Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Latest Iteration of Napoli's Failure

A familiar dejection: Napoli
After Roma squashed Napoli 4-2 over the weekend, I couldn't help but think we've been here before.  The contours of Napoli's capitulation were familiar.

Napoli's defeat, coupled with Juventus's last-gasp win over Lazio, felt pivotal, even decisive in the title race. 

And, I can sort of predict the aftermath as well.

I expect that soon Napoli president Aurelio di Laurentiis will remind everyone of the club's extraordinary achievement despite not being as rich as Juventus. Then he will call the Stadio San Paolo a toilet, and reiterate that the Napoli mayor, Luigi de Magistris, has stymied his efforts for a new stadium. 

(Perhaps he will spare us musings on more outlandish topics like the hygiene standards of English women).

Add a bit of bluster and shots at the power brokers in northern Italy, and a reminder that the Champions League is the only tournament Napoli should be playing in.

Then, next year Napoli will exit the Champions League group stage. Everyone will laud them for failing so so gallantly.  Coach Maurizio Sarri (assuming he's still there) will moan about how ludicrous the Europa league is. At some point, they will rush back at least three key players from hideous injuries (like they did with Faouzi Ghoulam and Arkadiusz Milik) and two of them will snap some more ligaments.

It seems to me that this club hasn't understood that winning engenders winning.  They scorned the Europa League--openly, brazenly--only to lose (in all probability) the Scudetto two weeks later.

Admittedly, Sarri is a fine coach, whose Napoli team is easy on the eye. 

My gripe is more that whenever they have had to play a key game in recent memory, Napoli have fluffed their lines (Athletic Bilbao, Juventus, Dnipro, Roma etc.). 

And that is not only Sarri's failing (Benitez was in charge against Bilbao in the 2014 CL qualifier, for example) but also the club's. Di Laurentiis sets the tone when he privileges one tournament over the other, which I think has harmed Napoli more that it has helped them.

But I do have reservations about Sarri the psychologist, motivator, or trascinatore. I am not suggesting that a tub-thumper is what is necessarily required, but Napoli look really unprepared sometimes. The Europa League defeat to Leipzig at the San Paolo was particularly disappointing, albeit predictable.

There was no excuse for Napoli to fold like they did against Roma either, especially when you consider there had been no European exertion a few days earlier. Had they won, they would have gone 7 points ahead of Juve, and the Bianconeri would have had to play their game in hand against Atalanta with a lot more pressure. 

Roma's Scudetto in 2001

Batistuta and Montella celebrate Roma's equalizer
There are some comparisons to be made with the club that brushed aside Napoli at the San Paolo on Saturday.  When Roma won the Scudetto last in 2001, Fabio Capello managed all aspects of the team convincingly. You need that type of coach sometimes to break the mould at a club, especially at a club like Napoli or Roma, where the organizational structure and the financial strength have been comparatively inferior to that of Milan and Juventus.

During the game Saturday, I thought back to Roma's 2-2 draw against Juventus in the 2000/01 season, when Hidetoshi Nakata scored a bullet from long-range and Vincenzo Montella equalized in the 90th minute. Roma were down 2-0 after just six minutes, but they managed to claw their way back at the Stadio Delle Alpi.  That victory kept them five points ahead of second-placed Lazio at the time, but, more critically, claiming a draw in Turin preserved their psychological edge in the title race.

There have been no similar moments for Napoli in recent years.  Napoli did demolish Lazio 4-1 in February after going a goal down early, but they couldn't overturn Roma.

Sure, it helps when you have players like Gabriel Batistuta, Francesco Totti, Montella etc. like Roma did, but Napoli also have a lot of quality, and some players are playing beyond themselves--I'd be curious to see how Ghoulam and Jose Callejon fare outside of this Napoli, for example.

I am not suggesting Capello is a phenomenal coach, or that Sarri isn't; more, I have doubts about whether Sarri can finish the job.

There are still more than ten games left in the season, but it seems inevitable that Juventus will now win an unprecedented seventh Scudetto in a row.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Beyond Gattuso's Grinta

In my mind, there is no worse adjective in football than grinta (grit).  I have always read it as a euphemism, or something that only the English national football team used to be proud of having up until the mid-noughties (alongside its almost-as-ugly cousin, determination).  It says without saying explicitly that your grinta is always compensating for your lack of qualita (quality).

