An unheralded Canadian soccer coach has stepped into the spotlight for surging Italian team Napoli as it continues its meteoric rise on Europe’s biggest stage.
Former Mississauga, Ont. resident Enzo Concina admits he is more used to playing a behind the scenes role as an assistant with Napoli, but all that has now changed as his team looks to eliminate English giants Chelsea without its head coach Walter Mazzarri.
Mazzarri is serving a two-game suspension for a brush with Villarreal striker Nimar along the sideline during their 2-0 group stage win on December 7th.
So Concina and first assistant Nicolo Frustalupi have been saddled with the responsibility of guiding their team into the quarter-final phase without guidance of their master tactician.
“When the incident on the sideline happened, he [Mazzarri]immediately realized he had made a mistake, but two games seemed too hefty,” said Concina. “I think it may have only been a one-game suspension but he had already been suspended last year for shouting at a linesman during a Europa League game against Utrecht.”
After AC Milan dispatched Arsenal last week, Chelsea now remains England’s lone team in the tournament.
The Blues trail by a 3-1 aggregate scoreline heading into Wednsday’s second leg at Stamford Bridge.
Despite the two-goal cushion Concina and Napoli are approaching Wednesday’s game with caution after Arsenal came within a goal of erasing Milan’s seemingly commanding four-goal lead last Tuesday at The Emirates.
“Sure they [Chelsea]have been so vulnerable but we know better than to never underestimate the danger of a wounded animal,” said Concina.
“We need to get our mindset right heading into Stamford Bridge. We plan on keeping the team very tight, separating our forwards, midfielders and defenders. We know they are come at us and try to knock high balls in from crosses and that they are a very physical team.”
Concina’s role with the team has also expanded to scouting the opponents. He travelled to England on Saturday to watch Chelsea defeat Stoke 1-0.
Napoli’s blazing three-pronged counter-attack of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani has caught European opponents by surprise this year.
One of those on the receiving end was the world’s richest team, Manchester City, which finished behind Napoli and leaders Bayern Munich in Group A and was eliminated from the tournament.
“I think Manchester City players probably underestimated us before our game in Manchester [a 1-1 tie on September 14]” said Concina. “I also think a couple of Chelsea players did the same thing but now I think they see us differently.”
Founded as the Naples football and cricket club in 1904 by English sailor William Poths, Napoli reached European glory in 1989 with Argentine striker Diego Maradona when they won the UEFA Cup. With Maradona they also collected two Serie A titles in 1987 and again in 1989.
But the club fell on hard times and by 2004 descended all the way down to Italy’s third tier division and flirted with bankruptcy before film producer Aurelio De Laurentis rescued the club from financial peril.
It is Mazzarri’s brilliance and passion for the game which many have attributed to the team’s return to glory since he took over the club in 2009.
“Naples is one of the most demanding soccer cities in Europe,” explains Concina. “For many the pressure is often overwhelming, the coach is the one who is exposed to it the most. The fact that the club has advanced so far since Mazzarri’s arrival is indicative of his merits and deservingness.”
Concina is the first to admit that Mazzarri’s passion can sometimes go overboard in his desire to find a winning formula.
The two were former teammates with second division side Nola during the 1990-91 campaign.
Both were nearing the end of less than sterling playing careers and Concina recalls how Mazzarri’s temper would sometimes get the better of him.
“We were very similar, banged up, proud professionals, with our careers on the down nearing retirement,” Concina said. “He wasn’t handling it well and often got into arguments with teammates and coaches. I had to step in a few times to calm him down.”
“Mazzarri was a central midfielder, playmaker, hard but a fair challenger and very competitive.” Concina said. “His leadership skills were already there. I was a central defender, good feel very strong in the air and confident on the ball.”
Now more than a decade later Mazzarri has again finding himself in hot water due to his emotions.
The suspension by soccer’s governing body UEFA means the head coach is prohibited from having any sort of contact with the club before or during the match.
This means Mazzarri’s assistants will be the ones called on to motivate the team during the crucial match.
“Although I have always tried to give less experienced players pointers in regards to technical and tactical aspects or to charge the players up, now that Mazzarri won’t be there to give his usual pep talks I am forced to be more present,” said Concina.
Concina moved to suburban Toronto with his family from Italy in 1966 at the age of four.
He quickly excelled in the emerging youth soccer system and eventually rose through the ranks to become a strong central defender with Toronto Italia of the National Soccer League.
In 1982 he joined Italian Serie C side Ravenna and also played with Cesena, Pavia, Piacenza, Monza, Nola and Forli before ending his career with the Montreal Impact in 1994.
Concina also represented Canada’s men’s national team making four appearances between 1988 and 1993 and scoring one goal.
Throughout his playing career he had always hoped for the big break of a promotion or call up to the Serie A but it never came.
“I felt like packing it in a few times especially if I was on a team that finished near the bottom or was relegated,” said Concina. “But the thought of going back to Canada and saying to my friends and family ‘I didn’t make it’ gave me insomnia…Although my career as a player was difficult and slow it was rewarding in the end.”