Author's notes: This is written using an older version of the game, FM08, to this date still my favorite incarnation of the game series. So bear with me historically as I relate my travails with Calcio Padova, a club which this season is actually bankrupt in real life, and the start of the managerial career of my favorite character ever, American manager Rob Ridgway.
Major European leagues loaded including Italy, England, France, Germany and all Home Nations.
How do you return a once-great club with great expectations to its former place of prominence?
I am about to try to find out. My name is Rob Ridgway. I'm 36 years old and I'm an American far from home.
In trying to perform my task, I am faced with a number of handicaps that are sadly becoming too common in the modern game. Calcio Padova, of Italy’s lower league known as Serie C1A, is not a club with unlimited resources – in fact, money is very tight for a club of its ambitions.
The senior squad roster is filled with players in their thirties and there isn’t a young player under my club's contract who is ready to step up and carry the club forward in a meaningful way.
If we are to achieve the success the board craves and the supporters desire, we’ll have to do it with old players and then buy or sign younger ones who can cement any success gained by the current group. It’s not an optimal way to do business.
But that’s football. You do what you’re told or they’ll find someone who will.
Italian football is unlike any other on the planet.
English football is known for power and physical play. Spain’s is known for exquisite skill. Germany’s is known for free-scoring matches and a wide-open style. But Italy? Well, Italy is different.
Italian football is known for its technical excellence, its flair and quite frankly, its theatrics. The national side got a huge amount of criticism worldwide for the behavior of some of its players during the 2006 World Cup and I can certainly understand why.
One of the Azzurri’s preliminary matches came against my nation, the United States, and the result was not an artistic one for the beautiful game. A nine-man American side held on for a highly credible 2-2 draw that was thrilling to watch but which I felt was abominably officiated. Italian players seemed to writhe in agony on the pitch at every passing breeze while two of my compatriots saw red.
And I say this as an American managing in Italy. So much for being afraid to express an opinion.
Italy went on to claim the Jules Rimet Trophy after the infamous Zinedine Zidane / Marco Materazzi head-butting incident in the final against France, but won itself few friends worldwide in the process. Not that this matters to the hardcore Italian fan, of course. Winning is the only thing that matters here.
The Italian game is recovering from one of the biggest scandals in its history, with the “Old Lady” itself, Juventus, having won its way back to Serie A after implication in the 2006 match-fixing scandal. The implication of Juventus and several other clubs saw Juve stripped of three Scudetto championship titles and kicked out of the Champions League.
That is part of life here, where doing anything and everything you can to win is considered part of the ethos. They say if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, and in this game if you can make it in Italy, you can make it anywhere.
That is not to take sides in the “which nation has the best league” debate. It depends on what kind of football you like.
England has powerhouse teams and is known for strong, physical play, but Italy seems to do better in European competition. Germany has a few giants and some technical aficionados say Spain’s La Liga is the best football going.
At this point, who’s best doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that I’m in the game, and looking for my chance to show what I can do.
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My career in this game lasted sixteen seasons and ended just last spring. I spent time in Scotland, England and the United States before coming to Italy to finish my career.
I started in the States, before earning a contract with Falkirk, then in Scotland’s lower leagues.
I spent two seasons there before being snipped by Rangers for £1 million. I spent three tremendous seasons there and genuinely loved every minute of the “Ibrox experience”.
But it wasn’t going to last forever, and with a rising reputation as a central defender I wound up going to Reading, then of the English First Division. I spent six seasons there before returning home to the new Major League Soccer, where I played three seasons with the Chicago Fire.
But at that point in my life, at age 33, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into management and returned to Europe to try to do the impossible. I was financially secure, and wanted to try to get into the business in the best place I could.
I played my final two seasons at Frosinone, a solid Serie B side here in Italy, while studying for my UEFA coaching badges. I retired in the spring, just before my 36th birthday, with a bevy of experience in four different countries under my belt. I felt I was ready to get started, and so did a club named Calcio Padova.
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Padova has a link with players from my nation. They made onetime Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas the first American to play in Serie A when they signed him in 1997.
Alexi was the firebrand of the 1994 United States national side. His long red hair and trademark goatee held in place by a rubber band made him instantly recognizable and a bit famous as well, as the World Cup was contested in North America for the first time. Alexi is currently trying to help MLS grow through the fame of mega-signing David Beckham.
My own experience with MLS was a bit different. I am very proud of my nationality and very proud to support the national team, but I am of the opinion that for Americans to succeed in the world’s game, we must go to the world rather than have the world come to us.
You don’t get better playing against yourselves. You get better by going to where the action is hottest and making something happen for yourself.
That’s why most of my career was spent in Europe. Even though I didn’t get the exposure at home I might have gotten by spending more time in MLS, I still was capped 46 times for my country and scored four goals. I gained a reputation as a good teammate and teacher, even as I also gained a reputation as being absolutely unafraid to speak my mind.
I didn’t disrupt any of the changing rooms I was in but if someone asked me my opinion I gave it without hesitation, or “spin”. I thought what I thought and that was it.
For some people, that kind of frankness is difficult to accept. But in football, where winning is everything and in many cases the difference between financial success and failure, a direct approach is often the best way to work.
The people at Frosinone were happy to accept me as a stabilizing influence on a young back line for the last two years of my career and I was one of the very few players to leave for MLS and then come back to Europe. So there was that to consider as well. I feel I led their back four by example and helped their young players grow.
So when I looked to get into the management game it was with the full blessing of my employer, who sent me on my way with their best wishes and recommendations – and that certainly didn’t hurt as I tried to get my foot in the door.
