Football is a simple game, or so the old cliche goes. Attempt to sell that notion to an Italian coach and you will probably be greeted with a dismissive shake of the head.

Why? For them football is more than just a sports... it is a national obsession. It is entwined in their culture, the exponents of the Beautiful Game enjoy superstar status and the country's flamboyant Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is also the chief of Milan, the outgoing European champions and one of the biggest clubs in the world.

The performances of Italian clubs and players in the Serie A as well as in Euro competitions are constantly under the public spotlight with TV programmes devoting hours of their viewing time to in-depth discussions on football...or rather tactics.

Football fans the world over take pleasure from showing off their self-acclaimed expertise of the game by debating tactics - 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 5-4-1, the variations are endless.

The Italians are no different but the importance they attach to the tactical aspect of the game transcends the proverbial two- or three-strikers approach.

Tuesday, April 13, 11 a.m.: The departures hall at the airport is teeming with queuing passengers waiting to check in for their flights. Oblivious to the noise around him, the lean figure of Mauro Bencivenga takes a few steps backwards and veers to the right. He is trying to explain how a defender should have moved in one particular situation during a match.

"When the midfielder set himself to cross from the right, the defender should have instantaneously tracked the position of his closest opponent and drifted two metres to his right to deny the striker time and space to control the ball and shoot at goal. The defender stayed motionless and the next thing the ball was in the net."

Having witnessed a one-sided match from our Premier League the previous evening, Bencivenga volunteered to share his evaluation of the game's salient moments with three interested and curious listeners, including yours truly.

You might be wondering... who's Mauro Bencivenga?

Bencivenga is an Italian football coach but not just any coach. His down-to-earth approach to life may not have enhanced his chances of landing a high-profile job in Italy but his expertise has not escaped the attention of one of the most respected coaches in the world... Fabio Capello, currently with Roma and winner of domestic and European titles with two other great teams... Milan and Real Madrid.

Bencivenga is a prominent member of the first-team coaching staff assembled by Capello at Roma. During the Easter period, he took some time off from his job to spend a short holiday in Malta with his family.

Having been introduced to Bencivenga by a common acquaintance, I could not but admire his affability, never mind his reluctance to showboat in this publicity-driven world we live in.

"I put in a lot of passion and enthusiasm into my job," Bencivenga told me after my efforts finally persuaded him to grant me this interview.

"I form part of the technical staff at Roma. This is my third year with Capello. Before taking up this job, I spent 12 years coaching in the youth sector where I worked for the two Rome clubs, Lazio and Roma.

"I switched to coaching after finishing my playing career (Ghedin is one of his former team-mates).

"It was in my early days at Lazio that I first met a 10-year-old Mauro Di Lello - now on the books of Pietà Hotspurs. In fact, I was the one who assessed Mauro and eventually selected him to join Lazio.

"After four years with Lazio, former Italy winger Bruno Conti offered me a job at Roma. I had come to know Conti from our derby clashes as he used to coach one of their youth teams," Bencivenga reminisced.

The opportunity to work alongside a great coach like Capello must be an excellent experience, I suggest to Bencivenga.

"It's a great experience," he remarks. "My job with Roma's senior team entails working on all aspects of their game but I also have other responsibilities. I travel around to watch games involving Roma's opponents in Italy and abroad."

On the pitch at Roma's training complex in Trigoria, Bencivenga and Capello's two other assistants, Italo Galbiati and Ezio Sella, conduct specific exercises.

"Each segment of the team i.e. defence, midfield and attack, requires particular training when covering positional play and movement."

The weekly training schedule of Roma is adjusted according to their commitments. Players are normally given the Monday off if they don't have a European game in midweek. On Wednesday, Roma players normally undergo two training sessions.

Roma have won acclaim from journalists and fans for producing the most entertaining football this season but they have failed to match the extraordinary consistency achieved by champions-elect Milan.

Great squad

"We have a great squad at Roma but Milan embarked on a great run of results when our form suffered a dip," Bencivenga said.

"Milan have a wonderful team but Roma served up the most eye-catching football this season. Our bid to hold on to top spot was hit hard by injuries because our squad is not as big as that of the other leading clubs. Vincenzo Montella's absence was a handicap... he's a key player.

"Even if our title chances are remote, we have to keep up the fight because second spot in the table is an important target for Roma what with direct entry into the Champions League group stages at stake."

Although the Serie A is still considered as one of the most glamorous leagues in the world, its image has been tarnished by the nationwide fraud investigation launched a few months ago and the deepening financial woes plaguing most of their clubs. Roma feature prominently on the struggling-clubs list.

"Many clubs are facing financial difficulties," Bencivenga said. "The current situation is a concern for all those involved in football because the future of all clubs, bar Juventus and Milan, seems to be under threat. But you cannot allow these problems to dim your enthusiasm for the job. I have no problems about that because once I step onto the training pitch, all worries are put aside."

Boasting a clutch of talented individuals like Francesco Totti, Antonio Cassano, Emerson, Mancini and the up-coming De Rossi, Roma's squad is as star-studded as more illustrious counterparts like Real and Milan.

Are big-name players difficult to handle, I ask Bencivenga. "It's difficult but easy at the same time when you have a coach of Capello's calibre," Bencivenga said. "The communication flow between the coaches and the players is good but like any other family, we also have our problems."

With the EURO 2004 finals looming large, the debate on Giovanni Trapattoni's selection of players has already begun in earnest. Italy's abundance of midfielders and strikers has sparked a guessing exercise with critics offering their advice to Trap on how his first-choice attacking line-up should look like - Totti-Cassano-Del Piero, Del Piero-Vieri-Inzaghi, Totti-Del Piero-Corradi.

Totti and Cassano have been in excellent form this season and Bencivenga believes that Italy would be better off with the Roma pair leading their offensive charge.

"I don't imagine that a great manager like Trapattoni needs my advice but if I were in his position, I would always play Totti and Cassano. They are big-stage players who can be trusted to guide Italy to success," Bencivenga said. "I am confident Italy will do well."

Of all the foreign players he has had the opportunity to watch during his three years with Roma, Bencivenga has been most impressed by two of Arsenal's most famous French imports... Henry and Robert Pires.

"Henry and Pires are two great players... they would certainly add quality to our squad."

As for his future, Bencivenga is torn apart by his great respect for Capello and his desire to go it alone.

"Given the excellent relationship I have with Capello I would like to continue working with him but at the same time, I hope that the future will open up new possibilities for me...I wouldn't mind becoming head coach of a club in Italy."

Maltese football

Aware that Bencivenga had watched Sliema's 5-1 defeat of Pietà Hotspurs, my last question came naturally... What are your impressions of Maltese football?

"The general technical level of the players is not bad but the football here is different. I saw some good movement from Sliema players... Pietà also had some good moments but it was certainly not their day. The tempo of the game was poor and the tactical awareness of the players can be improved a lot," Bencivenga said.

The level of Maltese football may not have thrilled Bencivenga but he has been chuffed by the country, the hospitality of the people and their passion for football. It would not be a bad idea if a man of Bencivenga's pedigree is invited to help our bid to boost Maltese football and the standard of our coaching.

"We have had a great time in Malta, the islands are magnificent and the people are very kind. I have had the chance to visit Pietà Hotspurs and I must say that the passion of their president, committee and coach are second to none... these people have football running in their blood.

"Future ties with Maltese football? In life, you cannot rule out anything. I can give something of what I have learnt to football but I am sure that I can also learn something from the Maltese coaches."

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