Chelsea FC's Roberto Di Matteo has come a long way since starting out with hometown club FC Schaffhausen, whose former coach Rolf Fringer recalls his "outstanding football brain".
Article top media content
He amassed 34 caps for Italy and is predominantly known for his spells in Serie A and the Premier League, but Roberto Di Matteo's roots lie squarely in Switzerland.
Originally hailing from Schaffhausen, the country's northernmost region, the Chelsea FC manager has sent his birthplace into raptures since guiding the Blues to the UEFA Champions League final – and many old acquaintances will be willing him on to victory against FC Bayern München on 19 May.
The first man to recognise Di Matteo's talent as a youngster was Domenico Sinardo, his youth coach at FC Schaffhausen. Sinardo has felt "immense joy" watching Di Matteo's success over the years, and feels his own advice in those early days helped the former midfielder develop.
"As a kid, Robi was the best player in my team by some distance," he said. "But he was physically weak, complained a lot when opposition players fouled him and was often ready to throw in the towel. But I showed him how he had to defend himself, saying: 'Robi, just get stuck in!'"
Another influential figure at the start of Di Matteo's career was future FC Zürich boss Rolf Fringer, his first professional coach at Schaffhausen. Fringer, who takes the reins of the Swiss Super League club in the summer, was not at all surprised to see his protege go on to great things as a player, and nor has he been shocked by Di Matteo's sizeable impact since replacing André Villas-Boas in the Chelsea dugout in March.
"Even at the age of just 20, he was talking about systems and tactics," explained Fringer. "And with his technique and outstanding football brain, he was already a star in the making. He quickly became my right-hand man on the pitch."
That was no more evident than in the 1992/93 season, when Fringer led his unfancied FC Aarau side to the Swiss championship with Di Matteo operating as a sweeper. "Di Matteo was the player who made us tick," recalled Bulgarian striker Petar Aleksandrov, Aarau's top scorer that term.
The list of Di Matteo’s former team-mates also includes a certain Joachim Löw, who recently shed light on his time with the 41-year-old at Schaffhausen for German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Robi was a player who, even then, thought a lot about tactics," said the Germany coach. "He was self-taught, he's continued to learn a lot and has always been a defensive strategist."
Going from a promising youngster at Schaffhausen and Aarau to a fully-fledged Italy international was nonetheless a "colossal leap to make", according to Fringer, for whom Di Matteo is a prime example of a player capable of achieving the impossible. "He is still the same man he has always been," he said. "He believes that you can accomplish anything as long as you want it enough. We saw that in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona."
A crucial factor in Di Matteo's success at Chelsea has been his ability to inspire the faith of the squad's experienced players. "John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres all follow him – that type of backing from the players is the most important thing for a manager," said Fringer.
It is a view echoed by Aleksandrov: "To get guys like that to rally behind you, you need expertise and knowledge. But you also need a humanitarian quality. And Robi is an outstanding human being, who also has an easy-going nature in exactly the right measure."
Ryszard Komornicki, Aarau's captain in that title-winning season, likewise remembers Di Matteo as a relaxed individual, recalling one example in particular. "Coach Fringer had told us to work on our fitness during the off-season," he said. "And when we started pre-season again and he asked Roberto what he had been doing during his summer break, Robi cheekily replied that he had spent the holidays playing bowls every day."
For Komornicki, retaining that laid-back approach will be paramount. "If he stays relaxed, he can go a long way." Having steered Chelsea to within 90 minutes of their maiden UEFA Champions League title, many would argue that he already has.