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 really is."
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 alter 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 Metro-Stars' 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."