The Last Word: Ciao Pippo Inzaghi, you made offside an act of sensuality

 

Perhaps Italian men really are more comfortable with displays of emotion; or maybe someone had simply warned Rino Gattuso that Joe Jordan was waiting by the bike shed. One way or another, all those years scrupulously devoted to the cultivation of his image as some hirsute, snarling, tunnelling football nemesis – one who caused effete midfielders throughout Europe to wake up howling, their sheets torn and drenched in sweat – have finally been laid waste.

As one of several veterans making their final appearance for Milan last weekend, Gattuso led a crumple-faced marathon of keening and hugging. Luckily, a rather more characteristic farewell was reserved for the gleefully heterodox minority who grieve most of all – more even than Alessandro Nesta or, at Juventus the same day, the sainted Del Piero – the departure of Pippo Inzaghi.

Now 38, Inzaghi came off the bench to score the decisive goal against Novara, chesting a lob to tee up a booming, angled drive on the bounce. This last, bittersweet taste of the elixir prompted familiar delirium in the great man, this time reciprocated not merely by fans and comrades but also by opponents and officials. One of the Novara players embraced him warmly, while the referee shook his hand and even brushed his fingers through that luxuriant, glossy mane, apparently yet to yield a single grey hair.

Those outside Italy who cannot find it in their hearts to share such affection – and these evidently include Sir Alex Ferguson, who notoriously disparaged Inzaghi as "born offside", and Johan Cruyff, who says that he "can't actually play football at all" – should perhaps reconsider their prejudices in Munich tonight. On one side, they will see a team depicted as on the brink of senility; on the other, one of the most prolific scavengers in Europe. Yet Inzaghi, four years older than Didier Drogba, still hopes to extend his career somewhere; and while Mario Gomez certainly shares a propensity for popping up at the right place (usually about 18 inches from the line) at the right time, for now he has scored exactly half as many goals as Inzaghi in Europe.

In fact only Raul, with 77, has scored more. Two of Pippo's 70, of course, secured Milan's revenge over Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final. As a starlet at Atalanta in 1997, Pippo was Capocannoniere with 24 goals, at least one apiece against every team in the league. For clubs and country, he has ended up with 313 in all. But if all this accumulation, this bottom line, represents some dazing apotheosis of his training as an accountant, it is its maddening genesis that puts Pippo beyond price.

For this is no classic No 9. He is lanky and brittle. Hopeless from long range, little better in the air, and perfectly capable of missing a sitter. After the Athens final, the match-winner indulged in a delightful self-parody for the fans, deliberately stabbing the ball past an empty net from six yards. His want of technique in training has stupefied team-mates. Yet Ferguson's disdain is clumsier than the offence he perceived.

For here is a player who discovers a nearly orgiastic exultation in his calling. He is so consumed by desire that its satisfaction is immanent: it does not matter how much money he has in the bank, how many goals his team has already scored, how easy a chance he could instead set up for a team-mate. Pippo has sometimes had to apologise to opponents infuriated by his euphoria after scoring the goal that completes a rout. He speaks of a helpless addiction, of the craving for some "mystical" climax.

Time and again, the striker hailed by David Beckham as "the best pure finisher I've seen since Gary Lineker" spirits into the blindside at the front of the six-yard box. Inzaghi, outraged by Beckham's old boss at United, actually takes great pride in his torment of linesmen. It is all about morale, about only needing to time it right once. And really it's terribly sensual, the way he pushes his craving to the limit – this exquisite tension with the last line of defence – before breaking free for the rush of gratification.

Perhaps he can prolong the addiction. After a couple of very light seasons, he remains alert and agile. MLS is an obvious possibility. Beyond the break-up of a golden Milan side, however, Pippo increasingly seems like exotic driftwood on the tide of football. Progressive coaches seek dimensions in their forward lines beyond the purely predatory; yet conservatives, especially in this country, have long dismissed Pippo as puny, as somehow ridiculous. But he remains stubborn in his passion, pride, cunning and heart. There is no such thing as a 50-50 ball if Pippo is one of its claimants. On that basis, looking at the Azzurri squad for this summer, defenders all round Europe may well be relieved he has not been granted the perfect swansong.

This week Pippo bade farewell to Rossoneri fans. "We must part now, because that's the way life is," he wrote. "And because the time is right. You know as much yourselves." Maybe so. But some of us, far beyond that parish, can hardly bear to admit it.

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