Nevio Scala made a career of football, first as a player and then as a coach. “But it wasn't what I dreamed of doing,” he says.
Scala spent one season on loan at Roma, 1966-67, in which he made his Serie A debut and scored his first goal, before returning to his parent club AC Milan at the end of the campaign.
“I would have stayed if it had been up to me,” he adds.
After hanging up his boots, Scala established himself as a great coach – not just during his highly successful spell at Parma, but also at various clubs abroad. One of those was Shakhtar Donetsk, with whom he won the Ukrainian league in 2002– the club's first-ever title.
“It was a fantastic achievement. We won the cup too and the club paid homage to that triumph by producing a huge image of me at their stadium. I have an excellent relationship with president [Rinat] Akhmetov. He sends me birthday and Christmas wishes every year. And whenever they need a hand or want some advice, they call me. They did that when [Paulo] Fonseca was in charge too.”
Did you speak to Fonseca when he was at Shakhtar?
“I did. I got a call from a club official who was there during my time at the club. They wanted me to give him some advice on the problems you face as a foreign coach in the first few months. I had an excellent interpreter – a university professor – but it's not easy to get through to the players when you're communicating via an interpreter. It's hard to translate feelings. I realised we needed to strike up an understanding on a human level. So do you know what I did?
“I made them some spaghetti with tomato and pancetta – a sort of amatriciana. A small gesture but it helped me get them on my side. Sometimes the human element counts more than 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. That's basically what I told Fonseca. And I think he proved himself with the results he obtained.”
How did you end up coaching in Ukraine?
“It was 2002. I wasn't working at the time after my previous experience in Turkey with Besiktas. And I got a phone call at home from someone speaking German...”
“Yes, it was an intermediary. I speak German because my wife was born in Germany. This person asked if I'd be interested in becoming the coach of Shakhtar. I said no initially because I had no desire to start again in a different league with a different language. But then he said: 'Take my advice, Scala, go and speak to the Shakhtar president to Vienna. They'll take you to Donetsk to show you the training facilities and everything else.”
Were you convinced?
“I followed the advice. Their training ground was quite something – super modern. I decided to take charge of the team, even though it was during the winter break. It was never a money problem. I asked the president to give me a six-month contract and then we'd sit down to discuss the results at the end of the season.”
And you got results.
“We won the league and cup for the first time in the club's history. It was an incredible achievement made possible by the lads, whom I immediately struck up a rapport with. It was a great group of players, with [Anatoliy] Tymoshchuk as captain. I decided to make him captain as he had a lot of charisma.”
Then you were sacked the following season, despite the trophies you won.
“That's football for you. We lost 4-2 to Austria Vienna in the UEFA Cup. It was a ridiculous match and the president was angry with the result. He called me and said he wanted to change coach and I accepted. We parted on good terms.”
What do Rome and Roma mean to you?
“Rome was the first leg of my journey as a player. I was just a kid when I arrived and felt lost in such a huge city. But with the help of the right people, I was able to settle in. I'll always be grateful to my friend Attilio Brozzi. I'd go to his trattoria in Via della Balduina. Thanks to him and his family, I was able to produce my best on the pitch.”
You made your Serie A debut with Roma.
“Yes, I joined from AC Milan but I'd never played for the first team. Roma wanted me because they spotted me in a tournament at the Stadio Flaminio that year, in 1966. The coach [Oronzo] Pugliese and president [Franco] Evangelisti were impressed by me and when they were discussing the transfer of [Karl-Heinz] Schnellinger and [Angelo] Sormani to Milan, they asked to have me in exchange.
"The AC Milan president [Franco] Carraro accepted but only on loan. I never thought I'd play as much as I did but I ended up becoming a regular starter.”
Would you have liked to stay at Roma?
“If it had been up to me, I wouldn't have left. I was happy. I was the youngster in the team and everyone helped me. It was an excellent team with the likes of [Paolo] Barison, [Sergio] Carpanesi, [Francesco] Carpenetti, [Alberto] Ginulfi, [Giacomo] Losi the captain, [Joaquin] Peiro, [Giuseppe] Tamborini...”
Was it impossible for you to stay?
“Yes, because back then the players didn't decide, only the clubs. President Carraro wanted me back in Milan so I went back.”
Is it true you were close to becoming Roma coach about ten years ago?
“It was the 2010-11 season and Claudio Ranieri's side were struggling for results. I was working on my farm and as I got off the tractor my phone rang. I was asked if I'd be willing to go back to Rome and take on the challenge. I accepted but then everything came to a halt as the team got back on track. Results worsened again a few months later but then [Vincenzo] Montella was promoted from the youth team.”
You mentioned your farm. Is that what you spend your time on now?
“I'm very happy doing it – it's what I wanted. I never dreamed of becoming a footballer or a coach. Everything went the way it was supposed to go. Of course as a professional I enjoyed a lot of success at various levels. I must admit that – also because with the money I earned in football I was able to expand the business, which I inherited from my father. We make wine now and we're selling it despite the difficulties the world is going through.”
So you don't miss football?
“I do feel a touch of nostalgia every now and then and I still follow it closely – you don't just forget 50 years of football. Sometimes I think I might still have something to offer. But then I remember I'm 73. In any case, I'm happy to offer my opinion when I'm asked.”
So we'll ask you for your opinion on Sunday's match between Roma and AC Milan.
“AC Milan are struggling a little at the moment. They lost the derby and seem to have lost a bit of momentum. They're a young team so ups and downs are to be expected. If Roma win – and it's not impossible – I think it could propel them towards the Champions League. It's a great opportunity. Similarly I think Roma have every chance of progressing in the Europa League.”
"If it were up to me I would never have left Roma."