Sure, you can have it in addition to some other trait.  As a supplement, it is desirable even.  But bestowed on its own it's practically a pejorative.

Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso may not take it that way because he epitomized it throughout his career.  His nickname is Ringhio, or Snarl, after all.   But it would be reductive to characterize all of the outstanding work he is doing at Milan as an extension of his grit, a simple byproduct of his perpetually elevated voice and heart-rate.

There is method here.  There is geometry.  There is psychology.

Milan didn't sweep aside Roma on Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico for the first time in seven years because of Gattuso's tub-thumping.  They did it after playing a classic Serie A game. They lay in ambush in the first half, absorbing Roma's ultimately meaningless pressure with relative ease.  Then they came out in the second half and moved the ball throughout their team and took two wonderful goals when they needed to.  They used width.  They used the touchline like a tightrope.  I lost count of how many times Franck Kessie picked up the ball right on the line; how many times long balls found their target.

Consider the first goal: it came from Ricardo Rodriguez's long ball to Kessie who headed it down for Patrick Cutrone, who passed it to Suso, who returned the favour with a looping ball that Cutrone touched in.  It was a goal similar to the one against Sampdoria last week in that it started with a precise long ball.  Last week it was Hakan Calhanoglu; this week, Rodriguez.

Then there is the revival of Leonardo Bonucci, who is finally playing with the presence and leadership that Milan fans had wanted.  Alongside Alessio Romagnoli, whose reading of the game is impeccable currently, he forms what could be the best central defensive partnership in Serie A.  Together, they have managed eight clean sheets in about a dozen games.

Cutrone's opening goal was masterfully worked, but Calabria's goal that put Milan up 2-0 was masterfully taken.  The fact it came from a right-back who was confident enough to chip a goalkeeper like Alisson typifies the swagger with which Milan are playing.

The media is gushing over Cutrone, but Calabria, in my mind, is more emblematic of Milan's resurgence.  Cutrone has exploded onto the scene; while Calabria, after a stuttering start, has slowly eased into it, making that right-back spot his own, so much so that it is tempting to forget Andrea Conti.

Calabria is a player who had obvious psychological frailties just like Milan did in the fall, and even now, in this period of upswing, he is prone to errors (his red against Udinese, for example).  Understandable for a 21-year-old; understandable for a Milan side getting used to winning.

But Gattuso handled that red card expertly, saying that it was a result of an ingenuita (naivety) in the youngster.  It is the effort to understand his players in such a short period of time that has propelled Gattuso to where he is now.

Last week he lamented how he hasn't yet managed to get in the head of Andrea Silva. After Milan's embarrassing 2-2 draw to Benevento, he said that it wasn't the time to raise his voice--it was a time for tenderness.

But throughout Milan's success, never once has he taken credit, preferring to play the role that he is typecasted for: the snarler on the sidelines.

Gattuso's greatest strength, then, isn't grit.  It is his self-deprecation, a self-deprecation that downplays his profound understanding of what this team needs.  Gattuso is a paradox: on the one hand he trades in an excess of emotion, and on the other hand he is modest, circumspect, reserved with, and in the face of, praise.

"Maybe I am the worst coach in Serie A," he said in December. "But I want to always win."

He refuses to celebrate now.  He refuses to take the plaudits.  He refuses even to sign a new contract until the end of the season for superstitious reasons.

But if his Milan side continue this extraordinary run, it will be more and more difficult for him to hide.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Calcio Memories: Doni's Fall From Grace

Tarnished: Cristiano Doni
Let's take a look back to almost exactly six years ago, when former Atalanta and Italy midfielder, Cristiano Doni, found himself in legal trouble.

He was said to have been hiding in his garage, trying to elude the police when they came.  By then, it was vain protest, the type of tragicomic defiance that often precedes the arrest of mobsters in Italy.  Cristiano Doni is no mobster, but the way the police escorted him out in the night from his home had the resonance of high-profile disgrace.  Doni appeared briefly in the warm light of his home, but as he walked out, impassive policemen all around him, he became a shadow against the stone and chalk of walls.  And then he disappeared into the dark.

At thirty-eight, Doni must have thought things would be different.  The man with the almost perpetually bedraggled hair never saw his career in Italian football reach the pinnacle, but it has now reached a nadir.  He was already banned in the summer for three and a half years for his part in a match-fixing scandal, even if his involvement was overshadowed by that of Giuseppe Signori, the former Lazio, Bologna, and Italy hero, and by all accounts, as far as football people go, the man at the forefront of the iniquity.  Doni, the Atalanta hero, was supposed to end his career in the brightness of Serie A, after his twelve goals in Serie B last season helped promote the club from Bergamo.

