Gabriele Cioffi played in Serie A but it never went to his head. “I am mediocre,” he said in 2007. “And I am happy to be so.”
Those who watched his halcyon days might disagree. A towering, indomitable defender in the great Italian tradition, Cioffi was adored at Novara and Mantova, unfashionable lower league outfits of the variety he frequently called home.
Even fans of Torino, the club for whom he made his top-flight debut at the age of 31, remember ‘Cioffiducia’s’ 18 games with the reverence of a long-serving legend.
Yet he always cared little for praise and less for self-promotion. “I have no great skills and I know that I have to take care of every detail,” he once said.
Raw honesty. Poetic language. Earthy humility – such are the qualities that anchor the new Crawley boss, a footballer who, by his own admission, belongs to a bygone age.
Growing up in Florence, his inspirations were not the players in purple but the sweat and toil of his grandfather, who worked as a farmer before driving the city’s rattling trams.
“His hands were dirty with earth and oil,” said Cioffi. “His values were human relationships, solidarity, respect for work and authority. When I see those things in a person, he has my respect.”
Later, injuries condemned Cioffi to a slog through Italy’s amateur divisions; Sestese, Poggibonsi, Marsala, Spezia, Arezzo and Taranta.
Yet whilst his team-mates – postmen and builders –craved the cars and clothes a professional contract would confer, Cioffi dreamed of escape to a rural idyll.
A farmhouse in Chianti with wife Fabiana. An olive grove. Dogs, a donkey, a goat. Children scampering round the vineyard.
“I am, at heart, a peasant,” he said. “I like the countryside because it looks like somewhere from 20 years ago, with the baker, the butcher, the people who say hello. I am for these things. In this, I’m not a footballer.”
And he almost wasn’t. His mother, Maria, worked at IBM in Tuscany and wanted Cioffi and his younger brother, Matteo, to become lawyers or doctors.
Both acquiesced – Gabriele studied law for two years before giving up whilst Matteo is now a qualified psychologist. Yet both clung resolutely to a mutual childhood dream of playing in the San Siro.
Initially, Matteo looked the more likely to reach Milan. A talented midfielder, he scored four times for Pistoia in 1995-96 before suffering a succession of serious knee injuries that consigned him to a life in Serie C2.
Yet there was no bitterness as Gabriele ascended to Serie B with Novara and Mantova. Cioffi, too, rarely gave an interview without mentioning Matteo, who he describes as his best friend and biggest influence. “He is two years younger than me,” he said. “But he was always two years ahead in his mind.”
In 2002, when Cioffi ruptured the same ligaments that had wrecked his brother’s career, it was Matteo who pushed and cajoled. “I said to Gabriele ‘You act like the Lion King,” he said. “Show your strength. React!”
Cioffi listened, and within four years was playing in Serie A. In 2005, he had joined a buoyant Mantova side set for promotion to Serie B for the first time in 29 years.
A year later, he anchored ‘the Miracle of Mantua’ as the same set of players led the division for six months before slipping into the play-offs.
Cioffi scored in the first leg of the final, a 4-2 win at home to Torino. The second finished 3-1 after extra-time, promoting Torino by dint of their superior league placing.
“Afterwards I tried to be strong, to console my team-mates,” recalled Cioffi. “But when I saw Matteo crying in the stands, the tears came and they did not stop for two hours.”
For Cioffi, though, there would be joy in defeat. Torino, impressed, made him their first signing of the summer. And on December 10, 2006, he kept a clean sheet at the San Siro as Torino drew 0-0 with AC Milan. “To see him there,” says Matteo, “was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Cioffi would spend just one season at the summit of Italian football, but he used it well. Dubbed Cioffiducia by Torino fans (rough translation: Trust in Cioffi), he had the slogan printed on T-shirts which were sold to raise funds for a children’s’ hospital.
Alongside Matteo – now a coach at Fiorentina – he also founded Your Football, an online portal aimed at bringing talented teenagers to the attention of clubs and scouts.
According to Cioffi, he and Matteo have the ‘punctiliousness of the mediocre’. “To succeed in football, we had to be like sponges,” said the 43-year-old, who relaxes by reading history, watching CSI and riding horses. “We read and listen. We take in all we can to be able to transmit it in turn.”
Coaching, then, was a natural fit. As a No.2 at Carpi and under Henk Ten Cate at Al-Jazeera. Running Italian soccer schools for Aston Villa and working in Australia.
As a manager – briefly – at Gavorrano. Most recently, Cioffi was on the coaching staff during Gianfranco Zola’s ill-fated reign at Birmingham.
Is that a recipe for success at Crawley? Cioffi, ever the realist, isn’t promising anything. “I’m not the best coach or the worst,” he said. “I’m just different. It is a risk, of course. But at the dawn of my career my brother told me a phrase that has always guided me. That is ‘Who has more dreams, wins’. I have taken that into my coaching career.”