Materazzi: In Italy or India, my desire is always to win
Rewind five years, and Marco Materazzi was one of the most formidable central-defenders on the planet. A product of the Italian school of defending, the former Inter and Italy stalwart patrolled every backline he featured in with aplomb.
Time may have passed since, but Materazzi is still typically fearless. Gone, if only partially, are the days when he would fling himself into challenges and clearances with total disregard of personal safety. But the initial prospect of tackling uncharted territory as player-manager of Indian Super League (ISL) club Chennaiyin would have felt no less daunting.
Still, the 41-year-old has approached the task with the same degree of competitiveness that defined his playing career, in which he won five Scudetti (Italian league trophies), the Champions League and, of course, the 2006 World Cup. His side Chennaiyin - based in a city with a comparatively humble footballing support - are now joint-top of the lavishly funded league. Meanwhile, his personal venture into Space23, a multi-brand sports concept store, is gaining commercial traction in cities such as Milan and Rome.
And, as FourFourTwo assumes places for the interview, it’s clear the battle-hardened Materazzi’s appetite for success has not mellowed with age.
First of all, congratulations on your team’s success in the league. Are you surprised that you were able to enter a country that is different culturally and make such an immediate impact?
Without foreigners, the type of exposure and expertise Indian football receives now wouldn't be possible.
I'm partly fortunate! But my players are hungry. And if they were not hungry, then I would already be home.
Do you think the ISL can be the future of Indian football? Are the sources of income sustainable ones?
I believe football can grow as cricket did, and the league’s viewership is testament to that. I think the only way to go ahead is to build football schools, because the future of Indian football is in Indian youngsters.
If that’s so, could the presence of international-calibre stars present a problem to the progress of Indian youth to the first team, perhaps?
On the contrary, stars will stimulate, advise; they will be the ones to teach the future of Indian football. These stars and established players set the bar by always aiming to improve themselves, which is an important attitude to pick up. Without foreigners, the type of exposure and expertise Indian football receives now wouldn't be possible. For example, [Chennaiyin and ex-Manchester City playmaker] Elano came and is playing a lot, but is already an example for the youngsters who are watching him.
Then could the presence of Italian figures - for example, Marcello Lippi and Fabio Cannavaro in China, and Alessandro Del Piero plus yourself in India - signal the way forward?
Right now, I can speak for India. If a country of 50 million like Italy can win the World Cup, India, with a population of 1.2 billion… I’m not saying India can win the World Cup. But this movement of Italians abroad can help them build a better future. They [India] have the potential to shoot up the FIFA rankings, and certainly can attain a position much more flattering than 159th.
I'm constantly driven by the spirit to win. Whether as a manager, as a player - it's what drives me ahead.
Let’s move on to your former club, Inter. President Erick Thohir is from Indonesia. Has he impressed you, and do you think he has the necessary football expertise to lead Inter upwards?
I must say Thohir is a very clever person. It was clear when he also consulted with [ex-Inter president Massimo] Moratti on the rehiring of [Roberto] Mancini as coach. The fact he's taken on the burden of paying two salaries [the Nerazzurri still owe previous boss Walter Mazzarri €5 million in contractual dues] shows his commitment to better the club and make the right choices for Inter, even if it means a financial sacrifice. He has lots of vision, not only in terms of how football should be run, but also in terms of expanding Inter in the world game.
You previously spoke about negative experiences with Rafael Benitez when he was coaching Inter. Perhaps you are in a position to better understand Walter Mazzarri’s dismissal? How important is it for Inter to have brought back a coach that fans can rally behind?
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It was a good choice to hire Mancini, and the reason Inter did it now is to ensure they qualify for the Champions League come season’s end. It means they're really serious about fighting to finish at least third, or else, they would have made the change only at a later stage. They clearly plan to be in Europe next year, and collect the financial incentives that come with qualification.
Perhaps Mancini can be seen as a sort of interim solution, though. Who else do you think also has the calibre to succeed in the Inter dugout?
I think [Sampdoria coach and Mancini’s previous assistant Sinisa] Mihajlovic would be a great man for Inter. He believes in fighting for every last ball, and I'm sure that sooner or later, he will come back to Inter.
On a personal note, are you satisfied the way life has turned out as you wind down your playing career? Would you have done anything differently?
India is going well. I've liked the experience so far. I think I would do it again if I could choose to. Whether it's in the ISL or elsewhere, I would continue with a future in football. It doesn't matter so much what you do, I'm constantly driven by the spirit to win. Whether as a manager, as a player - it's what drives me ahead.
Main image: Kamthorn Pornsakulpaisal
FourFourTwo sat down for the interview alongside former Tampines Rovers stopper Benoit Croissant, whose company, Number 9 Sports Asia, made possible.