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Pro Vercelli: The Boneyard, Part III

I thought about just posting the screenshot of the match report with no commentary, under the theory that what you fill in with your own imagination would be more intense than anything I could describe. But that isn’t really true, and besides, you don’t need this one to be made more intense. Even buffered in prose, this one is intense enough.

Off we go.

The Terrible Stakes: I made a vow to the Zodiac before we boarded the plane for Gelsenkirchen that if we won, if we beat Roma and picked up our fourth consecutive Champions League title, I would end the Pro Vercelli story.

It was an offering, and I meant it. We’ve reached a point where our future course is more or less on rails, where the heroic struggles are behind us; and it’s unlikely we’d ever be able to top the story of winning the European Cup by beating the team that deliberately injured six of our best players in a match the week before. This was our chance to write an epic ending to what we modestly regard as the most amazing story in the history of soccer. So we weren’t just playing for revenge, and we weren’t just playing for a trophy. We were playing for transfiguration.

A Silver Lining: A couple of our injured players (though none of the ones taken out by Roma) had healed a little faster than we’d expected, meaning that we were able to field a team largely made up of players who had at least trained together all season. We were still unfit—Ibrahimovic and the Ferj were both able to play, but were also both under 80% for the game—but at least we could take Diego Ballarin out of the starting lineup and leave most of our ex-loanees on the bench. Roma were the favorites, and I wasn’t sure where our goals would come from with Kozlov, Teixeira and Andersson out and Carbone at 82% fitness. But the relative strength of our lineup was still a pleasant surprise.

In Gelsenkirchen: Morale was a problem, though. We’d been on a high after clinching the league against Atalanta, but the subsequent loss to Bologna deepened the team’s uncertainty. They weren’t fighting with each other—just the opposite; they had a strong sense of togetherness—but they were individually anxious and I think privately questioned our chances. I took them sightseeing and tried to keep their minds at rest.

Us: Pruvot; Caprioli, Ibrahimovic, Ferjancic; Dogan, Martini, Zech, Erdem; Carbone, Proietti, Leone
Subs: Cãrãgin, Vaz, Avilán, Lake, Fábio, Ballarin, Rocchi

Them: Cavalli; Pavone, Gjertsen, Omar, Vincenti; Cruz, Jost, Nelles; Manuel, Lefevre, Cairo
Subs: Marinic, Pisano, Milan, Katsioulis, Tedesco, Marino, Baldini

The Game: Michele Proietti scored two minutes into the match. It was unceremonious. Carbone took the ball to the left edge of the box and sent in a bending cross. The ball ricocheted off Roma’s defender Christian Gjertsen and landed at Proietti’s feet right in front of the goal. He didn’t hit it well, but he hit it well enough. It bounced off Omar and rolled into the net. 1-0 us.

I was gambling on an attacking style of play, with the thought that Roma would probably press forward and that if both teams were aggressive, our formation and distribution on the pitch might win us more good chances. In practice, through the first quarter of the match, things went exactly the opposite way: having six men forward made it easy for us to keep possession, but when they did get the ball down the pitch, Roma found more shots. Eddy Pruvot made a couple of terrific saves, but Pierre Jost, Roma’s two-time World Footballer of the Year, finally got around him and equalized in the 23rd minute.

Almost as bad: Luca Leone picked up a knock on the same play. He was able to keep going, but his fitness was in the lower 60s, and he’s a youth-team player to begin with. We really needed to get him off the pitch, but with only one striker on the bench—Viorel Cãrãgin, who’d barely even trained with the team—and no chance Carbone would last to the end of the game, I had to leave Leone on as long as I possibly could. He made it to halftime, but he was completely ineffectual and earned a rating of 5.8.

1-1 at the half. Roma had undeniably been the better team, but we were hanging in there, and were holding the ball well even if we couldn’t do much with it. (We had three shots on goal to their 10.) Substitutions for us: Cãrãgin on for Leone. Substitutions for Roma: none.

Roma won a corner right after halftime, but Cairo headed it behind the goal. Pruvot played the goal ensuing kick long. Carbone won the header against Vincenti and knocked the ball back to Martini ahead of the center circle. Martini spotted a seam and passed straight ahead to Proietti, who was 30 yards from the goal and surrounded by five red shirts. Out of nowhere, Proietti—the kid who’d scored in the second minute of the match; the 20-year-old I’ve been nursing along so carefully in the hope that he’d be a star—made a move that left Cruz for dead, planted himself in a yard of open space, and blasted a 25-yard shot straight past Italy goalkeeper Luca Cavalli and into the back of the net. 2-1 Pro Vercelli in the 48th minute.

Watch Proietti's goal

We held the lead over the next 12 minutes. Roma were pushing forward more and more, and because they were fitter and quicker than we were (strange to be back in that position after several years of always having the fitness advantage) they were forcing us to play less and less aggressively to try to hold the lead.

Finally, in the 60th minute, they won a corner. Pavone took it and sent the ball the Cairo—the Italy captain, my pick for Best Striker in the World—who was being marked by Senad Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic was severely lacking in match fitness, and had only been a semi-regular starter this season, but when I included him in the lineup for this game I’d hoped he’d be able to recreate some of the magic of his legendary two-goal game in our last Champions League final against Roma, back in 2018. He was struggling, however—6.0 for the match—and Cairo had no trouble skipping past his challenge, moving the ball in four touches to the top of the area, and rocketing it into the goal past the outstretched Eddy Pruvot.

