David Platt: the Maradona of Bari


The day before match day.

Saturday night in Bari.

The bar-pizzeria is run down, almost empty and no different from any other in Italy except that the staff (the owner, a waitress and two barmen) have lined up like a welcoming committee at the bar and, mouths agape in awe and anticipation, are silently watching me eat.

The pizzaiolo, discreetly motioned over by the owner, nervously joins them, a bizarre expression of emotion and pride on his face as I eat one of his frutti di mare.

Of course, it is nothing to do with me.

In Bari these days, no matter who you are or what you do, as long as you are English or look English, wherever you go, the townsfolk smile and come over to chat to you. They want to know what you think of Bari, of Italy, and of course, football.

In the bar, next to two teenage girls wearing red Bari football scarves, an old man is poring over the sports pages studying the tables of goal averages and goal scorers, the possibilities and likelihoods that document every aspect of every game.

On the TV screen, a pouting, fantastically leggy glamourpuss is previewing Sunday’s crucial games with a barrage of goals, opinions and interviews before introducing guests for a two-hour debate. But, for once, no one in the bar is watching the screen.

Nudged forward by the others, the owner, smiling, hands spread wide like a Mafioso welcoming a friend, comes over and sits down opposite me. Hunched forward, looking up at me, raising his eyebrows and smiling, he nods his head slowly with an intimacy, an importance that confirms we both know something.

Pointing his finger at me, nodding excitedly and grinning feverishly, suddenly he says the words which everyone has been thinking: “Dav-eed Platt !” he exclaims. It’s a greeting that has all the warmth and enthusiasm of the Mexican gringo in the Heineken advertisement who says nothing except the words “Bobby Charlton” and “Nobby Stee-lez”.

I smile. The owner beams at me and starts chuckling happily. Everyone starts smiling, warmly, proudly, in welcome. He stops laughing and, still nodding his head, pointing his finger and smiling knowingly, says it again, more seriously: “Dav-eed Platt… Eh, amico ? Eh ?
Dav-eed Platt.” And then again, suddenly: “Dav-eed Platt.”

The name is all he says. It’s the only English the man knows.

It takes me back to something Platt said himself.
“There are moments in football when you don’t really know what you’re doing,” the player said, describing his most famous goal, which was scored for England against Belgium in the last minute of extra time in the 1990 World Cup.

One suspects that one of these moments – when even he didn’t realize what he was doing – came when Platt, in his first major Italian press interview, declared in a broken Midlands/Italian accent: “I want to be the Maradona of Bari.”

To those of us who’ve been to Bari and seen Bari play, this was a bit like wanting to be “the Maradona of Notts County”.

To others, it simply sounded like a typical footballing platitude, mere hyperbole by another expensive new signing eager to gain favour with the fans; ridiculous wishful thinking. To the people of Bari, however, it was prophecy, albeit unwittingly – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

High on the hysteria and heroics of the World Cup, Platt, a world-class star, was coming to Bari in a £5.5 million pound transfer from Aston Villa as the centerpiece of Bari’s £17 million summer spending spree.

And, as Diego had done for Naples, David would deliver for Bari. It just remained for Platt to realize that in Bari, you don’t make such promises lightly. You don’t take the success of the team and the idolism of the people, or make comparisons with Naples and Maradona, lightly.

Mobbed at the airport and welcomed by a euphoric reception on his home debut, where he took the captain’s armband from his predecessor and was embraced by the president of Bari, Vincenzo Matarrese (a businessman who has dreams of emulating football tycoons like Gianni Agnelli and Silvio Berlusconi), it wasn’t long before Platt got an idea of what the unpredictable passions and extremism of Italian football fanaticism are really like.

BARI BETRAYED BY PLATT screamed a headline in the Gazzetta dello Sport, the most popular and influential of Italy’s omnipresent daily sports papers. BARI CALLS BUT PLATT DOES NOT RESPOND lamented the sub-heading.

What was the occasion for this heinous treachery ? A penalty miss in a meaningless pre-season friendly. The paper re-christened him “Plaff”, mockingly referred to him as “Mister Miliardi” (Mr. Millions) and poured scorn on the wisdom of the transfer and the four million lire (£2,000) that Platt is reputed to earn per day.

In Italy, however, this sort of scrutiny and expectation is an everyday part of the madness and mania that is Italy’s obsession with football. Besides the 40-page daily sports papers, and 36 weekly TV programmes, each day hundreds of men gather in the city centre to debate and argue about football.

