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.
This was the summer when everything went crazy. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. Everything always goes crazy in the offseason after you make the Champions League for the first time. But it had been a while since I was in this situation, and I confess, it caught me by surprise. Fortunately, I got my bearings quickly, and—partly compensating, in my mind, for my shocking collapse during my first offseason at Pro Vercelli—I finally pulled off a couple of maneuvers worthy of the greatest manager in the history of the world.
A Manager’s Redemption: The Return of Jacopo Sammarco
Remember Sergio Solari, the Argentine defensive midfielder I brought in as a midseason replacement last year when I found myself with no choice but to let Jacopo Sammarco move to Schalke for a measly €6.5 million? Solari had, at best, a decent half-season, averaging a 7.09, completing 77% of his passes, managing one goal and two assists in 19 games. Adequate, but for the money I spent on him (€9 million, at that point a record high for the club) not exactly bioluminescent.
Well, Roma saw something they liked in him, because they knocked on my door with a bid of €12 million, and when I told them to make it 18, they said yes before I’d even finished the sentence. I almost turned them down; after all, Solari had just arrived at the club and might get better once he’d adapted to Italy, and as I knew from the search that brought him to Vercelli in the first place, good defensive midfielders were hard to find. But then I had a Thought. Schalke were hurting for cash, and now that we were in the Champions League, Sammarco might just be willing to move back to Italy. Why not try to turn this thing around, and make up for some of the grief I’d given myself for letting Sammarco get away in the first place?
As it turned out, Sammarco was dying to come back to Vercelli, and Schalke bit on a bid of €13.5 million. Best of all, I got €3.5 million back thanks to a “50% of profits from next sale” clause we’d worked into the last transfer deal. I sold Solari to Roma for €18 million and brought Sammarco back to Vercelli for €10 million.
Seen in a vacuum, the Sammarco deal was still a crazy, Defoe-to-Portsmouth-and-back arrangement. We essentially gave Schalke €3.5 million to take Sammarco on loan for half a season. But view it in conjunction with the Solari deal, and you’d see that we’d maintained our sharpness at defensive midfielder, qualified for the Champions League, emerged with the same promising young player we’d started with, and turned a net profit of (€6.5 – €9 – €13.5 + €3.5 + €18) = €5.5 million. A shiny piece of business, especially since I at least mildly suspect that Solari won’t ever justify that transfer fee at Roma.
You Honor Me. But Probably Not Enough.
We won some awards. Well, I didn’t. I finished third in the Serie A Manager of the Season voting, which is only fair, since my feat of landing a small regional club in the Champions League is obviously less impressive than Vito Scalpi winning yet another title for A.C. Milan. But Ibrahimovic was named Serie A Defender of the Year:
And Naci Balci, a young Turkish midfielder whom I brought in as a backup last year and never introduced because I didn’t think he’d ever be important, shocked the world by being named Serie A Young Player of the Year—beating out David, the player he was backing up:
He’s come on like gangbusters since we signed him, and it’s probably time you were introduced:
Step into My Office, Baby
We needed a new right winger. Landry Akassou had played well for the club for many seasons, but he was out of his league in terms of raw ability. He always seemed to finish games with high ratings, but about half of our attacks also seemed to end with him losing the ball to a more technically savvy defender. On top of that, I’d decided to make Ibrahimovic our new captain, and I didn’t want Akassou having to start in case losing the armband made his mind go lousy. Time for another player search.
To my…okay, help me find a word here. I need a concept that suggests a degree of pleasure so intense that it’s almost indistinguishable from existential terror. To my that, Napoli’s 23-year-old right winger Gabriele Contini, the most promising young winger in Italy, was eager to move to the club. The only problem was that he was also eager to move to Inter and Roma, who were circling him like sharks waiting to clock in for the feeding frenzy. Just look at this kid:
He had me at “Crossing: 19.” I felt in my toes that I couldn’t let Inter get him. He even had brilliant PPMs:
Napoli were poor and he was desperate to leave, so he could be had for fairly cheap: around €9-10 million. The problem was that as soon as I put in a bid, there was a good chance it’d trigger bids from all the other clubs that were following him. So how could I a) discourage them from chasing him and b) manage to offer him a better contract if they did? His personality was “Model Professional,” which suggested he’d go to whichever club made him the best offer rather than be guided by loyalty or romance.