With his arrest, such things must seem like distant luxuries.  Doni was arrested as part of an investigation that has seen sixteen other people arrested for a match-fixing scandal that involves betting rings and stakeholders as far as Singapore.  There are some Serie A games from last season under suspicion as well.  "This is just the beginning,"  Roberto Di Martino, the Cremona prosecutor, said ominously.

Indeed, it may be.  For Doni, though, it is an inexorable end.  More than five years after Calciopoli, Italian football is still purging its rogue elements, which are so pervasive that you cannot help but be cynical about the entire administration of the sport, and Doni will long be remembered as one of them.

And yet, it would be unfair to relegate the Roman to the band of Italian football's most notorious figures.  Exactly almost a decade ago, Doni was demanding attention for all the right reasons.  The date was November 7, 2001, and Italy were playing Japan in a friendly in the city of Saitama.  The Azzurri were trailing 1-0 from an early first-half goal, and Doni, making his international debut, replaced Francesco Totti at half-time, much to the surprise of Japanese fans, as long-time Italian football journalist Paddy Agnew recalls:

"When the teams took the field for the second half of Italy's friendly against Japan in Saitama in November, local fans were much dismayed by the non-reappearance of Roma's captain Francesco Totti.  Italy's playmaker had been replaced by the relatively unknown Cristiano Doni of Atalanta, who at 28 was making a tardy international debut." (Agnew, World Soccer, February 2002)

Doni went on to score the equalizer in the 50th minute when Alessandro Del Piero's corner eventually bounced invitingly for him to smash home.  Italy's coach at the time, Giovanni Trapattoni, was unashamedly devoted to Totti, so Doni was never going to threaten the Roma playmaker's place, but he nonetheless lauded Doni for his versatility and temperament: "I really liked the way Doni played, not just because he scored the goal but also because of the way he rose to the occasion.  Doni could prove very useful because he can also play on the left side of midfield." (World Soccer, February 2002)

Doni in action for Italy against Croatia during the 2002 World Cup
Doni would be included in Italy's dismal World Cup 2002 as well.  However, even from that wreckage, he salvaged much more credit than Totti.  Italy's controversial group stage 2-1 loss to Croatia is remembered for egregious officiating, but Doni brightened the game by providing an assist for Christian Vieri with a cross and setting up a goal that should have stood.  The non-goal came from a moment of brilliant improvisation.  With Zambrotta lurking in the box, Doni provided him an expertly weighted lob, and Zambrotta flicked it on at full stretch for Vieri to head in.  The goal was incorrectly ruled offside, but Doni proved with his swift thinking that he was not awed by the occasion.

He started that game in a midfield that contained Zambrotta, Damiano Tommasi, and Cristiano Zanetti--Totti was to play further up front, closer to Vieri--and he played with a remarkable level of boldness and ease.  Though he was substituted by Filippo Inzaghi about ten minutes from the end, the move was only Trapattoni's panic response to going 2-1 down.

Italy did prove the culmination of his career in some ways, but Doni could have also made a significant mark at club level beyond Atalanta had he been picked up by interested clubs such as Inter or Juventus after the 2001-02 season, during which he was under the tutelage of coach Giovanni Vavassori (now at Verona).  However, for various reasons, the moves never materialized.

Instead, he turned out to be one of Italian football's nearly-men.  He started his club career at Modena, before moving onto Rimini, Pistoiese, Bologna, Brescia, Atalanta, Sampdoria, Mallorca in Spain, and finally Atalanta again.  It was at Atalanta where he was to score over 100 goals, and make almost 300 appearances.  It was at Atalanta, however, that  he would earn both fame and shame.

He has always been adored by the club's fans, but his arrest may have pushed them to the brink.  In many ways, they probably saw the recent debacle coming.  In 2000, Doni was also suspended for his role in match-fixing, involving a Coppa Italia game between Atalanta and his old club Pistoiese, who were then in Serie B.

But the punishment did not restrain the man.  Instead, he is now in the dock once again, and this time he has no chance to restore his image.

