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.
It got bad, people. It got real bad. And I’m happy to admit that I’m coming at this backwards, that the problem with Jorge Ibáñez wasn’t that he was an all-world player who fizzled out through lack of interest but that he was mediocre, a Serie C-class player who could occasionally do great things in a division that was essentially too good for him. I mean, when you’re putting a striker on the pitch whose first touch is 9 and whose passing is 8 and then expecting him to make goals like he was flicking cigarette ash, you bear the responsibility for what happens, and I know that.
But the profile of the overachieving schmoe and the profile of the genius who can’t be bothered are hard to distinguish on the pitch, and the fact remains that by late November I was sending out the greatest player in the modern history of Pro Vercelli with a cutting lack of faith in my heart. Six hours without scoring, eight hours without scoring. I knew he wasn’t going to score, and he didn’t. Ten hours without scoring.
And when you get right down to it, lack of faith is the video game equivalent of hatred. We drop to sixth in the league, we drop to eighth in the league. Ibáñez, who once scored 23 goals in 39 games to get us out of Serie C1/A, has two goals in 20 matches, and is getting under 30% of his shots on target despite having multiple one-on-one chances in every match. We drop to eleventh in the league. There’s no other striker I can turn to, because—trusting Ibáñez—I gave in to the constant transfer pleas of Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs and sold him in the last breeze through the window. We drop to twelfth in the league. I don’t care about the past. I want to be rid of Jorge Ibáñez.
Managers don’t talk about this, but there’s nothing that makes us turn on a player with more fury than lack of consistency. At least if a player is reliably awful, you know what you’re going to get when you put him in the game, and you can plan around it. With Ibáñez, I’ve felt for four and a half seasons like my star striker was a roulette wheel, and every cent I had was riding on a number I couldn’t remember. When it worked, it was twice as thrilling because the way everything came together seemed almost magical. When it didn’t, it was twice as deflating because you felt like you never had a chance. Ultimately, it was the constant, game-to-game uncertainty, the fear of the wrong mood, the stream of prayers that might or might not be answered, that was the hardest thing to live with. I could scream at him and it might work, I could praise him and it might work. I could ignore him and it might work. Any of those things could also wreck his mindset and leave him useless for five straight games.
When we sunk to 12th place, shortly after a miserable November loss to Lecce in which we had more of the ball, created more chances, completed more passes, had five one-on-one opportunities against the goalkeeper, had six corner kicks, and still couldn’t score, I decided enough was enough. I have a club to resurrect; players who can’t help with that are useless to me. I’m not in this to forge an imaginary family. For the first time, I reached into our transfer war chest and arranged to buy a new striker, Fabrizio Barone, from Cisco Roma for €450k, and a new midfielder, Davide Rubino, from Vicenza for €750k. To offset the expense, I sold Jorge Ibáñez to Perugia for €900k. Let him go back to Serie C1, where he’s capable of wonderful things.
He was brokenhearted. He’s never cared too much about Pro Vercelli, but he’s personally loyal to me:
Sorry, son, I told him. Nobody’s begging to get off this train. But this is your stop.
It’s the end of an era for the club. But the era only matters if it points to something greater, so the best way to comemmorate Ibáñez’s time at the Silvio Piola—the goal he scored against Olbia to seal our undefeated* season, his four goals against Venezia, The Chip—is to look at the new players he’s helped us to bring in.
Fabrizio Barone is a physical, technically gifted 21-year-old with Serie A potential who’s been toiling away for Cisco in Serie C1/B, scoring goals by the metric ton. He’s strong, fast, and deft, and (hopefully) gives us everything Ibáñez did as a quasi-target man while adding a degree of control and subtlety:
Davide Rubino is a resolute midfielder who’s mentally strong for a 21-year-old and in possession of so much raw athletic ability that he’ll hopefully be able to steamroll Serie B on physicality alone. My hope is that he’ll help with our midfield problem, which has so far been impervious to tactical adjustments:
Halfway through the season, we’re in 10th place, with 32 points from nine wins, five draws, and seven losses:
The season isn’t lost—we’re only three points out of the promotion playoff spots—but even if we don’t get promoted, there’s one very big prize at stake. Every year since I started at Pro Vercelli, we’ve finished higher than the year before. If we can’t do better than ninth this season, that trend comes to a halt. Despite all the crazy drama swirling around the locker room, or maybe because of it, that’s a streak I’m not prepared to lose. This club needs to get its swagger back, and proving that we’re still getting better would be a decent place to start.
Of course, Ibáñez left us with a nice parting gift. Playing in his last match for the club, he finally ended his nine-billion-minute scoring drought, netting the first in our 2-1 win against Frosinone. It was an absolutely brilliant goal.
We’ll never forget you, Jorge Ibáñez. We’ll only wish we could.
Song clip: Mance Lipscomb, “Long Way to Tipperary”
by Brian Phillips · March 18, 2009