Sitting in the dressing room after a game against Cobreandino in 1986, the Universidad de Chile defender Manuel Pellegrini came to a decision. After over a decade with the club and no one else, he felt it was time to hang up his boots and retire from playing. His mind had been made up by Bam Bam no less. Not the club-wielding child with superhuman strength from the Flintstones (that would just be silly). Rather the young striker nicknamed after him, hailed as football’s equivalent. “I decided to stop,” he recalled to La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Filippo Maria Ricci prior to Malaga’s game against Milan last October, “when an 18-year-old kid, who was shorter than me, towered over me and scored a header. He was called Iván Zamorano.”
Bam Bam would go on to become one of the best strikers of his generation anywhere in the world. Pellegrini didn’t know that at the time. How he chose to see it instead was that a kid had just shown him up, making him feel his age. And yet Pellegrini was only 33. Upon reflection it wasn’t that he was past it, more that Zamorano was simply a better jumper. “If I’d been able to look into the future I would have played another year,” Pellegrini admitted to the pink paper.
Alas he didn’t. And so Pellegrini arrived at a crossroads in his life. What was he going to do next? He didn’t lack options. As his sister recalled, growing up, “He was very good at maths and chess.” While playing, Pellegrini attended the Universidad Católica and graduated as a civil engineer at 26. To this day he is often referred to as the ingeniero. His wish, though, was to become an entrenador.
Brought up in a well-educated, well-to-do family, Pellegrini’s late father, who passed away before the second leg of Málaga’s Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund in April, was wary. “He told me I’d die poor,” remembered Pellegrini. Not to be discouraged legend has it, he replied: “One day I’ll coach Real Madrid.” It would take over two decades but he’d do it. In the meantime, he had to start somewhere.
Towards the end of his playing days, Pellegrini travelled to Italy, where his grandfather hailed from, and headed for Coverciano, the country’s elite coaching school. Unable to take the famous super corso, which at the time was only open to Italians, Pellegrini could only observe but, as a formative experience, many of the things he saw there would stay with him.
His first job was back at Universidad de Chile. Things didn’t go as hoped. They were relegated for the first and only time in their history. Pellegrini resigned and started over with Palestino and O’Higgins before landing the post at Universidad Católica where he first tasted success as a coach, winning the Copa Chile. Runners’ up in his first season, Pellegrini was sacked during his second as the team fell nine points behind eventual winners’ Colo Colo.
Another spell at Palestino beckoned before leaving Chile to work abroad. Glory was to be found in Ecuador where Pellegrini claimed the league title with Liga de Quito, and in Argentina at San Lorenzo. There he put together a record breaking run of 13 straight wins and an unprecedented total of 47 points to take the Torneo Clausura. Flamengo, incidentally, were also beaten on penalties in the final of the Copa Mercasur.
On the back of his achievements in Boedo, Pellegrini was appointed by River Plate. He had the difficult job of replacing Ramón Díaz. To say it was a tall order is an understatement. Díaz had led River to every trophy there was to win: the Apertura on three occasions, the Clausura twice and the Copa Libertadores once. Many would have shirked the challenge. But not Pellegrini. He felt ready for it.
And so even with a young team featuring the fledgling Martín Demichelis, who he’d later sign for Málaga, Andrés D’Alessandro, subsequently of Portsmouth, and Fernando Cavenaghi, Pellegrini conjured another Clausura-winning outfit. River were top scorers and finished four points ahead of rivals Boca. Old favourites Marcelo Salas and Marcelo Gallardo were then brought back for the following Apertura and more kids, like Javier Mascherano and Maxí Lopez, came through. But an eighth place finish and a defeat to the relative unknown Cienciano of Peru in the final of the Copa Sudamericana 4-3 on aggregate heralded the end of Pellegrini’s time at the Centenario.
Impressed by what they’d seen and heard about him, Villarreal offered a chance to work in Europe. Promoted to La Liga in 1998 for the first time in the small town’s history, they’d gone straight back down, bounced back, were guided to seventh by Víctor Muñoz and then spent the next two seasons in a dangerous liaison with relegation before rising up to eighth again under Benito Floro.
The team Pellegrini inherited comprised Pepe Reina and of course Juan Román Riquelme. Added to it were Gonzalo Rodríguez, Juan Pablo Sorín and Diego Forlán, who replaced the veteran Sonny Anderson. In Pellegrini’s first season Villarreal won the Intertoto Cup, came third in La Liga and Forlán, who had been thought of as a flop at previous club Manchester United, was named the Pichichi, scoring 25 goals.
They qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever after knocking out Everton, managed by David Moyes, in the third preliminary round, then topped a group including his future club Manchester United, who, after only drawing 0-0 with Villarreal at El Madrigal and Old Trafford, finished bottom and were eliminated. Next Rangers were edged out on away goals in the Round of 16. So too were Inter, coached by Pellegrini’s predecessor at Manchester City Roberto Mancini, in the quarter-final.
