Walking into a small cafe in Bermondsey, south London, Benito Carbone looks like the sort of man who has never made a mistake in his life. Only a certain type of person can pull off the pinstripe that adorns his tailored suit. But any illusions of pomp and grandeur are quickly swept aside: 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 that is not surprising for a player who had 18 clubs across a career that spanned four decades, including spells at Torino, Napoli, Internazionale, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Derby County, Middlesbrough, Bradford, Parma and even Sydney FC. Remarkably, Wednesday are the only club he played at for more than two seasons and it is where he is most fondly remembered in England. And yet Carbone concedes that signing for the Owls was one of his biggest errors.
“Roy Hodgson was my manager at Internazionale,” he says. “He played me every game but I was not happy because I was in the wrong position, on the wing. That’s why I decided to leave Inter. It was a big mistake.
“I played with No 10 on my back, for my family’s team, one of the best sides in Europe, maybe the world. I was 24 years old with a four-year contract. Six months later, Hodgson left and [Luigi] Simoni came and Ronaldo [Nazário] arrived. I should have waited! When I left, I lost the chance to go to the national team. Before me was Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola. After me was Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero. So I had to keep playing for a big side if I wanted a chance.”
Hindsight can be cruel as well as illuminating and surely even the most loyal Wednesday supporter can understand Carbone’s anguish. But arriving in Sheffield set him on a path to being one of the biggest cult heroes of the decade in England.
“Milan and Sheffield are very different,” states Carbone, matter-of-factly. “The first six months, the days were all the same. I wish to say thank you to [Wednesday teammates] Regi Blinker and Orlando Trustfull for helping me. They taught me the language, they gave me lifts, they took me out for dinner. Des Walker was great with me as captain. He spoke Italian. I’ll never forget what they did for me.
“When Paolo Di Canio arrived, I did the same for him. He said he was staying at a hotel and I said ‘No! You are alone? You come and sleep at my house.’ We were like brothers.”
Alongside Di Canio, Carbone developed into one of the league’s most creative and entertaining forwards, with enough goal-of-the-season contenders to fill a full Match of the Day shortlist. His decision to leave Wednesday in 1999 came as a big surprise.
“David Pleat was like my father and he treated me like a son,” Carbone says. “But something was broken between me and Danny Wilson, the new manager. We had an argument. I never wanted to leave Sheffield. Even now, a generation later, you’d never expect the fans to recognise you. But I went back for a charity game, over 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 say sorry. I was really young. My head was different. It was my mistake, definitely.”
A move to Villa materialised. Carbone would play a leading role in getting them to the FA Cup final in 2000, scoring a hat-trick (including an outrageous 40-yard strike) in a 3-2 win over Leeds in the fifth round and the winner in the quarter-finals against Everton.
“I brought my family over for the final,” Carbone smiles. “They were all in tears listening to the fans singing my name at Wembley in the warm-up [to the tune of Dean Martin’s Volare].” Carbone unabashedly sings in the corner of the cafe: “When the ball hits the back of the net, Benito he ain’t finished yet.” Then he reflects: “Unfortunately we lost the game.” His compatriot Roberto Di Matteo scored the only goal of the game for Chelsea.
His exit from Villa, after one year, was also difficult but not necessarily Carbone’s fault. “I was in the last year of my contract. Villa offered me a four-year deal, but my agent met with Giovanni Trapattoni at Fiorentina, who had Rui Costa, [Gabriel] Batistuta, [Francesco] Toldo. A big 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 final day: a sensational David Wetherall header against Liverpool keeping them in the Premier League.
“Bradford wanted me a lot,” Carbone says. “The chairman even flew to Milan to make me sign the contract. This was important for me, to feel wanted. I arrived, and we started the pre-season. 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 detention!
“We had to prepare our rooms spotlessly, like the army, with daily inspections and stand to attention outside the door. Then we would march around, playing with bombs, crawling through water. Eventually, I had enough and asked: ‘Where is the ball?! Please, give it to me.’ Jim Jefferies [Bradford’s then manager] wanted to try a new experience in pre-season? In my opinion, this was the reason we were relegated. By November that season, we were in trouble. There was no chance [of us staying up]. It’s not football!”
Bradford finished bottom in 2000-01, winning five games despite a squad that had started the season with Stan Collymore, Dean Windass and Dan Petrescu among their ranks. “I had a relegation release clause in my contract and left on loan to Derby and Middlesbrough. But when I came back to Bradford I still had two years left on my deal. The chairman called me and explained if they kept paying my wages the club would go under. I called my agent and left the club. I wanted to save the club. The club owed me £2.4m but I left the money and I left the house the club had bought for me.”
If Carbone made mistakes, quietly helping Bradford in their darkest hour is surely one of his greatest achievements. Not many people in football would forgo that kind of sum, as well as their employment and their home for the sake of a poorly managed club, but the decision is easier to understand if you know Carbone’s roots and his principles.
“Some would call me stupid but we are men first, players after. I don’t want other people crashing their lives because of my fault. For what? I come from the road. I became rich, but I never changed. Nobody can say otherwise. I lost my father when I was four. My mother brought up six boys on her own, selling olive oil. After 12 hours of work, she would work a second job, and then come home and cook for us. We were so lucky as players to have the best job in the world. But the job can’t change who you are. I’m always human.”
There is a toughness that can really be seen only if you look closely. Maybe it is something Carbone has always carried. In many of the old photographs his long locks and languid playing style distract from the bloody marks on his legs left by his opponents. Now, at 51, his jaw is clenched beneath that perfectly manicured beard.
This resilience seems very well suited to management. He was linked with the vacant job at Bradford this year before Mark Hughes took the post and after coaching in Serie B and with the Azerbaijan national team, the Italian feels ready to be a manager in England. “This is my dream,” Carbone insists. “My passion is incredible. Be sure that when I start, I’ll never stop.”