Twice he walked away from the goal. In his mind he knew exactly where the top-left corner was. He didn’t need to look up, give anything away.
Between him and the goal stood a man by the name of Jürgen Kohler, who knew him well because of playing on his team for the previous two seasons. Kohler was a big and experienced central defender: he knew that the right thing to do was not to get too close to the young man or attempt to tackle him, but to slowly force him back, outside the box, away from danger.
Twice the young Alessandro Del Piero walked back, until he almost had his back to the keeper. And then he twisted his body and hit the ball with the inside of the right boot. He didn’t need to look up to see the spot that he was aiming for. The ball curled around big Jürgen Kohler, climbed up above the keeper standing a few metres off the line, and then dropped into the top-left corner, where it was always destined to go.
I think of this goal whenever the relationship between art and sports comes up. What makes that sequence of gestures a work of art, in my estimation, is not the quality of the execution but the confounding of expectations. Twice Del Piero walked away from the goal: that was his genius. Not the perfect shot – you can practice those.
This happened in 1995.
I was a Juventus supporter growing up but didn’t get to see the team very often. While I was in primary school, my best friend’s took us to Turin four or five times, so I saw the bulk of the Italian World Cup-winning team of 1982 and the great Michel Platini play, but never Del Piero, whose career began ten years later. By this stage I had become somewhat more disenchanted about the game, although I still followed it. A much greater disenchantment came later as Juventus was found to have engaged in the systematic corruption of referees over the course of several seasons and possibly in some dodgy practices around athletic training as well (although the latter accusation was never proved). So the first three or four years of Del Piero with the club were also my last years of having a favourite team, of being a tifoso – the Italian word for ‘supporter’ that literally means a feverish, delirious person.
This is not a sentiment that I’m happy to have lost. I feel a bit cheated, truth be told. Our national team aside, Del Piero’s early seasons with Juve were the last in which I knew how to combine an appreciation of football as an art form with the desire to see some things happen and not others (mostly one team score, the other not), which is what helps you sit through the long stretches of time when football is nothing at all like art – or more accurately it is like bad, boring art; the times when nothing happens and in ways that are altogether too clichéd and predictable, or a prolonged tactical impasse makes it look as if nothing could ever happen.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the most eloquent supporters of the need to take sides in football, fiercely if need be. Of course it was a rather different game in his day, and the popular tribal passions that he found so sympathetic hadn’t yet been re-coded into the systemic violence of today. Outside of the stadiums, the modern game is a major global industry ruled by petrol magnates, transnational sponsors, television and the internet. Yet, as Eduardo Galeano has written, ‘no matter how much the technocrats seek to programme it down to the smallest details, not matter how much those in power seek to manipulate it, football continues to want to be the art of the unexpected.’
It belongs perhaps to the realm of the unexpected that Del Piero decided to join the Sydney FC after concluding his 19-year career as a Juventus player. He had other offers: more lucrative ones, closer to home. Whatever his motives, I was personally glad that he did, as it would give me an unlikely opportunity to watch him play. In fact his debut was set to be in Wellington, where I live. I also happen to have an 11 year old son who plays and whom I sometimes take to the stadium. Things couldn’t have been better set up for us.
At the game we met my friend Enzo Giordani, who was keen to take some pictures and had strategically chosen one of the curved sector close to a corner flag.
(Enzo took all of the pictures in this post. You can see others on his blog along with his match report.)
In the second half we moved to the opposite end, in the area reserved to the Sydney supporters, which we had pretty much to ourselves. This was strange, as was being so close to the action when it involved a football superstar. I had never been able to afford that kind of closeness at the prices back home.
At this range I could see the expression on Del Piero’s face, track his growing puzzlement and exasperation as his side proceeded to be picked apart by the hosts. There was nothing that the aging artist could do. He tried falling back from his initial striker position, walk away again from the goal, but this time simply in order to get to see the ball. His were the only flashes for Sydney: two shots wide of the target, and as many through balls that eluded the Wellington defence but failed to produce a goal. He also got to take a couple of free kicks. A week later he would score his first goal for his new team from one of those, but not this time.
Wellington won two-nil and deservedly so. When the game was over, Del Piero and his team-mates came under our sector to thank the Sydney supporters, who barely outnumbered them. Here he was then, one of the boys.
What was most palpable throughout the night was the lack of awe. Ever since the team was founded, all of five years ago, the supporters of the Wellington Phoenix have made their own one of the least charming chants from the English football repertoire. Every time an opposition player goes to take a free kick near the sector of the hardcore fans, up it goes: ‘Who are ya? / Who are ya? / Who are ya?’ It is even more cringe-worthy coming from a team with barely any history to speak of, and I was rather hoping they wouldn’t use it on Del Piero, but of course they did. Louder, if anything.
It felt a little melancholy. I remember when the first foreign players started to be allowed back into the Italian game, in the early eighties. You could field first one, then two per team, and some of them had a legendary aura, while others were complete unknowns, and not infrequently turned out to be duds, or even – on a couple of occasions – not the player the team thought they had signed up. But the great ones, you had never seen them play before, except perhaps at a World Cup. This gave them a greater mystique but also made it easier for them to practice the art of the unexpected. It took time for the other teams and their coaches to get their measure. Now even a semi-professional team at the bottom of the world knows that you don’t ever allow Del Piero the space and time to aim for the top-left corner.