It was fairytale stuff. Until, that is, the last minute of their semi-final second leg against Arsenal. Trailing by a goal to nil on aggregate, Gael Clichy, a player Pellegrini will be working with at the Etihad, pushed Jose Marí and gave away a penalty. Riquelme had a chance to level things from the spot. But Jens Lehmann saved his effort and clinched a place in the final for Arsenal.
It wasn’t the end for Villarreal. The miracles didn’t stop there. Those who thought they were worked by Riquelme were wrong. Their success was down to Pellegrini and a club with “the ideal model, an example in every respect,” he’d later tell El País’ Rafael Pineda. So when Riquelme returned late from his holidays, went AWOL, didn’t fancy it in training, complained of “injuries” and tried to pick which games he played, Villarreal backed the manager in dropping him, then got rid and were still successful without him. In 2008 they were runners’ up behind Real Madrid.
When Florentino Perez returned as president for a second term and entrusted his technical director, the great football aesthete Jorge Valdano, with finding a suitable candidate to replace caretaker Juande Ramos, he picked Pellegrini. He might not have been a big name. He still isn’t to some. But in so many respects Pellegrini was the right man for that job.
Valdano saw that. Elegant, polite, dignified, Pellegrini shared, understood and perhaps cared more about respecting and honoring Real’s values and traditions than his successor José Mourinho did. Perez didn’t see it, however. He had apparently wanted Arsene Wenger and had to be persuaded to appoint Pellegrini.
As such, the political support a new manager needs most in the White House wasn’t bequeathed to him, nor did he ever enjoy or attempt to wrestle for himself influence from others like Mourinho would do. Take transfers, for instance.
Since getting the City job one of the criticisms laid at Pellegrini’s door by an element of the English media is that in the year he was at the Bernabeu he spent 254m euro on Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and several others and yet won nothing. To think he personally spent that money is terribly naive. It was Perez ushering in his second Galacticos era.
Pellegrini presumably wouldn’t have said ‘no’ to any of those players. But even so the one actual demand he did make—namely that Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben remain at the club—went unheeded. Both were sold and would go on to reach the Champions League final with their respective new clubs that season.
Revealing he hadn’t been listened to at the beginning of the campaign didn’t help things with Perez. When the Madrid press attacked Pellegrini, no one came out to defend him. Those attacks became greater in number and ever more disgraceful after Real were hammered 4-0 in the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie with Alcorcón from Spain’s Second Division B, Group II, then their elimination in the Champions League Round of 16 by Lyon and finally the 2-0 defeat they suffered to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
Those results, particularly the first two, were costly exceptions to an otherwise more than decent season. Real finished with a club record 96 points even though they’d had to do without Ronaldo for more than two months and Pepe for six. The only issue was that Barça, and not just any Barça either, but arguably the greatest team of all-time, ended on 99 and Perez, after watching Mourinho knock them out of the Champions League with Inter, threw in his lot with him, a move seen by some to be desperate, a pact with the devil.
Being told where the door is by Real certainly under Perez shouldn’t necessarily reflect badly on a manager as even Mourinho would now like to make us believe now. This, remember, is the same president who fired Vicente del Bosque, a future World Cup and European Championship winner, after he’d delivered two league titles and two Champions League trophies in four years.
Pellegrini more than restored his reputation at Málaga, again taking a club to hitherto unknown heights: fourth place and qualification for the Champions League in his first full season then in spite of financial turmoil and the sale of many of their best players a remarkable run to the quarter-finals of that competition where they were only seconds away from knocking out Dortmund and making the last four.
Pellegrini has consistently overachieved in that tournament with teams around whom there is little or no expectation. He now joins one in City who have underachieved in it. Although expectations are high (and understandably so because of the money they’ve spent), there’s still, you feel, a sense that City are European outsiders, something that wasn’t the case when Pellegrini was with Real who are the establishment and are always among the favourites.
Winning the Champions League—and everything else—is the aim for City and while the pressure to see progress will be on, the trophy seems more of an aspiration and less of an all-consuming obsession to them than landing the 10th is to Real. Contending for such prestigious honors is still something relatively new to the more recent generations of City fans. They’re still grateful for it and are yet to act like spoiled children. While he obviously replaces the popular Mancini, Pellegrini should benefit from that mentality.
The backing of an ambitious but fair-minded rational owner and the presence of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, directors who have faith in Pellegrini, who share the same vision of how football should be played certainly bodes well. While Pellegrini’s quiet authority might well contrast with City’s noisy neighbour tag, the lowering of the tones foreshadows a heightened competitiveness. It’s hard to think that they won’t be better next season. Pellegrini just might be the man to take the title back from United.