There was once a time when Italian football ruled Europe. It was a time when the world’s finest footballers flocked to the boot-shaped peninsula to play in the hardest league around. That time now appears as a collection of sepia-tinted moments, left to grow old and dusty while its clubs tarry to attain the standard of the continent’s current superpowers. But there are times when memories of Italian pre-eminence are still vivid. For me, the remembrance of Serie A’s heyday is tinged with awe and no shortage of gratitude.
In a time where Sky satellite dishes were not as ubiquitous on Britain’s streets, a young football fan, desperate to see any live action on TV, would often find solace in Channel 4’s lovingly presented Football Italia. While I was denied the breakneck excitement of the Premiership, Football Italia presented me with an education. In other terms, it was like having your Mega Drive swept away to be replaced by a chessboard.
For the nascent footballing mind, Serie A was not always a giving master. Matches were often slow-burners; cautious affairs where rewards were given for patience and perseverance. There was, however, a magic that rendered me a captive viewer: The Fantasista.
As a contest meandered toward stalemate, the stage became set for a rare talent to make his mark. It would come as though delivered from heaven: a deft flick of a foot, a mazy dribble, an eviscerating pass would, in a blink of an eye, settle the argument. Many of these propitious interventions, I quickly noted, came from a man wearing a number 10 on his back.
In thinking of these sublime talents, I find it incongruous that – to varying extents – they have toiled and often failed in finding the acceptance and respect of either the people close to them or that of a wider audience. To their sternest sceptics, a Fantasista may be viewed as a luxury commodity. For their most ardent supporters, they evoke the very essence of the game’s emotional appeal. It is in that appeal where one might find tales of regret, castigation and ill-fortune but also tales of hope, redemption and unbridled brilliance.
The players who ignited my love of the Italian game also cultivated my fascination for its national team. Anyone who remembers The Azzurri in the 1990’s will recall the embarrassment of riches (or fantasisti) at its disposal. In fact, it is true to say, that during this time were players of such exceptional quality that many could lament at the abundance. Players whose ability would have easily merited international careers in excess of a hundred caps were often unfulfilled. Many were led, inexorably, to exile.
One such player who exemplifies this sense of loss is the Sampdoria legend, Roberto Mancini. Not a classical number 10 in the sense of a trequartista, Mancini was a forward of exceptional artistry. He is better-known now, perhaps, for his exploits in the dugout where he has carried with him one definable trait oft-exhibited throughout his career: his irascible temper. It is easy to forget just how good Mancio was. Having joined Samp as an 18 year-old from Bologna, Mancini scored 168 goals in 15 seasons. Many defy description. A master of deft flicks, perhaps his greatest goal came in a game against Parma in the colours of Lazio. Having eluded the attention of his marker, Mancini made for the edge of six-yard box where, with his back to goal, he met a Sinisa Mihajlovic delivery with the most nonchalant of back-heels that sent the ball irresistibly into the roof of the Parma goal.
There were many other goals of comparable technique in his collection, but the tragedy remains that he never truly seized the opportunity to showcase his remarkable skills for the Azzurri. His international career saw him score only four times in 36 caps. He was seldom a regular and upon falling out with national team boss, Arrigo Sacchi, having not been guaranteed a starting place at the 1994 World Cup, Mancini turned his back on his country.
It is unfair to ascribe Mancini’s self-imposed exile solely to his shortness of temper. He had considerable competition for a place in Sacchi’s team. Standing in his way was a man known as Il Divin Codino: ‘The Divine Ponytail’.
Few players in the history of Italian football have earned the adoration of millions as Roberto Baggio. In the early to mid-nineties he was the world’s pre-eminent playmaker. Combining a kaleidoscopic variety of attacking gifts, Baggio captivated audiences with his mesmeric skills and his many stupendous goals.
While his spells at Juve, AC Milan and Internazionale were often plagued by injury and ill-favour among coaches, they were nonetheless gilded with moments of sheer genius. There were successful spells too at lesser lights such as Fiorentina, Bologna and Brescia where his cult status thrived. But it is for the national team where Baggio’s most profound moments came.
Having struggled to win the acceptance of head-coach Azeglio Vicini, Baggio became the darling of the Azzurri as Italy hosted the 1990 World Cup. Injury to Gianluca Vialli forced a reluctant Vicini to give Baggio his chance against Czechoslovakia. He would score one of the great World Cup goals that night: finishing off a coruscating run with a delicate finish.
As in Italia ’90, the 1994 World Cup would end in heartbreak for Baggio. Like Mancini, Baggio suffered a difficult relationship with Arrigo Sacchi. He was seen as expendable after Sacchi incredulously sacrificed his best player after having had his goalkeeper sent-off in a must-win group game against Norway. Come the final, things had changed. The Italians reached the Pasadena showpiece by clinging onto the venerated ponytail. His five goals in the knockout stages had catapulted his team to the final where they were to meet Brazil.
