Cristian Stellini is used to management under trying circumstances

‘I had 35 people coming to the pitch without shoes!’: Cristian Stellini is used to management under trying circumstances after Antonio Conte’s exit – having coached a team of refugees and misfits – including ‘a goalkeeper without one eye!’

  • In 2012, Cristian Stellini was handed a 30-match ban from football at Juventus 
  • Stellini held a meeting with his players on Friday to help them get back on track  
  • As well as Antonio Conte’s exit, Fabio Paratici stood down as managing director 

Crisis? What crisis? Cristian Stellini has plenty of perspective on football as he takes over at Tottenham in the post-Antonio Conte era, having seen the rough end of the game 10 years ago when he won cup glory with a team of refugees and misfits, who had no boots, a one-eyed goalkeeper and a player on the run from the law.

Stellini steps into the Tottenham hotseat after Conte’s departure. And with director of football Fabio Paratici stepping down to appeal his worldwide FIFA ban, the club were said to be in crisis.

But Stellini, who stepped up from assistant coach along with Ryan Mason for the final 10 games, starting at Everton on Monday night, dismissed the idea of tough times at Tottenham, having seen real adversity in football a decade ago.

In 2012, Stellini was given a 30-month ban from professional football for his part in one of Italy’s match-fixing scandals. He had to step away from Juventus, where he was Conte’s right-hand man, and was encouraged to help a Turin-based charity initiative by coaching a team called Survivors, made up of refugees and asylum-seekers. 

Most were fleeing persecution or poverty in Africa and Asia, and did not even have football boots when they first turned up for training.

Cristian Stellini was forced to leave Juventus after being handed a 30-match ban back in 2012

Stellini has stepped up from assisting at Tottenham alongside former caretaker Ryan Mason

Stellini took charge of a team of misfits and refugees working wtih a Turin-based charity initiative by coaching a team called Survivors

‘I had 35 people coming to the pitch without shoes, just in socks, and they said, “Can I train?”

‘I said yes but you need shoes because we play with studs and it can be dangerous. They said, “Don’t worry, we play without shoes”. I trained 35 people like this.’

Some of his new charges had gone to great lengths to reach Italy. ‘I remember one from Afghanistan, many from Morocco, a lot from Ghana and Congo. One guy came on inflatable boats three times but they took him back to Turkey each time. The next time he hid in a big spare (truck) tyre into Greece for maybe 24 hours, and from there he came to Italy.

‘He was a boxer, not a perfect man, maybe guilty of something so he had to hide in Italy, and needed a lawyer. But he came to train every day with a smile. He said, “You have to call me Robben!” These guys taught me a lot of things about how to enjoy life.’

Stellini trained them so well the Survivors ended up winners. ‘We won a tournament called Mundialito in Turin. There were teams from Nigeria, Morocco, Peru and Brazil. We were the only team with all refugees.

‘And we won it with a goalkeeper without one eye! He was from Morocco. The players said if we go to a penalty shootout, he has to be the keeper, he will save every penalty. I said, “OK, if you say so, go and save the penalties”.

Former boss Antonio Conte left the club last week following an explosive press-conference

Fabio Paratici stepped down as managing director after being handed a 30-month football ban

‘In the semi-final and final he saved three penalties and we won the tournament. How is that possible? It is about desire. He just said, “Don’t worry, guys”.

‘They were refugees, but they tried to have something new in their life. They smiled, worked hard, came every day. It’s really emotional for me to talk about it.’

Stellini has yet to pass on the lessons he learned in that two-year period to his players at Tottenham, partly because he has not had time since Conte’s departure, and also because he feels the stories would be more effective coming from the refugees themselves.

He tells lurid tales of having to deal with players from different countries who would regularly fight each other. ‘There were some nasty people, too. I escaped one time by running to the dressing room and they followed me. “No, don’t run, coach, we won’t do this again,” they said. ‘It was a big problem. But I used football to create unity. I could write a book about it.’

Ten years on, he keeps in touch with a few. ‘I have contact on Facebook with some. One got a degree in Italy, as a chemical engineer, an intelligent man. Another got married so he could stay in Italy.’

Stellini and his Tottenham players had a meeting on Friday to get back on track for a top-four finish.

Stellini’s task ahead of him between now and the end of the season is to ensure a top four spot

Stellini held a meeting with his Tottenham players on Friday to get back on track in the league

‘I told them I don’t want sad faces here. I want only players with smiles because we are playing football, we are playing for Tottenham.’

Stellini was impressed by the way Harry Kane and others reacted. ‘He said the players want to be responsible and want to respect the staff. And afterwards I could feel the smiles and respect again.’

Stellini’s experiences have given him proper perspective when the term crisis is used: ‘It is not a crisis when you have a club and fans around you. Crisis is when you cannot play football. When we had Covid it was a crisis because we could not play and had no fans.

‘We have 10 games to play. And we feel at home here.’

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