the Zidane incident is closed. I met him in the parking lot of the hotel where Real Madrid were staying in Milan. I was there to see Mourinho and he arrived with his brother and a friend, so I went towards him and I shook his hand. Everything seemed happily closed but after that he declared that he didn’t recognise me. How could this happen? I don’t know. I will always recognise him because he helped his team to be defeated. But if that incident had happened with Eric Cantona, we’d have had a beer afterwards.
You came on as a last-minute sub in the 2010 Champions League Final. Was this your most enjoyable one minute of football?
That single minute was the finishing line of a two-year process with Mister Mourinho and of 10 with Inter. I do appreciate the greatness of a manager who is winning a final and doesn’t use his last sub just to let that player come on – that manager knows the importance of the details. Then there are some who don’t think about a champion on the bench who is finishing his career even though they are 3-0 up. They don’t think to give him the emotion of the substitution [as Benitez did in the Club World Cup].
You said Roberto Mancini taught you to stay on the bench. What do you mean?
ZZ, via Twitter
He taught me? What he did was put me on the bench! He didn’t believe in me and I was set to leave for AC Milan. It would have been a mistake but otherwise I’d have lost my chance of making the  World Cup. I had a four-year contract with Inter and was about to accept a six-month deal with the Rossoneri. I couldn’t miss out with Italy. Luckily, I spoke with [Italy coach] Mister Lippi and after his reassurances I changed my mind... and my life.
Milan is the only European city to have two teams in the Champions League hall of fame. Will Manchester be the next?
Mancunian, via email
Absolutely not. Manchester City are not ready. Look at Chelsea: they compete at the highest level but they are not able to win the most important cup [Hindsight Ed: of course, Chelsea won it the very next season]. The next few years are for teams more used to winning: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Man United. Sorry, but the Citizens have to wait!
Rank these moments in order of the best: winning the World Cup; winning the Champions League; getting on stage with Mick Jagger at a Rolling Stones concert.
Robert Malik, via email
The World Cup and the Champions League first, because without winning the cups I wouldn’t get on the stage with Jagger!
What’s next? We can’t quite see you as a manager – but then we said that about Di Canio and he’s taken a job at Swindon!
Nick Judd, via email
Good luck to my friend Paolo, but I couldn’t be a manager. President Moratti knows that I would like to travel with Inter Camp, the charity, for helping kids around the world.
Interview: Simone Stenti. Portrait: Giorgio Ravezzani. From the August 2011 issue of FourFourTwo.
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