Reading held in Losanna (2008) Haifa (2013), Oslo (2014), Malmoe (2015).
Some years ago, on a sunny Sunday morning, Marcello Lippi was on a small, dusty football pitch on the outskirts of my hometown, on the northern coast of Tuscany. As far as I remember, that pitch has always been as sandy as a desert except for the four corners, where the flags were often swallowed up by some kind of Amazonian vegetation. We still wonder now about the fate of many talented, young players who went there, just to take a corner kick, and never came back.
That Sunday morning the pitch was officially being named after Ilario Niccoli, founder, president, coach and caretaker of the Stella Rossa (Red Star), a farm team where successful players like Marcello Lippi started their careers and many klutzes like me were strongly persuaded to try their fortunes elsewhere.
Ilario Niccoli was thin and nervous. He had had a mysterious accident and his face was scarred for life, his right hand counted only two fingers. No-one ever knew the truth about it. According to some rumours, he had messed up with the mines left by Allies on the shore, after World War II.
The Red Star was a good team, hard-fighting and well-respected. In the 1979 championship, the under-16 team scored one-hundred and twenty-four goals, conceding only two. They were by far the strongest. They were so strong that their goalie used to keep some comic books near the post, just to cope with the worst moments of boredom and loneliness.
Needless to say, I was in the following year’s team.
Today I still think that Ilario Niccoli had a soft spot for us, the klutzes. Even when he got totally wild and, leaping off the bench, desperately shouted at me: “You’re as slow as a snail!”.
Okay, it was true. But it was a crucial piece of information of which, in my humble opinion, the opposing striker should have been made aware as late as possible.
If you weren’t a skilled player, you could only play as a defender. Nevertheless tobeadecent defenderwasnotthateasy.IlarioNiccoli’sshocktherapywas simple and effective: an entire summer of athletic training in the shade of the pinewoods. Driving his old moped, he guided us through endless sessions of running, sprinting and skipping. Because when your opponent is far better than you, your only chance is that he won’t get the ball. And that will happen as long as you get to the ball before him.
I’m pretty sure that, at the bottom of his heart, Ilario Niccoli despised the good players. We all know that talent is always some kind of undeserved gift. No one ever capitalises on it as much as he could. Besides, the good players used to brag and mess around during training sessions. Last but not least, their school performances were horribly poor. Otherwise, klutzes like me they studied Latin and Greek, and sometimes that was quite enough for my teammates to avoid any pass in my direction.
Frankly speaking, being a klutz had some pros and cons. Nowadays in Italy farm teams seduce their best young players with cellphones, computers, playstations and so on. Thirty years ago, the cream-of-the-crop were given brand new boots, the second-rate players like me were given second-hand (or second-foot, I should say) boots.
One day Ilario Niccoli had to palm off on me a pair of worn-out Puma boots. So he told me that they had belonged to Marcello Lippi, in those days Sampdoria’s central back in the Serie A.
That made me the happiest boy in the world. They were no ordinary, new boots! I thought of all the famous pitches they had trodden. I figured that maybe those studs had left their marks on the ankles of Paolo Rossi, Giancarlo Antognoni, Bruno Conti.
With those boots on I scored the only goal of my career as a full back with no visa for the opponent’s half. It was a typical defender’s goal. I sneaked into the opponent’s box and I wacked it hastily, as worried as someone who went out leaving his house door open.
Of course I did not dare to doubt my coach’s word. For me, those boots were Marcello Lippi’s boots. Today I think that most probably they were not. It was a lie and Ilario Niccoli lied because he didn’t want to humiliate me, because in the bottom of his heart he had a soft spot for us, the klutzes.
One rainy night I returned my whole football kit to the Stella Rossa headquarters, a smoky room in the back of an unpretentious bar. For five long years I’d been comin’ home early every Saturday night, given that on Sundays we usually played at 8 or 9 o’ clock in the morning, an absurd time which should be explicitly forbidden in the Declaration of Human Rights. Anyway, I felt more like tightly marking some of my female classmates, creatures far more unpredictable than any striker I’ve ever been stuck to for the whole match.
One day – it was September, 1991 – Ilario Niccoli came to a railroad crossing. On the back of his moped was seated a twelve-year old goalkeeper. The barriers were down but he decided not to stop. I still wonder why, and I’m not the only one.
Some say he had become quite deaf and one-eyed.
The train pounced on both of them and, sadly enough, it was not as slow as a snail.
(many thanks to Mark Chu for his friendly help in the translation)