The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Pro Vercelli: Well, We Signed Messi

Alain Messi, that is, the 20-year-old Cameroonian striker formerly of FC Waidhofen/Ybbs. To keep this from getting confusing, and because the name “Waidhofen/Ybbs” has a sort of talismanic power over me, I’m going to call him “Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs” for short. Or for long. Or whatever.

Since last we looked in on our favorite Piedmontese youth brigade, certain changes of managerial philosophy have been instituted by their far-sighted and benevolent overlord. (Maybe you know him. Handsome fellow. Looks a little like Horus, the Egyptian God of the Sky.) Here’s the new wisdom: It was clear that nothing I could do would have almost any chance of getting us either promoted or relegated. At the same time, our biggest structural weakness as a team was our reliance on loan players to make us competitively viable. It was great being able to call on the Sampdoria U20s to keep us going without having to pay them, you know, money. But it left us with no long-term assets, nothing to develop, and no security. One unlucky year of loan-hunting and we’d be down the elevator shaft right back to Serie C2.

So I decided to embrace the opportunity afforded by our guaranteed mid-table finish. We were finally making some money from gate receipts, and we finally had a few decent scouts. So why not round up as many cheap, relatively promising players as we could, replace the loan players with them one by one, and take the rest of the season to give them some first-team experience and get them used to playing together? After all, it was the next logical step in the business plan that saw us using free labor to move from the continuous near-bankruptcy of Serie C2/A to the relatively, and I mean relatively, profitable realm of Serie C1/A: use the loan players to get some money, use the money to get some players of our own. The new players wouldn’t be as good as the loaners, most likely, but if they could just keep us up, then we’d head into the summer transfer window with at least a few assets to sell. And possibly with some new long-term starters.

Sitting in 10th place at the start of the January transfer window, we brought in four players: Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs:

18-year-old right back Miguel José, from AS Cannes:

Perugia’s 29-year-old left back Stefano Ficarelli, for the much-needed experience factor:

And a 20-year-old striker called Lorenzo, still coming to terms with the discovery that he was never going to make it at FC Barcelona:

Of the four, Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs, Ficarelli, and José have been starting regularly, while Lorenzo’s been getting some reserve experience and waiting for a spot to open up. All told, replacing both our loaner fullbacks in the starting lineup and our single loaner striker (Landry Assakou) has meant that we’re fielding a team with just three loan players, which is well below the average for Serie C1/A.

And here’s the thing: it’s actually kind of been working. Ficarelli and José have been huge improvements over the players they’ve replaced; José, especially, has been a revelation in a spot that was previously filled with a player three years older, worth 65 times as much, and contracted to Juventus. Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs has been slow to find the goal, but he’s been solid otherwise, racking up three assists and winning a couple of penalties. And in our last match, a desperately undeserved 1-0 win against Venezia, it was his first goal for the club, a moderately brilliant header set up by Jorge Ibáñez, that snared us all three points:

It’s now late April, and we’ve painstakingly worked our way up to sixth place with four matches left in the season. We need to reach fifth to make it into the promotion playoff. That means passing Cittadella, who have three points on us as well as a slight advantage in goal differential. However, our last four games include matches against the 17th and 16th-ranked teams before we have to face the teams in 4th and 1st, while Cittadella have to play the 1st, 4th, and 2nd-ranked teams before closing out the season against the 13th. So there’s an opening. It’s the thinnest of cracks at the moment, and even if we pass through we’ll have to win a very tough playoff for it to mean anything. But we’re a lot closer to Serie B than I expected to get this season.

Other good points:

  • Our average attendance is over 3500 at this point.
  • We’re still holding strong in the derbies, having beaten Novara twice and gone 2 wins/1 draw against Pro Patria this year. Our last win against Pro Patria (also our last derby game) was a 4-0 demolition that saw Ibáñez score all four goals in the first 12 minutes of the game. He’s had a mediocre season (to the point that I almost sold him for €200k in January), but he’s finally starting to wake up.

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Pro Vercelli: Well, We Signed Messi

by Brian Phillips · February 2, 2009

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