There’s something about the players of a team you watch frequently. Without ever necessarily entering into the ‘best player you ever saw’ argument, invariably one will emerge as a lifetime favourite, with others filed in the ‘prefer to forget’ category, simply because of how you saw them perform regularly, and in the flesh.
Ignacio Piatti, unequivocally on the good side of that equation, is in my TOP FIVE of favourites, a superbly exciting talent who’s provided memories to last forever. I don’t deliver such accolades lightly. I’ve watched this sport as a match-going fan for 50 years. Simply he’s lifted me off a stadium seat more times than any other player I can recall.
I’ve been similarly moved by more celebrated talents perform breathtaking moments and skills on higher stages of course, but none as regularly as the man from the little Cordoba provincial village of General Baldissera.
Watching Piatti during some of his prime years and beyond, because that’s how lucky we were in Montreal, has been an immensely pleasurable experience.
Perhaps it’s down to my own introduction to the sport we all love, having been influenced by arguably the most exciting individual talent it ever produced in George Best, that I still love a player that bamboozles, leaves opponents trailing and scores great goals, all in equal measure.
Bestie perhaps did it on a higher stage, but most of what I saw was on black and white TV. Still, I was mesmerized. Just like many of those flailing opponents.
Piatti came to Montreal and epitomized all of this. I’m not sure how his spells at St Etienne in France or Lecce in Italy ended so unspectacularly. Wrong teams, wrong leagues, couldn’t settle in Europe maybe? Whatever it was, The Maestro found the missing ingredient in Montreal.
Perhaps it's fair to say the defensive side of the game enjoys less emphasis in MLS, but in Ignacio Piatti, the Impact certainly found the perfect piece to exploit space and unwitting opponent alike. Opponents weren’t unwitting for long, but no matter the plan to halt the Argentinian, Nacho simply kept on delivering.
How he ripped defenders to shreds while we jumped to our feet. Those runs could begin 40 yards from goal. The way football is these days, you’d be thinking lay it off, but as we got to know Nacho, we realized...
Other times in more confined spaces, he’d weave and turn and spin, Not a short man, Nacho had an adeptness for this quality usually more attributable to players with a lower sense of gravity.
Maybe it was his jaunty gait that helped fool defenders. You didn’t really know which way he would turn, which side he would go. You wondered if he knew himself but he was always in control of where he was going and how he was going to finish.
There was one game I wrote of him giving an opponent ‘twisted blood’. Andrew Farrell of New England Revolution, an experienced defender of over 200 MLS games was his hapless adversary that afternoon. Nacho made three goals and scored the fourth himself milking the acclaim from an adoring, hugging, 1642 end of Stade Saputo. The only surprise was it took Brad Friedel so long to relieve poor Farrell of his torment, replacing him only in the 71st minute.
I have a colleague, also from Belfast, now based in New York City, who at the time Piatti came to Montreal, was based in Vancouver. Like most of us from home inherently inflicted by the lifetime football bug, my friend became actively involved following the Whitecaps, before becoming slightly disillusioned with MLS. It was during my colleague’s time of disillusionment that Piatti joined the Impact. I’d told him this new Argentinian looked decent, better than some recent other imports we’d had from Italy. He’d won the Libertadores Cup. ‘He must have something’ was the level of my optimism at the time.
“Ahh, he’ll be another South American flop trying to make some money before he’s done. You know how it is. He’ll do well for a few games then settle into the mediocrity MLS breeds.” David was not a fan of the salary-cap system in MLS, claiming it encouraged a levelling of standards rather than improvement.
My hunch was right, David’s was cynical, merely a disgruntled generalization from a smart man it must said, and as we all now know, very wrong indeed.
Piatti is in a small band of five outfield players that I watched regularly and admired above all others. Forget the TV stuff, I’m talking about the best way to watch a game; being there, sucking in the atmosphere, feeling the mood, understanding the event... completely living it!
A couple of the others you won’t have heard of as they played most of their careers in Northern Ireland with my local club, Glentoran. One of them, Jim Cleary, never even played the game full-time. He worked for Bombardier Aeronautique in Belfast, but was still good enough to be in Northern Ireland’s World Cup Finals squad in Spain in 1982. The other was Billy Caskey a veteran of the old NASL who also saw service under Tommy Docherty at Derby County, Wayne Rooney’s latest club.
Two others you will know; Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, during the great days of Manchester United. There was so much quality there at that time, but this pair stood head and shoulders above all for me. Peter Schmeichel did too, and another goalkeeping legend I should mention is Pat Jennings of Tottenham, Arsenal and Northern Ireland, but I did start out talking about outfield players, so let’s stick to that.
So Nacho is filed away in my Favourites drawer along with these other luminaries. I’d never claim they’re the best players I’ve ever seen, but they are those which helped me experience the highs of being a football fan, some who were catalysts for success at the teams I watched regularly and others simply because they put a smile on my face.
Thanks for the memories, Nacho. You’ve given much to Montreal. Your unassuming demeanour, your professionalism and most importantly decency as a human being, were matched only by your brilliance on the field of play where you thrilled thousands and captured the hearts of a new city.
We all feel truly blessed.
May you continue to bamboozle unsuspecting defenders in the land of the Pampas... things around this old place just won’t be the same...