At the heart of Italian football for the last 38 years, Alvaro Annessa has seen it all in his role as Azzurrini kit man, from kickarounds with legends to unearthing Italian heroes.
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He has been one of Italy's best-kept secrets for almost four decades. Born in 1938, Alvaro Annessa has been one of the key figures within the Italy camp since 1975, yet few would be able to put a name to the face of the Under-17 team's genial kit man.
Shirts, shorts and socks are only a fraction of the duties of the 75-year-old, whose fatherly advice and ability to keep spirits high have been treasured by those at the heart of Italian calcio for the last 38 years. "I am only 10% kit man, 90% comedian," he told UEFA.com over a customary espresso in Zilina, Slovakia, where he is part of the Azzurrini delegation at this UEFA European U17 Championship.
"I started in 1975 when [Franco] Baresi and [Mauro] Tassotti were coming into the Under-15s," he said. "The first impression for a player that age with the national team can be intimidating, but with me, I am like a father figure and all the fears lads have when they get here evaporate. They call me uncle."
Annessa is a person the players "can confide in", one who takes the youngsters under his wing and is never short of words of wisdom. "I give them lots of advice. The first thing I say to them is, 'Lads, don't miss this train. If this is to be your job, don't let this train leave without you.'" Wise words, inevitably assuaged by his infectious allegria. "Then I tell them to marry a girl from their own town. Have fun, but it has got to be a girl from your own town."
While his wealth of advice is seemingly inexhaustible, the Squadra Azzurra's heart and soul also possesses an archive of anecdotes, including playing with Pelé on the beach. "You can just imagine the scene," he laughed – or when Diego Maradona chose Annessa, his smartly dressed chauffeur, as his training partner shortly before the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
"He put me in goal, did a few keep-ups, then volleyed into the top corner from 35 yards. Every single shot went right into the top corner and he'd shout to me, 'Come on, Alvaro, save them!' I said: 'How do you expect me to save them with my suit and tie on?' He just trained with me. When we got to the stadium, the groundsman didn't know who was coming, and when he saw it was Maradona, he fainted."
Having had a kickaround with some of the game's greats, Annessa has also had the privilege of working with future talents before they bloom. While he freely admits "I discovered four or five players purely by accident", such as former Italy defender Matteo Ferrari, some caught his eye in an instant. "Like Andrea Pirlo," he explained. "I saw him first in 1994 when he was 15, and I knew immediately, with him and Gigi Buffon, that they were going to go far."
Annessa has stopped accompanying the senior team – "it's too much work for me at my age" – but has no plans to hang up his last shirt yet. The unfailing bonhomie, and limitless supply of coffee, that has fuelled Italian success in the past has proven an essential ingredient to the U17s' run to the semi-finals. One country, though, appears impervious to the Annessa spell: Spain.
"I've met them 22 times as a kit man, and we've lost 21 and drawn one," he said. "When they see me on the bench, they start laughing because they know they've got the points. 'It's Alvaro!' they scream. If I see them, I don't go."