Back in Belgium’s top tier after an absence of nearly 50 years, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise have stunned their rivals to head the league after a superb first half of the season.
Manager Felice Mazzù tells The Brussels Times Magazine writer Dennis Abbott about his ambitions for the club, about his football philosophy, his fear that success might turn the heads of his players, about his favourite coach, and where he sees his long-term future
Q: You’ve had a very good first half of the season. Are you surprised by your success?
A: Well, I don’t want to say I’m surprised because if I say that it means I’m disrespecting my group of players. We’re certainly in a position that’s higher than anyone expected. But when I look at what the players are doing, I think it’s deserved. They’re a group with a great mentality, a healthy group and a group with ambition. So I don’t want to say I’m surprised. We know that the season is very long and that it will be difficult to stay where we are, but we will do our best to lose as few points as possible.
Q: What is your goal for the season? The league title or European qualification?
A: Neither! The only goal at the moment is to achieve stability and stay in Division 1. I think there has been too much publicity around the team in the past few weeks. You could see that in our last home game [a 1-3 defeat to OH Leuven on Friday 26 November]. We were too relaxed. We have to keep thinking the way we did at the beginning of the season. We have to stay in Division 1 and, once we do that, when mathematically we have enough points, we’ll see if we can set a new target. But we mustn’t talk about titles or European qualification. We just have to play every game with pleasure and try to stay as high as possible in the table.
Q: What do you look for in a player, apart from talent?
A: Mentality for me is important. The player has to work on his own game. He has to work for his teammates. He must understand his teammates. He has to help them when they are in a difficult situation. That’s the most important thing, for me. Everything we have achieved so far, we have achieved as a group and not as individuals. What matters for me is this group mentality.
Q: What is the secret to getting the best out of a team?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s a secret. You have to communicate with the players, to be respectful, to be correct, to try to make them understand why they are on the field – and why they are not. I do this by being coherent, by being logical, and by being respectful. That is the most important thing.
Q: You are 55 years old. Your job means working with a young generation. Are there differences from when you were their age?
A: Yes, there are differences. Today’s generation is surrounded by automation, the media, mobile phones, TV, etc. But I think it’s up to me to adapt to that because I live with this new generation. It’s up to me to try to find solutions to adapt and understand the players as much as possible.
Q: Is there anything that worries you about the team?
A: There are several things that worry me. At the moment, for example, I worry about all the publicity around the team and the club. I worry that the players won’t keep their heads on their shoulders and they’ll turn into different people. We’ve been normal, simple people for a year and a half. We’re an average team, with only a few players who had experience in Division 1. We’ve succeeded until now because we’re still the same people. We’ve stayed down-to-earth. We try to have fun. So, yes, I’m afraid they’ll change if we advertise ourselves too much. So I’m very vigilant about that. The thing that also worries me about football is when the sport becomes much less important than money, than finance, than transfers, than the profits and losses that a club can make. Everything ends up revolving around finance and it’s at the expense of sport. That annoys me a bit because I’m in this job for the sport and not for the rest.
Q: Which coach do you admire most in Europe and why?
A: It has to be Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool coach. He is accessible, straightforward and close to his players. I met him when I was coach at KRC Genk and we played against Liverpool in the Champions League two years ago. We talked a little bit. He is a very simple man who is doing an extraordinary job at Liverpool. I really like him as a person and as a coach. He’s very intelligent, very charismatic, he’s someone who has personality and yet is very grounded. That’s what’s important to me.
Q: Your success means that you will attract attention outside Belgium. Would you work in the future in another country, in France, Italy, Spain or the Premier League, for example?
A: Yes, I think that if I don’t have ambition there is no point in doing this job. So, obviously, it’s my ambition one day, maybe, to coach somewhere else. France would suit me well because the language is easier and Italy would also be good because I speak Italian fluently. I don’t have a problem with English either. If the opportunity arises one day, that would be great.
Q: When you are not at the training ground or at a match, how do you relax?
A: I like to spend time with my family and I like to go to the restaurant. Yes, I like to eat!
Q: What kind of cooking do you enjoy?
A: I like to try everything! I like Greek, I like Italian, I like French, I like Chinese. When I’m out for a meal, it’s a time when I can relax. In the past, I also liked to ski. It’s my favourite sport after football. Unfortunately, I don’t have so much opportunity to be out on the slopes anymore, so I try to spend any spare time I have with my family and in restaurants, too.
Q: Your parents are Italian, aren’t they?
Yes, my dad [Pasquale] is Italian, from Calabria. My mum [Anna] was also from Calabria. She passed away three months ago. My dad came to work in the mines in 1952 and he started his family here in Belgium. On my dad’s side, we come from a small village near Reggio. You can see Sicily when you are by the sea there.