2-2 in the 60th minute. I finally did what I should have done ten minutes earlier and put Ibrahimovic out of his misery. Instead of bringing on Ballarin, I moved Michael Dogan to the back line and brought in Ahmed Vaz as a left midfielder. Vas was 35 and no longer in his prime, and he’d barely played for us over the last few months, but his cool head and technical precision were looking just about perfect for the moment:

Three minutes later, Richard Nelles scored to give Roma their first lead of the match.

Lefevre took the ball around Dogan on Roma’s right flank and sent in an easy cross. Nelles (who was being marked by Martini, who was on a yellow and trying not to get sent off) had the entire net to choose from. He chose; 3-2 Roma. They reacted to the goal by replacing Nelles with a more defensive midfielder, Massimo Marino. I reacted, once I’d stopped keening in fury, by dialing up our attacking options and telling Carbone, our leading scorer for the season, to use whatever energy he had left to get the equalizer.

Three minutes later, a late challenge from Massimo Marino sent Carbone off on a stretcher.

You can imagine how I felt at this moment. This wasn’t some regrettable accident from a team that normally played with honor. This was straight-up Dirty Leeds, Gentile-on-Maradona, it’s-a-man’s-game-sniff intimidation. They’d done it in the Coppa Italia final to make sure they wouldn’t have to play our best players today, I’d decided not to retaliate (“Let’s win better,” I’d said, in my innocence), and now they were doing it again, to make sure we didn’t level the match.

I was out of strikers, having brought on Cãrãgin for Leone at halftime, which meant we either had to play a player out of position or change our formation. I put in Avilán—our final substitution—and pulled the central striker in our 4-3-3 back into midfield so he wouldn’t be stranded in an unfamiliar role. We’d never used this look before. The dugout was tilting into despair, and all I knew was that a) there was no way we were going to win this match, and b) we had to win this match.

For the next 20 minutes—there’s no way to soften it—Roma shoved us around. Our possession advantage disappeared, and they arrowed shot after shot at our goal. Eddy Pruvot was having the game of his life, which was the only thing that kept us solvent. By the 80th minute, it was clear that we were out of time and that hanging on for the 3-2 loss was the best we could possibly expect. 4-2, even 5-2, seemed more likely.


Watch Vaz's goal

Ahmed Vaz in the 82nd minute.

Watch Caprioli's goal

Riccardo Caprioli in the 87th minute.

4-3 Pro Vercelli.

And now, suddenly, I was living in a world of sunbursts and heart attacks. We were going to do it. We were going to win the European Cup for the fourth straight time, something no team had managed since Real Madrid were the calling card of Franco. We were three minutes away. Two minutes. One minute.

In the 89th minute, Pierre Jost took the ball at the center circle, charged straight at a Pro Vercelli defense I had set to be as cautious and compact as possible, and ripped a shot into the back of the net from 30 yards. Second goal of the game for Jost. 4-4.

The disappointment was physical, and it was too much for Paolo Martini, who had never been a partisan of my “don’t retaliate; win better” philosophy to begin with. In stoppage time, two minutes after the goal, he sent Massimo Marino to the turf with a hard trip and picked up his second yellow card. He went to the locker room glaring daggers at the Roma substitutes.

When the whistle blew, the stadium was in a daze, and I’m not sure we completely understood what had happened. Somehow we were bound for 30 minutes of extra time with 10 men, an unfamiliar formation, two of our three best remaining players gone (Martini and Carbone), no substitutions (whereas Craig Copeman, the Welsh manager of Roma, had brought on two fresh players after the 79th minute), a useless Romanian striker, and an average team fitness rating of around 75%. “I don’t know,” I murmured to my assistant manager, Cédric Brunet. “Maybe we should play for penalties.”

Fortunately, Roma were tired, too, and extra time slugged forward like the late rounds of a heavyweight fight. We were leaning on each other, only occasionally summoning the energy to try for a body blow. Katsioulis hit a shot over the bar in the 103rd minute. Young Erdem Ak made a brilliant run at the goal in the 110th, but was hacked down by a Roma defender before he could try a shot. (No penalty; not even a foul. Erdem was able to keep playing, but his fitness plunged to 50%.) The fans roared the teams on, but the minutes bled away, and the whistle announcing penalties was an awful combination of terror and relief.

I changed our usual order of penalty takers. Typically I put the strongest players first, hoping to build a lead and kill the shootout early, and thus start with Michael Dogan and Erdem Ak. But just a week before, we’d lost our shootout against this same team in a different cup final using exactly that strategy, and now our squad was so worn down and emotionally exhausted that I didn’t want to count on our shakier young players to make the highest-pressure shots. I tried to weave experience, youth, and skill, and went with an opening five of Vaz, Zech, Dogan, Erdem, and Avilán.

The players took their positions.

First round: Vaz scored easily. Eddy Pruvot guessed correctly, dove to his left, and stopped a weak shot from Roma’s Mahmoud Omar. 1-0 Pro Vercelli.

Second round: Alexander Zech scored a high shot in the center of the goal. Pavone drilled an unstoppable shot into the left corner for Roma. 2-1 Pro Vercelli.

Third round: Michael Dogan calmly scored to the right. Pruvot—game of his life—got down low to stop a hard shot from Christian Gjertsen.

3-1 Pro Vercelli.

If Erdem Ak could convert his chance, we’d win the game.

Everything was flashing through my mind. The European Cup, Roma, the fans back home in Vercelli, my first game with the club (a 0-4 friendly loss to Dinamo Bucharest 14 years ago), Silvio Piola, Guido Ara, my vow to end the story if we won…

Erdem Ak walked up to the spot, put the ball down, and rolled up his socks. He sent a hard shot to the right.

Luca Cavalli guessed left.

We won the European Cup.

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Pro Vercelli: The Boneyard, Part III

by Brian Phillips · October 6, 2009

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