He has never been the sort of midfielder who piles up goals or
lives to finish the attack. And yet, as he works down on the
soccer field at Giants Stadium, you get the feeling Roberto
Donadoni of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars could do anything
he wants to in this Major League Soccer match against the Tampa
Bay Mutiny. And that includes playing in a tuxedo and never
picking up a grass stain.
Donadoni dribbles through the Mutiny defenders like smoke
slipping through a cracked door. There are stretches when he
approaches a kind of invisibility, stealthily floating to one
side of the field or away from all the traffic, and then--as if
on cue--squirting to a vacant spot where the ball uncannily
turns up on his toe. As the May 25 game unfolds, it's clear that
Donadoni's greatness lies in his mastery of soccer's subtleties:
the economy of motion with which he sheds his man, the
anticipation of every player's next move, the touch he has on
those long, arcing passes that drop at the feet of his
net-rushing wingers from 30 or 40 yards away. "My greatest
satisfaction," says Donadoni, "comes from making the pass that
leads to the goal."
But that's not all he does. On free kicks--those set plays where
the goalkeeper, the opposing team's wall of defenders and
everyone in the stadium knows a shot is coming--it's not unusual
for the 5'9", 160-pound Donadoni to score several times a
season. And his bending corner kicks must look to Mutiny
goalkeeper Mark Dougherty like a sickle blade coming at him, at
him, at him. In this game Donadoni will score one goal, on a
free kick, and will set up two others, including the
game-winning assist on a perfect pass from the left side of the
field to charging midfielder Mike Sorber.
But statistics don't begin to capture Donadoni's brilliance. To
do that you would also need to count the compliments and gasps
and sweaty palms that Donadoni prompts when he has the ball on
his foot. "With guys like him, all you can do as a coach is sit
there and pray," says Columbus coach Tom Fitzgerald, whose team
has split its two games with the MetroStars this season.
"Because when he says, 'I'm in charge here,' you know what? He
With Donadoni, it has always been this way, long before he
joined the MetroStars last season. During his 10 years as a
midfielder with the Italian national team and storied AC
Milan--merely one of the best clubs in the richest pro soccer
league in the world--Donadoni was the connoisseurs' favorite to
anchor any mythical All-World team, mostly because he shapes the
game in a classically beautiful way, like a diamond cutter
might, understanding the angles, premeditating in an eye blink
each move or pass, then adroitly pulling it off.
In Italy, where Donadoni learned the game, soccer is not merely
a diversion. It's a calling. Special players are bragged about
like civic treasures. Responsibility to club and country is
preached. "To Italians, soccer is like opera," says MetroStars
general manager Charlie Stillitano, a first-generation
Italian-American and frequent interpreter for Donadoni. "It has
sadness, happiness, tragedy, all the elements of drama--even
melodrama." The crowds howl. The press pants and barks and
bites. An entire city's mood on Monday morning can depend on how
the local side played on Sunday night.
"Over there, you don't have the luxury of making even a bad
pass," says MetroStars midfielder Tab Ramos. In Milan, Donadoni
would never leave the locker room and encounter a scene like the
one in San Jose after the opener this season, when a
fortyish-looking Brazilian man in a knockoff Brazilian team
sweat suit buttonholed MetroStars coach Carlos Alberto Parreira,
who led the Brazilian national team to the 1994 World Cup title,
to lobby for a tryout. "This," Donadoni says with a bemused
smile, "is a change."
Though word of Donadoni's signing with MLS barely made a ripple
in the U.S. last year, it was a bombshell in the international
soccer world. He made the surprise announcement following an AC
Milan win over Rome on Feb. 4, beating the MetroStars' scheduled
press conference by a day because, as he explained to
Stillitano, "I had to say goodbye to the boys."
The news dominated the sports pages in Italy. When Parreira was
contacted in Sao Paulo last October about the MetroStars'
coaching vacancy, he sheepishly admits, "I'd never before heard
of this club named MetroStars. But when I called some friends in
Brazil they said, 'MetroStars--yes, yes. That is where Donadoni
plays.' And I said, 'Of course!' Even in Brazil, this we knew."
"What [Donadoni] gave us was instant credibility," says MLS
deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati. "Enormous credibility."
During Donadoni's stay with AC Milan, the storied club won one
world club championship, two European Champions' Cups and five
crowns in Italy's Serie A league. Beginning in '86 Donadoni was
a stalwart on the Italian national team too, starring in Italy's
third-place showing at the '90 World Cup, and its runner-up
finish to Parreira's Brazilian squad at the '94 World Cup.
But with his AC Milan contract about to run out last year,
Donadoni realized that his days as a dominant player in Italy
were numbered. He's an immensely proud athlete who constantly
emphasizes professionalism, and the relentless pressure at
Italy's top level was beginning to grow old. The '94 World Cup
had left him "fascinated" by the idea of helping professional
outdoor soccer gain a foothold in America, the game's last great
frontier. If taking the plunge meant absorbing a pay cut--from
$2 million a year to roughly half that--Donadoni says there are
some agreeable trade-offs. "If 10 years from now someone says
Donadoni helped the youth of America learn soccer, I would be
very honored," he says. Furthermore, he says he wants to coach,
and observing Parreira can only help.
Coming to America has also been his first "big adventure" with
his fiancee, Christina Radyce, and they enjoy haunting New York
City's museums or prowling the streets of SoHo in search of
Americana and art to display in his penthouse in Milan.
Donadoni's exquisite collection of paintings is highlighted by a
Tintoretto, the Italian Renaissance master; he has also
furnished his home with expensive antiques. By contrast, the
house his team helped him find in America is an enormous
contemporary in Morris Township, N.J., with a two-story living
room in which one wall is covered with mirrors and another bears
an abominable lavender-and-white airbrush painting of two
unicorns. "Very...kitschy," Donadoni and Radyce say in unison.
