Luciano Spalletti and the Power of Walking Away

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Luciano Spalletti and the Power of Walking Away


Luciano Spalletti’s farm sits high on a ridge outside Montaione, a peaceful, strikingly pretty Italian village set on a hilltop an hour or so southwest of Florence. It is picture-perfect Tuscany: cobbled piazzas lined with cafes; echoing, cobbled streets; a panorama of deep blue skies and verdant olive groves on rolling hills.

It is, though, just a little off the beaten path. The stretch of the Tuscan countryside Spalletti calls home is not quite so well-touristed as, say, Chianti. But Spalletti grew up here, in the medieval walled city of Certaldo, and he saw in the farm the chance to draw more people to the region. The five vacation cottages he has constructed on its grounds can be rented for a (surprisingly competitive) few hundred euros a night.

Business was not his primary motivation. The farm serves as Spalletti’s haven. He has turned it into something approaching the Platonic ideal of an idyll. As he says in a promotional video on the farm’s website, it is “a place to rediscover simple, forgotten emotions, between nature and animals.”

He makes his own olive oil. He uses the grapes from his vineyard to produce his own wine. There are hens and ducks, donkeys and horses and alpacas, and even a couple of ostriches. The view stretches all the way from Pisa, in the west, to the Apennines in the east. “For my family, it was love at first sight,” he tells prospective visitors.

It is here, to his own little slice of Arcadia, that Spalletti withdrew at the start of the month, his two-year spell as the coach of Napoli at an end. He had informed the club of his decision a few weeks earlier. “I told them I needed a year off,” he said. “I will not work for any club. I’ll rest for one year.”

Spalletti, of course, has earned the break. His first year at Napoli ended as most first years at Napoli do: in a swirling eddy of uncertainty and disappointment and regret. The club’s ultras stole his car and vowed to return it only once they had proof of his resignation. A raft of key players left.

His second season, though, was utopian. For the first time in 33 years, Napoli won the Italian title. That is, in fact, underselling it. Napoli swept to the Italian title, obliterating the rest of Serie A. It lifted the trophy with a month to spare. Its final few games were a carnival, a celebration. Spalletti and his players found their images splayed across the city, afforded the same kind of worship as more traditional religious icons.

That he should choose precisely that moment to step away, then, is so unorthodox that it borders — in soccer’s traditional thinking — on heresy.

Napoli was vastly superior to all of its domestic opponents. Spalletti’s team was on autopilot for the last five games of the campaign and still finished 16 points ahead of second-place Lazio. Even allowing for the impending departures of two key players, Victor Osimhen and Kim Min-jae, there is little reason to assume it will not at the very least compete for the title next year.

More important still, it was at Napoli that Spalletti, 64, had finally made manifest his vision of how the sport should be played. He had, for much of his career, been admired as a gifted coach, a sophisticated tactician, even an occasional visionary. It was Spalletti, during his time at Roma, who either pioneered or popularized the idea of the “false nine.”

He was, though, widely — and not a little affectionately — regarded as one of the sport’s “nearly” men. He almost won Serie A with Roma, but did not. He almost won it with Inter Milan, but did not. He was one of several managers dismissed as the possessors of “zeru tituli” — zero titles — by José Mourinho, for whom significance is only gauged by the honors section of a Wikipedia page.

At Napoli, Spalletti’s style finally found its substance. His team played no less attractively, no less innovatively, no less imaginatively than the sides he had forged elsewhere, but this one won, and won, and won. Napoli was his masterpiece, and yet no sooner had he completed it than he left it abandoned.

He did not do so, as tradition would dictate, to take on a bigger, or better, or more lavishly remunerated role. In his own telling, he did so because he wanted to take a break, to retreat to his farm, to find sanctuary from the stress and the strain of the last two years. The real rationale, though, is in the subtext. Spalletti left because his job was finished.

There is an adage in soccer — in sports in general, in fact — that there is no such thing as a happy ending. All managers are fired, sooner or later, regardless of what they achieve or how much they win. At some point, results will turn, and take the fans and the front offices with them.

That is true, of course, but it is partly true because managers are so rarely willing to do what Spalletti has done, and walk away. There is always some problem to solve, some improvement to make, some slight flaw to polish and burnish and finesse. There is always the chance that next year will be even better. And there is always, most of all, another trophy to win.

The finest managers are — as they should be — conscious of their legacies. They are driven not just by proving their superiority to their peers, but by winning their place in history. There is a reason that Alex Ferguson, and Arrigo Sacchi, and Pep Guardiola are held in the first rank of managers: They are the coaches, after all, who attained not just dominion, but dynasty. Their example encourages managers to twist, rather than stick.

Spalletti has done the opposite. At some point in Napoli’s monthlong celebration, he decided that he had reached the pinnacle, and that whatever came next would inevitably involve a descent.

Rather than risk tarnishing what he has achieved, rather than doubling down, he has preferred to leave it, perfect and inviolable, where it stands. He has his prize, and in winning it he has his monument, too. In doing so, he has done what so many others expend so much energy doing: He has ensured that his legacy will remain unsullied, untouched. In the haven he has built for himself on the outskirts of Montaione, Spalletti will savor the simple, forgotten joy that comes from knowing when to step away.

At some point in the far-off future — when his role in public life is limited to a sofa in a television studio, just another bromide dispenser — someone will make a documentary about the 72 hours of Jack Grealish’s life that followed Manchester City’s victory in the Champions League final last weekend.

That film will do a small service to Grealish, because the chances that his memories will be anything other than hazy are fairly slim. Corroborating witnesses will be required to answer key questions: Where, exactly, did he and his teammates ask the team’s plane to fly on the way back from Istanbul? What is this thing with the turkey about? How did so many of them acquire luminescent jackets, and why?

