This article by Angelo Palmeri originally appeared in 'Jalka' issue of February 2014 .
Part Two, next week, it is unreleased and exclusive.
Cover picture by Lembit Peegel
We commonly say in Italy that Italians can be found anywhere around the World, also in the North Pole.
Football has been no exception.
However, it took 8-9 years before reading in local media about Italians in Estonian football. This timespan separated the early departure of coach Franco Pancheri from Levadia (June 2003) until the arrival of defender Marco Bianchi (July 2011) and striker Damiano Quintieri (August 2012) to Nõmme Kalju.
Pancheri has still a clear memory of his spell at Levadia and how he was offered a job by the Tallinn club, back then still named Levadia Maardu.
He reached Tallinn during the summer of 2002 in the framework of the Inter Campus, a social project established by FC Internazionale in 1997 and involving youth football in several countries in the World.
It was then that he met Viktor Levada. However the job at the ‘greens’ was not yet shadowing. ‘’It was a very good experience’’ recalls Franco about the Inter Campus, as back then he was a youth coach at Internazionale in the 15-20 age span. ‘’There were 100 enthusiastic kids each week; kids with a great will to learn, I had a lot of work to do with them: kids are like ‘sponges’, so to say, they absorb everything you communicate them’’ recounts with one of his colourful expressions.
After his only first-team experience with Levadia, Franco returned to his realm of youth coaching: nowadays he is teaching football to the same age span in the US Pergolettese, a club from the small town of Crema in Northern Italy. Born in Travagliato, Brescia province (the same town of legendary Franco Baresi and his brother Beppe with whom both he is well acquainted), Pancheri had the peak of his footballing career when he won the ‘scudetto’ with Inter in 1979-80. A right fullback, he was mainly a reserve and managed to contribute with 17 caps.
His playing career was ruined by a ligament injury: ‘’At that time I was a regular in the Italy U-21 with the likes of Cabrini (interviewed by Angelo Palmeri for Õhtuleht last year - edit.) and goalkeeper Galli, people who have won everything at club and national level’’ recounts a bit sadly.
His playing career developed further on and away from Milano and ended in semi-professional football.
When the offer from Levadia came at the end of 2002, he was firmly at the helm of the Internazionale ‘Berretti’, as it is named the 15-20 youth category in the boot country. ‘’It was a surprise for me. I came back to Tallinn to talk with Viktor and reach an agreement. My job at the Inter Youth academy was a problem as I was at half of the season and I had to ask the club if I could quit earlier’’ explains Franco who was finally released by Inter to leave for Estonia.
Despite Levadia signed Pancheri for 3 years, his job lasted only half a year.
After a negative streak of 4 losses Viktor Levada reached terms with Pancheri for a consensual separation after twelve games. ‘’I can tell you that when my family and me we were on the plane back to Milano, we were not glad at all we were heading back to Italy. However, this is the coach job and one has to accept such events. FC Levadia treated me very well and I have no negative feelings towards them’’ explains Pancheri who also asked many questions about present-day situation of Levadia and Estonian football.
He has also great memories of some Levadia players he had under his rule: Igor Prins ‘’a warrior, never giving up, he was the added value in that squad despite the age’’; Sergei Hohlov-Simson ‘’great memory of the captain’’. He can boast also to have contributed to the growth and success of some Estonian present day internationals: ‘’I gave the debut to Kruglov (who recently moved back to Azerbaijan - edit)’’ reveals Franco ‘’he was already very able in handling the tasks implied in his role. He was quick and had good left-footed shooting skills.’’ He also confirms us what he told to the Estonian press 10 years ago about Dmitrijev: ‘’he had already the qualities of a leader back then, he only needed to get convinced of being one as on the pitch he was a very quiet guy’’.
Among the many youngsters he trained at Levadia, there were also the likes of Voskoboinikov, Śiśov and Eduard Ratnikov.
