Italy is renowned for producing many of the game’s greatest goalkeepers. Those that immediately spring to mind include the 1982 World Cup winning captain Dino Zoff, Inter’s iconic cap wearing shot stopper Walter Zenga, 1990s heroes Angelo Peruzzi and Gianluca Pagliuca, the Azzurri’s saviour at Euro 2000, Francesco Toldo and of course, arguably the greatest of all time, Gianluigi Buffon. There is one however who seems to slip under the radar. One who Foggia fans in particular will argue should be remembered along with Italian football’s finest custodians.
Born in 1968 in the small historic town of Matera, southern Italy, like many his age, Francesco Mancini quickly fell in love with Calcio. He possessed a talent that wouldn’t go unnoticed and in 1984 he began his career as a raw 16-year-old, signing for hometown club Matera. After spending a year in the youth set up, the teenager progressed to the first team and made close to 60 appearances in two years.
Having produced some eye catching performances at Matera, it was obvious Mancini’s talents were going to take him far. At 5’9” Mancini didn’t possess the stereotypical build of a goalkeeper. He certainly didn’t have the huge 6’3” frame of Gianluigi Buffon or the intimidating 6’5” presence of Francesco Toldo. This didn’t perturb Mancini however and it was something he used to his advantage. His slight build made him more agile than most and this showed when he was required to make point blank saves. He also boasted the athleticism to deny the most spectacular of efforts whilst being a whippet when it came to coming off his line.
After two successful debut years, Mancini was on the move as Serie C1 side Foggia snapped up the promising young keeper. When the then 20-year-old arrived, little did he know this was the club at which he would make his name. It became the place he called home for the next 10 years and it was at Foggia that he met his mentor and the man who shaped his career, Zdenek Zeman.
Zeman took over at Foggia in 1989, just a year after Mancini arrived at the Stadio Pino Zaccheria. His arrival was the harbinger of the club’s most successful years in their history. The Czech coach set his side up in a 4 -3 -3 (with Mancini in goal) and this would be the base for his new attacking and entertaining Foggia. After a disappointing debut season, the Satanelli took Serie B by storm during the 1990-91 season and while they were renowned for their free-flowing attacking football, Mancini played his part, keeping over ten clean sheets.
Mancini had made it, he was officially a Serie A player and in his peak. But his Foggia fairy tale was far from over, as the side took their attractive tactical style into Italy’s top flight. Dubbed ‘Zemenlandia’, Serie A was about to witness this entertaining brand of football for the first time. Zeman guided his Foggia team to an impressive ninth place finish, scoring an incredible 58 times. Despite also conceding 58 times, Mancini was still named third best goalkeeper in Serie A behind Fabrizio Lorieri and Luca Marchegiani.
After three entertaining seasons in Serie A, Foggia found themselves back in Serie B and the Zemenlandia era was over, with the coach heading to Rome to join Lazio. However Mancini was soon reunited with his old mentor after injuries to Luca Marchegiani and Fernando Orsi prompted Zeman to swoop for Manicini on a short term loan. After six appearances, Mancini returned to Foggia for one more emotional season before joining Serie A side Bari in 1997. His three year spell in Puglia was another success, making close to 100 appearances for I Galetti.
The turn of the century would see Mancini reacquainted with Zeman once again, this time in Naples as both attempted to bring Napoli back to the top of Italian football. But this brief flirtation ended in disappointment as Zeman was shown the door following the Neapolitans relegation back to Serie B. Replaced by Luigi De Canio, the new coach kept his faith in Mancini and the shot stopper played all 38 matches for Napoli in the 2001-02 campaign.
At the age of 34, Mancini decided to join Serie C1 side Pisa and from there he moved to Sambenedettese, where he reached the Serie C playoffs only to be defeated by Edy Reja’s Napoli.Nel 2005-2006 si trasferisce al Teramo mancando la qualificazione ai play-off e l' anno successivo difende la porta della Salernitana . In his twighlight years, Mancini enjoyed spells at Teramo, Salernitana, Martina and Fortis Trani respectivley. He finally hung up his gloves aged 39 in 2008.
Despite being a keen drummer and fan of reggae music, football was always his first love and he returned to the game less than a year after retiring, accepting the position of assistant and goalkeeping coach at Manfredonia, where he lived with his wife and two sons. A year into his coaching career, Mancini was reuinited with his mentor after Zeman recruited his ex goalkeeper as a coach at his beloved Foggia. However the dream return lasted just a year as Zeman headed to Pescara, with Mancini well and truly part of the enigmatic coach’s backroom staff. Then, on March 30 2012, tragedy struck.
That morning, Mancini went about his business as normal, saying goodbye to his wife and kids as he headed off to put the Pescara keepers through their paces in preperation for the following day’s match at home to Bari. Sadly however, it would prove to be Mancini’s last training session as that afternoon, Mancini suffered a fatal heart attack.
Mancini was just 43 when he passed away. In an emotional service attended by many ex team mates, fans, and coaches, he was laid to rest in his adopted home town of Manfredonia. Foggia provided their own tribute on April 19th 2012, naming the Curva Nord of the Stadio Pino Zaccheria after Francesco Mancini. It was a fitting way to remember a player who formed such an integral part of their most succesful years.
Follow Giovanni Dougall on Twitter: @giovannid86