Baggio had destroyed Bulgaria in the semi-final but, just as he had reached the peak of his form, disaster struck. Baggio had pulled his hamstring and was a doubt for the final. Sacchi, backed into a corner risked his star’s fitness. Baggio suffered 120 minutes in the broiling midday Californian heat. He shouldn’t have. It is tragic that perhaps the most enduring image of his career came as he blazed the decisive penalty over Taffarel’s crossbar, handing Brazil the trophy. At 27, he would only feature 12 more times for the Azzurri. He won 57 caps.
The predicament faced by Mancini and Baggio at international level is difficult to reconcile. There was great competition for places but it is also tempting to cite a malignant mistrust of flair players or more pointedly, a mistrust of fantasistas. Another to suffer was Gianfranco Zola. The Sardinian maestro won a paltry 35 caps for Italy, the last of which came in 1997 thus robbing Zola of the chance to play at the 1998 World Cup, one in which he had played no small part in helping the Azzurri reach.
While conservatism pervaded the thoughts of national team managers at the time, suspicion toward flair players domestically was less conspicuous. The glut of talented foreign players who made Italy their home throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s opened eyes to the value of such players. The legacy left by imports such as Michel Platini, Diego Maradona and Zico was a stage upon which the likes of Mancini, Baggio, Zola and Giusseppe Signori flourished.
A continuation of that legacy has been the glorious careers of two other home-grown fantasistas: Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Unlike their vaunted forebears, Del Piero and Totti both triumphed at a World Cup under the guidance of Marcello Lippi in 2006. In spite of their success at international level, both players have at times struggled for unequivocal acceptance.
Del Piero suffered the ignominy of being compared negatively (and publicly) to Platini by Juventus owner, the late Gianni Agnelli who left Del Piero in no doubt that he considered Platini superior. Juventus’ debt to their former captain should not be ignored. Del Piero holds the records for highest goal-scorer and appearance-maker in Juve’s history. This, alas, was not deemed enough to offer him a contract extension and he was released at the end of the 2011-12 season.
It is amazing to think that twenty years have passed since I first saw Del Piero: a fitting heir to Baggio as number 10 for the Old Lady. Of all the players I witnessed in those early years, it was him who made the most immediate and spectacular impression. During a memorable match with Fiorentina in Turin, a 20 year-old Del Piero won the game for Juve with an extraordinary goal. He met a long ball with a flicked volley from the outside of his right boot leaving the keeper helpless as it dipped over him. First impressions count for much.
Unlike Del Piero, Roma captain Francesco Totti has never found it hard endearing himself to those close to home. A one-club man and Serie A’s second highest goal-scorer, Totti is revered in Rome. Though his abilities and individual achievements are held in high esteem, Totti has not always cast himself in a sympathetic light. An inept performance of an Ecuadorian referee surely spared him further criticism following a sending off against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. Italy would go on to suffer one of their most humiliating defeats.
Worse would follow in the European Championships two years later. He was banned after spitting on Denmark’s Christian Poulsen in Italy’s first game; clearly the kind of behaviour that led Ron Atkinson to remark (unwittingly while on-air): “He’s a little twat, that Totti. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
Totti has a vicious temper. In his career to date he has accumulated twelve red cards. While he may be vilified by many for his on-field histrionics, he is one of the Italian game’s greatest ever players. Blessed with immutable skill and vision, his dedication to the Giallorossi has woven one of football’s great love stories. One Serie A title is meagre award for his commitment.
Totti is arguably the last truly great trequartista. In recent years he has had to develop his game around the limitations of his Roma side. His successful deployment as a false-nine attests to his endless quality. Be it naivety or hubris, it once seemed as though these stars would keep coming. As natural as it was that Del Piero and Totti followed Mancini and Baggio, it seemed equally natural to assume they would be succeeded by equivalent quality. They haven’t. Pretenders have come and fleetingly succeeded. The gifted but troubled Antonio Cassano is the biggest disappointment. The likes of Lorenzo Insigne and Sebastien Giovinco appear lightweight in both stature and requisite ability.
The truth is that the legendary fantasistas were not inherent to the country that sired them. They were never justifiably appreciated by their national team, bloated as it was on talent harnessed unconvincingly. They were products of a different era. The game’s evolution has antiquated the classical number 10. They are now squeezed out in favour of false-nines, inverted wingers and registas. Serie A has also changed. The world’s best players now ply their trade in other leagues and magisterial home-grown talents are scarce. But I, for one, will never forget the period in which Italian football ruled. And nor should anyone forget the fantasistas.