It was Padova who gave me that chance and I’m grateful for it. The club is quite hungry for success and suffered the humiliation – and I choose that word quite carefully – of three relegations in the late 1990s. Padova plummeted from Serie A to Serie B to Serie C1 to Serie C2, from which it was promoted two years later.
Since then, however, the club has tried to rejuvenate its fortunes through its stadium, known as Euganeo. Repeated political difficulties delayed the renovation of the stadium, which now holds 29,000 spectators as well as an athletics track, which is hugely unpopular with the hardest core of the club’s support.
The new Euganeo is a start. Still, to see the great stadium with the 2,000 or so spectators a Serie C1 club draws flecked among the 29,000 seats is a bit sad. I’d like to bring the supporters back and along with it, rejuvenate the club’s fortunes.
I’ve only had a few weeks here so far to put a stamp on the squad but I’ve done some things that I expect will help in both the short and the long term. Chairman Marcello Sestaro has taken a couple of moderately deep breaths and opened his wallet, but his pockets are none too deep.
First, the squad needed strengthening to challenge for the honors expected, and with not a lot of money to spend that meant hitting the loan wires. Chief among them was goalkeeper Paolo Orlandoni, a 35-year old veteran from Inter Milan who I expect to galvanize our entire defense. He can still play, and goalkeepers who are older are not the worst things in the world for a club.
He is there to help free transfer Jeremy Busarello grow. The 17-year old Belgian played at Sint-Truiden last season my scouts say he’s a key to the future of this club. I would like him to learn from Orlandoni, though I would not mind loaning the player to give him first-team experience while Paolo and backup keeper Andrea Cano mind the store for this season.
Also at my recommendation we have started a feeder program with Serie A side SS Lazio, which has resulted in defender Andrea Guglielmi and midfielder Simon De Cristofaris heading here on loan. While neither of them are what I would consider to be top-flight young players, giving them first-team experience while hopefully gaining promotion may lead to better candidates heading our way in future years.
I also have loaned 19-year old striker Daniele Paponi from Parma. This kid is going to be good, and if he plays well for us he is the kind of player I would like to be able to keep around. He is very much in my own physical mold – he’s 6’2” and 194 pounds, just six pounds lighter and the same height I was when I played.
Not surprisingly, I am an advocate for players over six feet tall. Most footballers are well under that height and that shouldn’t be surprising, as most top-level players use pace as one of their primary weapons.
However, every club needs a power player, one who can shut down the other guy’s finesse. And since most Italian clubs place a premium on being damned hard to score against, the power player can be an important part of a club.
Most clubs have theirs at the back, with your correspondent being a case in point. So to potentially have one up front is a great equalizer.
I have also purchased the contract of 32-year old central defender Stefano Sachetti for €14,000 and if he plays well it will be a steal. The former Serie A defender bolsters us right where we need help and I think he still has some tread left on his tires as well.
Also in on a free transfer is 34-year old Argentine defender Pablo Paz. He is older than I would have wished, but still plays at a high level of skill and can play four positions – right back, central defense, holding midfielder and central midfielder. Holding midfielder is an important position in my lexicon.
My preferred formation is 4-1-3-2 and that means I have to have a holding midfielder with some brains. My choice as club captain, Federico Crovari, is the first choice there but Paz is a more than capable backup.
He, central defender Mario Donadoni, and fellow back Vasco Faísca all have important roles to play. Faísca is going to play alongside Sachetti in the middle when he isn’t backing up our other prize loan signing, Italy u-21 defender Massimo Gotti. They will do the lion’s share of the work on the back line and I am depending on them.
In midfield, we have interesting choices as well. Andrea Rabito is a talented offensive midfielder with whom I am well familiar as Padova co-owns him with Frosinone. Andrea Gentile and loanee Eder Baú make up much of the rest of a talented group with 33-year old Bosnian international Vedin Music providing backup on the left side.
We are probably deeper there than at any other position – so deep, in fact, that I will ask Gentile to train as a striker to give us added depth at that position. Rabito and Baú are also center forwards and obviously if I use them in midfield I can’t use them up front, which affects our depth.
Up front, perhaps our most talented player is 36-year old Roberto Muzzi, a journeyman who has spread his talent across Serie A even as he hasn’t been able to stick with a club for more than a few seasons. We need his experience but he is also our highest paid player at €625,000. To contrast – that is nearly ten times my starting salary as manager. In fact, there are nine players who make more money than I do in the starting eleven. So to be the boss is a bit daunting.
30-year old Massimiliano Varrichio is probably going to be Muzzi’s foil up front. Roberto was deadly in our friendlies, netting five times in six matches against opponents who were largely inferior to us, while Massimiliano was caught up in a bit of a battle with our other strikers.
Whether Roberto translates his strong start into Serie C play is yet to be seen, but I think he can do it. So does Roberto, and for that money he’d better.
We are old in key positions, yes, but the upside to this is that we have 23 players on one-year or loan contracts. The capability does exist to replace some of these players even if it may be more expensive in the short term to do so, through assuming larger contracts. That’s where we have to be very careful.
I’d prefer to have fewer loan contracts, because obviously it is harder to build understanding and success if you are changing out your senior squad every year, and I’d like our youth system to start producing players who will be of help to the senior squad. But the nature of Italian football is transitory.
Loyalty, unless your name happens to be Maldini, can be hard to come by. My job is to build a consistent winner and I want that winner to become younger than this team will be, by quite a few years.
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