The thought of becoming a football superstar is a childish reverie that most youngsters casually engage in at one point or another. It can be a torturous exercise because plenty will never grapple with the giants of the game they admire so much, but it’s also a testament to what makes the sport, at its source, such a fulfilling pursuit.
The schoolyards and playing pitches that litter a young athlete’s formative years can so easily become the jam-packed stadia and tension-filled contests that flash so frequently across our television screens when imagination is allowed to take over – it’s this playful fancy which contributes so much in making football an incredibly accessible engagement to so many.
It was likely the same for Filippo Inzaghi long before he began his trek to stardom at the beginning of the 1990s. When he eventually took his tentative steps towards trying to become an energetic starlet, he was really just another youngster trying to earn his crust with a ball at his feet. There was little to suggest he would become a superpower in his own right who would capture titles and forge an identity as a striking virtuoso, because football is not an exact science and it never will be. But against everything in his way he managed to make it work as well as transforming the unreal into something substantial.
Barging a way positively into supporters’ consciousness is not an easy task for anyone. Even if a player does manage to illuminate oneself brighter than all the rest with an audaciously crafted goal or an eye-catching performance in a big game, there is still the tall task of maintaining that same level of performance over and over again, season after season.
Then again, fostering a reputation and growing into an eminently respected footballer are two very different things, a reality which is perhaps best discerned when looking at the stellar career of Inzaghi.
Living on the fringes of what’s acceptable, like an endangered species on the verge of extinction, there were always two contrasting currents, swashing and back-washing viciously against each other, about whether Inzaghi should be celebrated or derided.
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For some, Inzaghi wasn’t the type of player they wanted to see succeed, plain and simple. A character who would have seemed right at home in the disorienting world of MC Escher’s ‘Relativity’ lithograph, there was rarely any doubt that he was a special breed of player who regularly flitted away from convention more often than he flirted with it. He was far from the “right” type of forward and the fact he managed to make that work in his favour was irksome for plenty.
He was far from the lavish, swashbuckling, intrepid star that strikers are often characterised as. His allure was a strange one; an enigma, wrapped in a fortune cookie hidden deep inside a matryoshka doll – in short, it wasn’t easy to grasp.
Those in favour believed a little differently. Viewed as a master craftsman who knew how to draw the ball to him inside the box, he infiltrated space with the agility and stealth of a cunning cat burglar, and was equally adept at capitalising on the chances he helped pillage against some of the best defenders in the world. To label him a mere ‘fox in the box’ would be a disservice because the truth is that he was so much more than that.
Before any of this became a hotly debated topic amongst the masses, however, ‘Super Pippo’ had to blossom in one of the harshest football environments around. After having fought his way up the ranks at youth level with Piacenza, he was eventually given a temporary bit-part role in the team at 18 years of age as they attempted – unsuccessfully – to play their way to survival in Serie A.
Stints with a couple of underdogs in the form of AlbinoLeffe and Verona soon followed as he began to find his goalscoring touch, all of which quickly prompted a return to his hometown club where he bagged 15 league goals in a Serie B title-winning season. Inzaghi was just five goals shy of tying the top scorer, Giovanni Pisano, who had notched 20 strikes that season.
The signs were there that he was becoming a force to be reckoned with in and around the opposition box, but despite some silverware already in his possession, he remained a raw power waiting for his opportunity at widespread recognition in the upper echelons. Fortunately for calcio, it wouldn’t be long until he got it.
Following a stalling period at Parma, he forced through a springboard move to Atalanta where he topped the Serie A goal-scoring charts in the 1996-97 campaign, capturing the Capocannoniere gong with a fantastic 24 goals to his name, underlining his ability to trump even the most established forwards in Italy’s top flight.
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The big guns took notice and the following season he became a Bianconeri player as Juventus signed him up. Over the course of the next four seasons, he pocketed 57 league goals in 120 appearances, thus ushering in a period of European and domestic dominance that saw him quickly become a frequently mentioned name as one of the most prolific strikers around, even in the midst of his numerous detractors.
The see-saw of opinion tipped up and down as various voices weighed in on his ability. It was perhaps due to his lack of obvious technical skill that saw him confounded, but it also heightened the frustration and fear that he inflicted upon his opponents. Without a clear strength to expose he was as difficult to hinder as even the most dazzling of dribblers or most accurate of long-range snipers; his on-pitch methods might not have been conventionally pretty but they were super effective, and had many questioning just what made football eye-catching. Was it the ability to get the task done, or was it all down to style and vogue?
