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.
Note: After last week’s unplanned hiatus, it’s time to get this story moving. That’s right: we’re covering the entire 2020-2021 season in one day, in an epic, two-part update.
The following is an excerpt from the bestselling Pro: How a Small-Town Team Defied the Odds and Conquered the World of Soccer, by an unnamed reporter from worldsoccer.com, which was recently published by the Jeeves imprint of Snirp WorldSports.
A False Dawn?
I thought he was going to jump.
I stood in the doorway of Room 2119 of the Palace Hotel in Turin, gaping, my notepad dangling uselessly in my hand. (How do you interview the man who’s about to kill himself?) Across from me stood Michael Dogan, the captain of Pro Vercelli, wearing one of the most tormented expressions I’ve ever seen on another person’s face. The window was open, treating me to a spectacular late-night view of Turin’s historic center. As a tourist, I should have been loving it. Only I couldn’t stop thinking that if I didn’t do something fast, Michael Dogan was going to climb through that frame and leap to his death on the picturesque streets below.
It was three o’clock in the morning on February 7, and Pro Vercelli was coming off its worst loss of the 2020-21 season, a humiliating 0-2 defeat against Juventus in the Stadio Olimpico, Turin’s most famous soccer arena. The loss, coming on the heels of an equally humiliating 0-2 home defeat against A.C. Milan, meant that Pro Vercelli was stuck in fifth place in the Serie A table with more than half the season gone. Fifth—a spot that wouldn’t even qualify them for a berth in the Champions League. And this a team that was only a year removed from one of the all-time great seasons in European soccer. A team that had the Serie A title, the Champions League title, the Coppa Italia, the Club World Cup, and the European Super Cup on the mantelpiece back at Naming Rights Park in Vercelli. Where, you might say, they were looking increasingly tarnished.
And it was Michael Dogan’s fault.
Not his fault that Pro Vercelli was in fifth. No one could criticize his overall performance this season. He was one of the team’s top scorers, and its unquestioned leader on the pitch. But his fault that they’d fallen to Juventus, whose star striker Gaetano Mariano had scored the go-ahead goal after Dogan lunged for a routine interception and missed. His manager, Brian Phillips, had been unusually hard on him in the press conference after the game, and, knowing that Dogan never slept after a loss, I’d gone up to his room after the media session to ask for his reaction.
And there he was, looking at me from the window, teeth bared, nostrils flaring. Looking as though all the frustration and disappointment he’d endured this season were finally about to burst.
What happens when the wheels come off? How does a team that’s stood proudly atop the pecking order of Italian soccer for three straight seasons suddenly find itself clinging for dear life to a Europa League place? The answer is that there’s never just one cause. A whole lot of things have to go wrong for a team with as solid a framework as Pro Vercelli to lose its path. Transfers have to go sour. Injuries have to strike. The ball has to bounce the wrong way at the wrong time.
Flash back to July 2020. Pro Vercelli was fresh off its second straight European Cup, and the team was enjoying life in the limelight. While the players were busy arranging their holidays, Brian Phillips was taking potshots in the media at the inflated salary of Vito Scialpi, the manager of A.C. Milan. Scialpi had just signed a deal at €450,000 a week—about eight times Phillips’s salary—despite not having won a trophy for more than two seasons. And Phillips was having a grand old time letting the world know how ridiculous he found that. While David and Jacopo Sammarco discussed plans to go fly-fishing in Maine, their manager was telling reporters, “No, listen, I think Vito deserves the money. I mean, he has made that team as dominant as it’s possible for a team that doesn’t ever win any trophies to be. You absolutely could not be any better while not actually winning anything than A.C. Milan. And that’s a testament to Vito Scialpi.”
In Milan, the jibes went down about as well as a glass of Dewar’s into a newborn baby. Vito Scialpi had known when he signed it that his contract would be the subject of derision, but now he felt his honor was at stake. Phillips had gone too far, and this graying, well-spoken sixty-year-old, the product of a more aristocratic tradition than the exuberant American milieu that had nurtured Phillips, was determined to put things right. He called his longtime lieutenant, Marco Guerrera, into his office and told him, “I don’t care what it takes, Marco. We must win the scudetto this season. We will.”