I thought of everything from “schedule a friendly against Napoli and deliberately try to injure him, thereby reducing his value to other teams” (wouldn’t work: it was the summer break) to “send someone to provoke him in a nightclub and try to get him arrested, thereby reducing his value to other teams” (sadly, one of the few aspects of the sport that the FM series doesn’t model). Finally, it occurred to me that I had players Roma and Inter wanted, too, namely Ibrahimovic and Arnaldo Mora, our young right back. With inspiring deviousness, I entered into negotiations to sell them those players, then put in a €9.25 million bid for Contini. Of course, Inter and Roma instantly entered Contini bids of their own.
I don’t know, because the game doesn’t give you this kind of feedback, but I will always believe that it was the bids they had in for my players that caused them to under-budget their contract negotiations with Contini, which in turn caused him to pick Pro Vercelli as his new club just in time for me to cancel the talks to sell Ibrahimovic and Mora. I know. I felt evil. (It felt good.) But don’t worry; I faced some tough consequences. Ibrahimovic got temporarily huffy about the fact that I wouldn’t let him move to a bigger club. Yeah. Bummer.
Birth of a Field Marshal
However, my floating Arnaldo Mora on the transfer market piqued the interest of Manchester United, who swooped in on a helicopter to offer me €21 million for him. Everyone seemed to want Arnaldo Mora, which almost made me think I should keep him (thank you, Proustian psychology of desire). But then, he’d had a mediocre first season for us, I didn’t like him, and I didn’t think he’d ever fit the team. I said yes to the €21 million, spent nine of it on an experienced and I think somewhat vicious right back, Aston Villa’s Aivar Kulik —
— and congratulated myself on a job well done. That was the team. We’d gotten Sammarco back, dramatically improved on the right wing, and turned a hefty profit. Offseason accomplished.
But the newest occupant of the Walter Colombo Memorial Assistant Manager’s Stool (I’d sacked Manuel Marchini and replaced him with Roberto Colapietro, who was also a coach for the England team) thought we were weak at left back, and it was true that our 5’3″ speedster Michele Napolitano was looking a bit quaint compared to the rest of our emerging teamsheet. What the hey, I thought. I’ll take a spin around some left backs.
Player search didn’t turn anything up, so, somewhat idly, I started flipping through Bundesliga clubs to see if anyone jumped out at me. That was how I discovered Michael Dogan, and when I saw him I nearly had a heart attack:
A commanding leader with an influence of 20…a master technician at set pieces (corners, free kicks, and penalties all at 20—and he’s left-footed!)…a strong, quick, brave defender who can also play in six positions and control the game with his passing, teamwork, and decision-making…and he was interested in coming to Pro Vercelli. Thank you, Champions League. What was ironic was that after the insane lengths I’d gone to to get Contini, Dogan, a player I was even more excited about, required nothing at all: no other teams were chasing him, Werder Bremen accepted my first bid of €7.5 million, and the whole thing was wrapped up in about five minutes.
I’ve made him our new vice-captain under Ibrahimovic, but if everything goes according to plan—if he learns Italian, adapts to the club, and plays well—he’s going to be our captain for many years to come.
A.C. Milan agreed to hold our show-down bid-off over David, our co-owned prodigy, a year early. I put in €3.4 million, which was half what he was worth, sort of thinking that they’d offer €20 million and I’d lose him, but he always hurt anyway so who cares (I thought). Instead, they bid €3.4 million as well, which meant that I got to keep him (tie goes to the holding team, essentially). Thank you, excess funds left over after selling Arnaldo Mora. Please stay healthy, David. You know you’re Raistlin to us. There’s always the danger, but we can’t do this without you.
Even Crazier Than the Dragonlance Reference in the Previous Paragraph
I’m almost embarrassed to say this after everything that’s happened, but I’m getting along fine with Fabio Miglione. He hasn’t meddled in our transfers, he offered me a new long-term contract (I’m on €10k/week!), and, most astonishingly of all, he made this happen at the Silvio Piola:
The training facility has also been upgraded, and is now described, efficiently, as “top.” Looking at our virgin aisles of rowing machines, our pristine grass, and our teamsheet for next season (Larsen; Dogan, Marcelo, Ibrahimovic, Kulik; Sammarco; Arteaga, Rubino; David, Contini; Galli), I feel the surpassing calm that comes from expecting to be really, genuinely good next year for the first time since I came to Pro Vercelli. We’re not deep enough yet to challenge for the league or (obviously) the Champions League, but we’re going to thrill some people. I cannot wait to unleash the power that I have created.
by Brian Phillips · May 1, 2009