Paulo Dybala and the Problem With Italy

More curious still is the apparent apathy from outside Italy. Dybala, a player who has previously captured the imaginations of Manchester United, Tottenham, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has received only one serious proposal from abroad, from Sevilla, that great collector of mercurial Argentine forwards. The catch is that it comes with a significant pay cut. One of the finest players in Italy is available at no cost, and much of Europe has barely blinked.

In part, that is because of Dybala himself. His salary expectations rule out a vast majority of clubs. His injury record might give others pause. His form, over the last couple of years, has been a little inconsistent, though he would doubtless point out that Juventus has hardly played in a way that might extract his best performances.

That, in fact, may be the most apposite factor. In an era when most teams play with some version of an attacking trident — two wide players cutting in, one central forward employed to create space — Dybala does not have a natural home.

He is, by inclination and disposition, a No. 10, a position that has all but ceased to exist in modern soccer. Even Juventus, where the role — as much as the number — carries a certain “weight,” as one of the club’s executives said this year, is abolishing it. Elite soccer, now, does not have room for what Italian soccer has long called the fantasista. Dybala may prove to be the last of the line.

But the limbo in which Dybala finds himself is part of a broader trend, too. Italian soccer is an increasingly isolated ecosystem, a world unto itself. It is not just that Italian players, as a rule, do not leave Italy: Only four members called to Roberto Mancini’s team for this month’s meeting with Argentina, the so-called Finalissima, played outside Serie A, the same number as he called up to his victorious squad for Euro 2020. It is that the country’s coaches travel less and less frequently, too. Carlo Ancelotti may have won yet another Champions League less than a month ago, and Antonio Conte might have helped Tottenham win back its place in Europe’s elite, but they are exceptions rather than the rule.

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