MILAN (Reuters) – Fifteen years after abandoning a career in international banking to try his luck as a soccer coach, Maurizio Sarri has finally reached the top of a profession he said he would happily do for free.
The chain-smoking Sarri, who never played professionally and made his Serie A touchline debut at the age of 55, has led Napoli to the top of the table with a side which look fully capable of winning their first title since the Diego Maradona era.
They next travel to lowly Bologna on Sunday a point clear.
Known as “Mr 33”, because he reputedly thought up 33 different plans for setpieces in his previous job at Empoli, Sarri quickly innovated at Napoli by using a drone to film training sessions from above.
The inconsistency which marked Rafael Benitez’s two years at the club have been swept away in Sarri’s first season and players such as Gonzalo Higuain, Marek Hamsik and Jorginho, who struggled for form under the Spaniard, are back at their best.
Sarri had never coached a big club before he was surprisingly appointed by Napoli in June and many wondered whether he could command a dressing room which included the likes of Higuain and goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
Those doubts appeared to be justified when Napoli took only two points from their first three games, leading Maradona to say the club had appointed the wrong man.
“Sarri is a good person, but he’s not worthy of Napoli. For him to be on the bench is a great gift. They needed a coach who understands the size and prestige of the club,” he said.
But 12 wins in their last 13 matches in all competitions, culminating in Monday’s 2-1 win over title rivals Inter Milan, have put Napoli top of Serie A.
Sarri began coaching amateur teams back in the 1990s, managing to combine his hobby with a banking career that took him to the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
But, after leading Sansovino to the fourth tier at the start of the millennium, he decided it was time to make the leap.
“I understood that if I dedicated myself solely to coaching, I could get much better at it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but my family supported me.”
Since then, he was worked his way up from the lower tiers of Italian football. He led Sangiovannese to the third tier in 2004 and reached Serie B when he was appointed by Pescara the following season.
After coaching 16 clubs, he finally made his big breakthrough by leading Empoli to Serie A in 2013-14.
Sarri has said it is too early to start talking of a first Napoli scudetto since 1990.
“Napoli is a wonderful environment to experience, but a very difficult one to control. Knowing the humility of my players, I think we can remain what we’ve always been,” he said.
“We can’t think that we are the best because we won a game. There’s no point talking now when there are another 72 points still to be won. With 31 so far we’re not even safe from relegation.”
In other standout Serie A games at the weekend, second-placed Inter host Genoa on Saturday and champions Juventus go to Lazio on Friday.
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Mark Meadows)