If Scialpi had been given a power of super-sight that enabled him to see across Lombardy and all the way into Piedmont, he might have felt relieved. The first hammer-blow had just fallen on Pro Vercelli. Roberto Colapietro, Phillips’s assistant manager through every one of Pro Vercelli’s major titles in Europe and Serie A, had quit without warning to become a coach at Sorrento. He didn’t offer a reason, and the move flummoxed both the staff and the players. “RC iz gone,” right-winger Mejdi Cherif texted to young defensive midfielder Paolo Martini. “Where?” Martini texted back. “Srnto,” Cherif replied. Martini swiftly took to Twitter: “My man Cola is movin on…dont get it, but hopin he’ll a lot of success at Sorrento,” he typed, in a tweet that would dominate headlines in Italy for much of July.
There were rumors, unsubstantiated, that Colapietro had left because, as a gentlemanly man with an old-fashioned sense of propriety, he found the brash media style Phillips had fostered at Pro Vercelli hard to take. More worryingly, there were rumors that Colapietro was the real brains behind the operation at Vercelli—that Brian Phillips had what it took to motivate a lower-league team to some unexpected success, but didn’t have the top-flight savvy to win major trophies without a world-class assistant like Colapietro. The top brass at Pro Vercelli were quick to quash any hint that they were anxious about the defection, but the whisperers kept whispering. And whispers turned into murmurs when Phillips let the search for a new assistant drag on until October, an interval during which Pro Vercelli suffered their worst start to a season in recent memory.
Right away, it was clear that something was wrong. Pro Vercelli hadn’t looked good in the preseason, losing 0-1 to Manchester United in the final of the Silvio Piola Cup, needing penalties to beat Sporting CP in the UEFA Super Cup, and—shockingly—losing 0-4 to Roma to in the Supercoppa Italiana. And from the opening whistle of their first league game against Parma, they looked out of it. Uninterested. Confused. Unsure of their assignments. Young Alessio Capuano, their promising right back, was the only player with a pulse, and he clapped his hands together to try to spur his teammates forward. But when Rafael Avilán was carried off on a stretcher in the 19th minute—the first flicker of what would soon turn into a searing eclipse of injuries—whatever life the team had seemed to leave it. They settled for a scoreless draw against a club the media had picked to finish eleventh.
Back home in Vercelli, the verdicts were damning. “Disgraceful,” Riccardo Nicastro harrumphed on the front page of the Vercelli Soccer Express. In the Cafe Guido Ara, the bartender turned the game off with ten minutes left to play. Still, no one was seriously worried. This was Pro Vercelli, after all, a team that still had Kozlov, Dogan, the Ferj, and Ibrahimovic. Brian Phillips would go back to the drawing board, the town told itself, and the team would right the ship.
And for a brief moment, they did, beating Salernitana 2-0 the next week at Naming Rights Park. For the first of the goals, David fought his way through three Salernitana defenders before catching a glimpse in the corner of his eye of Mejdi Cherif cutting inside. He sent in a high, arcing cross, Cherif forcefully headed it in at the goalmouth, and all was right in Vercelli once again.
The Champions League group draw brought more good news. In a ferociously difficult year—Chelsea was drawn with Roma, Arsenal was drawn with Inter, and A.C. Milan, Real Madrid, and Olympique Lyonnais were all drawn in the same group—Pro Vercelli was handed the easiest group draw imaginable: Benfica, Red Star Belgrade, and the Hungarian champions, Debreceni VSC. The future was looking bright.
But the next week Pro Vercelli traveled to Debrecen and were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw. In the press conference after the match Phillips called it the worst performance he’d seen in his time at the club. It couldn’t have come at a more alarming time, as the team had to turn around from this midweek match and play A.C. Milan at the San Siro on the weekend. In the leadup to that game, Phillips and Vito Scialpi were complimentary toward one another, and tried to deflect attention away from their public feud of the summer. But privately, according to observers close to both men, both men were aching for a win.