He reveals us that he brought the three of them to Internazionale youth camp (Interello) for a trial that lasted a week. Unfortunately, none of them was chosen to play for Inter Primavera - the same age level where nowadays Frank Liivak plays (for Napoli SSC - edit). However, this great experience stayed with the three youngsters and one of them, ‘Vosko’, is still thankful for it: ‘’I was 17-year-old when Franco brought me to Inter. We had a friendly game, we won 4-0 and I scored two goals. It was already a dream to travel to Italy for playing football’’ recounts vividly Vosko, recentlly moved to China . ‘’When you have the chance to go on a trial for such a big club, obviously you dream further of staying there. Even though in the end they did not choose me, I am thankful as this experience gave me a hint at what should I have done better to improve and move my career further and go abroad’’.
In 2009 Õhtuleht made a table of the foreign coaches that reached Estonia in different sport fields grouping them according to their successes and failures (see box on the left). In the light of Franco Pancheri’s results in Meistriliiga, he was mentioned under ‘Täielik Põrumine’ - total failure - and the main reason of his failure was tied with the language barrier between him and his players.
Franco did not speak any English, let alone Estonian or Russian, and he did communicate via a simultaneous translator. An idea of the language chaos that ruled the Levadia training camp is very well described by Richard Barnwell, FC Flora women coach and back then one of the few foreigners in the squad: ‘’It was like Chinese whispers . I had to wait for the Italian instructions to be translated in to Russian, then to Estonian and then from one of the Estonian players in to English. I just hoped I got the right message.’’ explains Richard who did not have a lot of playing time due to an injury to his shoulder. Asked about that, Franco is…frank: ‘’Yes, this is partially true’’ admits the 55-year-old coach. ‘’At the end of the day, I realized that my messages to the team were badly communicated’’ claims Franco ’’regardless the language barriers, it is natural in football: you explain something to a 20-people squad and there are always 2-3 people who don’t understand exactly what the coach wants to mean. Therefore I would conclude that yes, the language barrier penalized my experience’’.
One week before sacking him, Viktor Levada, in the aftermath of the second derby lost to Flora (1-2 in front of 4,500 people at Kadriorg see box on the right), had clearly told the press that the title was already gone.
We ask Franco if sacking him was really the solution considering that his successor, Tarmo Rüütli, did not improve the season’s situation much (Levadia ended up third, same position where Pancheri left them) and Levada considered the title already unreachable.
He has got his own theory: ‘’if he said that then he must have considered that keeping me till the end of the season was more expensive than having Rüütli in my place, I’m assuming. This was like at Inter: when Stramaccioni took Ranieri’s place, certainly his salary was lower than the present-day Monaco coach (laughs)’’.
Cheaper solution or not, at least the Levadia points average under Rüütli slightly improved as it reached two per game against 1,41 delivered by Pancheri until his last game (the 1-4 loss in Kadriorg against Viljandi).
Barnwell, besides remarking that the team started to play better under Rüütli, adds other reasons to Pancheri’s unfortunate experience: ‘’Pancheri was clearly a good youth coach and could teach the basics and technical aspects of the game but he had no game plan, no real tactics. I've learned myself as a coach that players respond well if they know you have a plan and they understand and believe in it, in my opinion the language barrier explains only partially’’ concludes the 33-year-old coach from Lancashire.
What Pancheri would have done differently, apart from learning English, it is quite clear to him after 10 years: ‘’Looking back to my choices’’ Pancheri pondered ‘’probably I should have reached Levadia with two of my collaborators. While giving instructions to the interpreter, they could have immediately checked whether they were putting them into practice correctly or not. The assistants could have been keeping an eye on what the players were doing if not even looking at their facial expressions’’.
Levadia did not allow him to bring his own and offered Urmas Kirs (who later left) and Tarmo Rüütli.
''Rüütli was working with me, however I do not know if he had the same ideas as I had. Probably he had his viewpoints. On the back of this experience, now I would insist to bring one or two assistant coaches from Italy, as they would share my views’’.
