Now that all the football activity around Europe has been put on hold, it could be the right time, to sum up the year so far.
What if there is no action again before 2021? Who was the best player of 2020 in Serie A, then? The answer is crystal clear – the most brilliant footballer in this calendar year has been Josip Ilicic, the Slovenian genius of Atalanta.
For the 32-year-old attacking midfielder, the coronavirus crisis couldn't have possibly have arrived at a worse time. Just as he was finally fulfilling his phenomenal potential, the cruel world might have brought his career to a premature end. He considered quitting football for good ten years ago and then overcame a life-threatening illness in 2018 to come back better and stronger than ever. At long last, he was enjoying life and football and bringing pleasure to every fan around the globe who was lucky enough to witness his majestic skills.
By doing so, Ilicic became only the third player in history to have netted five goals over the two games in a knockout Champions League tie. The only stars to have accomplished that feat before are, quite naturally, Leo Messi (for Barcelona versus Leverkusen in 2012) and Cristiano Ronaldo (for Real Madrid against Bayern Munich in 2017). Now the Slovenian is mentioned in the same breath with them, but he has also outscored both in 2020. With 14 goals, he proudly holds the best record in Europe, ahead of the Portuguese superstar who scored 13 times, while the Argentine has 10.
Those 14 strikes include some absolutely breathtaking efforts, including the free kick from the half-way line in the 7-0 thrashing of Torino which is a worthy contender for the goal of the season. Actually, Ilicic might have provided the assist of the season as well, sending a phenomenal long through ball to Andraz Sporar with the outside of his foot, in Slovenia's 2-0 win over Poland in Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Those outrageous skills are quite reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Ilicic's raw talent could be compared to that of the Swede. When on song, he is totally unpredictable, providing backheel passes and rabona shots. His close ball control is incredible for a guy who stands at 190cm, just 5cm shorter than Ibra. His background is also relatively similar, as he grew up without a father, and – having moved from Bosnia to Slovenia at an early age – is somewhat of an immigrant, even though both were parts of Yugoslavia at the time before the civil war tore the country apart.
Their personalities couldn't be more different, though. Whereas Zlatan has always been flamboyant and outspoken, willing to prove his worth to everyone, Ilicic was a bit shy, his self confidence was low, and he didn't handle pressure and setbacks well. Ibrahimovic ultimately chose a big-mouth agent in Mino Raiola, who helped him to develop a personal brand, which is in contrast to Ilicic. After his tiny Interblock club was relegated in 2010, the so-called agent sent the midfielder to an unsuccessful trial in Moldova. Upon returning, he thought that the dream was dead. The plan was to hang up boots and start studying at the university.
Then, out of the blue, Ilicic got a phone call from Zlatko Zahovic, one of the greatest Slovenian players of all time, who served as the sporting director at Maribor. The offer to join the club was naturally impossible to resist, and Josip immediately flourished. Luck was on his side again as Maribor faced Palermo in the Europa League qualifying round. The Sicilians were so impressed with his performance in the first leg that they signed him immediately, with the deal announced officially after the return leg – in which Ilicic scored.
From a Moldovian failure to Serie A star in a matter of weeks – that was an extremely unusual rise. The Italians quickly learned to admire the Slovenian's skills, and La Gazzetta dello Sport nicknamed him "ballerina with the ball" during the first season at Palermo, but inconsistency proved to be a significant problem. Ilicic could be unplayable in a certain game but then disappeared in the following fixtures. That was even more evident during the four-year spell at Fiorentina between 2013 and 2017. The press claimed the playmaker left Florence without leaving any memories, and that was extremely harsh on someone who delivered quite a number of great performances – but he mainly had himself to blame.
"Josip is a phenomenal player. If only he tried hard enough, he would have played for a top club, but he was unsettled at Fiorentina", Alessandro Diamanti – himself a player who never realised his great potential – once remarked. Those words are symbolic because a lot of people felt that Ilicic simply doesn't try hard enough. He seemed to lack the desire to become a top performer – the very desire that has always been burning inside Zlatan.
His pessimistic nature definitely played a significant part. Even Gian Piero Gasperini, the coach who understands him better than anyone, nicknamed Ilicic as "granny" because of his constant complaints. It was Gasperini who managed to get the best of the Slovenian during their short time together at Palermo in 2012/13, and it is hardly surprising that Ilicic was delighted to rejoin him at Atalanta in 2017, refusing Sampdoria's offer in the process.
Then, after a relative success in his first season in Bergamo, disaster struck. Bacterial infection in his neck left Ilicic fearing to lose his life, not to mention his career. "When I was sick, I was afraid to die like Davide Astori, my captain at Fiorentina. What if I don't wake up in the morning? Who is going to take care of my family? I was afraid to fall asleep at night. During those two months on antibiotics, I understood that football is not the most important thing in life", he said in retrospect.
That could have been a tragedy, but it actually was a blessing in disguise. Upon recovering, Ilicic had completely changed his attitude. "I look at things differently. I want to spend more time with family, and football is there to be enjoyed. I used to get angry at people for different reasons, but that was wrong. You have to play with a smile", he said. The result has been truly astonishing.
Josip is a phenomenal player. If only he tried hard enough, he would have played for a top club, but he was unsettled at FiorentinaAlessandro Diamanti
One might wonder what could have happened if Ilicic would have gone through such illness at an earlier stage in his career, but he became unstoppable and remarkably consistent at the age of 30. On his return in October 2018, he scored a hat-trick at Chievo. Two months later, he netted another hat-trick at Sassuolo despite entering the field as a second half substitute. Gasperini gave him a free role in attacking midfield, which could even be described as a second striker, and the Slovenian gets into more scoring positions and shoots on target much more often.
The 2018/19 season was phenomenal for him, as Atalanta qualified for the Champions League for the first time in club history. This season has been even better. Much better, in fact. With 21 goals in 29 games, Ilicic easily broke his personal record, and 14 of those came in 2020. He was the undisputed star of this calendar year, and goals are just a small part of his overall contribution to the exciting Atalanta project. He was finally – belatedly – regarded as one of the top players in the world. His FC ranking stands at 99, level with Messi, Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski.
The sky was the limit, but now the coronavirus crisis has stopped everything. Would Ilicic refind his spectacular form when it's over? Football lovers must definitely hope that the answer would be yes.