Select few players can, with a flash of insight – even genius – turn a game on it’s head with the defest of passes or neatest of finishes. When Serie A’s most iconic No.10s, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti retire, who will take their place? Will there be any fantasiste left in Italian football? Looking at the current crop of players, is there really anyone in Serie A who can claim the most beguiling role in the game as their own and take the art form into the next decade?
In eras past Gianni Rivera, Zico, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona all played as fantasiste, to varying degrees. Despite the fact these players were wildly different – each blessed with a distinctly original approach to the game – the one common thread running through their careers was that they were able to undertake the heavy responsibility of creating chances and goals for their team. Make no mistake, compared to the fantasista, defenders and midfield generals have it easy. To be a play maker, to command the pace and tempo of a game, a team, an entire season, is a near impossible task for any but a few uniquely gifted individuals. Simply put, these great improvisers pick the lock, thrusting open the door to victory that sheer force alone is unable to break down.
The term fantasisti translates as “professionals of imagination” and the compelling mechanics of the position are explored elsewhere on these pages in glorious detail –
Understanding Italian Football – Fantasia.
Suffice to say that it the wit and guile of a player that lures him to the realm of fantasia and into the hearts of the tifosi. Markedly different from the kind of over exuberant and often humiliating brand of Nike sponsored “Joga Bonito” practiced by a series of unremarkable Brazilians, the fantasista is deceitful above all things, on the behalf of his less cunning teammates.
In truth, all games are based on a level of duplicity and football is no exception. The fundamental principle behind running with the ball is to make your opponent think you are going one way, when you intend to go another. As grand schemer, Nicola Machiavelli once said, “It is a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” and that’s what makes a fantasista such an enthralling figure within the Italian game.
In recent years Serie A has been blessed with a sumptuous selection of fantasy men who have earned the right to continue the noble (if somewhat dark) art of chief conjurer. Without doubt, Roberto Baggio is the principal, archetypal fantasista of the modern age, a restless inventor capable of securing victory with a single pass, a turn of the body or the flick of a boot. On countless occasions in his mesmerizing career, il Divino Codino managed to hold the fate of a contest with just the length of his bootstring, divining from unknown depths a moment of true inspiration. Observe his trickery in the below reel, which never slips into the indulgent showboating of someone like Cristano Ronaldo, but always carries a deep sense of purpose, always for the greater good –
Others such as Zinedine Zidane, Gianfranco Zola and Domenico Morfeo have all functioned, at one time, as the creative centres around which all else must revolve. William Butler Yeats once penned the giddying line, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” There’s no better summation of the essential nature that the fantasista can play – in his very best moments he is the game of football incarnate.
If you’ve been watching Italian football for the last fifteen years, you have been fortunate enough to witness the careers of two of Serie A’s finest ever fantasiste – Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Both men, who have so often seemed like warring protagonists within one grand narrative, embody what it means to be a thoroughbred Italian playmaker. They are, or have been, the very fulcrum of their teams for practically the entirety of their professional lives.
