There is something magical about watching a left-footed player cast a spell on opposition defenders. Perhaps it is the fact that they are in a talented minority that helps them conjure up more mercurial moments than their right-footed counterparts. Whatever it is, Josip Ilicic has given us a wonderful dose of wizardry throughout his career in Italy.
His story – in Serie A terms anyway – began with a classic piece of “if they score against you, buy them” business by Palermo’s madcap president Maurizio Zamparini in 2010. Ilicic was part of the Slovenian side Maribor which clashed with the Sicilian outfit in the Europa League play-offs. It would be the start of an experience in one of Europe’s elite leagues which would last more than a decade.
He proved to be an almost immediate hit with eight goals and eight assists in his first campaign in Italy’s top flight. His second season in Sicily would prove a little less productive but his third was another triumph as he hit double figures in terms of league goals and secured a transfer to Fiorentina. His future looked rosy after the Rosanero.
It would only be fair to say, though, that he had his highs and lows in Florence at a club which never quite managed to get the best out of him. There were some stupendous games and moments but he never achieved the consistency that he and the club would have hoped for.
He probably showed his best in 2015-16 with an impressive 13-goal Serie A tally but that dwindled the following year and the Viola decided not to offer him a new contract. That must have been the source of some regret, however, when they watched what he went on to achieve at his new home in Bergamo.
It was with Atalanta – and under his former boss at Palermo Gian Piero Gasperini – that we saw the best of him. Given responsibility and trust and a clear part in their plan, he thrived and delivered his most consistent and spectacular form. There were games where to watch him in action was mesmerising as he seemed to drift past defenders with surprising grace and pace for such a big guy. If there was a key to unlocking his talent, they found it at la Dea. His crowning glory, perhaps, scoring all four goals in an away win over Valencia in the Champions League. Sadly, in Covid times, there was nobody there to give him the standing ovation he deserved.
What we did not know, watching from the stands or on television, was that he was trying to dribble around issues off the pitch as well. They took him away from football as he struggled to get back to a position where he even wanted to play the game – never mind producing the glorious skill he was capable of. Suddenly, there were bigger matters at stake and Atalanta had to do without someone who could be a matchwinner both from the start of matches and from off the bench.
The club tried to give him time and stood by him but then came the announcement that they had mutually agreed to end his contract. It provoked a poignant farewell at the stadium where he had produced so many sublime moments. “Thanks for those magic touches which gave us shivers down our spine,” read a banner as he made an emotional lap of honour. Even non-Atalanta fans would echo that sentiment.
What does the future hold? The 34-year-old has said he still wants to play – ideally in Italy – and reckons he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. It would certainly be great to see him back out on the pitch with a clear, untroubled mind to thrill us just a few more times. If that is not to be, though, we can be grateful for what he gave to the game and wish him all the best for the future. Hopefully, when he looks back, he will be able to smile and feel proud of everything he achieved in the game because he was certainly one of Serie A’s greatest entertainers for a decade and more.