Ten years ago, Doni trivialized his status as a late-bloomer, emphasizing that while it took him "all those years to mature, both physically and professionally, it was nobody's fault it took so long--the important thing was to get there." (World Soccer, February 2002)

For a man who showed such patience in his career, it is a shame that he attempted to circumvent the honest road right at the end.  That, and not his undeniable skill, may well define him in the end.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Of Gufi and Vedove

The Italians call them vedove (widows) of the old regime: fans, former players, pundits and journalists so loyal to Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani that they can't but cast aspersions on Milan's new ownership.  There are many Milan fans who have wholeheartedly embraced the Chinese project and the prospect, at least, of a diversified revenue portfolio--a modern Milan, in other words.

But there are still others who seem to be in a perpetual state of mourning, nostalgic for the old ownership, even after it corroded the club over the last decade.

Then, there are the gufi (literally, owls), fans of other teams or even Milan who wish to see the club fail.  These come in two forms: either as insincere well-wishers or straightforward haters.  

To be a Milan fan these days is to negotiate a reality away from this psychotic mess.  But it's difficult.  The territory in which a Milan fan can find comfort and patience is thin; the majority has already been ceded to the swelling mass of disinformers and misinformers.

There are legitimate concerns around the transparency of Milan's new ownership.  Is president Yonghong Li, for example, a simple prestanome (frontman) for a group of investors?  If in the absence of official confirmations one clings to every word that Milan CEO Marco Fassone says, it would seem so.  In recent days he has spoken of investors, not an investor.  Plural not singular.

But clinging easily shades into grasping.  It is maddening not to know the identity of the people behind your club, or definitively whether you are in the hands of one amateur speculator, whose personal fortune the New York Times questioned a month ago, or a group of capable investors who won't come out in the open for various political reasons (China's various restrictions on foreign investment, for example).

This uncertainty is the provenance of the attacks against Milan.  Once the ownership is in question, the media takes extraordinary liberty, especially when there is a crosstown rival, Inter, owned by Suning, the large and visible Chinese electronics retailer.  

But there is no even-handedness.  I won't get into the financial state of Inter currently, but Bloomberg and Calcio Finanza recently ran interesting stories that shed light on their debt structure, their bond ratings etc. If the Italian media had wanted to, it could have ran these stories as widely as it does every Milan one.

And it just doesn't stop at the finances.  Every day, Milan's players, apparently, are preparing for a mass exodus.  Milan isn't even afforded the dignity of bidding farewell to them in the summer; they all have their bags ready for January.  

In the summer, every Italian outlet reported of a release clause in Donnarumma's contract.  Depending on the paper's agenda, the clause's value was either nominal or substantial.   Fassone had joked at the time that the media seemed to know more about the contract than he did.  It turned out recently that Donnarumma has no release clause in his contract.

This was an extraordinary revelation for several reasons, chief among which was the fact that Milan had prevailed over the repellent agent Mino Raiola.  Milan will sell Donnarumma on their terms despite Raiola's machinations.  Milan won. Raiola lost.  Milan 1 - 0 Raiola.

Rather than admit their failings, the media adeptly changed the subject.  The focus became UEFA's rejection of Milan's Voluntary Agreement. This, the media argued, would cause a firesale anyway, and Milan would lose Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci, Suso, and Alessio Romagnoli.  Mercifully, they spared Milanello in their speculation.

Never mind that Milan were the first club to try for a VA.  Never mind that the Settlement Agreement, the alternative to the VA, is something Inter and Roma have already opted for, despite the solidity of Suning and the transparency of James Pallotta.  

When Fassone said that UEFA's demands were unrealistic, the media scoffed.  I treat "media" as a monolith here, which despite its individual biases has been in lockstep in smearing Milan.  The media said the real issue was Milan's lack of resources, transparency, debt etc.  The gufi and vedove gleefully joined in.

Yesterday, however, Umberto Lago, the former president of the Chamber of Commerce, essentially said that there was a solid basis to agreeing to the VA and that UEFA's decision was political, something Fassone echoed later.

Lago's words were a footnote for the media.  So, in summary, an eminent expert and his opinion hold little weight and value.

We need a degree of honesty from everyone involved.  When Milan announced their ritiro (retreat in which the team is not allowed outside contact) a few days ago, a prominent journalist, Enzo Bucchioni, branded the move as something from the 80s.  In reality, the ritiro has been employed several times in recent memory.  Former Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic opted for it in April of 2016.   It is hardly an anachronism.  But perhaps Bucchioni preferred the ownership of a year ago.  The same ownership that let this club languish in mediocrity for the last decade; the same ownership who collected ageing and forgettable players as a hobby. 