Attention has been focused particularly on Platt, a personable, down-to-earth 25-year-old from Oldham, because while other much-feted foreigners such as Vazquez, Scifo, Stojkovic, Blanc and Batistuta were not only fighting to establish themselves in the teams, but were also adapting to the lifestyles of more glamorous cities like Turin, Verona, Naples and Florence, David Platt had come to Bari.

Bari is an atypically nondescript Italian city, way down on the Adriatic coast, near the point of Italy’s “heel”, where it seems to be kicking the island of Sicily (most likely skying it over the bar or hoofing it out of the defence).

It does not receive many English visitors. So few in fact, men, waitresses and taxi drivers of Bari, identifying you as a pale-skinned, blond Englishman, immediately take you to be one of Platt’s colleagues or cousins. For the pizzaiolo to watch me, an Englishman who has actually met David Platt, been to his house, eating one of his pizzas, is a dream come true.

The meal quickly becomes a bombardment of questions. What is my assessment of Bari and Bari’s team ? Do I think Platt likes it ? And crucially, will he stay ? (A question that, anxious for reassurance, they repeat every five minutes). My answers are received with a hushed reverence until, not wanting to offend them, I mutter something to the effect that Platt probably does like it, at which point there breaks out an eruption of such glee that anyone would think The Man From Del Monte had just given his verdict.

This sort of expectation and attention on Platt spread from a local obsession into a national one as Bari took fifteen league matches before winning their first match of the season, a goal against lowly Cagliari four minutes from time eventually doing the trick.

In the opening weeks of the season, Platt found every part of his game and his life analyzed in sports papers like the Corriere dello Sport and the Gazzetta dello Sport. These papers are the daily Bibles of Italian football, its living archive, documenting statistics, match facts and news alongside Hello!-style profiles, rumoured scandals and endless polemica (controversy and bickering).

After just a week, Platt discovered the scrutiny that this mad goldfish bowl exerts when it was reported in the Gazzetta that he had eaten in four local Bari restaurants, naming them and his selections. Risotto agli scampi at Oscar’s was, apparently, “his favourite”.

Football in Italy is like a contagious disease, where the first serious symptom is a psychotic, insatiable need for data. So, although they find themselves defiantly wedged at the foot of the league table, Bari are top of two of the (completely pointless) leagues that the paper ingeniously create and compile. Poor old Bari (eight points down on last season) emerge top of the league of deterioration and are therefore officially the “most disappointing team in the league.”

On the other hand, Bari’s position at the top of the newspapers’ Tempo Effetivo league (time that the ball is in play in each game), with an average of 62 minutes and 48 seconds per game, is hardly a consolation.

As Bari’s top scorer (almost their only scorer), having scored five of Bari’s nine goals (plus four in the almost irrelevant Italian Cup), Platt was equal fifth in the goal scorers’ league, where each and every goal was broken down into left foot/right foot, headers, free kicks and penalty kicks.

One of the most recent British exports, Ian Rush, is still remembered in Turin for his inability (after two years) to say even his own name in Italian.

Platt has not only mastered the basics of the language, he has gone further.
“I want to be an Italian,” he said in his first interview. “To speak Italian, live like an Italian, eat like an Italian. The secret to success in Italy,” he declared, “is to submerge yourself in the new reality.”

The Gazzetta dello Sport revealed: “Platt likes the sun, the sea, Ferraris, Armani and all types of pasta.”
“Like all the English, David Platt likes The Beatles and thrillers,” said another. “He loves Italy, in the same way Byron and Shelley did.”

It is also disclosed, with a (probably justified) note of skepticism, that Platt “even likes art – Leonardo, Michelangelo and, even more, the man who designed Bari’s stadium, – ‘the space-ship of my dreams’.”

Smart move. Having inevitably become Bari’s idol (“Our emblem, our banner, our flag,” as the Bari full back put it), he has been acclaimed everywhere for his characteristics of courage, determination and leadership, qualities Italians do not expect form their star stranieri (foreigners), and clearly he relishes reminding Italians that other English league players like Wilkins, Souness, Francis and Brady graced the Italian game.

In his Valenzano villa, Platt certainly seems to have “submerged” successfully into an Italian lifestyle.

A shiny espresso machine takes pride of place in his shiny kitchen. His coat, his suit and shoes are by Boss, Armani and Versace. His Italian is passable enough to chat to well-wishers in the street or mumble the usual football clichés in endless TV interviews. His hand gestures on the pitch and the way he drives his black Mercedes 190E 2.5 16 are unmistakably Italian.

