Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On Football - No. 15 : Claudio Borghi

It must be like being the cleverest pupil at your school. You always do the best, gets the highest marks in tests, receive unending praise from a teacher. Then you have to leave, and go to another school, a school for older children. Maybe you're not the cleverest pupil anymore. Maybe somebody else - another who was the best in their class - maybe they are cleverer, maybe they do better in tests, maybe they get more praise. Maybe, for the first time, they make you feel inferior.
Or maybe not. Maybe you're the one making the others feel inferior, all the way through school, through every grade and age. But then you reach University. And you don't stand out at all. Here, everyone was the cleverest at their school. This is a thousand people who have always made others feel inferior.

Now imagine you're a young footballer. You play as the link between the forwards and the midfield, in the hole. Your passing is beautiful - visionary, incisive, perfectly timed. You can dribble too, able to swerve and turn at speed past dumbfounded defenders. You score your fair share of goals. You have been something of a phenomenon at your club - a golden boy, of whom great things are expected. You are called up to the National Team, hoping to play a major role in the World Cup. Only there is another player, who plays in your position, who has also been called up. He is, there can be no denying it, better than you are. He is the best player in the World, maybe the best player of all time. He leads your country to victory at that World Cup, scoring some unforgettable goals, and you are lost in his wake. You never play for your country again. Your career -while continuing in a variety of countries for a multitude of clubs - flounders, to an extent. You never live up to those early expectations. You are Claudio Borghi. You are a Nearly Man.

Borghi's great misfortune was to emerge as a young playmaker in the mid-1980s when Maradona was at the peak of his abilities. If he had been Chilean or Paraguayan or Mexican, he would have probably become a legend. As it was, he starred in the Intercontinental Cup Final in Tokyo in 1985, when Juventus beat his club, Argentinos Juniors, on penalties. Italy was so impressed by his extraordinary promise that AC Milan signed him in 1987, but the "3 foreigners" rule meant that he was loaned out to Como (the foreigners preferred by coach Arrigo Sacchi were Van Basten, Gullet and Rijkaard) and upon his return he fell out with Sacchi and was sold on, ricocheting via Switzerland's Neuchatal Xamax to River Plate, Flamengo, Independiente and a clutch of clubs in Chile. That club career would undoubtedly have panned out differently had Borghi been playing for Argentina at the crux of an attack spearheaded by Valdano. The confidence and increased status in world football that would have given him would probably have extended his stay in Europe. Instead Maradona was the chosen one, and the timing could not have been better for his career. Borghi, in contrast, is known now primarily as a Coach, having enjoyed a remarkably successful tenure with Colo Colo, Chile's biggest and most historically prestigious club.

Its not something you read about all that much. The reserves, the substitutes, and how they feel about their role, holding up the squad at the heaviest point. What it must feel like to be a gifted player, only not gifted enough. Sport loves a hero, so those who carry out an important but unseen task are of no interest, and the media obsession with every aspect of football has seemingly worsened this state of affairs. To be an understudy. The strange pressure of it, the resentment, the effect it must have on one's self-worth...

It is more obviously pronounced in a National team, where a player who is the first choice at his club can become second or even third in line. A truly great player can overshadow a dozen others with his talent, his intimidating influence. Zinedine Zidane was always going to be the conductor of the French national team from his first emergence as a young player. But his talent was so vast and so much more complete than that of his rivals that they were all but cast into the wilderness. If Zizou was fit, he played. Hence Johan Micoud, a fine attacking midfielder in his own right, played rarely for France, if at all, when in another generation, he might have been the creative lynchpin. Vikash Dhorasoo, another mercurial playmaker suffered a similar fate (his documentary, "Substitute", basically chronicles his frustrating experiences as Zidane's understudy during the 2006 World Cup). Robert Pires would possibly have developed as a traditional playmaker in the hole if not for Zidane's pre-eminence in the position. Instead he played on the wing, in tandem with Zidane, his talent too great and versatile to be ignored.

National teams are rife with great players being second-best to even greater players, or just to players who fit into the coaches tactical approach better. In modern International football, Riquelme keeps out the genius of Aimar for Argentina. Quaresma and Simao constantly leap-frog one another for Portugal. The Brazilian squad is so bursting with talent that there will always be immense players left on the bench or not even in the selection at all. How does any manager contain Ronaldinho, Kaka, Elano and Diego when there is only really room for a single attacking midfielder on the pitch? He tries to pick as many of them as he can and his team is an unbalanced mess, albeit an unbalanced mess stuffed with genius. So Ronaldinho and Kaka - as the biggest stars, the most proven talents - have been the two most favoured in the past. But this demeans a talent as great as Diego's. He is too good to be a nearly man. They all are.

In the 1980s, the heroic athleticism of Bryan Robson was generally preferred to the classier, silken skills of Glenn Hoddle by a series of England managers. Hoddle was the sort of player teams should be built around. Instead he never lived up to his undoubted talent for his country. This fate has befallen a series of the more obviously talented players to emerge in English football over the past three decades, from John Barnes to Matt LeTissier. Though neither of those players was regularly excluded because of any other single rival, they still lost out to the likes of Steve Hodge and Steve McMahon. It happens in other European countries too.

In the 1960s Italy possessed two extraordinary playmakers - Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera. Mazzola was the star of the all-conquering Inter Milan team of the 60s, while Rivera played for AC Milan (the picture above shows Rivera tackling Mazzola). They were similarly gifted players, both capable of pinpoint passing, either able to dribble or shoot from distance. Rivera was perhaps the more silken of the two, Mazzola a burlier, more athletic presence. Each was the talisman for his club, winning numerous Scudettos and a couple of European Cups each. However, Italian National coach Ferruccio Valcareggi believed that they could not play together. He favoured Mazzola (despite Rivera's greater popularity) and started him in the first matches at the 1970 World Cup. Without Rivera, who had been so effective when Italy had won the 1968 European Championship, the Italian offence couldn't get started. So Valcareggi developed a scheme he called "stafetta" (which translates literally as "relay"). He would play Mazzola for the first half and Rivera for the second. Italy progressed to the final, with Rivera in particular shining as he scored the winner in the 4-3 semi-final victory over West Germany. For the final however, Valcareggi reverted to type and played Mazzola alone until eight minutes from time, when he brought on Rivera. Italy lost 4-1. You could never really refer to either man as a "Nearly Man". But they strangled one another's International careers. Both must have wondered what it would have been like if not for the other.

Rivera in action:

In the late 1980s, Guiseppe Giannini was the playmaker for the Italian team and captain of Roma. But the emergence of Roberto Baggio meant that he lost his place in the starting line up for the national team at the 1990 World Cup, and he retired from Internationals in 1991. He could see what was coming, and he was too proud to be another nearly man, no matter how much genius Baggio possessed. Some players seem almost offended by the competition for the role their career has taught them to consider theirs alone, as if its unseemly. Others are inspired by it. And some, like Claudio Borghi, find themselves facing a force they cannot defeat, a skill they cannot match, and they slip quietly away.

What, then, of Claudio Borghi? Well here he is, wearing the Number 10 shirt and scoring a quite sublime goal from late in his career, somewhere in Chile I think, in the only clip I could find:



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