Who was the first player who really stirred your emotions? The footballer who made you excited every time they touched the ball and raised the hackles when you heard someone dare to criticise? For me, it was Giancarlo Antognoni.
National team games were one of the few times when Italians abroad could clap eyes on their heroes back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were eagerly anticipated events and tended to be something of a gathering of the clans. The antipasto, spaghetti, espresso, red wine and grappa were ordered in advance. Even if the result went wrong, we always knew we would eat and drink well.
But for all my sense of community, I also felt like an outsider. Far and away the majority of those watching Azzurri games with me were Juventus fans when it came to the domestic game. And Enzo Bearzot’s squad, too, was awash with Bianconeri as they were the dominant force in Serie A at the time - just for a change.
That only increased my connection with Antognoni. He was usually one of the handful of players from other clubs slotted in around the Blocco Juve. That, and his jaw-dropping elegance on the ball, made him far and away the stand-out player in the side to my eyes.
Not that everyone shared my view. It felt to me back then that he was singled out for criticism more than anyone else in the side. I sensed that this had as much to do with the colours he wore during the Serie A season than any actual failings on his part. The Bianconeri amongst our gatherings would turn on him much more quickly than any of “their own”.
Looking back, though, I think I was only really grasping half the story. It was not simply his Viola allegiance which prompted people to get on his back but also the role he played. He was the classic “regista” - the man meant to illuminate Italy’s performances. He was expected to unlock defences, dictate the play, deliver pinpoint set-pieces and carve out goalscoring opportunities for his attacking colleagues. So when the Azzurri struggled, he became the natural focus of dissatisfaction.
But even as an uppity schoolboy, I leapt to his defence. His failures, I always thought, were because he was daring to try to do what others could only dream of. His vision, poise and balance allowed him to see things on the pitch which few other members of that Italy side could even countenance. When it came off, it was almost taken for granted. But when it went wrong, the heavens often opened with a downpour of abuse.
"Get him off!" or "What are you doing?" were the most common cries of despair. An eye-of-the-needle through ball had just failed or a mazy run had finally been thwarted by a desperate tackle. The price that the fantasista has always had to pay is to hear the jeers when his audacious attempts to open a defence end in failure.
Think forward through Giuseppe Giannini to Roberto Baggio to Francesco Totti and then Andrea Pirlo nowadays. We’ve all sat near to somebody who howls in derision when their attempts to outwit an opposition defence go wrong or roars in frustration when they get caught on the ball. But, without them, a team is surely diminished in its attacking threat and the viewing pleasure it provides.
I can’t quite believe this is Antognoni’s 60th birthday. It is more than 30 years since he last played for the Azzurri and over a quarter of a century since he appeared for Fiorentina. And yet the memories of how he glided through games remain as clear as they ever were. The only man always worth watching when he got the ball - at least to my eyes.
He could have won more by playing elsewhere, but he didn’t. Injury robbed him of a victorious World Cup final appearance after being a vital part of paving the way for that triumph. The closest he got to a Scudetto was losing one on the last day of the season. That might sound like a celebration of failure to many, but those who watched him play - and revered the way he did so - could never come to that judgment.
Antognoni might have driven others to distraction but he enjoyed my unconditional affection throughout his career. Everyone should have a player like that - the one they will defend to the hilt no matter what others might say. Substitute the name with whoever you like, but hold on to the conviction that they are worth standing up for. I’m still fighting the corner for the players I love watching the most - just as I did for Giancarlo back when I was just a boy.