Then they laugh.
From the beginning he has embraced MLS with a pioneer spirit,
but if some players had a minor complaint about Donadoni last
year, it was a wish that "he would've made more of an effort to
be one of the guys," defender Rhett Harty says. Part of the
distance was his faltering English and other cultural divides.
On many European clubs, foreigners are expected to clam up and
fit in. And for those who don't know Donadoni, it's easy to
mistake his pensive silences for aloofness, his genuine humility
for ambivalence. He's clearly self-conscious when conversation
turns to him, often choosing to convey his feelings with nothing
more than pursed lips, a shrug or a comical roll of his eyes.
Put Donadoni in a match and he immediately becomes more
animated. He often seems to be having a conversation with
himself as he plays, and it's not uncommon for Donadoni to toss
his black-curled head back in anguish or slam his hands to his
face or run up to a teammate to rehash some tactical flub. "He's
got a little bite to him," MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola
says, "but he just wants to win, like everyone here does."
"The most attractive thing about Roberto to me is that he's a
star who doesn't act like a star," Stillitano says. "Some people
thought we should try to get Maradona. But Roby is not someone
who would just come here to live in Manhattan, play a couple
times a week and go clubbing the rest of the time."
Donadoni says he gave his heart to soccer when he was five years
old. One of the reasons he chose the MetroStars over his '96
offers from European powerhouses like Spain's Real Madrid was
that he couldn't countenance the idea of playing against his
beloved AC Milan, the club he'd idolized as a boy in the nearby
town of Bergamo, where he grew up.
"When we talked to Roby about leaving AC Milan," Stillitano
says, "he kept saying he wanted to play somewhere else that felt
like family." With MLS and Stillitano, Donadoni thought he might
find that. But the '96 MetroStars were anything but a happy clan.
Donadoni made his New York/New Jersey debut six days after
winning a league championship with AC Milan. The MetroStars were
winless after three games, and when they quickly fell behind 3-0
in a May 1996 game against the Mutiny, Stillitano jokes, "I was
thinking about hiding Roby's passport." But the team tied Tampa
Bay in one four-minute burst, then won in a shoot-out. "Craziest
game I've seen in my life," Donadoni says with a laugh.
If that shaky start were all the team had endured, the league
and Stillitano might have had no worries about keeping Donadoni
in MLS last winter when the European clubs made another run at
him. But the MetroStars were in constant turmoil. Players'
injuries and national team commitments forced the club to field
20 different lineups in its first 20 games. Two coaches, Eddie
Firmani and Carlos Queiroz, came and went. Donadoni had played
so splendidly during his farewell tour with AC Milan that he
received a surprise callback to the Italian national team for
the 1996 European Championship, an obligation that took him away
from the MetroStars for a month after he'd played just two MLS
matches. By the season's end Soccer America magazine was
referring to the MetroStars' trio of U.S. national team
players--Meola, Ramos and since-departed Peter Vermes--as the
Three Tenors for their frequent complaining. The team's 11-6
record with Donadoni versus its 4-11 mark without him wasn't
enough to inoculate him from some criticism.
A league source says some U.S. national team players who threw
in with the cost-conscious MLS early on--including
Ramos--smoldered when the league later signed Donadoni to his
lucrative two-year deal. "Not at all, not at all," insists
Ramos, who earns roughly $250,000 a year. "It's an honor to play
No one disputes that the MetroStars' problems last
year--whatever the cause--were myriad. Stillitano sought
Donadoni's advice. "One of the things we talked about was how do
you make a team." he says. "Roby told me when the Italian
national team stays at the national training center in
Coverciano, they sleep in these long dorms. He said their great
teams were always so close you got the feeling if one player sat
up in bed in the middle of night and sneezed, everyone else down
the hallway would say, 'God bless you.'"
Reminded of the story now, Donadoni nods and says, "Even if your
team doesn't have the most talent, I believe you can win if your
team is close. There is more to soccer than the 90 minutes you
play the game."
And so, faced with either just fitting in and losing more games
or becoming a leader, Donadoni has begun to assert himself.
Parreira took the MetroStars on a five-week training tour of
Italy this preseason to build team cohesiveness. And the other
MetroStars say it was on that trip that Donadoni's
transformation into "one of the guys" was complete.
Donadoni arranged for the MetroStars to watch the vaunted
Italian national team train. Once in Venice, he hired two water
taxis to ferry his teammates to the nearby island of Murano for
a tour of a glassblowing factory. Though Donadoni didn't go
along, he arranged a surprise gift for each MetroStar: a
handblown glass stallion. When the players hung out at night,
Donadoni introduced them to the Italian version of billiards,
and his American teammates introduced him to a U.S. sports
ritual--a skit-filled rookie show that left most of the
MetroStars veterans laughing hysterically. "I was not sure what
I was getting into," an amused Donadoni told Rhett Harty
afterward, "but I'm glad I went along."
The MetroStars, who had a 5-7 record and were last in the
Eastern Conference at week's end, are still learning Parreira's
Brazilian brand of possession football. But Donadoni urges
patience. The '97 season is young. There's been no renewal of
last year's bickering. The occasional growing pains MLS
experiences no longer sidetrack anyone much, although the team
has had to deal with the absence of Ramos, who has missed all of
this year because of a torn left knee ligament.
When the MetroStars returned to practice two days after playing
San Jose, a Greek national and his teenage son were waiting to
ask Parreira to take a look at the kid. That sort of yearning is
easy for Donadoni to understand. If you love soccer, he says,
playing professionally "is the life." From time to time, Harty
thinks about the more storied teams Donadoni could have chosen
to play for this year and last. "It means a lot to all of us,
not just me," Harty says, "that not once but twice, Roberto