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While many coaches and players in Italy discuss the game as a job, something they work on and earn a living from, Emiliano Mondonico was always different.

Sadly he passed away this week at the age of 71 after a long battle with cancer, and a quote from an interview he once gave to La Stampa makes his unique approach abundantly clear. “Football is my best friend,” he said, discussing the sport not as a job or a stressful environment but instead as a thing of beauty that gave him some of the best moments of his life.

He may not be as iconic as the likes of Arrigo Sacchi, Marcello Lippi or even Zdeněk Zeman, with even those with more than a passing interest in Serie A often overlooking the impact he had on the sport.

But Mondonico’s influence deserves to be recognised by a much wider audience. He gave Calcio – and indeed European football – one of its most memorable and unforgettable images, holding a chair above his head after his Torino side were denied a penalty in the UEFA Cup Final.

As Ajax went on to lift the trophy, this was not a violent gesture, but one of rebellion. It was “a representation of the Granata defiance in the face of destiny’s injustice,” as local journalist Massimo Gramellini wrote the following day.

However, Mondonico’s story – one laden with touching moments and gritty determination in equal measure – is about so much more than a chair, it is a tale of one man’s life in football and the effect he had upon those he met along the way.

Born in Rivolta d’Adda, a small town near Cremona, he enjoyed a modest playing career that was mostly spent outside the top flight thanks to his obstinate character which saw his talent go largely unfulfilled.

“Today you might call him a flawed genius, but back then he was known as ‘Cavallo Pazzo’ (Crazy Horse),” Gianluca Vialli said in his book The Italian Job, the author describing a man he came to know shortly after Mondonico hung his boots up for good.

Early Promise

Quickly enrolling as a coach with local side Cremonese, he was keen to ensure that the next generation of players did not repeat his mistakes. Yet, while he immediately recognised the importance of discipline, tactics and organisation, he did not abandon his appreciation of entertainment, skill and flair.

It was as boss of the club’s youth team that he first met Vialli, impressing the future Juventus and Sampdoria star with his approach to the game and his ability to guide players away from the problems that had blighted his own playing days.

“Even though we were a well-drilled and organised side, Mondonico allowed me to follow my instincts and attempt the odd bit of skill or flair,” wrote Vialli. “I guess this was a legacy of the old Mondonico.”

Together they were quickly promoted to the first-team, helping Cremonese to win promotion up to Serie A for the first time in 57-years before the coach moved on to repeat the feat with Atalanta.

That he also steered La Dea to the semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup while playing in the second tier was a remarkable accomplishment, subsequently going on to finish ninth and seventh in Serie A over the following two seasons. His meteoric rise to prominence saw an ambitious Torino coming calling, with Mondonico – who had represented the Granata as a player in the late-1960s – able to grasp the unique atmosphere that often overshadows the club.

Having failed to ever recapture their former glory, the northern Italian city’s second club had been reinvigorated by the 1990 World Cup and hoped they could finally challenge for honours. They would finish fifth in his first season at the helm, steadily building a talented squad that included future Italy goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani, the rugged Pasquale Bruno, precocious winger Gigi Lentini and brilliant Belgian midfielder Enzo Scifo.

Mondonico drilled them in the fundamentals of the game, working tirelessly to install a solid defensive shape and then allow the attacking players to deliver when it mattered. The approach became known as Pane e Salame – “Bread and Salami” – for it’s enjoyable but fulfilling nature. “I consider that meal to be as being delicious as anything else,” he once said. “And football is a simple game, otherwise people wouldn’t be talking about it!”

Reach For The Sky

As the 1991-92 campaign began, it seemed everything was falling into place. A derby win over Juventus reinforced the belief that something special was brewing at Torino and a UEFA Cup semi-final win over Real Madrid only added weight to that opinion. The team were stifling in defence, not only neutralising a Los Blancos attack that contained Gheorghe Hagi and Emilio Butragueño, but also conceding just 20 goals in 34 Serie A games.

Competing in a league where AC Milan boasted a back four of Franco Baresi, Billy Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassotti, it was the Granata who boasted the division’s best defence and finished third in the table.

Yet Ajax awaited in the UEFA Cup Final. Louis Van Gaal’s blossoming side was filled with players who would go on to enjoy incredible careers; Edwin van der Sar, Aron Winter and Dennis Bergkamp among them. Mondonico surprised them with an aggressive approach in the first leg and earned a 2-2 draw, the result prompting Torino to play in the same attacking manner in the away fixture.

In search of the goal they needed, Toro hit the woodwork three times in a game that remained goalless as time ticked away until striker Roberto Cravero felled in the box.

The referee waved play on and Mondonico had seen enough. He got up off his chair and held it aloft, pointing it to the sky seemingly venting nothing but his own frustration as he realised Ajax were going to hold on.

A year later they would win the Coppa Italia, but 12 months after that the coach would move on again, spending time with Atalanta and Napoli while returning to Torino for a brief spell in between. Mondonico would then join Fiorentina, achieving yet another promotion to the top flight, something he has managed on five separate occasions over the course of his career.

Bringing Serie A football back to the Renaissance City remains his favourite of those however, supporting them ever since he was given a Viola shirt as a child and even joining the club’s 7 Bello Ultra group. He remained a member for the rest of his life.

The Real Battle

Two spells with Albinoleffe followed his Tuscan adventure, only to be forced to temporarily step down from his position there when a tumour was discovered in his stomach.

Undergoing surgery to have it removed, the lump was found to weigh a staggering five kilos, yet the most shocking thing was that he returned to the touchline just 30 days later and helped the Seriani avoid relegation.

More surgery and a battle with cancer would follow, with Torino fans taking to the pitch at their former Stadio Filadelfia home to send their former boss a message of support. It happened thanks to a Facebook group among the club’s supporters, touchingly named “Mille sedie al cielo per il Mondo!” A thousand chairs in the sky for Mondonico.

He briefly returned to Serie A with Novara during the 2011/12 campaign but that would be his final post. 

“I’m fighting the most difficult battle against the nasty beast that is knocking on my door, but I will not give up,” he told Il Giornale in his typically defiant manner last year. 

He can now finally rest. Emiliano Mondonico might not be one of the peninsula’s best known managers, but he is one of the finest men Italian football has ever known.

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