Bari 4 Internazionale 1
Serie A, Stadio San Nicola, Bari, 6 January 1996
"It's better to live one hour as a tiger than a whole lifetime as a worm."
(The Cat, Red Dwarf)
In the mind's eye, every goal is the same. A figure, slightly hunched, hair jet black, shirt untucked, socks rolled around the ankle, standing maybe 30 yards from goal, in the inside-left channel. The ball zips to his feet. He has drifted, almost unconsciously, into that corridor of uncertainty, a little too far from the full-back, out of the orbit of either central defender. He glances up. Space. The movement starts.
The ball is brought to heel with his left foot and his body opens up, right arm swinging out, as if holding open a door. He flicks the ball with his right foot and starts to sprint. It is not elegant, like a gazelle, or a horse, but hurried, shuffling, like an adulterer scampering through a garden, clothes clasped in one hand, covering his exposed crotch. One bound. Two. The ball sitting there, invitingly now.
It all happens like that, in the blink of an eye, in a breath. He looks up. The goalkeeper is starting to crouch, poised. He cocks his right leg, a trigger. Now for the poetry. In one motion, he sweeps through the ball, his torso contorting with the force, right arm lifting up, left arm swinging down, a highwayman on the bowling lanes. The ball flies, no spin at all, not into the far corner — as most goalkeepers would expect — but low, flat, inside the near post. He races away, that black hair — slightly mulleted, if we're completely honest with ourselves — flapping against the nape of his neck, mouth gaping in a scream, a roar. In the mind's eye, every single one of the 24 goals he scored in that one golden season is the same.
There is a curiosity to the one-season wonder that exerts a strange sorcery over the imagination. The player who emerges from anonymity, from mediocrity, and then, over the course of nine months, explodes into our consciousness, a flash of light and sound and promise. Anything seems possible. The game's very pantheon shakes at this intruder, this Everyman who might yet rewrite history, who seems suddenly destined to take his seat among the greats. And then? Nothing. He fades into obscurity, ordinarily after moving on to greener, more fertile pastures, and finds himself exiled in Nowheresville once more, forever remembering, wondering, despairing at what might have been, taunted and mocked and jeered and condemned as a waste of talent, of life. He has had his hour as a tiger. He must return to being a worm.
Maybe that is why the one-season wonder appeals so much. It is not just that its existence hints at life's limitless possibility, that it gives us hope not just that the good-for-nothing makeweights in our team might one day, for one moment, touch the stars, but that we might, too. It is the same sentiment that infuses the narrative of the superhero — the mild-mannered journalist or photographer or whatever who can fly or shoot webs or construct a tool-belt which can contain myriad heavy kit but still, somehow, defy gravity to such an extent that your trousers do not fall down — and that plays into rom-coms, too, those stories of Average Joe getting Katherine Heigl because of the one special trait that he suddenly discovers he possesses. It tells us that our own ordinariness need not be permanent, that it should not hold us back. The one season wonder gives everyone chance to dream.
At first, though, only at first. The inevitable denouement to the story — and it is inevitable, because otherwise they would not be one-season wonders — plays to a different psychological trope. It reminds us that even those who seem to reach to the sky can fall to earth. The one-season wonder is Icarus. It teaches us that perhaps it is OK being a worm, forever, because it means you do not know the pain of what it was to be a tiger. It is hope and it is despair, stirring Wagnerian bombast and muted Radiohead despair. It is life. The one-season wonder is an encapsulation of the human condition.
Everyone will have their favourite. Michael Ricketts, once of Bolton, is probably the purest example. One year of cloudburst, and then an endless desert, a perennial drought. There are more. Marcus Stewart, Francis Jeffers, Chris Armstrong, Matt Jansen, Danny Cadamarteri, Michael Johnson: there are countless domestic examples, increasingly shrouded in the mists of memory. And abroad? Daniel Güiza, maybe, who so cleverly timed his one season in the sun so that he might win the European Championship with Spain. Roque Santa Cruz, too, could be included, for all the rich promise he once boasted and for all that football's most handsome striker has suffered more than his fair share of injuries. You could even make a case for Fernando Torres, if the category were expanded to include those whose excellence endured for two years.
