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Francesco Guidolin, the Quizzical Master

By Sgulizia @catch22soccer

Francesco Guidolin, the Quizzical Master

For so long now—in fact until very recently—Francesco Guidolin has lived under the haze of public amnesia. Cloudily, he has existed in the memory as a sepia wonder (a pianist like Busoni, like Scriabin), or as a series of half-remembered questions. Didn’t he write a soccer symphony while working at Vicenza and Bologna? Didn’t he practically invent the 4—2—3—1 formation?It is, perhaps, the destiny of rare innovators to remained sculpted, a silent medieval worker in a cathedral of France, until the critics scurry to give your pieces belated encomia. Bayoneted many times in his career for a lack of appeal and warmth, but still capable of ceaseless ‘flights’ in the football score, sudden surges or vzlyot in Russian, Guidolin is now the recipient of the prestigious Panchina d’oro, or golden bench, an award previously granted to Mourinho.

Francesco Guidolin is a thin man in the late fifties. His irrepressible athleticism, his love of outdoor sport, takes the shape of a bicycle. Two months after the Serie A, he sometimes races across the Dolomites. As the plans of Udinese unravel, the clash with their rivals becomes physical. The coach wears a wristwatch, and a windbreaker from Abercrombie & Fitch. The expression on his face—a mask concealing another mask, and behind that—a wide grin that reminds the bystanders of how defeat around here is the gagging memory of seawater. For loyal supporters of Guidolin in Udine, hopes leak down like ammonia rubbed in with a sleeve. You can spit them out, they’d still taste toxic. The coach’s eyes are as gray and striated as graphite. Outside, a Greek alphabet λ of geese crosses the sky, shadowing the undercarriage of the coastal banks.

As if he always knew. Even before this incredible season, Guidolin’s work—and it always is heavy work—seemed driven by mania. His eyes a dark cold hurt. His legs crouching by the very borders of the green park. The scion of a wealthy family in Veneto, Guidolin had come to football to enrich himself through a single bold endeavor. Always thorough, he is not hurried. For several months, he can make plans. Four-men defense had been his earlier choice, but after studying the field and the players in his roster at Udinese he came to the conclusion that it would be enough to have one spare man in the back aside from the markers. Once he envisioned the kind of tactical wealth he had in mind, his attention focused on the modestly small patterns and details a bank robber would turn to, if he were to kidnap the chairman of a brewing company near the Karst plateau and wanted to make sure Mr. Visentin was the person he meant to abduct.

Guidolin is the most brand-conscious coach in Italy. He is fastidious himself. He regards as oppressive the press rooms laced with jargon and political-science abstractions. A crab trap in a crater of mud—this wasn’t part of the job he wanted. One day he sat down at an interview: “Okay then.” The reporters of the Corriere dello Sport were staring at him with a stunned expression. A thin, stuttering, uncertain trickle in the air. When questions came, they swung at him with the sound of a whiplash. “I think Amauri is Italy’s Drogba,” explained Guidolin, his soft voice studiously droning into a sequence of hollow sobs. “Come on, Mr. Guidolin,” somebody replied flatly. Was that enough? He stood up. He realized he’d never look at journalists again without reading a thought beyond their scabbed shoulders, It’s different with you. Had he been a worker at a paint factory in Pordenone, he’d be performing his job duties with highly commended care. If he was on a night shift, he’d be able to remove every paper trace of his background before he left.

Tactically, Guidolin’s teams are exceptionally clean. Privacy and insulation are hard to breach like the scenes of the archive in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film totally dedicated to palettes of gray and brown, and to soundproofing as a tactile metaphor of knowledge. Everything from bolts to wheel looks as if the old owner had washed it—washed not just for the paint and chrome surfaces to shine. Yet the engine often stumbles in the flat-out down trails of the Serie A, near April or earlier on, much like an old Buick traversing the rising ground between the ranch and the ridge. The craftsman stops choosing the right moment. Even the old masters of Strasbourg had once to admit that the clockwork in the zodiac of the cathedral was prone to sand and sharp stones. If you look long enough, you can match the timing of the slope in Guidolin’s quizzical stare, a geologist crouched on the ground to fit the recalcitrant pebble through the scattered junipers. ♦

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