If you look up “Luca Toni, Numero Uno” on YouTube one of the first things that pops up is a brilliantly catchy pop song which sings about Italy’s former striker. In hearing this tune and subsequently humming it throughout the following days, I thought it appropriate to pay homage to one of Italy’s best goalscorers of recent times with my own experiences of watching him play.
I was lucky enough to see the big man three times during my younger years and his playing career. Whilst a student and poor, penniless, but dedicated Tartan Army footsoldier myself and a group of fellow Scotland fans used much of our student loans to travel to Bari, in the south of Italy in March 2007 to watch Scotland face up to the then World Champions in a Euro 2008 qualification match. The reverse fixture, also featuring Toni, came round the following November and then as a student in the city I attended Aberdeen’s match against Bayern Munich in February 2008, featuring Toni amongst other star names.
On all 3 occasions Luca Toni demonstrated – admittedly to my frustration and annoyance – what a brilliant player he was, Scoring a double in Bari, once at Hampden and then providing an assist at Pittodrie. Below I look over the 2 Scotland and Italy games, which best illustrate the quality of the man, the Numero Uno.
Italy 2 – 0 Scotland, Bari March 28 2007
Scotland travelled to Bari. This was actually (relatively speaking) quite a good Scotland side, the same squad who would beat France twice in the same group, and so despite playing the world champions there was a degree of expectation and hope going into the match.
This hope was however short lived as after just 12 minutes, Italy won a freekick down their right hand side. Massimmo Oddo swung in a right footed cross which the man mountain that was Luca Toni met flush and headed home past Craig Gordon from the near post area. A simple, but brilliant goal which began to illustrate the real quality of the player.
Matching up to good, experienced and pretty streetwise centre halves like Davie Weir and Stephen McManus, Toni somehow managed to find acres of space with some simple, but effective movement to become free at the near post and allow him enough space to shape his sizeable frame and direct a powerful header into the back of the net.
This simple, refined quality was a staple characteristic of Toni at this time. A man mountain, able to at once find space, hold his man off and direct an attempt on goal with no shortage of power or accuracy, he had mastered this particular art and was at times completely unplayable.
I mentioned above how he became “annoying”. This is in the context of being a supporter of the team he was scoring against. In scoring these goals, holding up play, using his strength and ability to create and finish chances Toni personified the class, majesty and powerful aura that you would expect from, at the time, the official World Champions. When the best team in the world are playing Scotland, you expect them to be able to hold off the challenge of their Tartan counterparts at arms length – Toni was able to literally achieve this. His presence and awareness when on the field was such that he could find enough space to be able to correctly position his body and resit any challenges which came his way, meaning that as fans we became more and more frustrated over why nobody was tackling him, nobody was picking him up and most importantly why he ended up free in front of goal to score Italy’s first of the evening.
His second goal that evening came from a swift counter attack. Scotland lost the ball in the middle of the park before Italy quickly turned and played themselves in down the right hand side. By the time that Camoranesi had been played down towards the by-line, Toni had moved from being in a relatively safe position in front of the centre backs to a position free at the back post, perfectly positioned to nod home the dinked cross that came his way. Again, simple, limited fanfare, but extremely effective.
Scotland 1-2 Italy, Hampden, 17 November 2007
The reverse fixture in this group saw the Italians visit Hampden – owing to Scotland’s results against France and Ukraine, a Scotland win could have actually led to qualification – it wasn’t to be however, but that’s another story.
The game wasn’t long gone, just a couple of minutes old in fact, when Italy worked themselves down the inside left channel. A cut back towards the penalty spot was met by Toni, who just as in Bari had managed to move, evade his marker and find enough space to twist his body and send the ball into the nearside top corner with the outside of his right foot. Again, simple and effective. No lung bursting runs, lollipops, tricks or flicks, but the presence of mind and ability to create the space he needed to finish in space – all while in a crowded penalty area.
This seemingly simple blend of strength, the ability to find space and of course the potency in front of goal again illustrated just how good Toni was. Again, during this match frustration grew as Toni was able to move around the pitch, not very fast, not very flashy, but always in space, always strong enough to hold off challenges, always dangerous when around goal. It almost became like a child chasing an adult around, as defenders couldn’t outmuscle, outmanoeuvre or challenge. At times it almost seemed as though at any given point he could just turn and thump one into the top corner if he so wished – a real demonstration of why he played up front for the best national side on the planet at the time.
Now, over the years watching Scotland, as well as football across Europe I have seen some really great players and some really great strikers in the flesh – Lewandowski, Henry and David Villa to name a few. All offered great demonstrations of ability, but with Luca Toni I felt that it was almost the simplicity, the pure, thoroughbred ability that made him stand out. He didn’t have the speed of Henry, the pace and athleticism of Lewandowski or the skill and flair of Villa, but he did possess all of the raw attributes that one needs to succeed.
As above, the finest demonstration of his ability was that in playing (and scoring) against Scotland, he just appeared to be head and shoulders above – watching an adult play against children, just bigger and better. A joy to watch and truly one of the best of his generation.
Luca Toni – Numero Uno.