It was largely down to his preparation and studious manner that earned him such a formidable reputation, and because much of his prowess emanated away from the spectacle of match-day, it was harder for his opponents to pinpoint why he was getting one over on them so very often. It also made it difficult for commentators and pundits to get a better sense of his eccentric value.
His former team-mates knew exactly what he brought to the table, though, and Gennaro Gattuso put it best when he said: “Inzaghi used to get videos of opponents and study them for days on end. He knew everything about them. He was obsessed. Many thought Pippo was just lucky, but it was nothing to do with luck – it was all down to skill and preparation. He used to get so angry with the wingers if they didn’t send in the right crosses in training.”
This industry manifested itself phenomenally on the pitch where he won three scudetti, three Supercoppa Italiana crowns, a Club World Cup winners’ medal, a World Cup trophy in 2006 and so much more besides.
It was in the Champions League where truly came into his own, however, eventually becoming an iconic figure of gargantuan proportions. In total, he collected as many as 46 goals in the UEFA Champions League – 50 including qualifying matches, 31 of which came in the red and black of AC Milan – which currently leaves him joint-seventh in the all-time list, level with the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano. More impressively, though, his supreme finishing technique means he is the highest-scoring Italian in the tournament’s history and his haul of strikes on this stage made up the bulk of goals he managed to nab across all of Europe’s top club competitions.
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After all, he also tucked away his fair share of goals in the Intertoto Cup (7), UEFA Cup (10), European Cup Winners’ Cup (2) and Super Cup (1), proving his capacity to cajole cheers from the fans wherever he went and whenever he was given licence to play the way he wanted to. It also means that he is among the top four goalscorers in UEFA club competition history with a whopping 70 to his name.
Memorable instances of the ex-Juventus and Milan attacker poking the ball home with an outstretched leg, catching a half-volley with a venomous right peg or producing a perfectly arrowed header into the top corner are plentiful indeed – in fact, Inzaghi almost managed to pocket one career goal for every day of the year as he collected a hugely impressive 313 goals throughout his 21 years in the professional game. His two decisive Champions League final goals against Liverpool back in 2007 obviously stick out most prominently.
Of course, he wasn’t simply a finisher, but an instigator who knew how to get in the right position with the regularity of clockwork. While his proclivity for besting goalkeepers and tormenting defenders with an unrivalled ability to twist, turn and contort his slim build inside a crowded box was a key strength, he also relied heavily on making life tough for linesmen everywhere.
Cautiously treading the fine tightrope that is the offside trap, it’s no secret that “Mr Offside” loved to live dangerously on the shoulder of the last defender in an effort to maximise his chances of edging nearer to a goalscoring position. It was this propensity for competing on the edge of regulation which perhaps best embodied Inzaghi as a player, and as a personality. These individual tactics were his way of sucking the most out of his time on the pitch, and though it often frustrated him as often as it did the crowd, there can be little denying that it was a stroke of genius – an evolutionary guile adopted in order to not only survive, but flourish.
He was a genuine character who brought colour and life to the sport, and he made it interesting. It was always an adventure watching him play, because nobody was ever positive what he was going to do next to score a goal. A commander of intrigue, he added explosions of ingenuity wherever he went. He was able to conjure up all sorts of different finishes, but it was his ability to make space where there seemingly was none that really made him such an exceptional talent; it allowed him to rack up the figures he did and it truly was his defining talent. Whether he did it inside the box with a handful of defenders and an outstretched goalkeeper clustered around him or whether it was by brazenly bundling towards goal with more determination than skill, it rarely mattered to him and his team.
As he once put it himself: “If you are not born a Ronaldo or a Kaká, you can still become a great player through commitment, serenity, perseverance and loving what you do.” This sums him up perfectly. He adored football to his very core and those who knew him best reciprocated that emotion tenfold for all the magnificent memories he gave them.
Sure, he was the antithesis of a golden boy striker and he vexed more than a few purists along the way, but he conquered Europe with his inventive Italian engine that never gave out, and he managed to make a glittering career out of chasing lost causes, bewildering opponents and scoring goals thanks to an insatiable yearning to be the best he possibly could.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90