Monday, 16 July 2018

World Cup 2018 Review: Italy and The Dangerous Safety of Nostalgia

Despair and triumph: Baggio 1994 and Mbappe 2018
So, after twenty years, France are champions of the world again, and Croatia have played in their first Final.  What's not to be happy about? Well, the handball decision on Ivan Perisic for one, but let's put that aside for now.

I have enjoyed this absorbing World Cup, but throughout its course I have also looked for refuge in memories of past Italian campaigns.  It's a coping mechanism, an attempt to find a footing in the discourse and the events so inexorably not about the team I support.  

But is it harmless to retire every now and then from a reality that is unfolding without you, that is indifferent to your yearnings? The refuge of nostalgia is a tenuous one, a dangerous one, a hovel always on the brink of collapse.  

Tomorrow will mark twenty-four years since Roberto Baggio skied the decisive penalty against Brazil in the World Cup Final.  It was, at that time, a moment that reduced me to tears.  Now, it 's a memory that marks in my mind not Italian defeat, but supremacy dashed only by bad luck.  It was only penalties that kept Italy from beating Brazil on that sweltering Pasadena day.  I can explain that defeat away, identify it as a comforting counterpoint to what is the current state of Gli Azzurri.

A World Cup has just finished without Italy in it, a World Cup that was by any standard one of the most compelling ones in recent memory.  What value does nostalgia have in the face of this sneering, teeth-baring reality?  I would argue that it's placebo more than antidote, a vial of pills that comes without direction and takes you in no particular one either.   You cast your mind back to glory, linger for a moment, only to be jolted back to face reality: Kylian Mbappe and not Patrick Cutrone, Paul Pogba and not Marco Verratti. 

The French football system has won in Russia, and the Italian system was only to be found in faint traces, in the boots of Croats like Marcelo Brozovic of Inter and Mario Mandzukic of Juventus.  Clairefontaine has outstripped Coverciano: that should be the tearful point of departure from which coach Roberto Mancini can begin to fashion the raw material at his disposal to something approaching an Italian team worthy of the name.  

France has now played five major finals in the last twenty years, winning three of them.  Italy has played three in that same period, winning just one.  These two nations are not poles apart, but the question at the heart of all of this is what qualities will Italian football rely on to compensate for a lack of an outstanding generation? 

In February of this year, Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini accused former Barcelona and current Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola of ruining Italian football because all Italian coaches try to imitate him.  It was a stretch, but he was broadly correct.  It has come to the point where  Napoli are content with being considered Barcelona-lite, the ones who pass the ball around beautifully only to lose valiantly. 

France have turned the page because they can.  They have the quality.  But consider that only when they played with Olivier Giroud up front this World Cup were they able to strike a balance, so that other more talented individuals on their team could express themselves.  It was a tweak, a ploy that coach Didier Deschamps persisted with after the first group game despite Giroud managing zero shots on target all tournament.  Deschamps didn't solve the lack of output with more quality, but less.

It is this ability to flirt with paradox that Italian football lacks currently, an ability it cheerfully flaunted in the past.  On the eve of Euro2000, everyone lamented the lack of quality Italy had.  They reached the Final.  Similarly, the 2006 team was arguably less equipped than the 2002 one, but they won the World Cup with Palermo's Fabio Grosso (who? casual fans asked at the time) winning the semi-final and converting that penalty in the Final.

I take Chiellini's point.  Imitation of others is not the way ahead, but neither is trying to imitate a past version of yourself.  Former coach Antonio Conte worked with the constraints of the current generation and brought Italy to the cusp of qualifying for the Euro2016 semi-finals.  

We can look back longingly to the blurry-edged Azzurri memories, but this French generation agitated against precisely that.  As Andrew Hussey writes in the Guardian, they didn't want middle-aged white males telling them about the 1998 victory anymore.  They wanted their own memories; to create their own experiences. 

So did Croatia.  Their defender Dejan Lovren said that this Croatia team can eclipse the vaunted one of 1998 that reached the semi-finals--and they did.

Nostalgia can at once motivate and paralyze.  It can clarify and distort.  In a world where politicians and pundits profit from people's selective memories, from vignettes about how things used to be before these people arrived, nostalgia should be handled responsibly. 

I sign off, then, with a Forza Azzurri! and a Andiamo avanti! Let's Go Azzurri! We go ahead!  We must.



Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Manufacturing Calcio Memories

Marco Tardelli unleashes after scoring in the 1982 Final
What if a memory that you cherish, a memory that you remember with stunning clarity, is not really yours? What if you never made it?  I have a few of these calcio memories tucked away in the bank.  They are like false currency, but only upon closer inspection do they reveal themselves to be counterfeit.

I was three when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when Marco Tardelli roared with abandon in the final against West Germany, when coach Enzo Bearzot played cards with the then Italian president Alessando Pertini, Dino Zoff, a moustachioed Franco Causio, and, of course, the World Cup itself--gilded, impassive, self-satisfied.


