Chris McGrath: In praise of the two old generals of Serie A
The Last Word
Warms the cockles, does it not, all these decorated veterans restored to the Premier League?
Abandoning comfortable sinecures behind the lines, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Paul Scholes are back among the duckboards and barbed wire. Each has obeyed a craving that has nothing to do with money. In these mercenary times – when the very act of kissing the badge tends to heighten suspicion – here are men for whom football is its own reward.
As such, they will be earning even among fans of rival clubs an affection seldom available to players in their prime. Joe Hart could be developing into one exception, on the basis that England might otherwise have to stand a suit of armour between the posts. You have to say Scott Parker is shaping up well, as well. That tackle on Micah Richards last Sunday was like watching a charging bullock step into a rabbit hole. And later, in the same game, Parker resisted any temptation to theatrical paroxysm after Mario Balotelli used his cranium as a bootscraper.
To achieve true cult status, however, Parker should perhaps study how Francesco Totti once dealt with this same menace. A couple of years ago, Totti became so provoked by Balotelli that he decided a red card would be a small price to pay for teaching him a lesson. Though his quarry was already crowded by two other Roma players, Totti sprinted between them and aimed a kick that might have punctured the ball, if only Balotelli had not carelessly left his calf in the way. Totti barely waited for the referee before leaving the field with an air of grim satisfaction.
It was hardly the first time one of the game's authentic gods had betrayed feet of clay. Sublime in so many respects – in his football, physique and hometown loyalty – Totti has always been capable of oafish folly. At critical moments of international tournaments, he has been sent off for dissent, suspended for spitting. But you could not have Totti the Roman talisman, the fantasist, without that edge of danger – any more than you could separate Romulus from Remus in the annals of his city. His football itself reflects an emotional relish for risk. Roma, remember, is a bastion against the northern hegemony of Turin and Milan, and Totti introduces corresponding, mezzogiorno volatility to the Italian game. At the same time, he has been the one constant since Roma last won the Scudetto, serving eight managers in 10 years.
At 35, however, Er Pupone (the big baby) found himself marginalised as Luis Enrique began a gripping new experiment at Roma. He scored his last league goal of 2011 in May, and in December was shocked to hear abuse from tifosi when out shopping with his family, the day after missing a penalty against Juventus.
Since the winter break, things have changed so quickly that Cesare Prandelli – suspecting that the absence of Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi leaves rather too many eggs in Balotelli's basket case – has intimated that he might yet invite Totti to the European Championship. Two goals against Cesena last weekend took him past Gunnar Nordahl's Serie A one-club record of 210 goals, set in the 1950s for Milan. And this not from a centre-forward, but a trequartista.
Even Lazio fans must grudgingly envy the fidelity of a player who could, in his pomp, have named his price to any team in Europe. Last week, Totti said the Roma shirt was worth more to him than the Ballon d'Or. Where else might you find such a player?
Well, as it happens, in the Coppa Italia on Tuesday you would have found one not just on the same pitch, but matching his status as an all-time classic No 10. At 37, Alessandro Del Piero is in his final season at Juventus. His contract expires in the summer, when he is likely either to retire or join Henry and Keane in MLS. As the captains embraced before kick-off, you wondered whether the two might ever take the field together again. Each had made his senior debut in the same colours in 1993. But it was Del Piero who rolled back the years in a 3-0 win, making his first goal of the season a vintage one, via the bar from the edge of the box.
In reality, it felt little more than a ceremonial benediction upon a changing regime. Like Totti, Del Piero has been a bystander to the inauguration of a new era. His former team-mate, Antonio Conte, has taken over at just 42; Enrique, meanwhile, is 41.
Conte has been an instant, stunning success. With a dynamic, physical style hardly tailored to the ageing Del Piero, Juventus remain unbeaten since his arrival. Enrique, head-hunted from Barcelona B by Roma's new American owners, is boldly trying to break the ancestral fetters of Serie A. In a city that mistrusts interference, he had a wretched start.
The club seemed to wear a scowl on its face. Two new recruits, Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela, fought at Udinese. The Giallorossi contrived no fewer than three red cards at Fiorentina. Totti trained in a T-shirt bearing the word "Basta" – enough. The sporting director chided him: "There are no untouchables in modern football."
In flaying Cesena 5-1 last week, however, Roma had 75 per cent possession and Gazzetta Dello Sport observed: "Not only are the foundations visible, but there are walls and even some decorations." It is a precarious enterprise, trying to play like Barcelona without Barcelona's players. But all neutrals will wish Enrique well.
Though Totti is keen to play on to 40, already there is a valedictory flavour to his every flourish – no less than in Del Piero's goal on Tuesday. And perhaps their legacy is now in safer hands, with men like Enrique. For they have long made a stand for creativity against conservatism; have always been true to principles, as well as to a cause.
In a way, it can only be auspicious if they must soon give way to younger legs. After all, the return of old-timers to the Premier League can only confirm depletion in the ranks. In each case, however, you just have to love the way the warhorses, put out to grass, still stiffen at the sound of a distant bugle and break out of their paddocks.
Del Piero, remember, stayed with Juventus when they were banished to Serie B, and so purged the club of scandal and indignity. Players of this ilk have a genius for anticipating nostalgia. That is why Del Piero and Totti are invulnerable, even as they fade away. Because old soldiers never die.
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