But life in the goldfish bowl of Italian football is fairly manic; the goldfish bowl is, at least, a golden one. The villa is cool and spacious. It’s certainly a long way from a YTS scheme playing centre forward in Manchester United’s third team, or Fourth Division Crewe, where he went from United on a free transfer.

Platt has in any case avoided turning his villa into anything like the “house of doom” owned by Juventus, where Rush, Russian midfielder Zavarov and Italian prodigy Roberto Baggio all lived during highly publicized failures in Turin.

If the pressure on Italian stars such as Baggio and “Toto” Schillaci (who was reduced to a laughing stock and branded “nervoso”) is enormous, then the pressure on foreigners is phenomenal. Bari’s Australian forward Frank Farina and Yugoslav genius Zvouinne Boban have both discovered how disposable stranieri can be.

Match day in Bari.

Like Gullit in Milan or Maradona – whose name and face, even now, can still be found on defaced Catholic shrines and churches all over Naples – Platt’s smiling face appears on flags, banners and posters in Bari shops and bars everywhere.

The news in the Gazzetta and Corriere is that “Platt has a fever”. It is the talk of the town.

“I don’t know how they found out,” shrugs Platt. “I went home after training, feeling a bit weak. I was sick and called out the doctor from home. No one knew. But they’ve even got what time he got here.”

The doctor in question is named as Sabino Leraraio and Platt’s temperature is given as 38 degrees. However, another paper reassures its concerned readers that, “like Lazarus”, Platt has arisen and will play.

Not far from the city centre, Bari’s other emblem, the £70 million Saint Nicola Stadium, where England fell to Germany in the World Cup, hovers on the horizon like a strange, squashed spaceship or an enormous, deflated paddling pool.

Bari president Vincenzo Matarrese built the stadium with the help of a grant from the Italian World Cup Committee/Italian league, whose president happens to be Matarrese’s brother, a man of considerable “influence.”

At a packed press conference before the match, Matarrese arrives like a powerful politician to a reverential standing ovation. The president of Bari’s Disabled Supporters Club reads him a poem in praise of the stadium but Matarrese shrugs her aside, leaving in a hurry in order to offer some “encouragement” to the players, as he puts it. A club official generously shows me to the impoverished trophy cabinet, which someone has tried to replenish with match pendants and what appear to be cycling trophies.

Inside the stadium, 37,000 fervent fans, some of whom have paid £85 to be here, are waiting amid the smoke bombs which fill the air like the red clouds of napalm. A few union jacks are fluttering gently in the smoke as Platt and Giannini lead out the teams, who have been warming up in two gymnasiums under the pitch. There is incredible tension. Bari awaits…and expects.

2 MINUTES: Platt, flu-stricken and wearing cycling shorts for a groin strain, falls badly and starts limping heavily.

8 MINUTES: Platt, still hobbling, ghosts into the box unmarked to head towards goal from ten yards, only to see the ball fall gently wide. With no sympathy at all, cries of “Madonna, puttana”, “Porca miseria” and “Porca Madonna” (“Madonna, whore”, “Pig misery” and “Pig Madonna”) echo around me.

9 MINUTES: Platt crosses for Bari’s hapless centre forward, Soda, to rise like a salmon at the far post, and head home. The referee interrupts the scenes of jubilation, disallowing it for climbing.

13 MINUTES: Bari’s left back, caught out of position, races back, and to warm applause brilliantly dummies German centre forward Rudi Voeller. He then makes a disastrous back pass, past his goalie, for Voeller to slot home into an empty net. 1-0 to Roma. Platt runs half the length of the pitch to console the distraught full back. At halftime, Bari are losing 1-0.

46 MINUTES: Waiting for the second half to start, Platt crouches down in the centre circle, surrounded by anxious teammates, and vomits on the halfway line.

68 MINUTES: After frantic pressure, the ball falls to Platt who shoots straight at a defender. The ball rebounds back into his path and he drives it powerfully home. 1-1.

85 MINUTES: The scoreboard announces that Bari’s four relegation rivals have all lost.

86 MINUTES: Roma’s captain Giannini, completely unmarked, bursts through the Bari defence and, inexplicably, shoots wide.

89 MINUTES: Bari win a corner. A far post header by the brilliant Yugoslav, Jarni, is flicked onto the bar. The ball drops a yard from the line where Platt slides it in and knocks it in with his knee. 2-1 to Bari.

Joy, incredibly joy, with an overpowering sensation of relief, release and excitement, explodes around the ground.

Platt has raced to the corner flag and is doing what must be the Oldham version of the lambada. In clouds of red smoke, total strangers hug and slap me on the back. Hats and newspapers are thrown into the air.

