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.
Mid-March, and we’re still alive in three competitions. We’re in the semifinals of the Coppa Italia, where we hold a 2-1 lead over Juventus after the away leg thanks to goals by Rubino and Galli at the Delle Alpi. We’re in the final sixteen of the Europa League, where we’re set to play Olympiakos after beating København in the first knockout round. And we’ve opened up a seven-point lead over Milan at the top of Serie A, though they have a game in hand and we still have to play them at the San Siro. Obstacles abound—if we beat Juventus, we’ll likely face Inter in the cup final; there are still four rounds to wade through in the Europa League; and our Serie A schedule is about to get gruesome, with matches against Milan, Juventus and Roma in the next month—but the hope of an unprecedented treble is still alive in the streets of Vercelli.
These are heady times for the club, and it’s hard to think about what’s happening without letting your mind dissolve into a montage of significant moments. Real success, especially when it’s both long-awaited and somehow unforeseen, tends to knock the verbs out of your sentences and leave you with a string of shining fragments. David and Gabriele Contini scoring in the last 10 minutes to take a 2-2 draw from Roma at the Olimpico. Teixeira’s equalizer, and Ibrahimovic’s stoppage-time header, to win at Siena after going down in the sixth minute. The 5-0 win over Udinese at the Silvio Piola, with goals from five different players. Teixeira leading the Serie A scoring charts as a 20-year-old fresh out of the Cruzeiro youth team. Michael Dogan and Senad Ibrahimovic going 1-2 in the European Defender of the Year voting. Knocking Milan out of the Coppa Italia at the San Siro. And on and on and on.
The transfer window presented another obstacle. Ibrahimovic, whom I now suspect of having some kind of clinical mood disorder, once against decided that he wanted to leave the club, and went into a deep funk when “none of the deals we tried to make wound up working out” (my words to him, shouted over his crushing Scandinavian black-metal mix). Arjen Servais, who’s getting no playing time, started complaining to the press about a transfer, which infuriated David (bless him), leading to a sudden enmity between them. Thus far, the locker-room drama hasn’t affected our performances on the pitch.
We got an unexpected infusion of cash early in the new year when Roma sold Sergio Solari and activated our massive sell-on clause. Figuring it was no time to move cautiously, I spent it all on a new defender, Slovenia’s Marko Ferjancic, henceforth known as “the Ferj.” He’s 6’3″, hummingbird-quick, built like a tank, and deeply, deeply versatile: he’s starting for us at centerback, where he’s an upgrade over Marcelo, but he can also play at right back, where we had no viable backup for Aivar Kulik. And under the right circumstances, given his height, strength, leaping ability, and tenacity, the Ferj can be a terror in the defensive midfield slot and in the center of midfield as well.
So we’re going for broke, and so far, it’s working. The best moment of the year so far was the first 1910 Derby, the run up to which saw a huge amount of media sniping, most of it coming from Inter’s side:
This was a triumph in itself, as the rivalry with Inter had previously been mostly on our side. The more Ferrario carped at us in the press, the more we knew we were getting under their skin. The game itself was a brutal stalemate, with neither team able to gain an advantage. Teixeira gave us the lead in the 73rd minute, but Inter equalized through Roberto Castillo just four minutes later. In stoppage time, Dogan—who’s already broken the club record for most assists in a year—picked out Ibrahimovic on a corner, and we won 2-1 while the Silvio Piola went mad.
Our second-best moment of the year was probably the Coppa Italia match against Juventus, which coincidentally was the very next game for both teams after I turned down Juventus’s offer to be their new manager. Coming back from 1-0 down to win at the Delle Alpi didn’t make me feel more sure of my decision, because you can’t get more sure than infinity. But given that Juventus—a huge, bloated, historically dominant club that tries to spend rather than manage its way to success—is our exact opposite, it was a highly satisfying way to make the point.
My favorite stat of the year, slightly ahead of the one that says Teixeira is averaging a goal every 110 minutes of play: Aivar Kulik, our dour Estonian right back, has taken two shots this season, and scored twice. Our players know their roles, and we finally have a strong enough squad for them to stay within their own abilities and calmly take the openings that present themselves.
I could go on. At some point, I’ll tell you about our youth team, which is winning its group in the U20s league (oddly also with a seven-point lead over A.C. Milan), and about the youth players who have occasionally featured for the first team this year. But for now, we have games to play and everything to play for. Everything feels like it’s coming to a head this year: it’s the last season of the Silvio Piola, our final game of the year is against Inter at the San Siro, etc. Maybe we’re headed for a tragic fall. But we’ve been striving for splendor since the day I took over the club, and splendor has never been more within our reach.
by Brian Phillips · May 20, 2009