By all accounts, I was more interested then in Ernie's antics on Sesame Street, or Scooby Doo's sleuth work that seemed just like antics to me, or not disgracing myself during a meal.  I had different priorities back then positioned as I was in that painfully irrecoverable space between consciousness and lucidity (I don't drink).

Why then do I remember the 1982 World Cup? What right do I have to Tardelli's contoritions, to Pertini raising his arms in glee after Italy's third goal in the Final? 

The answer reprimands you: you consumed the images later and you stole them for yourself.  They are now part of an iconography that you have internalized and fabricated in parts.  You have swallowed falsehoods along with truth.   

My writing here often deals with memory.  In the About section I write about how I became an Italian football fan:

"For many years, one of my indelible memories of Italian football was, in fact, mis-remembered.

Italia'90 had many moments that could lodge in a young football fan's mind.  There was Roberto Baggio's flight through the hapless team of what was then Czechoslovakia, or Salvatore Schillaci's bug-eyed celebrations after scoring a goal.  But the most enduring memory I have is of a tearful Aldo Serena sinking to his knees after missing a penalty against Argentina in the semi-final. 

The only problem is the man doing the sinking was Milan's Roberto Donadoni, who had missed a penalty before Serena.  I had, as I recently found out, unwittingly conflated Donadoni's dejection with Serena's; or, perhaps my Rossonero disposition had led me over the years to ascribe the most defeated gesture of that bitter penalty shoot-out loss to Serena, who was then at Inter and who had enjoyed his best years there as well.  Whatever and whomever, the net effect of Italia'90 and its pains and tears was that I was an Italy fan for life."
From left to right: Zoff, Causio, Pertini, Bearzot

Mis-remembering rewarded me with calcio, a life-long gift.  But when does mis-remembering dangerously shade into manufacturing? Each flicker of an image or footage from 1982 that has insinuated itself into my memory now passes itself off as lived or seen experience.

I was merely alive in 1982, but that seems to have given me license.  I have seen Gianni Rivera help Italy to the 1970 Final on video, but that Italy was older than I am.  I have seen black and white pictures of the Italian squads of 1934 and 1938, but that Italy was older than my father.  The one from 1982 though sticks, and not just because Italy won, but because it happened around the same time I did.

This seems like vanity that I can't apologize for.  I am richer because of these memories, and it is only when I hold them up to the light of the 1990 World Cup, the 1994 one, the 1998 one, and the 2006 one do I realize that something about them is different--perhaps counterfeit, but, somehow, not devalued. 

So, when I say to my friends, "I don't really remember the 1982 World Cup, so 2006 was something special" it is at once a lie and the truth.

On this day, thirty-six years ago, Italy won its third World Cup, a triumph that I at once remember and don't.



Saturday, 7 July 2018

When Third Place Meant Something to Me: Italy vs England


The World Cup's most pointless exercise is the third place game. Italy and England had both experienced heartbreaking defeats to Argentina and Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.

Nonetheless, this was the first World Cup that I can say I watched knowing what was going on (I was too young for 1986).  I had already shed tears  in the semi-final, and I wanted a measure of redemption by watching Italy beat England.

Seventy minutes passed in Bari before Italy broke through. England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, playing in his last international game, fumbled a ball in the penalty box, and Roberto Baggio pounced on it.  The ball rolled to Salvatore Schillaci, who evaded a challenge and passed for Baggio to shoot high into the net.

David Platt equalized for England moments later with a towering header, but Baggio and Schillaci combined again to give Italy the victory.  Baggio went on an irresistible run through the field, and passed for Schillaci, who was fouled in the box.

Schillaci got up and stroked the ball past Shilton to end as the tournament's top scorer with six goals.  It was a victory that I celebrated with some enthusiasm, as I watched my heroes deservedly take Italy to a high finish in the tournament.






Thursday, 5 July 2018

Baggio, Mussi and Benarrivo Jolt Italy Into Life


Somehow, you kept believing.  It couldn't end like this, could it?

Ten-man Italy were wilting at the Foxboro stadium in Boston against Nigeria.  

The drama had been perfectly Italian, replete with controversy, fluffed lines, and stage fright.  Nigeria had taken a lead in the 26th minute from a nothing corner.  Birthday boy Gianfranco Zola had been sent off for a nothing foul in the 76th (the tiny Sardinian had made faces, had held himself, had dropped down to his knees at the red card decision; in short, he had behaved as any kid would have after a spoiled party).  The Italians were doing nothing really except disintegrating.  Going nowhere except for the second round exit at the 1994 World Cup. 1-0 down with time running out.

But Roberto Baggio was still there.  It was all still possible.  Somehow, you kept believing.

Then in the 89th minute, it happened

Torino defender Roberto Mussi found himself but, more crucially, Baggio in the box.  He made a quick pass, and Baggio stroked the ball right into the bottom corner of the goal.  