There are many more examples of scurrilous attacks, but we shouldn't lose sight of the concrete achievements of this new ownership.  They have resolved a large portion of Milan's debt with banks.  They have delivered the most exciting transfer market in years.  They have been utterly transparent in their communication, and have never once prevaricated like Galliani did.

We are in December, and the team has yet to find itself. They deserve patience.  They deserve better.  

Saturday, 9 December 2017

It's Time, Giovinco

I have never really cared about Toronto FC despite the red hordes that I pass by frequently on gameday, or friends who have been dedicated fans since the franchise's inception in 2005.  I mean, TFC are part of the MLS, that weird league of European football's pensioners and middling North American talent, right?

I write, then, from a place of profound ignorance when it comes to TFC (and the MLS); as someone who has voluntarily remained on the margins of the club's success and failures, even as they unfolded in a city in which I work and live.  My interest was only piqued when pint-sized Sebastian Giovinco came to find redemption in Toronto two years ago.  It wasn't enough for me to follow or watch the team regularly, but it was enough to at least keep an eye on the scores--and Giovinco's ascent in the league.

Through the lens of Italian football I have come to see TFC.  It is a lens that at once distorts and provides acute clarity.  It is the only lens that I have.

Today, I will be cheering on for Giovinco as TFC take on the Seattle Sounders in a repeat of last year's MLS Cup Final.  I care about the civic implications of a potential TFC win, what it would mean to this city if one of its franchises was to deliver silverware.  I want to see the subway clogged; I want to see TFC take revenge for last year's defeat to the Sounders, so that Toronto's sporting self-esteem can finally brim and then spill out onto major intersections in the form of celebrations. 

But above all, I want to see Giovinco, a man who enjoyed only flickers of success in Italian football, achieve what would be the pinnacle of his career.  I want to see a virtuoso performance that will cancel bittersweet memories of his days at Juventus or Empoli.

The city deserves it, but so does he.

Giovinco's compatriots Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo came to the league decorated and satisfied.  Giovinco came to the MLS at the peak of his powers--finite in Serie A, but infinite in the MLS.

The Italian or Portuguese enclaves of this city only rejoice over football after a World Cup or European Cup win. TFC would provide another footballing excuse to block traffic, to unite behind a player who left the demands of a strenuous league to breathe more freely.

At some level it matters little whether the MLS can be considered a demanding or competitive league.  What matters is that it's evolving, and that away from the peculiar demands of European football it can allow players like Giovinco to play in front of raucous crowds and ignite debate of whether he should be included in the Italian national team.

Giovinco has already won a lot; now he needs to take that final step.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

What Italy's Failure Does NOT Mean

Italian players absorb the blow
Whenever an inquest follows a failure in Italian football, there is a tendency for the examiners to
overreach.  Their dejection permeates everything, and nothing seems right--even the things that did a few months ago.

In the social media debris following Italy's disintegration yesterday, people are desperate to find their footing (including yours, faithfully), some clinching reason or evidence that explains everything.

You can't blame them exactly.  Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958 is a catastrophe.  And that catastrophe, especially for the fans, leaves a void that everyone rushes to fill with theories.

In a perverted way, it is comforting to think, for example, that the Italian national team's failure mirrors the broader shortcomings of the nation, that somehow Italy's high median age has an impact on the FIGC's personnel and outlook, that the federation's administrators are a symptom of the nation's political culture of backroom deals and raccomandazione (influence and backing to secure and stay in key positions).

These ideas are seductive because they allow us to imagine solutions at a more manageable level:  a purge of easily identifiable culprits in football rather than of the whole infected political class of the country.

Predictably, yesterday, there were calls to rid the Italian federation of its "dinosaurs," the 74-year-old president Carlo Tavecchio, and his choice for coach,  Gian Piero Ventura.  They should both go, undoubtedly.  The reprehensible Tavecchio should have been gone soon after his racist outburst in 2014.

But they shouldn't be fired because they are septuagenarians (or in the case of the 69-year-old Ventura, an almost-septuagenerian).  They should be fired because they were not the right men for the job.

