The changing face of Leonardo
Posted on March 21st, 2012
There was a time at Milan when Leonardo described his philosophy as “love and hugs.” Unlike Fabio Capello, the coach he had been likened to after reluctantly giving up a desk job at the club to then sit on the bench, Leonardo did not scream or shout on the sideline. “Gandhi,” he said, “freed India without raising his voice.”
Educated. Elegant. Throughout much of his career as a player, director, coach then director again, Leonardo handled himself with a certain class, charm and style. Slurred repeatedly by Silvio Berlusconi throughout the 2009-10 campaign in Serie A, he rose above it all, comparing his former employer with Narcissus, while revealing in the same interview that he was reading Aleph by Paulo Coelho, a book about a traveler on the Trans-Siberian railway who comes to see life as a passage from one carriage to another.
Leonardo’s passage to Inter a year ago was up until that point one of the few controversial things he had done in his profession. That and his elbow on Tab Ramos during Brazil’s match with the USA at the 1994 World Cup for which he received a red card. Then there was the introductory toast he made later that summer on signing for Kashima Antlers while blissfully unaware that in Japan “chin-chin” has an altogether different, much ruder connotation.
On the whole, though, Leonardo rarely put anyone’s nose out of joint. He was clean cut, immaculate and by his own admission a ‘Yes Man’. Never was there a hair out of place on his head. Why would there be when he apparently had such a natural flair for diplomacy? Multi-lingual, it seemed that, even after his brief but intense spell with Paris Saint-Germain as a player, which was notable for that epic performance of his in a 5-0 win against Steaua Bucharest in 1997, the phrase faux pas was not in his vocabulary.
How things have changed since Leonardo’s decision to leave Inter, with whom he won the Coppa Italia – his first and probably last trophy as a coach. Following his emotional and intriguing return to Paris Saint-Germain last summer to become the club’s director of sport under its ambitious new Qatari owners, Leonardo has revealed an altogether different side to himself.
If before the image he had presented to the world was that of a culturally sensitive romantic with empathy for his fellow man then now he appears comfortable with a growing reputation for ruthlessness. He’s a complex character and like his idol, the great Formula 1 racing driver Ayrton Senna, he has developed a reckless streak and isn’t afraid of running his equivalents of Alain Prost off the road.
France Football has even gone so far as to brand Leonardo le nettoyeur –the cleaner – on account of his willingness to do the Qataris dirty work. The “love and hugs” approach he once used has, at least according to some, been swapped for the cloak and dagger. “I have changed,” Leonardo told La Repubblica in December. “I have broken with my good guy image. I won’t keep quiet and I’m not afraid to argue… A few hours sleep at night is enough for me. Football is not a utopia and I am not a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize.”
Once almost universally popular, Leonardo has, it’s fair to say, made as many enemies as friends in his first six months back in France. The decision to sack Antoine Kombouaré after a 1-0 win away to Saint-Étienne just days before Christmas, as PSG sat top of the table and were crowned winter champions for the first time in 15 years sparked outrage up and down the country. A club legend, renowned for his winning header in a famous comeback against Real Madrid in 1993, he was treated disgracefully.
There was an appalling sense of inevitability about his dismissal. Kombouaré had been a dead man walking from the very beginning of the new regime and in hindsight they should have gone their separate ways there and then. The question is why didn’t they? For everyone knows that when a new director of sport inherits a coach rather than appoints one of their choosing the situation seldom ends well. Even Kombouaré understood that this was the state of play.
“When I went to Doha in June to see Sheikh al-Thani,” he told L’Équipe. “I spoke to him about my vision of football… But I also said: ‘I don’t understand why I am still here? You have put a huge amount of money into the club, so it would be logical for you to install your own people’. He responded: ‘I want you to be the coach’. I ignored why. Perhaps because at that moment PSG were yet to represent anything on planet football.”
From that Kombouaré indicates PSG maybe still needed time to show everyone that they were deadly serious. Some, not least Carlo Ancelotti, the coach Leonardo had worked closely with before at Milan and who he clearly had in mind for the position weren’t immediately convinced. For that to happen they needed Kombouaré to succeed in giving an idea of the club’s potential, to sell it as less of a risk and more of an opportunity. He was no longer a coach, more a caretaker.