It is again Barnwell to give a different view on what might have happened in the coaching staff: ‘’Things started to go wrong very early in pre-season training when Pancheri sacked the assistant coach, Urmas Kirs’’ reveals Richard ‘’Pancheri justified that as Urmas and Tarmo 'talked too much' to each other. It seemed like he felt left out of that’’ and also disagrees on the need of an assistant coach of his choice ‘’He had the full squad every day of the week for 2-3 hours to make sure the message was applied and also Tarmo Rüütli as an assistant coach. What more do you need? Football translates very easily and although his lack of English was a problem you can show the players what you want’’.
Despite all the troubles and an Achille’s tendon injury picked up by slipping over an icy surface, Pancheri still preserves a good memory of the football here.
He even expressed the wish he might come back one day to work with youth teams as suggested by Barnwell’s judgment over his youth coaching skills: ‘’Despite the early end’’ concludes Franco ‘’I still deem it a positive experience. I have lost contact with the local football but I follow the results of the national team and I could say they have improved. I guess things have also changed as far as concerns the preparation of the coaches. The level of the Estonian club football when I came was around Serie C1 (third tier, what is Lega Pro 1 today – A.P.) in the upper part of the table.’’
Franco has fully recovered from the injury picked and recounted how it happened: ‘’I was going to an indoor training in Wismari (Levadia's modern complex in Maarjamäe district was not yet ready– A.P.) and I slipped on an ice layer.’’ recounts Pancheri ‘’they helped me to stand up however I felt a stab of pain. We went for diagnostics and they told me the Achille’s tendon was detached. After a couple of days, I went under surgery.’’
However, Franco main issue was not to make his family worry as in that period they were in Italy ‘’on the day of the surgery I told them I was going somewhere where phone connection was bad’’ smiles thinking about his little lie.
His secret did not last long ‘’It was grotesque: we were returning with Levadia from the training camp in Turkey. There was an air strike all over Europe. They changed our flights, I was coming from Turkey and my wife was coming from Italy. She almost fainted when she saw me in that condition on a wheelchair at Helsinki airport. She was making me a surprise. I explained her what happened. Once in Tallinn, she gave the news also to my children. They knew about it after a month.’’
(end of 'Part One' - 'Part Two' next week)
The Levadia website reminds Franco Pancheri as follows.
'Fantastic and warm human being. Very good youth coach. His message did not reach the squad. The translator tried to give his best, however Franco's touch with the players was half a way. In general it was difficult to understand the Italian coach. At the same time, he was really trying to mingle with the squad - he's been the only coach who has invited the whole squad to his place'
Later on I had a chance to speak with Indrek Petersoon, press officer at Levadia who confirmed me the human warmth of Franco during his period at Levadia. In a long interview with weekly 'Kroonika' Franco gave indeed a great image of himself as a lively and curious person who did not hesitate to leave a safe job (he was never able to resume later) to embrace the Estonian adventure.
Regarding the launch of talents, Indrek Petersoo added that at that time he overlooked Kostantin Vassiljev who we all know very well.
Whether it was a typical youth coach mistake (his friend, Franco Baresi, was denied a place at Inter before becoming an AC Milan legend) or related to Kostja's natural shy character, we are left to wonder.
Recently, former Amkhar Perm coach Stanislav Cherchesov, indeed confirmed Kostja's good nature as not very fit for football, a world, according to the experienced coach and former USSR international, inhabited by 'scoundrels'. One of Vassiljev's teammate described the Estonian international as a 'gentleman' on and off the pitch.
The fact that Franco was 'expensive coach' compared to Rüütli, it was confirmed by words from Indrek Petersoo himself to UEFA.com 11 years ago: ''It is no secret that Pancheri was an expensive coach and we not only demanded results, but also quality football. We did not get what we wanted and in a situation where a domestic coach might have got more time, we came to this agreement with the coach ''.