Words: Livio Caferoglu
Other than the late, great John Charles, British strikers have largely been the object of ridicule in Serie A. Ian Rush scored just seven league goals for Juventus and, for a while, it was believed he said playing in Italy was like ‘living in a foreign country’. Then there is the case of Luther Blissett, a relic of the pre-Silvio Berlusconi era at Milan, who complained about not being able to buy Rice Krispies on the peninsula and became a literal cult hero.
When Milan paid Watford £1m to sign Blissett in the summer of 1983, they thought they were signing the best goalscorer in English football. He netted 27 times during the 82-83 campaign as the Hornets finished second in the old First Division and he had just broken into the English national team, bagging a hat-trick on his debut. “Platini scored 18 goals; I’ll stick more away! I’ll become an idol for young players,” he vowed at his official unveiling.
Milan hoped Blissett’s physical prowess and battling qualities would overwhelm Serie A defences, but they were too smart for him and he managed a paltry return of just five goals in 30 appearances. His lack of technical ability was quickly exposed and he was nicknamed ‘Luther Miss-it’ for his tendency to fluff gilt-edged chances – namely against Inter in a 2-0 derby defeat. He was sent back to Watford a year later, with the Rossoneri recouping little more than half their initial investment.
It was later alleged that Milan had signed the wrong Watford forward and actually intended to buy John Barnes, who went on to become a Liverpool legend and play 79 times for England. Ignorance was even more rife in Italy back then, so it is possible they confused two black players. On the other hand, Barnes was a winger and the Diavolo were presumably in the market for a No 9, given defender Sergio Battistini was their top scorer in Serie B the season before Blissett’s arrival with just 11 goals, so that’s likely apocryphal.
Then, an episode of Gazzetta Football Italia in June 1995 covered the extraordinary fact Luther Blissett’s name had been used as a pseudonym for ‘hundreds of alternative artists, kids in squats and neo-pagans’, with one of them even organising ‘open-air ceremonies for druids’. What started out as four young Italians calling themselves Luther Blissett when they were stopped without train tickets and refused to identify themselves, soon spiralled into a global network of anarchists and activists.
“This strange group has decided to use my name for their collective identity,” the man himself told BBC Sport back in 1999. “They keep doing all sorts of things and I keep getting the credit or the blame for it. When I played for Milan I was one of the few black players in the league, so I think they must have chosen me for that reason.”
According to members of ‘The Luther Blissett Project’, their namesake was a ‘nice Afro-Caribbean guy. His unlucky season even turned him into a target of racist jokes. The Luther Blissett Project is kind of his revenge on stupidity.’ Unbeknownst to Blissett himself, they went on to write the historical novel ‘Q’, which sold more than 200,000 copies in Italy and was translated into 10 other languages. The project was disbanded in 2009, but the movement remains alive and well.
“Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett,” the ex-Milan forward once boasted, quoting one of the many manifestos in his name. Supporters on the red side of San Siro never got to see the real Blissett, but his prediction was partially right. He came nowhere near rivalling Michel Platini, but did become an idol of sorts.
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