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.

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Pro Vercelli: What Do You Get for the Man Who Transcends Everything?

As you probably know, I’m playing Football Manager using fictional players and coaches. In the world of my Pro Vercelli, no one’s ever heard of Kaká or Lionel Messi; there, the legends are told of men like Francismar and Márcio, men who may bear an uncanny resemblance to players from our universe, but who ultimately stand apart from them as quantum variations or reflections in the magical looking glass. In all of history, only two men have been known to cross over and exist in both worlds simultaneously. One of those men is me. The other is my new goalkeeping coach.

When I first saw that Oliver Kahn was available to hire as a goalkeeping coach, I assumed it was just a coincidence. There are only so many first names and last names in the database, so it’s probably inevitable that sooner or later you’ll see a familiar combination. Sure, the fact that he was a goalkeeping coach rather than, say, a physio made the coincidence even more improbable, and sure, there was a certain physical resemblance if you allowed for the fact that everything in the game world is less craggy and leonine than it is in real life—

—but again, it was just probability taking a Sunday drive, right? No reason to be alarmed?

The more, I looked, though, the more I started to wonder. Game World Oliver Kahn’s status screen matched up eerily well with Real World Oliver Kahn’s Wikipedia page. Their international records, for instance:


Then there was the small matter of their birthdays:

One day apart…but something always goes a little awry when you step through the dimension gate, right? In my case, I went from looking only somewhat like the Egyptian God of the Sky in our world to looking exactly like him in the game world. Oliver Kahn’s birthday could change by one day, couldn’t it?

When I casually muttered the words “Jens Lehmann” during his job interview and his lip curled in a frigid sneer of contempt, I knew my suspicions were right. Reality wasn’t big enough to hold Oliver Kahn, so naturally he appeared, briefcase in hand, in Vercelli. I hired him on the spot, of course. I’m not sure how keen I am to have Oliver Kahn parading around the training complex. But we need all the barrier-shattering, plane-transcending magic we can get.

Ten games into the new Serie A season, things are a bit yes and no. We’re holding firm in the league and sitting in third place, which is a yes. Our new players are playing relatively well, which is a yes. We beat Dinamo Kiev in the qualifying round (4-1 agg.), which is a yes, and reached the group stage of the Champions League, which is a yes. On the other hand…no. Just…no.

We’ve been winning games we had no right to win: 2-0 against Catania when they had 19 shots on goal to our three; 1-0 against Palermo when they had 60% of the possession, most of it in our half of the pitch. We’ve been flayed like the fatted calf from one end of Italy to the other, and yet we’ve won six of our ten league games, had two draws, and lost just twice. Of course, one of our losses was to Milan, who prepared a savory meat dish from our carcass at the San Siro, winning 4-0 in a match that saw David once again take to his favorite stretcher:

In the Champions League, we had a dismal draw and wound up in a girone di ferro with Barcelona (one of the best teams in the world) and Lyon (probably in the top 10). We’ve lost to them both, and to Barcelona twice. We’re lodged in third place, six points behind Lyon, after only managing one win (against Partizan) in our four group games so far. Now have to win our last two group matches and hope Lyon lose to Barcelona just to force a goal-differential tiebreaker for that last qualifying spot. After the offseason, I really thought we were in line for a helping of knockout round money, so I’m taking this hard, even though the fans and the players are happy just to have had a taste of Europe’s Premier Club Competition. We’re not out of it yet, but we’re close, and it’s disappointing. I haven’t punched any walls, but I’ve glared at them with intent.

Despite all the angst, our new players are actually doing fine: Contini has a goal and two assists and consistently beats his man into the box, Michael Dogan already has two goals from free kicks and three assists from corners. Paradoxically, I think the overall improvement in the team is a large part of what’s hurting our performances. Here’s how that makes sense: Like last year, we’re dominating on set pieces but struggling to score from open play. Last year, the goals we did score from open play tended to be fluky deflected long shots and stabbed-in rebounds after our attacks disintegrated in the box. This year, we’re having much more success moving the ball the way we mean to, which means our attacks often culminate with the strikers, which is in turn exposing the fact (which has been lurking under the surface for a while) that Galli and Barone are not really great at scoring in Serie A. The number of perfect passes that have been taken away at their feet and perfect crosses that have been headed away by defenders with worse positioning is alarming.

In any case, I’m not giving up hope. We’ve had a tendency over the last few seasons to start a bit slack and then get stronger as the season wears on, probably because of the amount of transfer-season turnover we’ve had since we got to Serie A. Things should get better once our new signings have time to settle in, assuming I figure out how to re-route the ball around and/or replace our current strikers. In any case, I’ll look at it as an extremely good sign if we can somehow beat Lyon and squeak through into the last 16 of the Champions League.

With Oliver Kahn on our side, there just may be no stopping us.

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Pro Vercelli: What Do You Get for the Man Who Transcends Everything?

by Brian Phillips · May 4, 2009

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