His early career was marked by resounding success: by nineteen he was starting for a good Genoa team; by twenty one he was starting for the deities of European football at the time, Milan; after three years there he moved to Spain and continued to win everything. He had won the Champions League with both Milan and Real Madrid, by most conventional and logical measures Europe's two greatest clubs, and he was still just 25 years old. On top of the world. But then came two rocky years, where success seemed more distant than ever before in his career, and stability was an empty word. Directly after lifting the big eared trophy to the sky in Amsterdam, he took his wife whom he had met in Madrid and moved back to Italy, where Lippi's Inter was in the midst of an arms race and threw money at everyone in order to build a winning team. That didn't happen. Panucci clashed with Lippi so hard that they remain blood enemies to this day. Even if Lippi was thrown out after only a year in Milano, Panucci's relationship to the club had been damaged beyond repair in the process, and he spent the coming year in Chelsea and Monaco. He'd seized to be relevant in a ridiculously short time span, and was left at Monaco where young players come to start off and everyone above 20 comes to live outside of the pitch and die on it. Meanwhile in Rome, Capello demanded new players to reinforce the team just made Italian champions; right before the transfer window closed Panucci came back to serie A on loan, in a deal that would soon be made permanent. And then, dare I say amazingly?, he who couldn't stand to stay in any one place for longer than three years ended up staying eight in Rome. Stability found, for the first time. In the beginning, much was made of Panucci's relationship with Capello; they shared a past in both Milan and Real Madrid. Capello said Panucci was trustworthy, a player he could count on. Panucci said Capello was his favorite coach, but mostly because he was the only one he hadn't fallen out with yet. When Capello snuck away to Juventus, Panucci remained and became one of the senators of the team, and vice captain.
Panucci is the highest scoring defender in Roma's history, but I treat that tidbit of curiosity with little interest. It's not an irrelevant statistic, football is after all made easier when you score goals, but it's such an arbitrary, contrived one that I can't feign interest in it or pretend that it means something. I'm much more interested in how he became the defender with the most goals ever - that far post routine on corners and free kicks, every time. I wonder if he ever scored a goal that didn't happen at the far post. That aspect of his scoring captivates me for the sheer reliability he expressed by making that play so often, and I am left wondering how it's possible that "and make sure you mark Panucci on the far post and close down that zone on corners" wasn't just as natural and omnipresent in pre game tactic sessions as saying "Totti's good, watch out for that guy". But even that, which I reiterate fascinates me, is only a small part of what Panucci's career is, a mere parenthesis in the full story. His true virtue lies in his attitude towards football, conflicts and life. You're forgiven if you assume his attitude towards all three is to argue and dig his heels into the ground until he wins, because that's what it feels like most of the time.
Even if he had philosophical issues with the role of authority (that works as a euphemism, right?), it isn't any longer even a matter of contention whether or not having him in a team makes that team likelier to win. It is. Not because he's a high scoring defender, or because he's immaculate when marking attackers (he most certainly is not); rather it's because of his unwaivering commitment to winning. I don't think there is a conflict that he's ever shunned away from, and it's likelier that he actively seeks them out. Two weeks ago after the game against Genoa, he said he'd split open Preziosi's head open with one of his toys (Preziosi owns a toy empire, and is known as the Toy King). A few days afterwards, when cooler heads had prevailed, Panucci was both apologetic and completely unwaivering in his assertion that he'd do what he said he would - he was antagonizing him, so of course he would say and do that to Preziosi. What's not to get? According to Panucci, it's as clear cut as can be. If anything, it's we that fail to understand him.
Panucci's complexity is shown again in the oppositional relationship between his refusal to come off the bench when asked to, and his over-the-top commitment to a direct rival of his in defense when he first came. Above you see his tattoo with the name Juan on his right arm, in honor of his then new team mate. Okay, so that one's not true, the tattoo is for his son. But it brings us to another aspect of Panucci: the private life. He has a evidently charming manner, because after his divorce to his Spanish wife, he's been involved with one beautiful B celebrity after another. The photo below is nothing short of fantastic, it reinforces perfectly the image I have of Panucci. He's the suave playboy that goes through models and tv hostesses as fast as he does a tube of hair gel, and who also plays football on Sundays. Yet unlike 99% of all other players that description fits, he comes away with it without it seeming an affront to his dedication to football whatsoever.
On Sunday he comes back to Rome for the first time since the awkward spring. There's no longer Spalletti to exact revenge upon, so the encounter has perhaps lost some of the urgency derived from such plot lines. But even in declaring Rome and Roma the love of his life, he made no secret of his desire to win the game for Parma. To make sure we really understand just how badly he wants to win, he felt he should add that he'd fight until death to win even if the opposing team was coached by his own father. Not that we should expect anything less than complete dedication to winning from Panucci, not after eight years lived intimately with the most argumentative man in football.