Leonardo’s actions did nothing to suggest otherwise. Even though they talked about and agreed upon some specific long-standing targets of Kombouaré’s, PSG’s new director of sport appeared to ride roughshod over him in the transfer market by signing goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu and defender Diego Lugano with a blatant disregard for Nicolas Douchéz and Milan Bisevac, the players who the coach had already brought in for those positions.
It led to an awkward situation in the dressing room. So too, one can imagine, did Leonardo’s indiscrete meeting with Ancelotti after PSG’s run of six consecutive wins in Ligue 1 came to an end not with a loss but a 1-1 draw against Bordeaux on November 6. Leonardo didn’t deny it. They were friends, he said, indulging the speculation. “Honestly, today, we have to get used to it all,” he told Le Parisien. “What’s the reality? We’re talking about PSG everywhere: in Spain, in Italy, in Japan. We’ve heard [Arséne] Wenger, [José] Mourinho, [Rafa] Benitez and now Ancelotti be talked about [in association with PSG].”
Lamentable doesn’t even begin to describe it. Kombouaré had his faults. For everything he represented in PSG’s history, he lacked glamour. There were doubts about his ability to handle big egos after well-publicized fall-outs with Jérôme Rothen Apoula Edel, Stéphane Sessègnon and Peguy Luyindula. The team was inconsistent, the performances of €42m signing Javier Pastore dipped and Kombouaré’s case wasn’t helped either when PSG were knocked out of the Coupe de la Ligue by Dijon and fell at the first hurdle in the Europa League failing to get out of a group that included Athletic Bilbao, Red Bull Salzburg and Slovan Bratislava.
And yet he didn’t deserve to be so shamefully undermined by Leonardo, who, after Ancelotti apparently declined another approach, reportedly tried to tempt the recently retired midfielder Claude Makélélé to replace Kombouaré on an interim basis ahead of PSG’s game against Auxerre on December 4. In some respects, this was the final straw, a sign that, by now, it wasn’t necessarily about bringing in a big name with a proven track record, but simply getting rid of Kombouaré.
Reflecting on that moment and what followed, he explained to L’Équipe: “I’d have been annoyed if they had brought in Makélélé. But with Ancelotti what can I say? He’s among the best coaches in the world with Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Mourinho. I don’t accept the idea of being fired while at the top of the league, but even if I had an over-inflated ego, even if I am gutted, I still say: ‘Well, OK’, because it’s Ancelotti.”
Kombouaré’s humility does little to disguise or excuse the treatment he received. Jean-Michel Moutier, the PSG director of sport between 1991 and 1998, who actually bought Leonardo from Kashima Antlers, felt the whole business smacked of “amateurism and terrible incompetence.”
Several instances support that view. The high profile transfers of David Beckham, Alexandre Pato and Carlos Tévez which fell through amid general confidence that they would sign; the unnecessary extra pressure Ancelotti has been put under because “if I don’t win the title it’ll look bad, it’s useless to deny it”; and the contempt with which the new owners appear to hold the “old and ill-adapted” Parc des Princes, PSG’s mythical home since 1974, which they’ll leave for the Stade de France between 2013 and 2015, as renovation works start in anticipation of Euro 2016.
A measure of the reservations held by some supporters, who are struggling to relate to their oil-rich club despite the prospect of winning Ligue 1 for the first time since 1994 was provided by an article in Le Monde entitled: “In the eyes of its faithful, PSG has sold its soul.” “Even if we are comfortable on a financial level,” said one fan, “PSG’s identity is weakened.” Whilst Leonardo has spoken about integrating the club with “what the city has to offer from a cultural perspective” retaining its spirit will be his biggest challenge in the years to come.
Charged with building the new PSG, he could yet prove to be the architect of his own downfall. Yet, Saturday’s 1-0 win away to Brest was the fourth in a row in all competitions under Ancelotti. Curiously it was Bisevac, one of Kombouaré’s lieutenants, who found the winner. But problems remain. PSG delivered a good result rather than a good performance. “It’s not all roses,” wrote L’Équipe. Indeed, while Leonardo once came up smelling of them and appeared all prim and proper, the story of his second spell at PSG is that he has thorns too.
This article first appeared on ESPN