Marcello Lippi was almost 60 when Italy won the World Cup in 2006 (incidentally, Franco Carraro, the former president of the FIGC who resigned following revelations of his involvement in Calciopoli, was 67).  It is not as if at 69, a coach automatically becomes incapable of training a group of players to make it past an average Sweden side.  The silver-haired paternal mister is as much part of Italian football's iconography as the fresh-faced Coverciano graduate.

But putting a number on the failure gives contours to it, something to cling to, an outline in a time of darkness. 

4-2-4 was another shape in the dark.   Ventura's preferred formation throughout the qualification campaign was a concave, suffocating jar that didn't allow players to express themselves.  Players like Lorenzo Insigne, who most of Italy (including Daniele De Rossi) has glorified as the saviour who couldn't save the nation yesterday because Ventura didn't play him.

Insigne has played for Italy 21 times since 2012. And he has scored a grand total of 3 goals.  Antonio Conte didn't rely on him either.  For Italy, he provides the illusion of movement, the illusion that there is something happening when he has the ball at his feet.  But seldom anything does.  He has shot or crossed as much into the stands as he has on target.  As much as Candreva. As much as Darmian.

Italy's fate didn't go through the feet of a tiny Neapolitan.  It didn't hinge on a moment, on just a formation.  It was a steady accretion of Venturian incompetence.  A player like Insigne should be an important part of a team that functions; he shouldn't come on as a player to compensate for a lack of functionality.  He's good, but not that good.

In my last post, I wrote of how difficult it is to understand what this Italy side is trying to achieve under Ventura.  After yesterday's debacle, it is even more difficult to understand.  Ventura is spectacularly incompetent, but he has been throughout qualification, not just yesterday, or on Friday.  The only thing he has done methodically in a year and a half is undo Antonio Conte's work.

And he must have undone that work every time the national team met, with every drill that he oversaw, with every formation that he devised in training and the matches.  It feels as if it was more difficult to get this Italian team to unlearn what Conte had managed to instill in the players than it was to get them to continue on the same path, or make slight adjustments for their new coach.  But Ventura has managed that seemingly extraordinary feat with distinction.

The situation is so patently absurd that we are nostalgic for the summer of 2016, when Italy were inches away from ousting Germany in the Euro2016 quarter-final, when Italy were busy swatting away Spain, when Eder curled a winner past Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.

Even allowing for clich├ęs, 18 months is not a lifetime in football.  It is just 18 months sometimes.  Ventura has taken virtually the same raw material that Conte had and fashioned something hideous.  A generation hadn't passed between Euro 2016 and yesterday. 

Gigi Buffon breaks down
But now it has.  Ventura's signal crime is not allowing Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini the send-off they deserved.  It was too much for poor old Gigi, who has shed as many tears as his fans have collectively.  He was a teary mess leaving the field and during the post-match interview.  In recent times we have seen him cry in finals, quarter-finals; Ventura managed to make him cry at the qualification stage.

Despite all that has happened, Italian football is not in crisis as a whole.   The national team is an expression of a country's football, not the expression.   The clubs are doing well in Europe; Juventus have played two Champions League Finals in three years; the league looks to be the most competitive it has been for many years.  This failure is not due to something rotting at Italian football's core.  This failure is not due to a larger number of foreigners in the league either, despite the xenophobes tripping over themselves to say so.

Italy were good enough to beat Sweden.  Ventura was not.  Tavecchio picked the wrong man.  Tavecchio is the wrong man.  There needs to be a slight adjustment; not root and branch changes.

A little more than fifteen years ago, Italy were similarly brooding over a football crisis.  South Korea had eliminated a team of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero, and Christian Vieri at the 2002 World Cup.  The criticism then, too, spread across the spectrum: some raged at the referee Byron Moreno, some at Giovanni Trapattoni, the coach they denigrated as a relic, some at foreigners in the league, and some at the players who, despite several obstacles, should have taken care of an enterprising but ultimately modest South Korean team. 

It seemed that Italian football was headed into a period of obscurity.  But in the four years that followed, Milan won the Champions League (after an all-Italian Final against Juventus) and Italy the World Cup.  The latter triumph came after the Calciopoli scandal had ripped apart the domestic game.

Nothing needs to be ripped apart now except Ventura's contract.   A coach, a young one or one with a grizzled head like Carlo Ancelotti, just needs to revive the confidence of these young players and figure out a system that allows them to play coherently.  It is not a radical approach, but it was one that eluded the hapless Ventura for many months.