Roberto Baggio, Alessando Del Piero, Francesco Totti… Italy’s finest had worn the number 10 shirt for the national team, but Antonio Conte decided to give it to Thiago Motta at Euro 2016 and left the fans stunned and cynical.
Somehow, this seems to be the fitting choice for such a lackluster squad. With Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio injured, Conte discarded Andrea Pirlo, completely ignored Sebastian Giovinco who is setting the MLS alight at Toronto, and even chose to omit Jorginho and Giacomo Bonaventura – the two midfielders who can be described as potential sources of imagination. The Chelsea-bound coach chose the likes of Stefano Sturaro and Emanuele Giaccherini instead, so why not give the most important number to Thiago Motta?
Conte thinks differently. “Motta is the right man, for what he has done in the past, and for what we hope he will do in the present”. Given the fact that the coach himself didn’t use the veteran 33-year-old at all during the qualifiers, that may sound a bit strange, but there is another way to look at the situation. There is little doubt that Motta is the most experienced midfielder in the squad after Daniele De Rossi, and the Roma man – who wore the number 10 shirt himself at Euro 2008 – boldly claimed: “Those who complain don’t understand football. Kick a ball with him”.
Such admiration is not unique. Motta is underrated by fans and disliked by opponents, but his teammates have always respected his qualities. What’s more – Thiago’s career is truly unique. He worked under numerous top coaches, including Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, and all of them rated him very highly.
Ironically, Motta did start out as a pure number 10. He was a playmaker at Juventus Sao Paulo in Brazil and dreamed of playing for Palmeiras, a club originally established by Italian immigrants, which is only natural for a kid whose family cherished its Italian roots.
Barcelona brought him to Europe when he was 17, and that is where his development changed significantly, because he wanted to emulate Phillip Cocu. The Dutchman’s all-around skills convinced Thiago to take a more withdrawn role and develop his defensive skills. Van Gaal saw those qualities when giving Motta a good run in the first team in the 2002/03 season. “I brought on Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol, and we shouldn’t forget Thiago Motta. They have quickly developed to a very high level”, the coach said in retrospect a couple of years ago.
He even played twice for Brazil, alongside Kaka, Robinho and Diego in 2003, and the future was bright. Motta’s rise was cruelly cut by a serious knee injury in 2004, and he never really recovered in his days at Camp Nou. Frank Rijkaard liked the Brazilian prodigy, but could never give him a place in the starting lineup on constant basis, and Motta’s attitude apparently wasn’t perfect, as seven red cards in five seasons would show. Nevertheless, he certainly was an integral part of the squad, and sat on the bench when Barcelona defeated Arsenal in the Champions League final in 2006.
A year later, his time at the club was up. Rijkaard threw him out of the team in the spring of 2007, stating: “Thiago is going through a difficult moment and is not at ease with himself. He is a good person who I get on well with, and he has always been one of my favourite players. But after a long time here things have become difficult for him”. Motta signed for Atletico Madrid, but only played six league games for them due to another knee injury, and his career was seemingly over at the age of 26. Harry Redknapp even decided to give him a chance at Portsmouth after a trial, because of fitness concerns.
That is when Motta went to the land of his great great grandfather. He arrived to the office of Genoa president Enrico Preziosi and begged him: “Give me a chance and you won’t regret it. A lot of clubs will offer big money for me very shortly”. Preziosi took the gamble, and it paid off handsomely. Mourinho personally demanded to bring Motta to San Siro in the summer of 2009, and Inter paid Genoa €10million for his services.
Remarkably, Motta became a very important part of the machine that went on to win the Champions League in his first season. Sadly for him, he missed out on playing in the final again, because of the red card conceded in the semi-final return leg at Barcelona, where Sergio Busquets infamously made a meal of Motta’s stupid challenge. That doesn’t really matter as far as his contribution is concerned. Thiago became a better player under Mourinho – tougher defensively and smarter tactically. Not for nothing did Cesare Prandelli call him up for Italy for the first time in 2011, despite some criticism.
“I have always felt Italian”, Motta stated back then. Amusingly, it was an Italian who lured him away from Serie A in January 2012 – Ancelotti wanted to see the midfielder in his squad at Paris Saint Germain. The experienced maestro rated his protege very highly. “The most intelligent player is usually a midfielder – Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso, Thiago Motta, Didier Deschamps”. Not a bad company to be mentioned in, is it? Ancelotti also stated that he believes Motta will become a good coach when his playing career is over.
Laurent Blanc, who replaced Ancelotti in 2013, also made Motta key to his plans, and it must be said that Verratti managed to improve his play thanks to his experienced teammate. PSG had numerous offers throughout the years, but refused to sell the ageing midfielder, who might be compared to Conte in his prime.
Maybe this is what Italy coach sees in him too. In the beginning of his tenure, Conte tried to rejuvenate the national team. Now that he decided to leave and return to club management at Chelsea, those long term plans are no longer relevant – and Motta was duly recalled, for what could be his last international tournament.
The previous two, under Prandelli, left a sour taste. Motta was injured ahead of the quarter-finals at Euro 2012, and only came back in time to be on the bench in the final. Eventually, he came on in the second half, only to reinjure himself, and Italy – who made all the substitutions till then – were left with ten men and no real chance against Spain on their way to losing 4-0. Two years later, at the World Cup in his homeland, Motta had a disappointing time, substituted at half-time in the sensational defeat at the hands of Costa Rica, as Italy failed at the group stage.
Now it’s time to make amends, even though Italy look rather unimaginative in midfield. Motta could be the leader, but Conte’s decision to give him the controversial shirt might work against him. He became a joke, even though it is not his fault at all. The solution would be to ignore the 10 on his back, but rather concentrate on the game itself. Who knows, maybe the Brazilian-born midfielder is capable of producing some Brazilian magic.