None, though, burned quite so brightly, so briefly, as Igor Protti. In one year, one glorious year, Protti illuminated Serie A. In the 1995-96 season, that was no mean feat. This was a league that was by some distance the finest in the world; it was home to the very best defenders in the world, to the very best teams. Its strike-forces were comprised of Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Baggio, Oliver Bierhoff, Enrico Chiesa, Pierluigi Casiraghi, the great and the good, and yet they were all left in Protti's wake.
Only Giuseppe Signori, of Lazio, could keep pace with him. Both finished on 24 goals, sharing the prestigious title of capocannoniere, but it is a simple measure of Protti's excellence that season that, while Signori was part of a crack Lazio side designed and built at considerable cost to challenge for the title, Bari were relegated. They possessed the league's deadliest striker, but they went down. Protti was not far off a one-man band.
And in the mind's eye, every goal was the same: the cut in, the look up, the searing, fizzing shot and the ecstatic, almost Korybantic, celebration. They were not, of course: he scored headers and tap-ins and free-kicks and chips and, against Atalanta, a brilliant bicycle kick, but sufficient followed the blueprint that it is those that endure most powerfully in the memory. It is those goals that gave him his hour as a tiger.
And in that hour, this was his most tigrine, most predatory moment. The ugly, sprawling monstrosity of the Stadio San Nicola, far from full, but about as full as it ever gets, for the visit in January 1996 of Roy Hodgson's Internazionale, another side with aspirations considerably higher than mere survival.
Looking at the line-ups now, it really was Hodgson's Inter; looking at the line-ups, it becomes clear why Inter did not go on to win the league. He named five full-backs in his two banks of four, one of them, Roberto Carlos, in central midfield. He also named Gianluca Festa in central defence, which rather suggests that the idea of mid-90s Serie A as home of the most impregnable practitioners of catenaccio might have been somewhat exaggerated.
And Bari? Well, this was not the Bari of Gianluca Zambrotta — that came later — or the Bari, more recent still, that could call upon a teenage Antonio Cassano. This was Eugenio Fascetti's Bari, with the ponderous Klas Ingesson in midfield, with energetic but limited wingers like Carmine Gautieri and with Kennet Andersson, the Swedish Ian Ormondroyd, upfront. This was not a Bari for the ages. But it was a Bari for Protti. It was the perfect Bari for Protti, and that year, and that night, Protti was perfect, too.
He would have to be. Even with Hodgson's revolutionary five full-back formation, Inter's class was evident. Roberto Carlos put them ahead just 16 minutes in, a moment worthy of recording, simply because the Brazilian — deployed in midfield —scored with his right foot, crashing in Maurizio Ganz's cut-back from just outside the box.
So far, so regulation. Inter would have been expected to win this game comfortably, in normal circumstances. Bari's approach was unsubtle, predictable: work the ball wide, to Gautieri and Pedone, and try to use Andersson's aerial prowess to expose Festa and Bergomi. Inter, even in such comparatively straitened times, had more than sufficient wit and wisdom to repel their advances.
Not so. Gianluca Pagliuca had not been drawn into a save of note when Bari equalised; in retrospect, perhaps they were profiting from the goalkeeper's boredom. He rushed to meet an inswinging corner, but found himself blocked by Nicola Berti, his own team-mate, and beaten fairly simply to the ball by the leaping Luigi Sala, Bari's rangy 21-year-old central defender. All square.
Suddenly, Bari swarmed all over Inter. Pagliuca redeemed himself, partially, for his mistake just two minutes later, brilliantly tipping over a volley from Protti, then denying Gérson, Bari's pedestrian Brazilian midfield player, from close range. Inter were shaking, crumbling. Who knows: perhaps they did not have enough full-backs on the pitch.
