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.
Before the climax, the anticlimax. Battered beyond the point of collapse by Roma’s thug tactics, we crawled toward the end of the league season leaving bloody handprints all over the linoleum. If we won just one of our two remaining matches—against Atalanta and Bologna, 16th and 14th in Serie A—we’d win the title, but we were in no shape to practice, much less to play a competitive game. We were missing two of our three starting defenders, two of our three starting strikers, and two of our four starting midfielders. And after playing four games between May 11 and May 18 (and with Atalanta scheduled for May 20) even our supposedly healthy players were stuck with fitness ratings around 75%.
I couldn’t field a respectable team with the reserves I had on hand—it didn’t help that the UEFA U19s were off playing qualifiers, which peeled off the best of our youth team—so I risked the wrath of our feeder clubs and recalled almost all our loan players. The day before the Atalanta game, they arrived, and our training (what there was of it: most of the starters were out on enforced rest) was suddenly invaded by a ragged miscellany of young hopefuls and slightly-less-young players who never quite made it.
Some of them were relatively useful, like Viorel Cãrãgin, a 22-year-old Romanian striker who had 11 goals in 33 starts for Genoa in Serie B:
While others were pure desperation, like Diego Ballarin, a promising but completely unformed centerback whom I’d have no choice but to start:
After one day of training with the team, this crew of rejects and children got ready to face Atalanta with the scudetto on the line. We fielded a starting eleven of Pruvot, Ballarin, Capriolo, Dogan, Marco Rocchi (a 22-year-old right back playing out of position as a winger), Ahmed Vaz (35, and having played a grand total of eleven minutes since early March), Avilán, Kieran Lake (a 22-year-old English midfielder recalled from Legnano), Luca Leone, Kozlov, and Cãrãgin.
We didn’t look good, but thankfully, the game was at the Naming Rights and Atalanta looked even worse than we did. I played in a wild, pressing, attacking style, hoping to take advantage of our superior athleticism and minimize our lack of experience playing together by making the game disorganized for both teams. Kozlov took a lucky pass from Cãrãgin and scored in the 24th minute, ending a 16-hour goal drought (of course he left with an injury). And nobody else did much of anything, which meant that we won, 1-0, and reclaimed the championship from Milan.
While I was sending hostile texts to Vito Scialpi, the physios told me Kozlov was out for the Champions League final. For that day, it didn’t seem to matter much, because we’d won our fourth scudetto of the past five years, and ominous tidings or no, everyone except the board was in the mood to celebrate:
We lost on the road to Bologna—the match was just two days later, meaning we had played on the 11th, the 13th, the 15th, the 18th, the 20th, and the 22nd—in a dismal, exhausted performance. Alexander Zech was the only player who seemed interested; he scored in the 24th minute to give us a 1-0 lead, but defensive mistakes gave them two goals in the second half. Even though the game didn’t mean anything, it somehow took a bit of the shine off the championship.
Our one-point win over Inter was the closest 1-2 league finish since 2010, when Milan and Roma finished on the same number of points. Last year, Milan beat us by 10 points, and the year before that, we beat Inter by 11. We now have six days to rest and train before the Champions League final in Germany. I’m hoping our replacement players can gel with the team at a superhuman rate, and I’m hoping a few of our injured players will heal ahead of schedule. It’s a grim feeling going into this rematch with Roma knowing they’ll be massive favorites. It’s time to study their team sheet and look for some weakness that will help us take revenge for what they did to us.
Next: The 2022 Champions League final.
by Brian Phillips · October 1, 2009