In 2016 Bayern Munich faced a very difficult task. The club had to find a successor for Pep Guardiola. Only one came into consideration: Carlo Ancelotti. For us players, this meant a change on the one hand. What Ancelotti said in one week, Guardiola said in three hours. On the other hand, as was the case for his predecessor, it was also true for Ancelotti: as a player, you feel comfortable because you sense that the coach is ready to make his methods available to the team. That is why he is successful everywhere.
In a poll on who is the best coach in the world very few would say Carlo Ancelotti, even in Italy. Yet he has a unique record. He is the only one who will soon be title winner in Europe’s five big leagues: with Milan in Serie A, Chelsea in the Premier League, Paris Saint‑Germain in Ligue 1 and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, while with Real Madrid he is on the verge of winning La Liga.
There is also no coach who has won the Champions League more often, three times, or with more clubs, two. Ancelotti is also one of seven men to have held this trophy aloft as a player and as a coach.
As a player, he prevailed because he possessed extraordinary strategic skills. Ancelotti was part of the legendary Milan team under Arrigo Sacchi, who taught concept football to great individual players. So Ancelotti was on the pitch when a revolution was taking place, when the operating system of the modern game against the ball was being programmed: the ball-oriented zonal marking, the blueprint of which is still current.
This experience is the prerequisite for a top coach. Any coach who has not played at the highest level is missing something that Ancelotti has experienced. And so his deep understanding of the game, the players, the milieu of professional football comes from within. A dogmatic coach he is not. All his teams have a tactical level, he thinks from the defensive. But as a player, you get your freedom. Ancelotti is best at managing extreme characters.
Ancelotti has also got on with powerful men like Silvio Berlusconi, Roman Abramovich, Florentino Pérez or Nasser al-Khelaifi. After a few weeks in Munich, he approached me and asked who had more to say, Uli Hoeness or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. It was important for him to know who was giving the thumbs up or thumbs down within the club.
At the time when he was coaching us, it sometimes looked chaotic in the dressing room. Basically, kids’ stuff. Ancelotti was supposed to provide discipline. He was given a list of five points that we players should pay attention to in future. After training, he took me aside, showed me the list and said: “Now they’re grabbing me by the balls.”
Then Ancelotti stood in the dressing room in front of the team, looked at a piece of paper and said: “I have an order from the board to read you a list.” What he said, his tone, the way he looked, expressed:‘This is not part of my job, I’m not coaching a youth team after all. But if the bosses want me to do it, I’ll do it.’ Some players countered that signing thousands of autograph cards a month was too much for them. Ancelotti said: “It would be the same for me.”
Ancelotti is independent. He has charm, humour and a certain nonchalance. He manages to keep his distance. He would often sit in a restaurant with his family for an hour and a half after the final whistle and eat tortellini. Growing up as the son of farmers in Reggiolo in northern Italy, Ancelotti was used to helping out on the farm as a youngster. He embodies what is possible in football. You can come from the bottom to the top and shine on a big stage. Yet he never takes himself too seriously.
Those who now ask how one can be successful in five countries with five languages need to know: Footballers do a lot of things non-verbally. And Ancelotti has mastered the 50 important words needed in this game in every language. Top‑class football is international. Real, PSG, Chelsea, Bayern and Milan differ in style only in nuances. Ancelotti is the ideal solution for quietly taking over such teams.
In Madrid, he surely loves the exuberant universal talent of Karim Benzema, the game intelligence of Luka Modric, and the precision of Toni Kroos’s passes. Benzema’s missteps, on the other hand, interest him less, and he no longer wants to teach Kroos how to defend. As Real’s coach, he is aware that a debacle can happen, like the 4-0 defeat against Barcelona. Genius is simply not available in every game. Ancelotti knows that and the players know that he knows it. They support each other because he is one of them.
He does not lose his nerve after defeats but stands in front of his players. Team and coach are one unit, which is a merit of Ancelotti. The 3-1 victories against PSG and at Chelsea proved that Real Madrid can win not only the championship but also the Champions League. I played my last year under Ancelotti. When I told him I was ending my career, he asked me to reconsider. He said I could play at this level until I was 40. When he realised that I had made up my mind, he tried to get me on as his assistant coach. But I wanted to get some distance.
He loves what he does and loves football and footballers. That is why everyone likes to play for the great coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Note: Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in the Guardian. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries. Luca Lezzi of La Repubblica helped with the research for this column.