The turning point, though, came when one of those players was forcibly removed, the legendary Giuseppe Bergomi — bafflingly allowed to play while wearing the sort of gold chain you'd expect to see on offer at Elizabeth Duke — dismissed with 20 minutes to play. It was no surprise that his second yellow card came for a foul on Protti. This was Protti's evening. Before then, he had seen two passionate penalty appeals turned down and been denied by Pagliuca once more. He was, in a figurative sense, omnipresent. This was his apotheosis.
It was the moment that he seared that image, contorted limbs and smooth, feline movement, into memory, too. 73 minutes in. Wide left; a touch further out and a touch further across than he would ordinarily like. No matter. Control the ball, drop the shoulder, duck inside Marco Branca's limp, flaccid challenge. Into his stride now, building speed. One touch, two. One pace, two. Open the ball out from his body. Glance up. Shoot.
His entire bodyweight went through that ball, the effort expended lifting him from the ground. He was 30 yards from goal. It was typical Protti. With one exception: the ball did not fly, low and flat, to the near post. It gained altitude, cutting through the air, and seemed somehow to burn not past Pagliuca but through him. It swerved a little, just as he tried to punch it clear, and then it dipped into the net. It was the sort of goal Hotshot Hamish scored. It landed dead centre of the goal. Pagliuca landed on the floor. A wisp of smoke floated from his hair, singed by the speed of the ball.
That was it. Inter faded, melted, slumped. Klas Ingesson scored the third with 10 minutes to go, Gérson nipping to the right touch-line, cutting the ball back, and the Swede, with surprising delicacy of touch, curling round and past the helpless Pagliuca.
The final word, though, was Protti's. Suddenly, grace was flowering in the most unlikely places. Andersson chipped Pagliuca from 35 yards; the ball struck the bar. Protti was there, shirt untucked, socks around his ankles, captain's armband trailing from his bicep, to head the rebound into the corner and wheel away, to receive the ovation of his adoring public. Their night, his night. The night it all worked.
Bari would beat Inter again, three years later, the game in which Antonio Cassano announced himself to the world, controlling Simone Perrotta's long ball with his studs, flicking the ball over his shoulder and scoring the sort of goal most players wait a lifetime to witness, let alone actually perform. That was the start of things for Cassano. He went on to Roma and Real Madrid and Internazionale and AC Milan and he slept with a lot of women and ate a lot of pastries and lived the dream, his dream.
For Protti, though, this season was the end. Before his time at Bari, Protti had toiled away from Italian football's spotlight, at Rimini, Livorno, Messina and the like. He spent four years at Bari, but none of the three that preceded 1995-96 even hinted at what was to come. He scored 46 goals for the club. 24 of them came in that one year.
That was enough to earn him a move to Lazio, and it is here that the narrative of the one-season reasserts its authority. He spent three years in Rome, but was loaned out to Napoli for one of them and Reggiana for much of another. He did not settle. He certainly never looked like he would be able to reproduce the form that had brought him to national attention. He was released from his contract.
And that, really, should have been the end of Protti. He should have faded from view. Maybe, though, he was not quite a one-season wonder. That respectable season on loan at Reggiana attracted the attentions of Livorno, where he had spent three years at the start of his career.
He would end it there, too, helping the standard-bearers of Italy's left — how apt — from Serie C1 to Serie B and then, in 2005, to ninth place in Serie A. They remember him in Livorno, of course. He has been granted the freedom of the city, and he — bizarrely — appeared on stage there in a version of the opera La Bohème in 2012. The club even retired his number 10 shirt, for a time, until he asked them not to.
But it is in Bari where memories burn the brightest. It is to that one glorious year that the mind's eye is drawn, where Protti was perfect, and where all the goals were the same.