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Understanding Italian football part I - Fantasia


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By Andrea Tallarita

Tuesday 13 January 2009

"Talk to any Italian about the strengths of the Italian game," claimed Tobias Jones in his book The Dark Heart of Italy, "and they will always mention the two vital ingredients lacking in Britain: fantasia and furbizia." The fact that these terms should find no correspondence in the football lingo of the British Isles gives a measure of how different a vision of the sport, and how distant an approach to it, should subsist between the Northern islands and the Mediterranean peninsula. To some extents, this is the consequence of a broader cultural issue, of a homogenized presentation of the sport by the media in which differences between international schools of football are suppressed in favour of the dominant one. The dominant version of the game is, of course, Brazilian.



If we are to understand Mediterranean football, of which the Italian game is by a distance the highest expression, it is perhaps best to begin by differentiating it from the Brazilian game. Let’s take it from there.


The Brazilian game is most readily identified by the avatar in which it has been popularized, cue Nike and all other iterations of their ‘Joga Bonito’ - or, ‘play beautiful.’ The ‘beauty’ of the Brazilian Jogo is inherently choreographic: it is based on rhythm, flair and swing. The common associations of Brazilian dribbling with the practice of dancing are indicative of just that - it is enough to take a look at someone like Ronaldinho performing at his best to see the connection. Ronaldinho is not simply ‘dribbling’ - rather he is dancing with the sphere, smoothly rolling side by side with it. His feet do not tap the ball, they caress it. For a defender, taking the ball away from a real Brazilian is as difficult and counter-intuitive as, say, getting someone’s girl to leave the partner she is dancing with and take it up instead with you - you may get all the physical moves right, but your target has a will of its own, and that will is to remain with the man it is dancing with.



The Jogo is a galvanising and delicious style of football because it is so fiercely exclusive. Jogo means game, but it does not refer to the ‘game’ of football. Rather, it refers to the kind of game that the cat plays with its mouse. In football, the object with which you play with is the ball. But when you are faced up against a Brazilian, the object which is being played with is you . The fact that it should be so unapologetically choreographic is one of the reasons why the media have picked it up so easily - it fits their mediums like a glove - and, if nothing else, the stunning international record of the Brazilian national team has provided them with validation. As a consequence, we have been educated to recognise the Brazilian game as a synonym for quality, misunderstanding its status - which is simply that of a style of football, albeit one of the most illustrious - and projecting it instead as a universal feature of the sport. Yet one of the first lessons for newcomers to football is that not all that is quality in the sport is an expression of Jogo , and not every move which is Jogo is an expression of quality. The way that quality is measured in Argentina, Germany or Britain is markedly different, and it is no less beautiful in its own right than the Jogo . There is so much more that can be done with the ball than just dancing, and all it takes to explore these other possibilities is a little bit of imagination - the term which, in Italian, translates to fantasia .


When it comes to the Mediterranean game, fantasia, alongside furbizia, is the spirit upon which all Italian football draws its energy. Unlike the Jogo , it is non-choreographic - in a sense it is its opposite, since it gathers its originality from breaking all tactical choreographies rather than generating them. It is not about infusing the ball with power or speed, nor even about dancing with it. It is about making it disappear. In Brazil, a defence will be outplayed, in England it will be outrun. In Italy, it will be outwitted . Where the register of Brazilian play is spatial (what you can do with and within the given square of territory that the defence concedes), that of fantasia is entirely temporal. It requires exploiting a specific instant, a window of time which opens for the most fleeting of moments and then closes again, to produce a sudden reversal of scenario and break all tactical predispositions in the adversary. Like all advanced movements of football, it requires highly refined technique. But fantasia is more than that. It does not exhaust itself in the technical gesture required to enter the window which opens for a moment - for the real difficulty is seeing the window in the first place.


For players possessing such a vision, Italians have a specific term - the fantasisti , literally ‘professionals of imagination.’ This term is unique in football inasmuch as it does not describe a player in terms of his position or role. It transcends such categories as ‘forward,’ ‘poacher’ or ‘midfielder,’ focussing instead on a player’s anarchic talent to produce something in the nook of a moment, in the space between the initiation of an offensive schema and its most logical continuation - to suddenly flip the cards on the table and change the nature of the scenario before the defence has the opportunity to adapt itself. Compare the following two ways of dribbling, the first by Brazilian player Robinho, and the second by Italian Antonio Cassano.



Note the stylistic difference. Robinho is exploiting the space around him to initiate a technical dance, progressively escalating it until the defender loses pace with the rhythm and surrenders. In Cassano’s case, the technical gesture is feather-slight, almost subliminal. He simply lifts the ball with his right foot and gives it a slight acceleration forward. But the instant in which he does that is the exact moment between the defence unhooking from his teammates and hermetically closing around him. There is a short breath of time between these two actions which Cassano exploits to turn his situation from that of an offensive midfielder orchestrating an attack into that of a receiving forward finalising his game. Robinho’s dribbling is a celebration, a dance that announces a wedding, but that of Cassano is the veil that covers the face of the bride.


