The sixth sense of the striker

The sixth sense of the striker

A special goal in the Italian league last week highlighted the predators instinct

What would sport be without vision? On the Italian island of Sicily last Sunday, Fabrizio Miccoli scored a goal out of his imagination that had to be seen to be believed.

The Palermo forward watched the ball coming toward him close to the centre circle. He let that ball drop, lowered his right shoulder, arched his back, and then struck a volley so serene, so sweetly timed that it caught the opposing goalkeeper completely by surprise.

How could the Chievo Verona goalie Stefano Sorrentino know that Miccoli, already the scorer of two goals against him in the game, would launch a shot from such distance, with such skill? Look it up on YouTube. Admire the sheer audacity of Miccoli for taking the shot. Gasp at the accuracy of it as the ball bounced in front of Sorrentino before rising again over the head of the startled and stranded keeper, and beneath the cross bar, a shot that will surely be one of the greatest memories of his career. (It also will be burned into the memory of Chievo Verona’s coach, Domenico Di Carlo, who was fired on Tuesday, his last game being the loss to Miccoli and Palermo.)

There appeared to be such a small scattering of spectators behind the net at Palermo’s stadium. But you can bet your life that in years to come thousands will claim, “I was there -- I saw Miccoli complete his hat-trick that finished off Chievo, 4-1, in the Renzo Barbera.”
And from the moment it left his foot, everyone surely knew it would end up nestling in the net.

There are two types of vision here. There is the inner vision, perhaps the sixth sense, of the player who decides to take aim at the goal from half the length of the field. And there is the vision we so often take for granted, the gift of sight that allows thousands  -- and via video, millions -- the opportunity to see such an extraordinary example of time and motion.

It is soccer’s poetry. Very few men in history might have scored it; for everyone else, it would be but a dream.

I can think of Romario, the mercurial Brazilian who conjured remarkable goals out of thin air throughout his time with his national team and for all the clubs he played for in his long, nomadic and thrilling career at the top.

Now a politician with responsibilities toward the 2014 World Cup in his homeland, Romario was built somewhat like Miccoli, who stands 1.68 meters tall, or 5-foot-6, and weighs 73 kilograms, or 161 pounds. Just like Miccoli, Romario had an impudence that could confound opponents while making the ball obey his will.

Or was it a will? Do men like this really predetermine their art, or just allow it to happen?
When the reporters gathered around Miccoli after the game last Sunday, he was asked to explain the inexplicable. Did he really see Sorrentino stray a few meters off his goal line? Did he calculate the distance and account for the bounce? Miccoli smiled at them, and said: “It was instinct. I had not seen the goalie off his line. I just shot.”

How many times had Romario been asked to put into words what the eye should tell us requires no analytical breakdown? Wasn’t it Gerd Muller, that most prolific of Germans who scored a goal for every game in which he played in the 1970s and 1980s, who answered inquisitive news hounds with the explanation: “Something inside my head said, ‘Gerd, go this way.’ Or, ‘Gerd, go that way.’ ” He obeyed that voice -- instinct’s voice -- and scored this way and that.

Miccoli’s quality is like that. At 33, he has been around for years, with a career that started as a boy in Lecce, dreaming of emulating another instinctive player who could in a split second destroy the reputations of seasoned opponents.

While Miccoli was a child, he was inspired by Diego Maradona, the Argentine playing for Napoli back then. Years later, when Miccoli was making his own fortune despite being loaned out from pillar to post by Juventus, he paid 25,000 euros, about $32,000, for a diamond earring that once belonged to his idol.

Miccoli reportedly said that if he ever met Maradona, he would give the earring back to the man, from whom it had been confiscated by the Italian authorities as a forfeit for unpaid taxes while he was with Napoli.

They share other things. Miccoli has a tattoo of Che Guevara, as does Maradona. And Miccoli’s three-year-old son is named Diego.

Miccoli’s hat-trick last Sunday was by no means his first in the pink – yes, blush pink – uniform of Palermo, a team he now captains after six years as an adopted Sicilian.

The colour has been worn by the team ever since one of its founding players, Giuseppe Airoldi, suggested in 1905 that pink shirts and black shorts aptly personified the up-and-down nature of the team. “Colours of sad and sweet,” Airoldi apparently wrote to his fellow founders, reflecting the results of the initial struggle to field a team to carry Palermo’s aspirations.

Miccoli is a true vision in the pink, a slightly portly, deceptively diminutive man who long ago accumulated more goals than any other in that shirt. And a player who says he would sign a new contract tomorrow if it was offered so he could see out his days representing the Sicilian club until his legs, and his goals, cease to be of useful service.

Some say that the only reason Miccoli did not get more than 10 caps for Italy was that he testified on oath about some of the things that cost Juventus demotion from Serie A during the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal of 2006.

The Italian coach at the time, Marcello Lippi, once described Miccoli as a genius. But Lippi never picked Miccoli for the Azzurri -- not in 2006, when the team won the World Cup, nor in 2010, when it disappointed so abjectly and very definitely had no genius in its strike force.

To be fair, it is not often that coaches, whose jobs are on the line every time a team plays, put their trust in tiny talents. Romario and Maradona, who really were geniuses, forced themselves on the coaches.

But Palermo, which can sometimes appear to be Miccoli and 10 others, has gone through 20 coaches in a decade, and is already on its second coach this season.

The pink and blacks, Miccoli included, struggle for consistency, which might be one more reason to play the video again, and marvel at that hat-trick goal.

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