If you ask any of the Chennaiyin FC faithful, they’ll tell you how Marco Materazzi was more than just their side’s gaffer. In the city famous for portraying its heroes in a larger than life manner, the godly reputation that began to accompany Materazzi came as no surprise.
The Italian was their leader supreme – the man who led from the front as the Machans overcame all odds and went from the bottom of the table to laying their hands on the trophy in the second season of the Indian Super League (ISL). He was the man who rallied the troops as the side that looked set to claim the wooden spoon went on to close off the league phase of the season with four straight wins, scoring twelve on the way.
When one thinks of a manager transforming his team’s fortunes, one thinks of Claudio Ranieri giving his Leicester City side freedom to express themselves and exploit space on the counter in the Premier League-winning season, or Antonio Conte’s formation change that sees Chelsea top the Premier League currently. But Materazzi overhauled his side in a very different manner. There was very little difference in terms of tactics, but he made something click out of nowhere.
The key to that was the camaraderie that the World Cup-winning Italian had established in the side. From the body language of the players it became apparent that they were playing for each other, fighting it out for each other and the collective clearly outweighed the individual. While one usually sees players in the ISL franchises group-up based on nationalities or common languages spoken, it was not uncommon to see Frenchman Bernard Mendy hangout with Brazilians Elano and Bruno Pelissari in the Chennaiyin camp. Even on the pitch in fact, as Harmanjot Khabra and Raphael Augusto looked as if they had been playing together since childhood.
And it extended to more than just the team. When Chennai was brought to a halt by the disastrous floods of November-December 2015, the players felt a sense of responsibility. The realization hit them that the city where there was a crowd of nearly ten thousand to watch them play at a time when cars were submerged underwater had to be repaid for their support. It suddenly became more than just a game of football.
At such a time, when even those with the strongest of mental fortitude could crumble, Chennaiyin thrived. One look at the man managing them, and the canvas seemed painted.
Materazzi has been known as a hard man in football, and having had a major part of his footballing education under Marcelo Lippi, Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho, he knows how successful a well-bonded team can be. He was a part of Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan team when they left Barcelona and Bayern Munich, better sides on paper, for dead en route to winning the UEFA Champions League.
Materazzi united his side to see the bigger picture and to fight to give some solace to their troubled city. As he said in his press conferences, his side ‘prayed and played for Chennai.’ And he certainly wasn’t doing just lip service, as his players believed in the cause, and the players, most of whom had little to do with the city one season prior, could now genuinely empathize with the plight of the locals.
The second season of the ISL would probably be remembered for John Stiven Mendoza’s free-scoring frenzy or the furore that followed the final. However, what really was the highlight was how Chennaiyin went from a bunch of players looking incapable of winning to an unstoppable machine.
Materazzi did his reputation more harm than good in the third season as poor recruitment and constant tinkering with his side meant that Chennaiyin would go on to miss out on the ISL playoffs for the first time. At times the Italian was found to be lacking tactically, and couldn’t find an answer as late goals cost his side crucial points.
All that led to his departure, with the management also perhaps feeling that Materazzi had taken them as far as he could. But one thing is set in stone – Materazzi, or ‘Thala’ (meaning ‘the boss’) as he’s called dearly by the fans, is set to remain as the cult hero of the blue-clad southerners, and will be the benchmark the new manager will have to meet.