Fantasia is not simply a mark of individual talent, some gift that a handful of players possess and which the rest are shorn of. Rather, fantasia is interwoven with every aspect of the Italian game, starting from the interaction between fantasisti and their teammates, to the most purely tactical and academic levels. Among the foremost priorities for Coaches in Italy is finding a way to draw the best out of their fantasisti. A cursory overlook at the history of Italian Serie A since Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary handling of Milan reveals some common trends.


Teams whose formation sported three forwards, for instance, traditionally combined players into a trident bringing together fantasista - prima punta - seconda punta , the role of the prima punta being that of finishing, the seconda punta’s that of running and creating, and the fantasista’s that of making all other roles insubstantial. See Juventus’s combination of Roberto Baggio, Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero. Roma’s Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella and Antonio Cassano. Even Milan’s foreigners - look at how Coach Carlo Ancelotti organised Kaka, Hernan Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko and the roles in which he asked them to play. The trident corresponds. Fantasia remains the pivot for all tactical disposition - even though, to be fair, the Italian attacking trio has witnessed some important tactical innovations recently since Luciano Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 formation, which Marcello Lippi as Italian national Coach seems himself to be adopting.


Italo Calvino stated that ‘fantasia is some kind of electronic device that keeps in mind all possible combinations and chooses those which answer to an end, or simply those which are the most interesting, pleasant or amusing.’ It is such a process of selection and choice which truly characterises fantasisti and which transcends questions of technical prowess. For a further example, compare these two analogous (and spectacular) goals, by Ronaldinho and Roberto Baggio respectively.



The beauty of Ronaldinho’s gesture is in the pirouette, in the harmony of a move that has the colour of capoeira and carnivals. That of Baggio is less glamorous, but more epiphanic. It appears that he is going to run or shoot, then there is a small flick of the ball - and suddenly, before either defenders or goalkeeper have had a chance to re-align themselves, he is running as though he had been on the receiving end of a pass which never left the ground, coming from another direction entirely. The reversal of the scenario is akin in atmosphere to the awakening from a dream - and fittingly so. The etymology of fantasia lies in the Greek for ‘apparition,’ as (dis)appearance is what fantasia produces with the ball, but it also has ties with Phantasos, one of the Greek gods of dream. That the most common invocation to the fantasisti in Italy should be ‘ facci sognare ’ (‘make us dream’ or ‘give us a dream’) is a recognition of this quality. At its most elementary level, the reaction of a victim to fantasia is one of anger - as one feels after a blunder at chess, or after being pelted with a clever insult - the anger is that towards one’s own foolishness, that for having been outwitted. But when fantasia is executed at its most pristine levels, when a counter-intuitive back-heel splits open an entire defence like a clam, or when a nonchalant feint undoes the work of two rocky, experienced defenders, then the arresting feeling is one of suspension - a slow, loaded moment of silence where one needs to reorganise one’s understanding of the setting, almost a suspension from time – almost, indeed, a dream.


In the Brazilian Jogo, the Latin etymology (‘iocus’) is closer to the frolic, to a sense of freedom and fun - it is about a joke, about being jocund. Its euphoria has nothing to share with the cryptic qualities of the Oneiros , the gods of dream, which instead permeate fantasia, and it certainly has shorter life in the battlefields of the Italian defence - historically the most cruel, most combative and most powerful defensive school in the world, designed to break the wings of those who would play around with Jogo and in the grounds of which fantasia has evolved, over the years, until it reached the refined and radiant form it now subsists in. In Italy, a goal such as the following by Ronaldo would have been not impossible, but infinitely harder to pull off.



It would most likely have been stopped by means of a tactical foul, closed through furbizia , the other great protagonist of Italian football whose Dionysian guile we shall explore in the next article. Ronaldo, Zidane, even Maradona - their most spectacular goals always came outside of Serie A, because they knew what their permanence in the peninsula had taught them. They knew that if you give the Italians some time, then they will find the way to stop you, no matter how smart you believe you are or what you do in the space you are given. You can dance your heart out but you can’t dance in the mud - and Italian defences are the deepest mud you can find yourself in.



The thing is, though, that fantasia does not give time. When you are in fantasia, time is suspended. When Francesco Totti started a run similar to Ronaldo’s, he did not follow it to its logical conclusion by escalating the frenzy and the technique before the defence. Rather, he did something much more aristocratic and Mediterranean - he outwitted it. In his chipped ball, in the mellow arch drawn by the sphere as it slowly, gently falls into the net, without so much as a hint of resistance being sketched by the defenders, as though it were all happening in a dream - in this, and in the paradox of a shot which draws its strength not from power but from lack thereof, lies the secret to the four World Cups which the soldiers of fantasia have conquered.





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