Being Vanni Sartini - Part 1: Becoming the "Coaches' Coach"

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In 'Being Vanni Sartini', local journalist Felipe Vallejo sits down with Vancouver Whitecaps FC head coach Vanni Sartini to chat about the Italian's life on and off the pitch. The first of three feature articles is below:

VANCOUVER, BC – It's a crisp, Thursday afternoon by False Creek in Olympic Village, and there is booming laughter in the air. The source is instantly recognizable for those who have heard it before. Vancouver Whitecaps FC head coach Vanni Sartini has wasted little time to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in line at his favourite cafe: Gusto, A Taste of Italy.

Fitting that the Italian likes to frequent places that remind him of home.

What might be surprising is that his conversation with said stranger quickly shifts from English to Spanish once he learns of her origin.

To some, it may be a great opportunity to practice a language long forgotten or newly gained. But for Sartini, it is an opportunity to connect with someone through their own culture.

“I love to connect with people,” admitted Sartini to me when asked about why he loves to learn new languages. “I want to be able to communicate with other people properly, that’s the reason why I learn languages, and they are very important to me.”

Learning languages is a reflection not only of Sartini’s inherent love of learning and pursuit of knowledge, but also his desire to break through the social barriers that have become so common in our world after the pandemic, to be able to connect with people through shared meaning and mutual understanding.

While many may claim to know who the eccentric, boisterous man that coaches their favourite soccer team is after watching him on TV and in the stadium, it is these small truths that allow you to gleam a little deeper into what Sartini truly is: a romantic, a philosopher, a leader and an idealist. And his preferred medium of expressing that? Well, it's football, of course. His first true love, spanning all the way back to when he was a kid in Florence.

Sartini’s love for football stemmed from the same place that birthed the passion of many players, coaches, and journalists: his parents.

For Sartini, it was his father, who was a semi-professional goalkeeper in the lower leagues of Italian football. When he was young, he went to go watch both his father and his uncle play the sport, following them wherever the sport called them.

“With my grandfather, and with my other uncle, we were going to watch them play,” reminisces Sartini on his younger days. “They shaped the love of my game. The fact that we all lived together, because I came from a very working-class family living in a project house, we were always talking about soccer. I fell in love immediately.”

Such was his early fascination, his parents frequently tell a story of Vanni from when he was so young that he himself cannot remember it.

“They told me that when I was in the first grade, as soon as I got back home, I would read the Gazzetta Dello Sport newspaper, which was bigger than me,” laughed Sartini. “I would spread it on the floor and read everything about the sport. I would know all the names of the players, of all the teams, know where they were from geographically and all these things. I always wanted to know more and more about the history of football.”

Soon after, that fascination for the sport blossomed into his own desire to play and, like his father, became a goalkeeper as well. It was a position which allowed him to better understand the game, with it all unfolding in front of him.

“It helped a lot [playing goalkeeper], playing in that position, you have to realize everything. What also helped was the disposition that, even at 20 years old, I knew, I wanted to become a coach.”

It may seem a little uncommon for someone of 20-years young to already think about coaching, with others more likely preferring to pursue a playing career. However, Sartini’s upbringing taught him to not only love the sport for simply playing it, it taught him to go beyond and learn all there is to know about it. It was an aspiration for knowledge that was passed down by his mother.

While many may see the love for football and the love for knowledge as separate pursuits, Sartini recognizes how deeply they intertwine.

“The thing that I knew from young, and learned more structured through education, was that everything is connected,” explained Sartini. “Everything is complex, and it’s impossible to see things and compartmentalize all of it. You could even argue that the high level coaches are a kind of modern philosophers, because it's not just about achieving an object, but how to achieve it.”

With such a perspective on football, it doesn't become a surprise Sartini quickly went from playing as a young goalkeeper to then looking to kickstart his coaching career in his early thirties. In addition, he had no better pathway to success than to be able to work at the legendary Technical Centre of Coverciano; the Oxford University of coaching. It also helped that it was less than a 10-minute walk from his childhood home.

The halls of Coverciano are hallowed, as there have been many famous names to come out of it. Iconic coaches such as Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti, and Antonio Conte are all alumni of Italy’s famous institution. But Sartini was not there simply as a student. His intellectual abilities and insatiable yearning for knowledge put him on a different path than those mentioned, one of higher learning and of, arguably, greater responsibility. What started as an internship and some scouting jobs soon flourished into a job that made him not only rub shoulders with soon-to-be successful coaches, but to aid them on their journey to graduating from Coverciano.

“That was my first real job,” admitted Sartini. “I helped coaches with their dissertation.”

With the high prestige and demand for understanding at Coverciano, as well as would-be coaches having to dedicate over 500 hours to studying the game, it all culminates in students writing and defending a dissertation to graduate.

“It helps that I had a university degree, when many did not. My job was simply to put their thoughts onto paper and it was fantastic for me, because those were years of absolute learning. I did like 5,000 hours of learning, because I was always with them [the coaches], and so I learned from the best.”

So began Sartini's work as a “Coaches’ Coach", not only helping them put their thoughts on paper but instructing them on various different coaching styles and philosophies for them to create their own style of play. This aligned beautifully since there was a mantra at Coverciano of “The best style of play is no style of play”. This meant you were not taught one specific style of play that is objectively deemed the best, but rather all types of styles for you to forge your own path. What mattered more than anything was you understood how to enact your philosophy and stay consistent; something that Sartini became an expert at. Such was his expertise he was called away from his native Italy and brought to the United States to continue his work educating the future of coaching.

From there, the 'Caps plucked him out and brought him to Vancouver. After beginning as an assistant coach under Marc Dos Santos, he later moved to a different position. His role was to, once again, not only simply coach. Instead, he was brought to reform what coaching was at the club, to reformat how coaches actualized their game plans in a way that was more consistent and structured. Hence his self-appointed title of “Director of Methodology.”

“In my experience, you need a clear methodology about coaching, and a clear support system for coaching” explained Sartini. “So what I did, which was very nice, was spend a couple months writing down an entire methodology, based on the fact that soccer is a team sport and that everything needs to be done related to a game model, and for the development of the team.”

From Italy, to the United States, and now to the home of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Sartini has always been clear on his own purpose.

He didn’t simply want to be a coach. There wasn’t enough opportunity for learning and growing in that. Instead, Sartini went one better, he who coaches the coach.

For many, that is what sets Sartini apart from many other coaches in the league and across the world. His unusual upbringing has given him the tools to think deeper, adapt quicker, and understand more than many others in the world.

And what better place for that kind of football mind than right here in Vancouver.

- Felipe Vallejo

Be sure to catch Vanni Sartini on the sidelines in the 'Caps next home match at BC Place on Wednesday, July 17 against Sporting Kansas City for the club's '80s Match. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. PT. Tickets are available at