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.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS
The boys in the white shirts host Pisa tomorrow with a Serie A berth on the line. The history, the passion, and the faith that forged Pro Vercelli’s greatest modern moment.
by RICCARDO NICASTRO
When I was a boy in Saluggia, my mama, God bless her, used to say to me, “Learn everything you can about history, my Riccardo. Otherwise you are destined to repeat it.” And so today, on the eve of my beloved Pro Vercelli Calcio’s final match of the season, which they must win if they are to be improbably, fantastically, gloriously promoted to Serie A next season, I find myself in a curious position. I know all that I can about history, and yet—forgive me, mama—with all my heart I hope that Pro Vercelli are destined to repeat it.
I am thinking not only of the history of the distant past, the immortal seven titles won between 1908 and 1922 (which should have been eight, had the Interisti not illegitimately stolen the scudetto-that-was-not-yet-called-a-scudetto from us in 1910). I am thinking also of the history of this season, of the challenges bravely met, of the difficulties proudly overcome.
What would you have said to the little boy in Saluggia, who defiantly announced his loyalty to the Bianche Casacche while his scornful playmates saluted the zebra of Juventus and the rampaging bull of Torino, if you had known this day would come? Born 20 years after the great Guido Ara led Pro Vercelli to its final league title, and seven years after the club was exiled from the top flight, I could not have imagined that I would one day find myself in a crowd of 9,500 cheering supporters, willing the Leoni on to recapture a distinction that was once a part of every Vercellese’s birthright.
In those days, even attending a match was an undreamt-of pleasure, possible only when my papa had enjoyed a near-miraculous streak of good fortune at the butcher’s shop. How could I have known, then, of the cheering I would hear at the Silvio Piola this season as Pro Vercelli courageously fought through the adversity of the last seven games—the injuries, the draws, the miserable back-to-back losses—to keep one hand on third place in Serie B, with a chance of reclaiming second?
But then how could I, even much later, have foreseen any of it? When I brought you the news, not quite six years ago, that the Pro Vercelli board had named a virtually unknown American manager as their new boss, I doubt anyone reading of the surprise appointment could have imagined what would follow. A climb through two leagues—three?—in six seasons; the splendid (if sometimes all too brief) careers of Marco Conchione, Maicol Musumeci, Orlando van der Ent, Pieter Oosting, Stefano Ficarelli, Marciano van Dijk, Jorge Ibáñez, Alain Messi. Perhaps Brian Phillips has simply called himself the greatest manager in the history of the world so many times that the rest of us have begun to believe it. But even when his estimates of his own accomplishments have exceeded the evidence for them, this adopted son of Vercelli has made our city believe in its team again.
We admit, as we must, that these last few weeks have brought us fearful moments. When I was a boy in Saluggia, my mama used to say, “Never climb trees, my Riccardo. When you are on the ground, your only thought will be to reach the top, and which you do reach it, your only thought will be not to fall.” Having reached second, we began to feel ourselves teeter; when we lost at Piacenza, then saw both Landry Akassou and David stretchered off the field in the hideous 0-2 loss to Atalanta, after which we fell to fourth, it seemed as though our nightmares were coming true.
Then, when Fabrizio Barone, “the Red Baron,” Pro Vercelli’s marvelous young striker, went down with a heel injury in the 1-1 draw Treviso and was ruled out for the rest of the season, many voices said that our decline was irreversible. But without its stars, the team surprised those cynics with a 2-0 win against Ravenna; then, with Akassou and David each returning, they secured a draw against Frosinone that moved them into a tie for third place.
Now, as all Vercellese know, second-placed Pisa lie three points ahead in the table, with 78, while Pro Vercelli and Treviso are tied at 75. To have a chance of securing promotion without going through the end-of-season playoff, the white shirts must, must, must defeat the Pisans at the Silvio Piola tomorrow. And, as I believe I can now tell you with certainty, the news from training today is that Fabrizio Barone has healed faster than expected and may well be ready to play. Take heart, Leoni: your Baron will be in the skies tomorrow for his most important dogfight yet.
As we file into the stadium, ready to sing our throats hoarse for our boys, let us remember the years that lie behind us: years of glory, of privation, and of glory renewed. And let us pray that I, forever the boy from Saluggia, may twice disregard my blessed mama’s advice. Let us know history—that we may repeat it, and let us climb the tree—that we may rise to the stars.
by Brian Phillips · March 24, 2009