Pro Vercelli: Stalking Catastrophe with Hardcover Nonfiction, Part II
by Brian Phillips · August 10, 2009
Note: The following is Part Two of 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. Part One can be read here.
Day of Reckoning
Luckily for me, and possibly for Michael Dogan fans, I didn’t have to find out. I felt a hand behind me push me to one side, and Brian Phillips stamped into the room. He seemed to take no notice of Michael Dogan’s suffering, a fact that instantly changed the dynamic. “Close that window,” he snapped. “It’s February. I appreciate the Fortress of Solitude vibe, but Jesus.” Dogan meekly complied, and the manager continued. “It was bad tonight, Mike,” he said. “This stops now. I want you to get the guys together. Get them on the same page, and let two things be understood. We are not going to lose another game this season. And we are going to win the scudetto.”
“Yes. Yes, I will, boss,” Dogan said. Phillips stormed back the way he came, and I had a sense that I often felt in his presence. A sense that none of this was quite real to him, that he’d accomplished Pro Vercelli’s miraculous turnaround by treating the whole thing as a kind of crazy game. Thinking about the torment in Michael Dogan’s eyes, or about so many other moments of suffering I’d seen covering Pro Vercelli over the years—Miguel José’s face crumpling when he learned he was being sold; Carlo Saba’s slow-burning helplessness as he watched the team he’d helped to build gradually pass him by—I wondered for a moment if the whole epic odyssey had been worth it. It had brought joy to thousands of fans. But at what cost?
Phillips was right about one thing. After Michael Dogan’s closed-door team meeting in Vercelli on February 8, Pro Vercelli didn’t lose another game in Serie A. In fact, they went on one of the greatest streaks in club history, winning fourteen of their final fifteen league games (the exception was a 2-2 draw against Roma at the Naming Rights) by a combined score of 37-7. The highlight was a six-week stretch in March and April during which they went eight consecutive games without conceding, despite juggling a series of injuries to key defenders. By the middle of the spring, Roma was fading, Inter was suffering through a full-fledged collapse, and Pro Vercelli was in third, nipping at the heels of Juventus.
The problem was A.C. Milan. Pro Vercelli improved as the season progressed, finally laying to rest the Jekyll-and-Hyde act that had dogged them through most of the winter. But Milan also seemed to get better from week to week, and they’d never been inconsistent to begin with. Vito Scialpi’s boys were carving up Serie A, posting a string of eye-grabbing results. 4-0. 5-0. 6-2 against Inter in the Derby della Madonnina. Week after week, Pro Vercelli would turn in an outstanding performance, only to find that Milan had done them one better. Vito Scialpi was getting his revenge. He was proving he deserved that €450,000-a-week salary after all.
And in the end, the second of Brian Phillips’s two predictions didn’t come true. Pro Vercelli didn’t win the scudetto. They didn’t even come close. By the time they broke into second place four weeks from the end of the season—their highest ranking all year—Milan were so firmly established at the head of the pack that it would have taken a match-fixing scandal to pry them loose. In the end, Pro Vercelli finished with 91 points. That was six less than their total from the season before, but it was still an outstanding number, more than they’d earned during two of their three championship years, good enough to win the title in any of the last 10 seasons. Milan had won a scudetto with 74 points back in 2014; 91 was nothing to sneeze at. But it was still 10 points behind Milan, who became the first team in recent memory to break 100 points. “They lapped it,” as Paolo Martini tweeted.
How total was A.C. Milan’s dominance that season? Well, start with the most basic measurement, goals scored and goals allowed. For all their inner turmoil, Pro Vercelli had actually improved on their goal differential from 2019-20. They scored eight more goals (78 over 70) and conceded four more (23 over 19), giving them a +55 difference rather than a +51. That +51 had been the best in Serie A last season. The +55 was better than any other team but one this season. This year, however, Milan had improved on their last-year’s total by a shocking twenty-six goals, netting an astonishing +76. Their 96 goals scored was almost 20 more than anyone else in the league. And they had the best defense as well, allowing three fewer goals than Pro Vercelli. It was as if Pro Vercelli had added a floor to their house, only to find that Milan had bought midtown Manhattan. There was just no stopping them.
On April 21, Pro Vercelli crashed out of the Coppa Italia semifinals in extra time thanks to a by now almost predictable defensive lapse from the most expensive player in their history. They were out of two competitions. That left the Champions League.
Phillips and his staff began devoting their efforts to masterminding a third successive European Cup win, something no team had accomplished since Bayern in the mid-1970s. It wouldn’t make up for the sting of losing the league to Milan, and it wouldn’t make this season equal the last. But winning a third straight Champions League title would be a famous accomplishment in its own right. And it would give the fans a reason to cheer.
