Cristian Stellini’s appointment as the interim manager at Tottenham Hotspur was a surprise for many, especially considering how reports were constantly suggestive of Ryan Mason taking temporary charge of the club for the second time in his career.
The Spurs side though, did quite well whenever Stellini took temporary charge in Antonio Conte’s absence and with a top-four race yet to be won, that might matter as the Premier League season heads to the business end. Stellini’s story though, warrants attention and respect and knowing that makes you feel glad that someone like him will get to manage Tottenham Hotspur.
As a player, Stellini played across the top three Italian divisions. A tall left-back who was once used as a centre-back, he had a rather yo-yo career that began with Piedmontese club Novara and after a couple of seasons in Serie C2-A with the Azzurri, he joined another Serie C side in SPAL. Having not made much impact there, Stellini headed to Umbrian outfit Ternana, where he played the most number of games in his career.
He became important for their promotion to Serie B in 1998. After their 10th placed finish in Serie B in the 1999/2000 season, the left-back went back into Serie C and joined Como. In his three-year-long stint at the club, Stellini played across the top three divisions in Italy. They earned promotion to Serie B during his season at Como and immediately, they earned promotion to the Serie A by winning the third title in Serie B history.
The Lombardian club endured relegation in their return to the top-flight but Stellini moved to Modena, who were then in Serie A. But a knee injury prevented him from playing too much, as he could make only two appearances for Modena before sealing a move to Genoa in the second division.
Two seasons into his stint at the Rossoblu, Stellini played in the Serie C again with Genoa, only to earn consecutive promotions and move to Serie A. He headed back to Serie B at Bari next and that stint proved to be a watershed moment in his life. Mid-way through the 2007/08 season, Bari sacked Giuseppe Materazzi and roped in a certain Antonio Conte from Arezzo, where the ex-Juventus midfielder had impressed despite the side’s relegation to Serie C.
Stellini was a regular under Conte for two seasons in Serie B at Bari and once Conte left and the Apulian side earned promotion to Serie A, the left-back retired from playing after a 18-year-long career. By then, the vocal Stellini had developed an excellent relationship with Conte and when the would-be Chelsea boss joined Siena, Stellini followed him.
Conte had joined Siena at the back of a turbulent spell at Atalanta but with Stellini, he took Siena back to the Serie A a season after their relegation from the top-flight. While the former defender did join Conte in his travails at Juventus, his involvement in the infamous Calcioscommesse match-fixing scandal forced him to leave the Bianconeri and sustain a 18 month ban from the professional sport. That didn’t stop Stellini from imparting his footballing education and the suspension was followed by a spell which could well define his character and reflect on his rather humble background.
From 2012 to 2013, Stellini coached a team of refugees and asylum seekers in Turin and took them to triumph in the Balon Mundial, which is one of the tournaments organised by UISP (Sports for All Union of Italy) in various Italian cities. In his free time, he also played for the team. In an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport in 2012, he stated:
“It’s something that fills my heart. I’m in contact with guys who can teach you so many things. Like: our ‘problems’ are nothing compared to what they faced.”
During his time with the team, called Survivors, Stellini managed against would-be Serie A players like Emmanuel Gyasi and Junior Messias, who had immigrated to Italy from Ghana and Peru. Oumarou Pountugnigni, a former Survivors player, once spoke to La Stampa and he had huge praise for Stellini.
“He was a defender like me, he taught me the tricks but above all he taught me that nothing is impossible. The three in defense can block ten men if they want to.”
Roberto Arena, who was the patron of the team back then, also told La Stampa: “Cristian was immediately passionate about our project of letting refugees and asylum seekers play; pople who seek to find in football an alternative to an existence of loneliness and suffering. From that moment, he joined us and he didn’t miss a training session. He didn’t miss a game even in the lesser-known fields of the province, joining us in the UISP.”
Once his time coaching at the UISP ended and his suspension came to an end, Stellini moved back up to the higher echelons of the game in Italy. But he wouldn’t join up with Conte at that, as he returned to Genoa to manage their Primavera side. After about two seasons with the team, Stellini left with a healthy record of 35 wins in 66 games. This helped him earn a first-team manager role at Alessandria, but after seven losses in 16 games, the stint ended quickly after a loss to Viterbo.
In 2019, Stellini would reunite with Conte at Inter after the new Inter boss’ former assistant Angelo Alessio wanted to tread his own path as manager. The Nerazzurri won the Scudetto in their second season together at the Meazza, before the duo left the club in 2021 and joined Tottenham in the middle of last season.
Corriere della Sera state that Stellini’s ideas as a coach have always been clear and despite Conte’s sacking, his relationship with Tottenham players remains quite a positive one. He is known to have a knack for pragmatic football and the Italian is known to be a meticulous worker, who pays attention to detail.
Whether Spurs manage to finish inside the top four is something only time will tell, but it quite clear that Stellini has had a fascinating journey in the game so far. It is quite rare for someone to go from managing a refugee team in Turin and giving deprived youngsters a sense of direction in life to managing a glittering Premier League side that needs guidance.
Kaustubh Pandey | GIFN