The Death of The Number 10: What Lippi's Italy Selection Really Means
When Marcello Lippi named his provisional 30 man squad for South Africa, it contained few surprises, and lead to more criticism of the World Cup winning manager's approach to this World Cup. Whether such criticism is justified perhaps remains to be seen (the man did win the World Cup last time after all), but what is clear is that in naming a squad free of Cassano, Miccoli or Totti, the great tradition of the Italian 'fantasista' - traditionally, the number 10 - has been lost.
Ever since I was a little boy watching the Azzurri, the player in the number 10 shirt has always been the one who I was most excited to see. That was the player who could make the difference, my dad would tell me; that was the man who would provide the flashes of brilliance. Look at the past number 10s in previous tournaments and it reads like a who's who of Azzurri greats; Rivera; Antognoni; Baggio; Del Piero; Totti. But who will wear this symbolic shirt in South Africa?
In truth there has been a gap since Totti's premature retirement from the Azzurri following the World Cup win four years ago, and for most of the time since the magical jersey has been worn by Totti's Roma colleague, Daniele De Rossi. Don't get me wrong; De Rossi is a great player, but he is no fantasista. Others that have tried to take on the famous shirt - such as Riccardo Montolivo - have floundered, its history weighing too heavily on their shoulders.
It seems ludicrous, but that number means something more than any other; it is the shirt that little boys dream about wearing when playing football with their friends in the park. It's almost like the shirt is believed to bestow magical powers granted by Merlin himself; or maybe a more apt comparison would be with Excalibur - only those truly worthy can wear it. It is like the ultimate test of a player; if they can take on this burden and succeed, they can become not good but great. Take it on and fail, however, and they never rise to become what they might have been.
Of course, it is not just Italy that hold this shirt in such esteem - how many promising Argentinians have we seen now trying and failing to live up to Maradona's achievements whilst wearing that number? Messi is the first in a long time who seems ready for it; who has always been destined for that position.
It remains to be seen on whose back we will see the Azzurri number 10 shirt this summer. The most obvious candidate might be Andrea Pirlo, though he has always preferred his club number of 21 where possible, perhaps afraid of the weight he might otherwise have to carry. In any event, he stopped being a fantasista years ago; his position is in front of the defence, making the play from deep. Montolivo is another candidate but he may shy away from it having already failed to shine whilst wearing it. Beyond that, it is difficult to see who else might be suitable for the shirt.
And does that not say everything about Lippi's selections and his stubbornness? That there is no obvious candidate to wear the coveted jersey this time around perhaps speaks more damningly of Lippi's selections than a thousand articles and commentators ever could.
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