Messi Is Barça-Where Else Could He Go?”

The former coach experienced the first friendly between Barcelona and Napoli. During a chat with AS, he explains that he discovered Maradona, Cristiano and Messi.

Barcelona return to the San Paolo tomorrow, a stadium where they have never played an official game – but they did play a friendly there back in May 1978, a game which ended 1-1 with Esteban and Moreno Ferrario getting on the scoresheet.

That Barça was coached by Rinus Michels and featured the great Johan Cruyff, while on the Napoli bench that day was a young Gianni Di Marzio. The former coach sat down with AS to recall that day and talk about his relationships with Maradona, Messi and Cristiano…

What are you memories of that friendly between Napoli and Barça?

More than the game itself, I can clearly recall the good grace and manners which Cruyff had. We did an interview together, when his ended, he said goodbye to everybody present and shook everyone’s hand – everyone! It was marvellous to see such humility – the kind I have only ever seen from the real greats like him, Pelé, Beckenbauer…

Napoli 1-1 Barcelona: 25 May 1978

Your team managed to get a draw, a good result against a team full of stars…

We played with a zonal system, if we had marked them man for man they would have put six past us. I was already drawing inspiration from the Dutch model.

And a few months later, you discovered Maradona…

I went to watch the World Cup in Argentina and by pure chance, a taxi driver, one of those ones who knows everything, advised me to go and watch this young lad play. Argentinos Juniors’ president at the time was originally from Calabria, he knew me because I’d coached Catanzaro, and he organised a meeting. But Diego was very angry…

Why? What happened?

[Argentina coach César Luis] Menotti had included him his preliminary list of 40 players [for the World Cup], but then left him out of the definitive list. He had character even then. I went to see him, I spent 15 days with him and we agreed to take him to Napoli. I even sent him a blue Napoli shirt, the number 10.

So his passion for Napoli started right there – all thanks to you!

I’m not saying that, that’s what he has said himself. There are several videos of Diego saying that he chose Napoli because of the story I’ve just told you.

Why didn’t the move come off?

[Napoli owner Corrado] Ferlaino was against it, he said that I was infatuated with young players and so we missed the chance. At the time, Maradona would have only cost 240,000 dollars.

Cristiano’s medical for Juventus in 2002

Something similar happened with Cristiano didn’t it?

I discovered him. He’d hardly played three games for Sporting, and I was working for Juve, [General Director Luciano] Moggi asked me to go and take a look at [Ricardo] Quaresma but on that mission, I couldn’t take my eyes off Ronaldo. In my notes, I wrote that he would go on to become one of the best players in the world.

What happened after that?

I brought him to Turin for a medical, but the operation wasn’t concluded because [Marcelo] Salas refused to be part of the deal, he wanted to go back to South America.

Barrientos kept Messi out of Argentina’s Under-20s side

You were also close to signing Messi once too…

In 2005, he couldn’t get a place in Argentina’s Under-20s side, [Pablo] Barrientos was playing in his position and blocking Leo’s way into the team… I knew him, I decided to speak to him and to his father. He liked the idea of joining Juve, but his links to Barça were very strong, he was extremely grateful to the club for everything they had done for him. So it wasn’t to be.

He could leave on a free transfer this summer.

Messi is Barça. Where would he go? If he was a bit younger, maybe… But now he is the heart and soul of the club. I’d advise him to stay. He needs that human warmth he has in Barcelona – I couldn’t see him being happy in the Premier League, or in France or Germany.

Things have been quite tense with the club’s management…

He did the right thing in responding to Abidal, there are certain things that can’t be said in public.

Can you the current Barça side, who have had so many injury problems, having a hard time against Napoli?

Losing Luis Suárez and Dembélé is a big blow, but the ‘Barça B’ team that played against Inter Milan impressed me more that the standard, first choice Barça side. They have incredible players. It doesn’t matter what moment they’re in or who is out injured. And of course, they have Messi…

…who many feel is better than Maradona.

Diego is a god, you can’t compare the two. There is only one God.

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