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.
By the time we made landfall near Palermo, the hours of steady rattling had left me sore from head to toe. I crawled ashore, my muscles aching, my tie dangling in the surf. Before I reached the bar of dry sand at the top of the beach, a deafening roar and a sudden wave-churning wind told me the Achilles was gone.
It was, dear Braun, a hellish and disagreeable journey. But Pro Vercelli needed me; I had a match to attend. I wrung out my tie as best I could and set out for the Stadio Renzo Barbera, home of U.S. Città di Palermo, Pro Vercelli’s opponent in their first match in Serie A.
Unfortunately, after roaming the countryside for several hours, I discovered that the map of Sicily I had procured for the occasion was in fact a small butternut squash. Oh, Braun, you can imagine my savagery as the nature of the swindle slowly revealed itself to me. The next time I shop in the produce section of that particular bookstore, Braun, I will be asking some very pointed questions, of that you can be certain.
However, I have long been aware that the world is a place of almost continual frustration and disaster. I never panic; I simply sit down wherever I may be—in this case, the middle of the road—to cogitate upon my situation. In this case, it was a flawless plan, for soon after I had been extracted from the flock of sheep which almost immediately engulfed me, I found myself leaning against the wooden bed-rail of a small truck piloted by the shepherd, bound (along with three goats and one visibly delinquent pig, whom I suspect of having stolen my Mars bar) for the Renzo Barbera. So you see, life has a way of resolving its own difficulties if you simply stay out of its way.
At the gate the guard asked for my ticket. I explained patiently that I was a documentary filmmaker on hand to chronicle Pro Vercelli’s first season in Serie A, and thus had no need of a ticket. He asked why I was carrying an easel and paints instead of a movie camera. I explained that I had been out of work for some time, and had been forced to improvise while I waited on the financial backing to come through for my project. With what I considered to be a highly unproductive sneer, he flatly refused me entry. When I sat down to cogitate upon my situation, the outcry from the queue behind me was such that I was forced to slide to one side along the floor.
Finally I had a moment of inspiration. Dipping my trusty brush into my best black paint, I began working upon the canvas. My brow furrowed in concentration as I produced yet another trompe-l’œil masterpiece.
“Here,” I said, passing the canvas to the guard. “You’ll find it’s slightly oversized, but in every respect a regulation ticket.”
“It’s perfection,” said the guard. “And if you were at La Scala, I would be thrilled to let you in. But this is Palermo, and you are at a football match.”
I had painted a ticket to the opera! In my creative frenzy I mistook my mundane surroundings for the exalted precincts of the stage. Fortunately, at that moment a cleaning crew drove past on a sidewalk sweeper, which gathered me up in its bristles (I was seated on the pavement) and pushed me into the stadium.
I made my way straight to the visitors’ changing rooms. I accomplished this task by pretending I was following the signs for the restroom. The restroom lay in a completely different part of the stadium, but I find that when I try to do one thing deliberately, I often succeed in accomplishing something else.
The mind, Braun. The mind is highly complex.
From the hall outside the changing rooms, I could hear the crowd roaring through the tunnel like an enthusiastic wind. There were reporters, security personnel, mafia gunmen, and small children milling about, so I was forced to conceal myself in a laundry cart. I was able to move it on its wheels by wiggling my hips when I thought no one was paying attention, and by this means, I incrementally navigated the hall.
Soon I heard a familiar voice. I poked my head up slowly so that I could see over the rim of the cart. Brian Phillips was in a room talking to reporters. “…but I keep telling you this, and you never seem to believe me,” he was saying. “This is a warm up. Our season starts the day we play Inter. They stole the title from us in 1910, and we are coming for revenge, and we will get it. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but we will even the score.”
Oh, Braun, it took every ounce of self-control I had not to leap out of the laundry cart, run into the room, and begin making uninvited adjustments to the microphone stand, as I did for so many years at the Silvio Piola.
In the changing room, Landry Akassou was addressing the team. “You all heard the manager,” he said. “He wants us to have fun tonight. No pressure, he says. Well I say winning is fun, and losing is for losers!” Inspired by his magnificent Ivorian accent, the team formed a circle and began performing some type of ritual motivating chant.
Soon it was time for the teams to line up in the tunnel. I briefly entertained a plan of tricking one of the accompanying children with the promise of candy in the media room, then taking his place (on my knees, of course) as the designated hand-holder of Davide Rubino. However, the small boy was cleverer than I anticipated, and when I returned—candyless, despite assurances which I acted upon in good faith—the team had already taken the pitch.
I went to find a seat in the stadium. At first, I was astonished by how close and how uninteresting the action was to me. For reasons I could not fathom, the match looked like a row of knees. But when a neighboring viewer advised me to turn around, I realized that the little green gem of a pitch was in fact floating in the distance, under the floodlights, like a little, floating, green gem, lit by floodlights.
Pro Vercelli went down to a goal by Giovanni Bernardi in the 20th minute, and in my opinion as a football man, never had a chance to equalize without switching to the 1-7-3 formation I have long advocated for them. The statistics said that they had the better of the possession—58% to 42%—and completed more of their passes, but the defenders scampered here and there in a panic, allowing Palermo to create chances whenever they had the ball. Sit down, I thought into the minds of Roni Zano and Matthias Cassano. Life is full of setbacks. Think! But they failed to heed my advice, and Bernardi doubled his tally just after halftime. Pro Vercelli succumbed to a 2-0 defeat.
But to see them, Braun. To see them in Serie A. The second-highest division in Italy, after the Jupiler League! I shed tears. I buried my face in my paints, and I shed tears. Which was a mistake. The paints-face burying was clearly a mistake; I see that now. There are some forms of comfort which a man should not look for in paints.
After the match, shaken to the core with emotion and perhaps mild toxic shock, I followed the crowd out into the Sicilian night and, breaking off from them, made my way back to the rendezvous point. At the appointed time, the Achilles came swooping down out of the starry sky and surged towards me on its magnificent hydrofoils. It was a quiet and a thoughtful Walter Colombo who crawled out onto the sandbank in his business suit to board, Braun, I can tell you that. It was a Walter Colombo of many colors, for whom the world had changed forever.
Though I will say this. If humanity ever devises a more cost-effective and comfortable mode of transport than mortgaging your family farm to engage a private seaplane for the weekend, I will be the first, I will be the very first, to buy a ticket.
by Brian Phillips · April 3, 2009