by Adam Bate
Carlos Tevez’s move to AC Milan may yet happen. It may not. But the mere fact it is being discussed would indicate Filippo Inzaghi’s hopes of winning back his place in Milan’s Champions League squad let alone the first team are fading. Unless Super Pippo can prove people wrong one more time, the 38-year-old poacher may need to seek a new home before the transfer window closes.
Of course, Inzaghi has been defying the odds for most of his career. Witness his resilience in bouncing back from a cruciate knee injury in November 2010. On the field he has successfully fought off the challenges of men more technically and physically blessed – the Brazilian trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho have come and gone while Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo, Christian Vieri, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Borriello have all been outlasted too.
He has achieved this feat against a backdrop of whispers and doubts from some of the most respected figures in the game. The quotes are well known. There are the insults – Sir Alex Ferguson claiming Inzaghi was “born offside”. Then there are the backhanded compliments. Roberto Carlos said: “He is the man who sorts everything out – even though it’s difficult to lay your finger on what it is exactly that he’s got!”
Johan Cruyff was blunter, famously saying: “Look, the thing about Inzaghi is he can’t actually play football at all, he’s just always in the right position.” Indeed, complimenting Inzaghi is so rare within the game that when Jose Mourinho said earlier this season that he would prefer it if Pippo did not play against Real Madrid, the comment was still interpreted as just ‘mind games’.
All this talk might lead you to conclude that Inzaghi’s time at the top is some sort of fluke. The reality is that it has been anything but. After all, this is a man who has been at the top of the game for the best part of fifteen years.
It all began for the young Filippo Inzaghi at his home town club of Piacenza. Scrawny in his pomp, back then he cut an even less impressive physical figure and had to use nous beyond his years in order to succeed. After successful loan spells at both Leffe and Verona, he finally forced his way into the Piacenza side in 1994 – promptly helping the team gain promotion from Serie B.
A move to Parma in 1995 was a big step up and represented an early hiccup for the young forward. Nevio Scala’s expensively assembled squad contained more experienced competition in the form of Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Hristo Stoichkov. Just two goals in 15 Serie A games and fast approaching his 23rd birthday, Inzaghi was at a crossroads in his career. Fortunately, a move to Emiliano Mondonico’s Atalanta proved to be the right club at the right time.
Anyone who believes Inzaghi owes his success to the world class service of his colleagues should examine his performances that season with Atalanta. There were all sorts of goals: headers, volleys, left-foot, right-foot, penalties both won and converted – and even a free-kick into the top corner! Sure, he benefited from some good crosses but it was Inzaghi’s movement that demanded the ball. He finished that season as Italy’s Young Player of the Year and Capocannoniere with 24 goals.
Inzaghi’s move to Juventus in the summer of 1997 then allowed the striker to prove what we all now know – that he can score goals at any level. Aided by the service of Zinedine Zidane, he immediately forged a devastating partnership with fellow young forward Alessandro Del Piero and fired Juve to the Scudetto.
But perhaps it was his time with La Vecchia Signora that also gave rise to some of the negative clichés surrounding Inzaghi. After Pippo had flourished in the injury-enforced absence of Del Piero, it led to tension upon the return of his erstwhile strike partner. The much-debated difficulties came to a head on the final day of the 1999-2000 season in Perugia when Juve threw away the title – and Inzaghi spurned several opportunities where he could have passed the ball to Del Piero. Never had Pippo’s single-mindedness proven so costly. David Trezeguet was signed that summer and Inzaghi was shipped out to Milan the following year.
It is remarkable, given the player’s achievements at Juventus, that Inzaghi is likely to be remembered chiefly for his successes at Milan. However, the reason is simple – trophies. Not only have the Rossoneri picked up two Champions League wins in his time there, as well as the subsequent UEFA Super Cups and a FIFA Club World Cup, but Inzaghi has also been instrumental in these triumphs.
Involvement in the 2003 Champions League win over his former club must have been particularly sweet. But there was more to come. The 2003-04 season brought a Super Cup success over Porto before Milan romped to the Serie A title. On the international front, Inzaghi played his part in Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory – despite being given just 30 minutes of game time in the whole tournament, he still got his goal against the Czech Republic. No matter. It was 2007 that would be his annus mirabilis. In particular, the two goals on a balmy night in Athens – where Liverpool were Milan’s Champions League Final opponents and revenge was in the air.
It is perhaps appropriate that even in his finest hour, Inzaghi’s opening goal should be deemed to have an element of fortune to it. At first glance, Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick appeared to be deflected in by an opponent in the wall. As Pirlo’s teammates rushed to congratulate him, the unmistakeable sight of Inzaghi rushing off into the distance at full pelt left nobody in any doubt who had got the touch. It was vintage Inzaghi.
If the first was somewhat comical, the second goal that night typified all that is great about Filippo Inzaghi – breaking the offside trap, pouncing onto Kaka’s through-ball and rounding Pepe Reina. The man himself rates it as his finest moment: “When I think of all my goals, there is none better than that. It has to be my second in Athens.”
In truth, the world should have expected it. Down the years Inzaghi has so often saved his best for those glittering European nights. Incredibly, there are five different seasons in which he has scored as many goals in Europe as he has in Serie A. The result is that Inzaghi now ranks second only to Raul as the highest goalscorer in the history of European competition.
That European record, of course, hints at the fact that Inzaghi has long reserved his finest interventions for the grandest of stages. Pippo is no flat-track bully – a criticism often levelled at out-and-out goalscorers who plunder against the weaker sides but go missing on the big occasion. His brace against Liverpool was followed up by another goal in the subsequent Super Cup and then two more to defeat Boca Juniors in the World Club Cup.
So surely, at this late stage in his career, it is time Inzaghi received the respect and admiration that he deserves? The Italian press seem to have worked it out. Following Milan’s elimination from Europe at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur last season, Gazzetta’s Luigi Garlando immediately opined that: “With Pippo Inzaghi healthy today Milan would be in the quarter finals of the Champions League.” Maybe it’s a classic case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Even those now famous criticisms seem ill-judged. Cruyff, as the creator-in-chief of Total Football – with its unique appreciation of the importance of space – knows better than anyone that being “always in the right position” is one of the finest gifts a footballer can possess.
Likewise, Ferguson’s flippant remark about being “born offside” betrays the fact that life on the shoulder of the last defender is one of small margins. Pippo has used all his guile and cunning to outwit that offside trap on countless occasions down the years and he has the goal tally to prove it.
And what a goal tally it is. With Inzaghi it all comes back to that. It is his trump card. The ace he can play in any debate regarding his worth as a footballer. Goals scored at the highest level and all of them celebrated with the kind of boyish enthusiasm so rarely seen at the top of the game. Because above all, the man just loves scoring goals. In the past, Inzaghi has likened the ball hitting the net to “a mystical experience”. It has occasionally got him into trouble. Opponents have not taken kindly to his wild-eyed celebrations when scoring in the final stages of games long since won.
But it is this sheer love of scoring goals that may well see Pippo Inzaghi bounce back from his latest setback. It may not. Whatever lies ahead, it is too much to hope that his eventual retirement will be greeted with the reverence that will come the way of his great rival Del Piero when the Juventus star finally walks away from the Bianconeri. But we are at least entitled to expect those eulogies to be free of the kind of backhanded compliments Inzaghi has faced throughout his career. After all, as Pippo himself brilliantly put it: “If they are calling me into question, why, that’s the end of football.”
*A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Calcio Italia magazine.