Italy's love affair with the No.10

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Deep in their heart of hearts Italians accept that football is a brutal game where only the result matters – players put themselves at the disposal of the coach and follow the mister’s orders to the letter.

The tactics and style of play can be as ugly as you like, as long as you come out on top.

Then again, Italians as a whole love beauty, they also love to feel that they are beyond the rules set out by society so of course they were always going to fall in love with the ‘No 10’.

Even in the most mundane life there needs to be some spark of creativity. There is something of the artist in very Italian, even if, when push comes to shove, pragmatism always wins out.

That is why the fantasista has always held a special place in Italian hearts: the genio creating the bella figura while the artisans go about their day’s labour.

The love affair really took off with a Valentino of course: Valentino Mazzola who captained the Grande Torino that dominated the Italian game in the post-war years and who lost his life in the Superga plane crash in 1949.

His son Sandro would keep the light burning brightly as the creative force in the Grande Inter of the 60s and then, as we shall see, give an Italy coach endless selection headaches.

Mazzola senior may have created the allure for the position everyone envies but at the same time carries the greatest burden – and when it comes to a time for expediency the artist will be sacrificed for the perceived good of the team.

Roberto Baggio’s substitution at USA ’94 after Italy had goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca sent-off is an good example of when the Italian coach – in this case Arrgio Sacchi – understood that he could not afford any luxuries and served up a game plan based on avoiding defeat at any cost.

Sacchi got away with it only because it was Norway, when another Baggio – Dino – scored the only goal of the game. However, the Divine Ponytail returned for the following game and then basically dragged the Azzurri kicking and screaming all the way to the final.

There he missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out against Brazil, but was forgiven because his feet were never made of clay.

Italians are not adverse to a bit of anarchy and Evaristo Beccalossi was the king of the nutmeg and the reason why many a Milanese kid supported Inter in the late-70s.

Il Bec never got the opportunity to take his undoubted talents onto the international stage as Enzo Bearzot refused to call him up to the squad for the 1982 World Cup – but then he did have the equally-elegant and more team-orientated Giancarlo Antognoni to call upon although donning the number nine shirt.

When the home-grown talent has failed to bloom such as the in the early 1980s, Italy has imported number 10s with the eye of a wine connoisseur choosing a fine vintage: Michel Platini, Diego Maradona and Zico arrived and uncorked a golden age of sublime skill and invention in Serie A. 

However, it us the grape off the home vine that is more to Italian liking, so Marcello Lippi left a bitter taste when he refused to take a trequartista to South Africa – leaving both Antonio Cassano and Francesco Totti at home.

It was first time since the 1986 World Cup that Italy were without a natural creator in the advanced role as opposed to the regista in the more withdrawn position – and in the end the cost was more severe than it had been back in Mexico.

Lippi knew he had betrayed a rich legacy and only left himself open to more ridicule when he attempted to employ Claudio Marchisio and Mauro Camoranesi in that gaping hole of magical possibilities even though Antonio Di Natale was wearing the 10 shirt.

In the end, it was Fabio Quagliarella who took it upon himself to scatter a little star-dust in the dying moments of the final group game against Slovakia.

However, the Napoli man is a seconda punta – a support striker – a defined role far removed from that of the maverick 10, which demonstrated how far the national team had fallen from the mantra of  facci sognare or ‘makes us dream’.

In the past, Italy coaches were spoilt for choice when it came to subtle back-heels, killer passes and unforgettable goals, which reflected the country’s unfailing love for a player who could brighten even the dullest Sunday afternoon with a moment of divinity. 

The 1970 World Cup coach Ferruccio Valcareggi could not decide whether Gianni Rivera or Sandro Mazzola’s creative instincts best served the team and devised the staffetta – the relay baton where each man played a half.

What a shame Valcareggi could not have built a side around these two Milanese talents who embodied the cool but yet resourceful nature of late 60s and early 70s Italy.

Baggio burst on to the scene at Italia ’90 and had Gianfranco Zola as back-up through the mid-1990s while Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti vied for the role through the noughties which takes us up to Cassano and his return to the national side under Cesare Prandelli.

We can only hope that Fantantonio’s second-coming does not mark the end of a love affair with Italy’s dream position.

My Perfect 10: Paul Simpson on Vladimir Petrovic
My Perfect 10: Riccardo Rossi on Roberto Baggio
My Perfect 10: Steve Morgan on Robert Prosinecki
My Perfect 10: Andy Mitten on Eric Cantona
My Perfect 10: Michael Cox on Rui Costa
My Perfect 10: Hugh Sleight on Zico
My Perfect 10: James Horncastle on Francesco Totti

My Perfect 10: David Hall on Zinedine Zidane
My Perfect 10: Sefa Atay on Gheorghe Hagi

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