“You wake up one morning,” Alexander Zech told me, “and you realize, oh, dear, we have lost Serie A. That is not what we wanted to do—not at all. But what do we do then? Do we descend into the void? Do we act as though we are Mozart’s Requiem in Fußballschuhe? Or do we brush the dust off of our chests and say, yes, we have faltered, but we have still a chance to win an amazing thing? It is your life. It is up to you what you make of it.”
Having won Group A on the last day of the group phase, Pro Vercelli was drawn against Chelsea—Rafael Avilán’s old team—in the first knockout round. A tough draw, people said in Vercelli. As tough as the draw in the group stage had been easy. Avilán was having none of it. “I know we’ll take them,” he told his teammates at a birthday party for Gabriele Contini. “They have everything here” (he tapped his foot) “but nothing here” (he tapped his heart). Pro Vercelli took a 2-0 lead at Stamford Bridge behind a thunderbolt from the Ferj and a set-piece header from Caprioli. Only a cheap foul in the box by Hauk, which Roberto Font dramatized into an 89th-minute penalty, put Chelsea on the board. In the return leg, Pro Vercelli had it even easier, winning 2-0 behind a delicate tap-in from Mogi and another blast of power from the Ferj. 4-1 Pro Vercelli.
The quarterfinal round pitted Pro Vercelli against Sevilla, who had improbably managed to knock A.C. Milan out of the tournament. In front of 45,000 screaming fans at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Sevilla’s legendary stronghold, Pro Vercelli seized a commanding lead on an Ibrahimovic header and a long-range Caprioli putback. This time, there were no last-minute penalties. The Italian side closed out their Spanish counterparts a week later at the Naming Rights, Mark Linnane’s 44th minute chip-shot giving the home team a 3-0 aggregate win.
In the semifinals, Arsenal was drawn against Barcelona and Pro Vercelli was matched against Roma. Phillips was reportedly nervous about the all-Italian encounter. It was a rematch of the Champions League final in Portugal two years before, which Pro Vercelli had won. But the small-town team hadn’t beaten their big-city rivals all season, and, as the players recalled, it was the 4-0 thrashing Roma had handed them in the Supercoppa Italiana that had been the first harbinger of the season’s decline. Then there was the matter of the clubs’ contentious histories. “Too much blood in the water under the bridge,” Phillips sighed to Riccardo Nicastro.
Senad Ibrahimovic had a different attitude. “I don’t get scared,” he told the press in the build-up to the game. “I score headers.” But the mood in the locker room was tense, and as the team filed out beneath the white-hot lights for the first leg at the Naming Rights, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. The crowd was pulsating, roaring. The ultras in the Curva di Kyle unveiled an enormous tifo depicting the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD. The Visigoth king, Alaric I, had the face of Michael Dogan. Some of the Roma players were visibly unamused.
Kozlov scored in the 32nd minute, whipping the ball like a slingstone from well outside the area. In the 89th minute, Roma right back Andrea di Stefano clattered Mark Linnane in the area. Michael Dogan (or was it Alaric I?) converted the penalty. Pro Vercelli took a 2-0 lead to the Stadio Olimpico.
Security in Rome was tight. There were fears of ultra reprisals, and Pro Vercelli’s planned route from the hotel to the stadium was kept top-secret to prevent the more violent groups from ambushing the team bus. Scuffles, inevitably, broke out outside the stadium, but fortunately there were no major incidents. Inside the stadium, the teams played a testing, cautious first half. Pro Vercelli was content to keep things slow and turgid, while Roma couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether to attack or defend. Finally, in the 54th minute, Kozlov padded the Vercelli lead by heading in a 50-yard free kick from Dogan. Roma rallied furiously, but two late goals from Ronaldo and Pavoni weren’t enough to close the gap. Pro Vercelli left with a 3-2 aggregate win…and a spot in the Champions League final.
Their opponent: Arsenal, who’d gotten the attention of all Europe by walloping Barcelona with a 3-0 aggregate win. 32-year-old Arsenal legend Oliver Chamberlain was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in his career. He’d scored 22 goals in 37 matches and led an Arsenal attack that had only been outscored twice all year. If Pro Vercelli was going to redeem itself by winning the European Cup, containing Oliver Chamberlain would be Job One.
On May 20, two days before the match, the players boarded a charter flight for Rotterdam. At 20,000 feet, an argument broke out between Riccardo Caprioli and the Ferj, players who’d been at each other’s throats all season. Caprioli had been winning in a poker game against three other players at the back of the plane. Then he got up to take a bathroom break, and the Ferj decided to haze the young defender by slipping into his seat and taking over his stack of chips. In the first hand, he went all-in with nothing and lost the whole pile. The other players were doubled over laughing, but when Caprioli came back, the serious (and seriously competitive) young Italian was incensed. Dogan kept the two stars apart, but the scene was hardly a good advertisement for Pro Vercelli’s togetherness in the run-up to their most important game of the season. “It’s like, we’re here, but at the same time, we have no idea what’s going on,” Paolo Martini told me.