Milan had crushed its first three opponents, a list that included Juventus and Real Madrid, by a combined score of 9-0, and Scialpi believed that this match was his chance to establish a new order in Italian football. Phillips, for his part, believed that a win against Milan would put Pro Vercelli back on the right track. In the end, they were both disappointed. Fábio’s looping chip over Jerome Raimondi was canceled out by ex-Pro Vercelli striker Albert Vrancken’s powerful point-blank drive. The game finished 1-1.
And so did the next game, against Juventus at the Naming Rights. Pro Vercelli briefly got its steam back by beating newly-promoted Pisa 3-0, but then followed that with a 1-1 home draw again Red Star in the Champions League. The team had drawn five of its first seven games. It was lodged squarely in mid-table in Serie A, and worse, was on track to be knocked out of the Champions League.
After the draw in Belgrade, Pro Vercelli chairman Fabio Maglione called Brian Phillips on his mobile and found him waiting in line to see an Ozu revival with his wife. Phillips, whose credit with the fans was unassailable after the turnaround in Pro Vercelli’s fortunes since he’d arrived twelve years ago, was too influential for Maglione to criticize him openly. But the chairman was reportedly furious that Phillips wasn’t at work, drafting up new tactics or watching game film, after the string of humiliating results. And he was doubly furious when Phillips told him, “Look, it’s not like I think about soccer all the time. Sometimes a man just needs to see Late Summer and eat a bag of Skittles.”
After that, though, the players seemed to settle and the results started to improve. Over the next several weeks, from October stretching into early November, they won six straight games by a combined score of 14-1. Fans felt like they were seeing the old Pro Vercelli again. Then they hit a skid, drawing twice—to Benfica in the Champions League and Siena in Serie A—before falling to Inter at the San Siro in the 1910 Derby. Then another turnaround: in the run-up to the Club World Cup in Nigeria, Pro Vercelli reeled off five quick wins, this time by a combined score of 19-1. “What team is this?” Riccardo Nicastro moaned in the Express. “It is like rooting for Picasso. One week, bewildering stupor; the next week, astonishing genius.”
Around this time, Phillips hired an assistant manager to replace Roberto Colapietro. Cédric Brunet was a highly regard French coach who handled the fitness training for the French national team, but this was his first job as a top lieutenant. A slight, cheerful man with a receding hairline and a youthful face, he inherited a locker room that was clearly the worse for wear after the team’s long run of inconsistent results. Roberto Caprioli, the team’s hotshot young centerback, had taken the starting spot that had belonged for years to Senad Ibrahimovic, and the 20-year-old was facing hostility not only from his 31-year-old vice-captain but also from the Ferj, who thought he took himself too seriously. Mejdi Cherif was annoyed at splitting playing time with Gabriele Contini, and often sulked during training, texting his Tunisia teammates or playing solitary head tennis against a wall. Worse still, the manager seemed to feel that everything was bound to work out—didn’t it always work out at Pro Vercelli?—and wasn’t taking the steps that were needed to restore the team’s cohesion.
“I don’t think Brian was out of touch, exactly,” former Pro Vercelli coach Francesco Piccolo told me in an interview. “I just think he had this sort of extraordinary optimism about the destiny of Pro Vercelli. It was as if, because we were Pro Vercelli, none of these problems were going to hurt us. When what we really needed, of course, was the sort of comprehensive change that can only come from firing a club legend and appointing a little-known set-pieces trainer to take his place.”
Nevertheless, the team flew to Aruja for the Club World Cup on a high, having blitzed Atalanta 5-0 the week before. They beat Cruz Azul in the semifinal, 2-0, then produced a triumphant display against Brazil’s Internacional in the final, winning three goals to nil. The goals came from Kozlov, Fábio, and the Ferj. In fact, it was in this game that Phillips first hit upon the expedient of playing the Ferj as an attacking midfielder, a role the nominal defender relished and that he played, barring injury, for the rest of the year. The big Slovenian approached the part less as a delicate orchestrator than as a bowling ball, using his speed, strength, and bulk to smash apart the opposing defense. The image was so perfect, in fact, that before long, whenever he’d score a goal, the Pro Vercelli fans would yell “strike!”
