Walking into a small café in Bermondsey, South London, Benito Carbone looks like the kind of man who has never made a mistake in his life. Only a certain type of person can show off the pinstripe that adorns his tailored suit. But any illusion of pomp and grandeur is quickly swept away: from the first handshake Carbone is disarming, warm – insisting that I call him “Benny” – and happy to admit that when it comes to mistakes he has made a few.
Perhaps this is not surprising for a player who has had 18 teams in a career spanning four decades, including Torino, Napoli, Internazionale, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Derby County, Middlesbrough, Bradford, Parma and even Sydney FC. Surprisingly, Wednesday is the only club he has played for more than two seasons and this is where he is fondly remembered in England. Yet Carbone admits that signing for the Owls was one of his biggest mistakes.
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“Roy Hodgson was my manager at Inter,” he says. “He played me all the games but I wasn’t happy because I was in the wrong position on the wing. This is why I decided to leave Inter. It was a big mistake.
“I played with number 10 behind me, for my family’s team, one of the best teams in Europe, perhaps in the world. I was 24 with a four year contract. Six months later, Hodgson left and [Luigi] Simoni and Ronaldo have arrived [Nazário] arrived. I should have waited! When I left, I lost the chance to go to the national team. Before me there were Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola. After me Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero. So I had to keep playing for a great team if I wanted a chance.
Hindsight can be cruel as well as enlightening and certainly even the most loyal Wednesday fan can understand Carbone’s anguish. But arriving in Sheffield set him on the path to becoming one of the greatest cult heroes of the decade in England.
“Milan and Sheffield are very different,” says Carbone, in a concrete way. “The first six months, the days were all the same. I would like to say thank you to [Wednesday teammates] Regi Blinker and Orlando Trustfull for helping me. They taught me the language, they gave me a lift, they took me out to dinner. Des Walker was great with me as a captain. He spoke Italian. He will never forget what they did for me.
“When Paolo Di Canio arrived, I did the same for him. He said he was staying in a hotel and I said ‘No! You’re alone? Come and sleep at my house ». We were like brothers “.
Along with Di Canio, Carbone has become one of the most creative and entertaining strikers in the league, with enough contenders for the goal of the season to fill an entire Match of the Day shortlist. His decision to leave Wednesday in 1999 was a big surprise.
“David Pleat was like my father and treated me like a son,” says Carbone. “But something was broken between me and Danny Wilson, the new manager. We had a discussion. I never wanted to leave Sheffield. Even now, a generation later, you would never expect fans to recognize you. But I went back for a charity match, more than 20 years after I left, and the crowd went crazy for me. Danny Wilson was there. I picked him up and told him I wanted to apologize. I was really young. My head was different. It was definitely my mistake. “
A transfer to Villa took place. Carbone would play a leading role in leading them to the FA Cup final in 2000, scoring a hat-trick (including a scandalous 40-yard shot) in a 3-2 win over Leeds in the fifth round and the winner in the quarter-final against Everton.
“I took my family for the final,” smiles Carbone. “Everyone was in tears as they listened to fans chanting my name at Wembley during the warm-up [to the tune of Dean Martin’s Volare]. ” Carbone sings imperturbably in a corner of the bar: “When the ball hits the bottom of the net, Benito hasn’t finished yet.” He then he reflects: “Unfortunately we lost the game.” His compatriot Roberto Di Matteo scored the only goal of the game for Chelsea.
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His exit from Villa after a year is also difficult, but not necessarily because of Carbone. “I was in the last year of my contract. Villa offered me a four-year, but my agent met Giovanni Trapattoni at Fiorentina, who had Rui Costa, [Gabriel] Baptist, [Francesco] Toldo. A great team “.
But then, with the sale of Batistuta to Roma, Fiorentina changed their minds, leaving Carbone without a club on the eve of the season. Surprisingly, Bradford made the best offer, having survived relegation on the last day: a resounding header from David Wetherall against Liverpool that kept them in the Premier League.
“Bradford wanted me a lot,” says Carbone. The president also flew to Milan to have me sign the contract. This was important to me, feeling wanted. I arrived and we started the preseason. We all got on a bus for six, seven hours, and when we stopped, I didn’t see any football pitches. I was confused. “What are we doing here?” I asked. It was a military camp and we stayed there for 15-20 days. It was like a punishment!
“We had to prepare our rooms flawlessly, like the army, with daily inspections and stand at attention outside the door. Then we marched, played with bombs, crawled into the water. Eventually I had enough and asked: ‘Where is the ball ?! Please give it to me. ‘ Jim Jefferies [Bradford’s then manager] did you want to try a new experience in preseason? In my opinion, this was the reason why we relegated. In November of that season, we were in trouble. There was no chance [of us staying up]. It’s not football!”
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Bradford finished last in 2000-2001, winning five games despite a team that had started the season with Stan Collymore, Dean Windass and Dan Petrescu among their ranks. “I had a release clause in my contract and went on loan to Derby and Middlesbrough. But when I got back to Bradford I still had two years left on my contract. The president called me and explained that if they continued to pay my salary the club would go under. I called my agent and left the club. I wanted to save the club. The club owed me £ 2.4 million, but I left the money and left the house the club bought for me. “
If Carbone made mistakes, quietly helping Bradford in the darkest hour is certainly one of his greatest achievements. Not many people in football would give up that amount, as well as work and home for the sake of a poorly managed club, but the decision is easier to understand if you know Carbone’s roots and principles.
“Some would call me stupid but first we are men, then players. I don’t want other people to break their lives because of me. For what? I come from the street. I got rich, but I never changed. Nobody can say otherwise. I lost my father when I was four. My mother raised six boys on her own, selling olive oil. After 12 hours of work, she did a second job, then she came home and cooked for us. We have been so lucky as players to have the best job in the world. But work can’t change who you are. I am always human ”.
There is a hardness that can only really be seen if you look closely. Perhaps it is something that Carbone has always carried with him. In many of the old photographs of him his long locks and languid play style distract from the bloody leg marks left by his opponents. Now, at 51, his jaw is clenched under that perfectly manicured beard.
This resilience seems very suitable for management. He has been linked with the job vacancy at Bradford this year before Mark Hughes took office and after coaching in Serie B and with the Azerbaijani national team, the Italian feels ready to be a manager in England. “This is my dream,” Carbone insists. “My passion is incredible. Make sure that when I start, I’ll never stop. “