One man clenches his fist and starts chanting, “Dav-eed Platt. Dav-eed Platt !!!” “The English will enjoy a free dinner in Bari tonight,” says another. The referee blows.

It is the first time Bari, who have been impressively woeful throughout, have scored two goals at home and only the second time all season. At the end of the game, one Bari player is standing in front of the Bari Ultras (the hardcore), applauding and taking the applause. It is David Platt.

After the match is over, and under the watchful eye of his agent, Platt spends an hour wedged in a corridor underground being badgered and battered by dozens of journalists recording interviews for tonight’s television, where today’s goals will be endlessly replayed and analyzed.

On Sunday’s Movie-ola, experts pore over every debatable goal/offside/penalty/ sending off with pinpoint precision, endlessly replaying each piece of action in slow motion like film of the Kennedy assassination, until every controversy has been resolved.

Tonight, the Movie-ola proves that Ruud Gullit “duped” the ref, diving outrageously to win Milan’s crucial penalty. The Gazzetta has compiled a league that reveals how the league table would be if every referee’s decision was correct. Even so, Bari would still be relegated.

Back in his house at Valenzano, Platt is being interviewed for The Sun by a man with a sheepskin coat and a huge writing pad.
(Sun headline ? SUCCESS ON A PLATT)
“Tell us about the goal, David.”
“Well, the ball came over, I just hit it and it went in really,” explains Platt, well-meaningly.

In his fabulously ornate, gold and black, Cleopatra-esque bathroom, Platt is sitting in the round, sunken, gold bath, fully clothed, smiling at the Sun photographer, waving his football boots in the air.

“Now, if you could just take your top off, David,” the photographer says, as if those words are an inevitable part of every Sun assignment. “And hold the Gazzetta up.”

Platt protests. Not because he’s sitting in the bath fully clothed holding a pair of football boots, nor because he has to take his shirt off, but because he doesn’t read the Italian press and has said so in the interview. Perplexed by Platt’s attachment to the truth, the photographer shakes his head.

The day after match day.

Valenzano. Platt has made the Gazzetta’s Team of the Week, positioned behind van Basten and Skuhravy. In the streets, every 20 yards, passers-by offer Platt compliments on his goals. When he’s not there, they offer them to me.

Platt and I inadvertently end up in a fairly heated discussion about the way football is changing in Britain with ground shares, bond schemes and all-seater stadia taking football away from the community and the fans.

I ask him whether he thinks footballers could, or should, try and influence the way the game is run.

“People who take decisions will always be unpopular,” Platt says bluntly. “I go out and play football. I don’t get involved in the politics of the thing ‘cos at the end of the day, the game will still last 90 minutes and be played on a green pitch… I sympathize with the fans, but what can you do about it ?”

I say they could go on strike.
“I would never support a players’ strike. To me, I get enjoyment from going out there and playing. If I go on strike, I don’t play and that’s where I get my enjoyment. The be-all and end-all is the job you do on the football field.”

None of which will reassure the people of Bari, who, with the lure of lire over loyalty, fear that Platt is already destined for Agnelli’s Juventus, who are thought to have secured a first option on his transfer.

Not only have Juventus traditionally used Bari as a “nursery team”, but Platt has talked of Juventus and ex-Juventus captain Michel Platini as his idols. When president Agnelli missed Juventus’ grudge match against Fiorentina to attend Torino vs. Bari and introduce himself to Platt, a groan of woe rose up from the city.

Platt has a clause in his four-year contract allowing him to leave should Bari be relegated. His form suggests that even if Bari survive, the asking price Juventus or Atletico Madrid (another interested party) would pay is likely to be too high to resist. A figure of eight million has been mentioned.

The day I left the only question anyone in Bari asked me was, will he stay ? Platt is their main hope, almost their only hope. Their only other hope is that Platt is going out with Azzurra, a Bari girl, “una splendida Bruna.”

They cling to this with such desperation that the obvious interpretation (that any sensible girl from Bari would look upon Platt as her ticket out of Bari) seems to have escaped them.

Sadly, however, the villa shows no sign of a feminine touch. The house remains strangely impersonal, almost deliberately un-homely. Six dining-room chairs (costing £1,000 each, designed by an Italian architect) strike one as being horribly uncomfortable.

It does not seem like a home.
“Is that your dog ?” asks the photographer about a puppy sitting on Platt’s doorstep.
“My dog ?” Platt repeats. “It’s not my dog. It’s A dog.”

post script: That summer, David Platt signed for Juventus for £ 6.5m