It was 1-1.  The psychology of the game had shifted.

In extra-time, Parma's Antonio Benarrivo won a penalty that Baggio scored off the post.  Italy had scraped by.

Another remarkable detail about the victory was that aside from Baggio, two defenders had made the difference.  First, Mussi's enterprising movement had found Baggio in the penalty area, and secondly, Bennarivo's threat had forced a penalty.

Italy would march on thanks to those two as well.

On this day, twenty-four years ago. 



Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Andiamo a Berlino (Beppe): Grosso. Del Piero. Final.



Fabio Grosso was crying as he wheeled away.  He whizzed past teammates trying to get a hold of him; he wagged his finger in total incredulity, as if to say no, no, it can't be.  Finally, he was reined in, a heap of Italian players exulting with him.

That goal ended Germany and put Italy in the Final.  That unlikely Grosso strike of perfect geometry finished off the World Cup hosts in Dortmund.

But Alessandro Del Piero made absolutely sure.  People will most likely remember Grosso's goal over Del Piero's.  But not me.

In my calculations, both goals had equal weight.  

Sure, Grosso's was technically the winner, but Del Piero's goal was six years in the making.  In the Euro2000 Final against France, he found himself twice in a position to finish the game off.  Twice he failed, and France eventually went on to win.

This time he didn't. 

Fabio Cannavaro intercepted the ball, passing to Francesco Totti, who found Alberto Gilardino, who provided a quick pass for a Del Piero surging into the penalty box.

What would he do with the ball? The finish looked difficult, but Del Piero managed it, curling the ball past a defeated, exasperated Jens Lehmann in the German goal.

It was 2-0. Del Piero unleashed in celebration.  This time Del Piero didn't miss.

It is those moments of redemption that stick out for me.  I remember Roberto Baggio's penalty against France in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal shootout not because it was an exceptional penalty, but because of what Baggio did after scoring it.  

He looked at the crowd then lowered his eyes while raising his finger to his lips, as if to silence the voices that blared inside of him.  He was having a word with himself.  He had redeemed himself partially for the miss in the Final against Brazil four years earlier. Things made a little more sense again.  He still knew how to kick a ball in the right direction.

And so it was with Del Piero.  Maybe the Euro2000 Final was just a bitter, insignificant counterpoint in his mind as he celebrated, but the catharsis owed its intensity to the failure of six years earlier.  Del Piero was red with ecstatic rage.

Fabio Caressa yelled, "ANDIAMO A BERLINO Beppe!" to his co-commentator Giuseppe Bergomi.  We are going to Berlin, Beppe!

And so Gli Azzurri were.

On this day, twelve years ago.




Saturday, 30 June 2018

Luca Toni Arrives, Zambrotta Shines, and Pessottino Siamo Con Te

Zambrotta celebrates after opening the scoring against Ukraine
Luca Toni had not yet arrived in Germany.  He was hard to miss at 6'5".  He was there to be sure.  But he had not yet really justified his position as the forward of choice yet.

There was that shot that he had thumped against the crossbar against Ghana in Italy's opening game of the 2006 World Cup, but precious little else.

It was time.  The press was hoping that he would now break out as Paolo Rossi had in 1982.  The quarter-finals of the World Cup seemed like the perfect opportunity.

It was June 30, 2006.  Italy were facing Andriy Shevchenko's Ukraine.  Gianluca Zambrotta's rasping low shot had given them an early lead. 

But things were tense.

Somehow Ukraine had failed to score after a scramble in front of Italy's goal.  Their coach Oleh Blokhin stood on the sidelines dumbfounded. 

Italy had to put the game beyond reach, and what better person to do that than the tallest man on the team?

Toni struck twice in ten minutes.  First,  in the 59th minute, he headed home a sumptuously weighted cross from Francesco Totti, and secondly, in the 69th minute, he tapped in a pass by Zambrotta, who had done excellently to get past Ukraine's defenders in the box.

It was 3-0.  Everyone raved about Toni, but it was also Zambrotta's shining moment in the World Cup.  His performance was remarkable.  He scored only his second goal for the Azzurri and provided the assist to seal the victory.

For a moment, just for a moment, you forgot the football scandal, Calciopoli,  raging on back in Italy.  The proposed penalties, the cost, so far had been administrative. Rumours of relegation for the teams involved.  Points deduction.

It wasn't until former Juventus player Gianluca Pessotto jumped from a window in an apparent suicide attempt that the devastating impact of the scandal came into focus.  Pessotto survived.  On that miserable day, Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro was told to cut a press conference short after the news had began to filter in.  It was perhaps the most poignant moment of the World Cup up until that point.

Cannavaro and Zambrotta, who had both been Pessotto's teammates at Juventus during the season that had just ended, held up an Italy flag at the end of the victory against Ukraine with the words Pessottino siamo con te (Pessotto we are with you) written across it.

On this day, twelve years ago.