Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Veteran's Season

Unstoppable: Antonio Di Natale
They were welcome words for the Milan fans who have been clamouring for a rejuvenation of the side for many seasons.  And they came from a man who had been obdurately committed to the older players in the team.

"From now on," said Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, "we will only offer players over thirty a yearly contract."

Galliani also put the policy shift in the context of Andrea Pirlo's impending departure to Juventus: "If Pirlo had accepted a shorter contract, he could have stayed.  It is excessive for players in their early thirties to be hoping for a three-year contract."

Galliani has been talking about a younger Milan for a long time, but he has never been so clinical regarding the reality of ageing players.  Indeed, it is not as if players forget how to play once they pass the threshold of thirty.  However, a twenty-one-year-old upstart speeding past a veteran can emphatically and abruptly bring things into sharp perspective.

Considering those unforgiving realities, it is extraordinary how much success older players enjoyed in Serie A this season.  While players like Robinho and Hernanes serviced Serie A's need for younger star players, the season was also a resounding triumph of the senescent kneecaps, shins, and ankles of players who are well-adjusted, thirty-something members of the league.

Even looking at the Serie A's top-scorers chart and comparing it to that of England and Spain underscores the point.  This season three of the top five scorers in Italy were thirty or above: Antonio Di Natale (33), Samuel Eto'o (30, though only in March, so not really an ageing veteran yet), and Marco Di Vaio (34).  In England Dimitar Berbatov was the only player who had celebrated his thirtieth birthday from the top five scorers, and that was only in January of this year. In Spain not even one player from the top five met that criteria.

The age group of the successful Serie A players should not be used as to diminish the achievements of the veterans.  It is too trite to say that Serie A must be a slower and easier league if players well into their thirties can flourish.  Given how well Ryan Giggs (37) has done this season in the Premier League, a league celebrated for being high-tempo, that criticism is not cogent.

Instead, it is important to look at the type of Serie A players who have succeeded this season despite their age. To see players who are over thirty excel as goalkeepers, defenders, and defensive midfielders is unsurprising, but this year it was three forwards who conspicuously surpassed expectations: Antonio Di Natale, Marco Di Vaio, and Francesco Totti.

Swift and prolific

Di Natale ended as Capocannoniere yet again with twenty-eight goals, finishing just a goal shy of his tally from last season.  This was after sitting out some games injured as well.

It wasn't just the sheer numbers that impressed, but also how nimbly and intelligently he linked up with Alexis Sanchez, a player eleven years his junior, in the Udinese attack.  Di Natale is patently not a striker who skulks in the box, waiting for service; rather, he is almost always flying towards all areas of the final third.  Udinese's attack was fearsome precisely because it was so mobile as Di Natale and Sanchez stretched defences at will.

Udinese's 4-4 draw against Milan at the San Siro and the 7-0 hammering of Palermo typified how devastatingly Di Natale and Sanchez operate together.  In those two games alone, the pair scored five goals each, slicing through the backlines at will.  Admittedly, Daniele Bonera was so abysmal for Milan that he might as well have been playing in black and white, but that should not minimize the skill which Sanchez and Di Natale went about their work.

For a thirty-three-year-old Di Natale to score twenty-eight goals in a league not known for affording time on the ball is impressive.  For him to do it with the swiftness and instinct of a twenty-year-old striker is astounding.

The Miraculous Survivor

Miracle-maker: Marco Di Vaio
Marco Di Vaio already produced miracles for Bologna in the 2008-09 season during which he scored twenty-four goals, and spared the club the despair of relegation to Serie B.

This season Di Vaio ended up with nineteen goals, only one of which was a penalty.  He thus continued his mythical feats at Bologna.  The Roman has played for Lazio, Juventus, Parma, and Valencia in a well-traveled career, and while he scored regularly for Parma, his record for Bologna is the most formidable.  In just three seasons, Di Vaio has managed to score fifty-five Serie A goals.  Consider also that he came to Bologna as a thirty-two-year-old.

This season Bologna were docked three points for not paying their players on time, a deduction that left them four points above the relegation zone in January.  Coupled with their ownership issues, the club were teetering, only for Di Vaio to prove a miracle-maker once again.  He scored nineteen of the club's thirty-five goals this season, which emphasizes how much Bologna owe to a player who scorns retirement every year.

Unsurprisingly, despite his age, Bologna have handed him a contract until June 2013.

Still unpredictable

Totti is still baffling at the age of thirty-four.  A man who has done little with Roma outside of Serie A has been enjoying steady success domestically.  He has only won one major club honour, namely the Scudetto in 2001, but he has been vital for Roma's seasons nonetheless.

Every weekend, Totti withstands relentless challenges sometimes without but often with protest.  He still vanishes in some games, an act that he has perfected over the years.  However, he still plays as someone who is ensconced in Serie A, and when he does get it right, the results are astonishing.

For example, this season was a perfect reflection of the whimsical Totti. He scored fifteen goals in total, eight of them from the spot.  He also provided an impressive eight assists.  Yet, for the first half of the season, he was virtually anonymous in Serie A: amazingly, thirteen of his fifteen goals came in 2011.  Tellingly, eleven of those goals came under Vincenzo Montella, who took over in February from Claudio Ranieri, a man with whom Totti clashed during the season.

Despite Totti's spate of activity in the second half of the season, Roma were unable to claim a Champions League spot, having to settle for an Europa League place instead.  Yet, Totti proved once again that while sometimes he can have an arresting influence on Roma with his antics, he does have the ability to justify his presence.

Doing it with style

While this season witnessed the skill of Edinson Cavani, Pato, and Giampaolo Pazzini, players like Di Natale, Di Vaio and Totti reminded us that it is still possible for the older cast of Serie A to carve out a living--and that living doesn't have to be drudgery either.


  1. Thank you for this, interesting stuff as usual.
    Just let me tell you that Di Vaio also played a good chunk of his career for AC Parma: from 1999 to 2002, winning a national cup, scoring 50 goals in 115 caps.

    When I was at high school I saw him a couple of times at the Tardini Stadium: nice player indeed.

  2. You're welcome. :)

    Thank you for reminding me of that fantastic Parma team. Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Hernan Crespo et al.

    I haven't been lucky enough to see Di Vaio live...one of my regrets. The one imperishable memory I have of him is this goal from the 2003-04 season: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUeA5ZK3leY

    I remember it acutely and painfully as a Milan fan.