It is possible — churlish, but possible — to suggest that Grealish’s celebrations were, if not excessive, then probably not the sort of thing that should be glamorized too much. For English fans of a particular age, it brought an uncomfortable, unhappy echo of Paul Gascoigne. And it is legitimate, certainly, to wonder if a Black player having the same weekend as Grealish would have been indulged in quite the same way by the news media.

Grealish’s unapologetic revelry, though, served two important functions. It acted, first, as a reminder that while the meaning of Manchester City’s triumphs is far more complex than the club’s fans would like, the players themselves are athletes who have made countless sacrifices, who have committed years of their lives, to reach this point. That release, at times, can be lost in the broader story of financial rules and foreign investment; in his delight, Grealish brought the joy front and center.

But even more significant, it was a powerful rebuke to soccer’s traditional stoicism. Alex Ferguson, among many others, always held it as an aphorism that one medal should simply be used as motivation for the next. In his mind, there was no such thing as an ultimate victory. Celebrating was simply a harbinger of complacency.

It is an approach that to a large extent has become grizzled, hypermasculine dogma. It is also entirely miserable. If you are not going to enjoy your victories, then what is the point in pursuing them? What is the point, in fact, in the whole exercise? Manchester City has won a treble. If that is not the sort of occasion that warrants an impromptu flight to Ibiza, then what does?

Kylian Mbappé would like you to know that he is perfectly happy at Paris St.-Germain, thank you very much. “I have already said that I am going to continue next season,” he wrote on Twitter, the formerly popular social networking platform, on Tuesday.

He would also like you to know that he does not need another intervention from Emmanuel Macron, the French president, to persuade him to stay. “He hopes for me to stay, and I hope so too,” he said while on international duty with France on Thursday. “My only option is to stay at P.S.G. I plan to be there when the season starts.”

It’s refreshing, really, to have all this cleared up so early in the summer. No long, drawn-out transfer saga. No will they, won’t they, Ross and Rachel drama with Real Madrid. (In this scenario, Real Madrid is 100 percent Ross.) Mbappé is happy. Mbappé wants to stay. Macron can get on with lesser matters of state.

Except, of course, that Mbappé’s stance is deeply disingenuous. Or, more kindly: He is telling the truth, but he is not telling the whole truth.

As my colleague Tariq Panja reported this week, Mbappé used another formerly popular social networking platform — the letter — to inform P.S.G. that he does not plan to extend his contract beyond 2024. (The exact timing of Mbappe’s communicating his desire to the club is in dispute, but it is almost entirely irrelevant to the meat of the case.)

Mbappé knows full well that effectively forces P.S.G. at least to contemplate the idea of selling him this summer. The unpalatable alternative, after all, is to lose him for nothing next year. And that is perfectly reasonable. P.S.G. is not a club that easily attracts sympathy. Mbappé has every reason to feel he would be better off elsewhere.

Presumably, he does not want to come out and say that for fear that it would damage his brand in some vague, ephemeral way. And yet the approach he has taken, hiding behind sophistry and omission and innuendo — all delivered with a straight face; he knows that we know he knows — has exactly the same effect.

Mbappé has always seemed an intelligent, judicious sort of a character, impeccably prepared for the fame that has been his destiny since he hit his teens. Doubtless, that reputation is warranted. Still, it took some time to build. As things stand, the longer this draws out, the more threatened it will become.

We’ll start, this week, with a bitterly disappointed Mark Harris. “Your bitter invective every time you cover Manchester City has finally turned me off once and for all,” Mark wrote. (This was not his first piece of correspondence on the subject.) “It is as if you can only see Novak Djokovic through the eyes of his father’s Russian sympathies, or Tiger Woods through his failings as a husband. Follow the sport. The back story will be elsewhere, no doubt.”

It’s a frank letter, so I may as well respond in kind. Writing about Manchester City, at this stage, is difficult. Everyone knows the context. Every avenue for original thought on that subject has long been clogged. But merely “following the sport” is unsatisfactory, too, for two reasons.

The first is that leaving the context to others is a professional dereliction. The general idea is to present the full picture, rather than merely one aspect of it. To ignore everything else that Manchester City represents is, effectively, to choose a side. (Perhaps not ignoring it is, too.) The second, and more important, reason is that it is impossible to separate the two: The sport and the financial, political and diplomatic project are inextricably bound together, because the former is the manifestation of the latter.

Elena Zlatnik’s disappointment is rather better placed, I think. “If I were married to a footballer, or the daughter of one, I would be outraged if he chose to play in Saudi Arabia,” she wrote. “Anyone who is already rich from years in Europe’s top leagues but chooses to go to a place where his wife can’t wear what she wants, can’t go out by herself or with a male friend, can’t play football herself, is an anti-feminist.”

And let’s finish with a slightly more uplifting subject. “This Lionel Messi business has me wondering: Who, outside of Miami, has the most to gain from his arrival?” asked Austin Underhill. “Millions of new fans are coming to Major League Soccer. Thousands will stay even after he leaves. Who are they going to follow?”

My guess is that there are two ideas running in parallel here. One is that Inter Miami dominates the sudden attention, and converts at least a portion of it into long-term interest. The second — a corollary, really — is that those who tune in for Messi eventually stay because of everything else M.L.S. offers. Predicting how that will manifest, though, is tricky. Perhaps it will be a team that beats Miami? Perhaps it will be a team that loses pluckily? Or perhaps it won’t work like that at all, and the counterweight to the spike in interest that having Messi generates is the drop that comes when he is gone.





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