Both Claudio Ranieri and Fabio Capello have attempted to drop Del Piero, to refuse him the privilege of commanding the ebbs and flows of play. But the game calls him back time and again, irresistibly. That’s why he endures, still pulling the strings, still the best striker at Juventus, no matter who they throw in as competition. Del Piero’s attributes are many, even as he nears the end of his career. In his youth he had a quickness of step that’s abandoned him. But as his pace slackens, his footballing mind does not miss a beat and his series of lay offs, flicks and through-balls – as well as his prolific goal record – continue to massage the often arrested heart of a Juventus team still weakened from the Calciopoli scandal. For a reminder of what this Bianconeri legend has given Serie A, just take a look here –
Often vying for the same spot in the Azzurri starting line up – and the affection of the public – Francesco Totti is no less gifted than il Pinturicchio. Arguably, he has a more instinctive ability, a true-born fantasista who almost unthinkingly attacks opponents at opportune moments of weakness. In his years with the Giallorossi, Totti has played on the left wing, in midfield, as a trequartista and as a striker (under current Coach Luciano Spalletti), but always with devilish invention in his boots. So vital is he to the tempo and spirit of the Roma team that he played against Arsenal, in both legs, injured – left hobbling through the later periods of the encounter. In the last two seasons he has been unable to regain full fitness but a compilation of his telling back-heels and flick-ons, even during this troubling period, displays a truly dizzying array of skills. In fact, anyone who has watched Totti regularly over the last decade will listen to people enthuse over players like Joe Cole and Wayne Rooney and even Antonio di Natale with nothing more than a shrug, because their flashes of genius are expected – and delivered – by il Pupone on a weekly basis. If you remain unconvinced, just watch this –
But is there a place for such fantasy within the current confines of Italian football? Every league in the world is increasingly compromised by the growing chasm between the rewards for success and the cost of failure, and Serie A is no different. When the stakes are high, the first thing to be squeezed out of any system is inefficiency and unpredictability, unquantifiable elements that cannot be statistically crunched into submission. And of course, that’s the thing about creativity, it cannot always be called upon, it is impossible to switch on and off, even by the players who at times seem to have remote control of these intangible forces.
If Jose Mourinho’s grinding, physical command of Inter is the way forward, then the true fantasista should be shaking in his boots. Although much is made of the athleticism of the Premier League, Italian football has become obsessed with fitness in recent times. As Gabriele Marcotti of The Times commented last month, the average Italian player spends far more time in the gym than on the pitch during a week’s training. If such emphasis is given to physical attributes it shows a distinct lack of emphasis on harnessing natural ability. And that is the very worst news for young, creative talents in Italy.
There is no greater indication of the current partisan climate than the unthinkable position that Antonio Cassano finds himself in. For reasons best known to the purse-lipped Tactician, Marcello Lippi is content with leaving Italy’s most naturally-gifted player in the cold, denying him from appearing in yet another Azzurri squad. Cassano is the only genuine fantasy player on the Peninsula. If it were not for Coach Walter Mazzarri at Sampdoria, he would probably still be sitting, growing ever wider on the Real Madrid bench. His performances over the last two seasons have been nothing short of spectacular – enjoying the freedom his talent has earned and now, in the poacher Giampaolo Pazzini, finding the ideal partner. The Blucerchiati have done the Italian game a major service by rehabilitating Cassano without taming his genius. And were Cassano not so brilliant, Fabrizio Miccoli, another cunning little fantasista, should also feel aggrieved at being largely ignored.
Freezing Cassano out of the national set-up is a gross oversight and an insult to creative football, and it seems impossible for Italy to retain the World Cup without submitting to Fantantonio’s raw brilliance:
Of course, in Andrea Pirlo and Antonio di Natale Italy do have two half-fantasiste. However, the former is a little too hesitant, deep lying and the latter a somewhat peripheral figure in the national team. The real hope, as always, must rest with youth and Sebastian Giovinco is the future of the fantasista in Serie A. His gorgeous touch, probing mind and flash of unpredictability will drag him to the centre of the Juventus team and, with hope, to the epicenter of Serie A itself. The Atomic Ant is in the process of taking the league by storm and he is perfectly positioned at Juventus to learn from their genius in residence, Del Piero. Giovinco can be utterly unplayable, zombifying defenders, shattering the delusions of man-markers who set out to nullify him and should he fulfill his immense potential, Serie A will have one more celebrated fantasista to carry the torch.
Not many others come to mind – Alberto Aquilani promises much as a creative force but injury seems to have made him hesitant, Riccardo Montolivo is talented but increasingly functional, Giuseppe Rossi is superb but cut out for scoring rather than consistently creating. There is no doubt the emphasis on pace and power that guilelessly dominates modern football means the very art of invention is in decline. However, it is in dark skies that stars shine brightest and the players that take up the mantle have the sincere opportunity to be Serie A’s most incandescent stars for some years to come.
Understanding Italian Football – Fantasia