The night of the final, 51,176 people braved a heavy downpour to crowd into Rotterdam’s legendary Kuip. Thanks to some dedicated groundskeeping efforts from UEFA, the pitch was in good condition, but the thudding rain seemed to change the tone of the event, replacing sparkling optimism with a darker, more ominous drama. Before the match, Phillips told Caprioli to focus on nothing but marking Chamberlain. “You want to be a star?” he asked. Caprioli nodded. “Then go out there, find Oliver Chamberlain, and take it from him,” Phillips said. “He has what you want. Take his stardom away from him.” Caprioli nodded again. It was a far cry from two seasons ago, when Phillips had told his team to “win for the spirit of Vercelli.”
For twenty-seven minutes, the teams battled it out in the rain, with neither side able to take charge. Then Arsenal’s Dennis Müller found central defender Stian Hansen on a long, diagonal free kick—exactly the sort of play Dogan and Ibrahimovic had connected on for countless goals over the years—and Hansen headed it into the net. 1-0 to the Arsenal. And the rain kept coming down.
Cupping his hands to his mouth, Phillips yelled from the sideline for the team to get forward more aggressively. They were playing too cautiously, he later explained, letting the weather take them out of their game. Eight minutes later, right back Alessio Capuano went on the attack. Rafael Avilán slipped free in the center of the area, Capuano picked him out with a needle-threading pass, and Avilán volleyed it in for the equalizer. 1-1 at the half.
“The season comes down to the next 45 minutes,” Phillips said in the locker room. “It’s a question of how you want to be remembered. Maybe you’re thinking you can’t beat them. You can. On the other hand, maybe you’re thinking, we’ve been here before, we know it’s going to work out. But you haven’t been here before. You haven’t been in this game before. You have to decide to win this game, and you have to decide right now. You can do it, but you have to decide.”
Flash forward to the 59th minute. You’re Marko Ferjancic, a defender playing as an attacking mid. Rain is pounding the pitch. You don’t feel it. The crowd is a giant roar. You’ve tuned it out. At the center of midfield, you see Rafael Avilán spray the ball ahead to Mark Linnane on the left. You’re cheating forward, you’re following his run—and then he beats his man, he breaks into a sprint down the left, and you’re sprinting behind him in the center, waiting to smash the defense like a set of bowling pins. He pivots on the byline, water flying where his boot turns in the grass. He sends in the cross. The ball’s sailing through the air. You burst through into the center of the area, go airborne, feel the smack of the leather against your forehead. The keeper’s diving, but it’s too late. You can already see it’s too late. The netting twitches, the ball tumbles to the ground. It’s 2-1 Pro Vercelli, and all you see are flashbulbs before nine of your teammates throw themselves on your back.
In the 78th minute, Linnane—who’s only playing because David is injured—breaks free in the area, completely unmarked. Contini sends him a cross so perfect it’s as though there’s a rope line between them. Stop, control, shoot. 3-1 Pro Vercelli.
3-1 Pro Vercelli. Pro Vercelli win their third straight European Cup. The players are drenched, laughing, doing Superman slides on the grass. Oliver Chamberlain, who barely figured in the game, insists on trading shirts with Caprioli: “You were wearing it all night anyway,” he tells him. Caprioli and the Ferj share a hug at the center circle. Michael Dogan climbs to the top of the podium to hoist the trophy skyward, and this time, even though he’s up so high, I’m not afraid at all.
“You did it,” Brian Phillips says in the locker room after the match. “I’m proud of you. You don’t need me to tell you that we’ve had a tough season. But you know who you are. You’re Pro Vercelli, and you’re the champions of Europe. No criticism matters tonight. You’re the champions of Europe, and I want you to celebrate.”
The team is ecstatic. They’ve redeemed their season, and they’ve made sure that they won’t have to hear about Milan’s scudetto this summer without also hearing about their own European Cup. The celebration lasts all night, in Rotterdam and in Vercelli.
And I woke up the next morning thinking that was the storyline. A stumble, a return to glory. But when I stopped Phillips on the tarmac while the team was preparing to board the flight back to their victory parade in Vercelli, he didn’t seem nearly so sanguine.
“We have to get more goals,” he told me. “The 4-3-3 isn’t working the way it should. The players aren’t clicking. Too many things are wrong. We have to make changes next year.”
“Well, sure,” I said, “you’ll bring in a couple of new players…”
“No.” His voice was firm. “Everything changes next year. I’m blowing this whole thing up. Get ready.”
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