By mid-December, then, despite the air of turmoil around the club, Pro Vercelli had two trophies in the bag. The European Super Cup and the Club World Cup weren’t as prestigious as some competitions, but they were more than most clubs ever won. But that was cold comfort for Pro Vercelli fans. They were used to being at the top of the pile in Serie A, and by the time January rolled around, with half the season gone, they were seven points behind Inter and stranded in fifth place.
As strange as this may sound, when I saw Michael Dogan standing by that open window, the first words that came into my head were “transfer policy.”
I didn’t think talking about Pro Vercelli’s transfer policy was going to keep him from killing himself, if that’s what he was about to do. It would have made just as much sense to talk about the spate of injuries (Mogi, broken hip, four months; Capuano, fractured wrist, five weeks; Martini, fractured ribs, five weeks; David, broken ribs, four weeks; etc.) that had afflicted the club. But it was true that Pro Vercelli’s summer transfer spending had contributed to the swoon.
Erdem Ak had been terrific—so good, in fact, that Phillips felt comfortable shipping off the dissatisfied Mejdi Cherif to Milan for €28 million at the start of January. The feeling in the manager’s office was that this would doubly punish Milan, since €28 million was more than Cherif was worth and, anyway, he didn’t fit into their tactical system. But even if Erdem had enabled Pro Vercelli to lob this secret hand grenade at Vito Scialpi, he was the least important of the summer’s transfers, a speculative youth signing of the type Pro Vercelli had so often made in the past. It was the big-ticket signings, the stars, that verged on disaster.
Case in point: Andreas Andersson, the Swedish international Pro Vercelli had taken from Barcelona for €7.75 million. The money wasn’t much, but the role was everything: Andersson was backing up Dmitry Kozlov as the lone striker in the team’s 4-3-3 formation, which meant that when he played, he had to score goals. Flash forward to the end of the year: three goals in 26 appearances. “He was beyond weak,” a leading Pro Vercelli player told me on condition of anonymity. “I scorn him. Nice guy, yes, but I scorn him.”
Another case in point: Tim Hauk, Pro Vercelli’s supposedly world-class new left back. Phillips had spent a club-record €29 million to buy him from Manchester United, convinced he’d give the team an electric presence at the back. He didn’t have a bad season, exactly, leading the team in tackles per game with 5.99. But numerous mistakes leading to goals and an anemic average rating of 6.8 were hardly what Maglione had in mind when he wrote the record-breaking check.
The recent transfer misfires weren’t solely to blame for the team’s lack of success, but they weren’t helping, either. And they didn’t inspire confidence in Phillips’s January moves, which saw Cherif leave for Milan and Eddy Pruvot, the highly regarded goalkeeper from Sporting CP, come in as a long-term replacement for Emmanuel Sylla. Pruvot had impressed Phillips in Monaco, when his Sporting side gave Pro Vercelli everything they could handle in the European Super Cup. And it was true that Sylla, at 36, was no longer the lithe, fierce presence he had once been. But the Andersson/Hauk debacle left some fans wondering whether paying €25 million for a goalkeeper who’d spooled away most of his career in the decidedly second-tier Portuguese league could be worth it.
Despite being cup-tied for the Champions League, however, Pruvot got off to a good start and helped the team win three of their first four games in January. Then came the inevitable relapse: first the away draw to Salernitana, then the 0-2 loss at the Naming Rights to A.C. Milan, and now, the last straw, the 0-2 loss in Turin that left Michael Dogan on the brink.
What would have happened if we hadn’t been interrupted? I don’t know what I would have said to him, how I would have talked him down. In my time as a reporter for Worldsoccer.com, I’ve experienced some tense moments. Being stranded in a stopped elevator with four Rangers fans after a crushing loss to Celtic—and me with Celtic press credentials around my neck. Getting arrested in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup on a trumped-up charge of “crimes against the samba.” Seeing an editor with a head full of steam storming toward me after I’d turned in an ill-advised column called “When You Look in the Mirror, Jorge Ibañez, a Punk Is What You See.” But I’d never been alone in a five-star hotel room with a superstar on the night he decided to cash in his ticket.
We stood there. He didn’t move, I didn’t move. I think we were both waiting to find out what I would do.
by Brian Phillips · August 10, 2009