Italy and the Cult of the Ageing Number 10

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS

Last weekend was the 22nd anniversary of Francesco Totti’s debut for Roma and, at 38, he continues to produce the moments of magic that have made him not just a club legend but a cult hero for casual fans of Italian football. Yet he is not the only ageing playmaker thriving in the bel paese, far from it…

It can be very dangerous, and often wildly inaccurate, to stereotype or summarise the way in which any particular nation prefers its football to be played. Summarising on behalf of an entire people, and doing so in a way that suggests a set pattern throughout the history of the game, is a fool’s errand.

However (and with such an introductory paragraph, there just had to be a contradictory note to follow), there are certain situations in which a realised footballing cliché can warm the heart, and the ageing Italian No10 is one such institution.

Last Saturday was the 22nd anniversary of Francesco Totti’s senior debut for Roma. That is a fact remarkable not only because he is still playing today, but because he remains a key man for a title-challenging side – captain, talisman and all-time top scorer for the Giallorossi, not to mention an instantly recognisable figurehead for Serie A at the grand old footballing age of 38.

Earlier this year, in his fortieth Derby della Capitale, he scored the equaliser for his club as they came from 2-0 down to earn a draw against eternal rivals Lazio. He was airborne at the back post when he volleyed the ball into the opposite corner of the net and he celebrated by taking a selfie in front of the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Sud.

If the moment wasn’t iconic enough already, that goal also made him the all-time highest goal scorer in games between the two clubs. As cult figures go, Totti takes some beating.

However, this is article is not another addition to the hagiography of the Roma captain, for he is not the only vastly experienced playmaker strutting his stuff around the pitches of the bel paese. Far from it.

Franco Brienza wears the No11 shirt for Cesena, but he has the characteristic swagger of a No10, as well as a magical left-foot and an insouciant attitude that goes some way towards explaining his inconsistency.

He may not have produced that defining season to earn him a move to one of the country’s major clubs, but that only adds to Brienza’s enigmatic charm. He must be infuriating for supporters and managers at times, but he gives hope to the neutral who turns up to watch his team take on the big guns. The feeling is that any day could be his day. The day when he demands the ball, drops his shoulder to create space and finishes with a pure strike into the bottom corner.

When Juventus visited Cesena’s Stadio Dino Manuzzi in February, the champions were leading Serie A by seven points, while their hosts sat one place off the bottom of the league, having lost six of their 11 home games up to that point. Unfortunately for Max Allegri’s men, it turned out to be Brienza’s day.

At 36 years old, and in the presence of the most famous group of players in the land, he rose to the occasion with his side trailing 2-1 and seemingly headed for a defeat that would have surprised no-one. However, after seeing a volleyed effort fly narrowly over the bar with 25 minutes remaining, he followed it up by lashing home a first-time strike as Milan Djuric’s cushioned header dropped invitingly into his path.

In Italy, the No10 is judged by a different set of standards than the others and the silky schemers can be found throughout the leagues.

During a trip to Sicily last October, I sat among a group of angry and frustrated Catania supporters as they watched their team go down 3-2 at home to Bari. The atmosphere was tense to say the least. For the last 10 minutes of their fourth defeat in eight Serie B games following relegation from the top flight, the Rossazzurri Ultras bombarded their team with a string of threatening chants.

Senza dignitá!” they shouted, furious at the lack of pride with which their team was failing at this new, lower level, before adding, “We want the youth team!”

The chants then took a nasty turn, with (tongue-in-cheek, I was assured) threats to the players’ home security emanating from the curva.

Yet the furious Catania fans also made a point of voicing their continued support for the one player on the pitch who remained exempt from criticism.

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!” they bellowed, keen to let their veteran playmaker know that he was not to be lumped in with the other “bastardi” on the pitch.

This “shameful opera”, as one fan described Catania’s performance on his way to an early exit, was no reflection on the brave efforts of Alessandro Rosina, who at times appeared to be single-handedly trying to bring his team back into the game.

At 31, he is not quite in the same age bracket as Totti, but Rosina is a fine example of the talismanic string-puller so feted in Italian football, using his experience to shield the ball, bring his team-mates into play and search for the decisive pass.

Of course, his diminutive frame could also be identified at the centre of every dead-ball situation, hands on hips as he looked down at the ball, then discerningly glanced up at his intended target. Rosina, who converted two penalties at the Stadio Angelo Massimino that afternoon, seemed to understand exactly what the angry voices in the crowd demanded of their representatives on the pitch and was given a standing ovation when he left the pitch, while the rest of his team-mates were sent back to the dressing room with deafening whistles.

You can expect to find such figures right down the leagues. Back in 2011, I took in a Serie C1 game under the jutting concrete roof of the futurist tribuna at Lucchese’s Stadio Porta Elisa.

Aside from the obvious merits of Alessandro Marotta, a lean, long-haired striker wearing the No11 shirt (another archetypal figure in the Italian game), there was only really one other player who caught the eye during Lucchese’s drab 2-1 defeat to Benevento.

Hovering in the space just behind Marotta was a short, stocky playmaker with an eye for the kind of diagonal passes that go utterly against the grain when guided by a left foot, finding gaps you hadn’t even noticed from the stands.

He was unkempt and unshaven, and if you met him in the street he would have had a hard time convincing you he was a professional sportsman, but Alessandro Galli had a smooth touch and an eye for a pass. Like a committed character actor, he was determined to play the part of the ageing Italian No10 to perfection.

The 37-year-old journeyman playmaker wandered in and out of the game, barely breaking stride off the ball, but clearly talented enough to change the outcome of events with a single contribution. It was just what I wanted to see – a sauntering sorcerer, pushing his hair behind his ears before delivering a corner with three kinds of spin on it to the edge of the six-yard box.

The No10 doesn’t age like the others, least of all in the land of the defiant veteran.

Dominic Bliss is editor of TheInsideLeft and author of ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’, available from Blizzard Books now. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty

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