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In praise of the role players

Let’s shine the spotlight on the cogs in the machine, the unsung heroes, the players who only the biggest weirdos love.

SOCCER CONF GROUP D1 KRC GENK VS FIORENTINA Photo by JOHAN EYCKENS/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

I was an extremely awkward child. I spent my spare time at school reading my history textbooks cover to cover instead of interacting with my classmates. I ate lunch alone every day. I didn’t talk to other students, not because I thought I was better, but because I was so conversationally bad that I hadn’t even the foggiest idea of how to be an acquaintance, much less a friend. The only burden greater than my unsociability was my desire to be liked, which, as you’d expect, meant that I was constantly, desperately sad.

The only time I had any real social interaction with my peers was when we played sports. Soccer, American football, basketball, baseball, whatever: physical activity was the only way I was able to relate to other kids. I was, fortunately, a pretty good athlete, so I played on a lot of different teams for my school. And because I had a need to make the other kids like me that I couldn’t fulfill through my social interactions, I learned that I could become indispensable by how I played.

As a soccer player, that meant I alternated between centerback, sweeper, and defensive midfield. I embraced man-marking the best opponent, removing him from the game, so that my teammates could do the fun stuff like dribbling and shooting. It didn’t make anyone like me, but it made them accept me a little bit, and I fully internalized that doing the dirty work was my job on the field. As a result, I’ve always been that kind of player: never the most technical or the most athletic, but usually useful, even at my advanced age, because I know my job and stick to it.

Maybe that’s why, while most people are attracted to prolific strikers or magical playmakers, I’ve always loved the limited, mildly eccentric players that fit around them. For example, I’ve never pretended that Massimo Gobbi wasn’t one of my favorite Fiorentina players of all time, for reasons that nobody else can possibly comprehend because they follow no laws of external logic.

Juventus FC v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Did I mention that he wore a mask sometimes?
Photo by Luca Ghidoni/Getty Images

For those of you who don’t remember, Gobbi was a mediocre utility player, usually used at leftback but capable in central midfield or even on the wing. He joined Fiorentina aged 26 from Cagliari for about €4.3 million and departed for Parma on a Bosman, eventually retiring in 2019 and moving into the broadcasting booth for DAZN. He was a solid but almost hilariously unspectacular player who earned a 14-minute cameo in his sole cap for Italy in an experimental friendly in 2006 that also featured luminaries luminaries such as Andrea Carracciolo (who even now is probably linked to Fiorentina’s vacancy up top).

Gobbi’s most memorable moment with Fiorentina was probably the straight red card he earned in the Champions League for standing near Arjen Robben, who went down like he’d been poleaxed; had Tom Henning Øvrebo not cocked that up, Miroslav Klose likely never would’ve scored that miles offside “winner” and the Viola might well have progressed. The Gobbi incident is about 6 minutes into the video.

His second-most memorable moment was a lot more fun, at least: a close-range finish to cap off a memorable 4-1 win over AS Roma in 2009 that featured him playing the corner flag like a guitar as the violist Alerbto Gilardino embraced him.

I have no idea why I’ve always loved Gobbi so much, but I do. He never complained, did his job, filled in all over the pitch, and seemed like a pretty decent guy off it. He’s my Platonic ideal: the uncelebrated role player, the glue that holds the side together, the smaller cog in the machine.

Fiorentina’s had any number over the years. Besides Gobbi, the Prandelli era boasted Cesare Natali and Martin Jørgensen. Those awful years under Šiniša Mihajlović and Delio Rossi were too depressing for fun role players, but the rise of Vincenzo Montella’s first spell offered the incompparable Marvin Compper, José María Basanta, Milan Badelj, and Carlos Sánchez. During Stefano Pioli/Beppe Iachini years, Bryan Dabo and Federico Ceccherini filled the role.

What does it take to be this kind of role player? It’s very difficult to be an attacking player, for one thing, and fit the mold; Khouma Babacar is probably the closest thing, but he’s too beloved in Florence. Fullbacks and defensive midfielders are better, preferably ones who can fill in at more than one position. It’s also important not to be too good, but not so hapless that the player becomes a meme (Nenad Tomović, Lorenzo Venuti). Finally, being pretty cool off the pitch is a big bonus. I also feel like there usually needs to be a minimum tenure of 3 years, but that’s negotiable.

On the current roster, I see three candidates for this unbelievably niche job: Luca Ranieri, Alfred Duncan, and Christian Kouamé. None of them are stars or even week-in starters (although Duncan absolutely should be), but they’re always useful when they’re out there. They do their jobs, staying back or pulling wide, so that Nicolás González and Giacomo Bonaventura and Arthur Melo can shine.

Ranieri’s easy to love. He’s now the longest-tenured Viola player on the team, having risen from the academy to afterthought to reliable squad member. He’s got fun hair and a hilarious mustache, he’s good-natured as they come (constantly joking and laughing during games), he times his sliding tackles better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and fills in anywhere across the back line. If I get a Fiorentina shirt this year with a name, there’s about a 50% chance it’ll be his.

Duncan’s the other option for a shirt. Much like Ranieri, he was maligned under previous coaching regimes and even surplus under Italiano for a time, but it’s become clear this year that the team simply can’t operate without him; he plays vertical passes to get his more ballyhooed teammates on the ball as quickly as possible and always drops into space so other midfielders or even defenders can rampage forward. His level-headed and honest assessments about racism in calcio demonstrate his character, and his penchant for posting clips of his exploits on Battlefield is endearing.

Kouamé’s the role player wild card. It’s unusual for a forward to meet the requirements, but Chris’ willingness to track back like a maniac rather than try to be a pure attacker, combined with his peculiar career arc—free-scoring striker prospect to massive injury to wasted potential to resurrection on loan to regular contributor—makes him a natural successor to the hardworking and versatile Jørgensen. If someone can name their hedgehog Kouamé, he’ll have it sewn up.

Again, it’s too early to say which, if any, of these three could reach the Elysian fields as objects of incredibly narrow interest adulation, but they’re all on track. More than anything, though, let’s appreciate the players that are rarely appreciated, the let’s-remember-some-guys crowd. Because without these little cogs, the machine putters to a halt.