Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo, Balconies, and Parma: Why Everyone Should Watch Serie A

The name was almost whispered at first.  Cristiano Ronaldo.  One source reported it, and then slowly others started falling in line.  It was possible.  Ronaldo could play for Juventus.  Somehow, the directors would shuffle salaries and players around to bring from Madrid the most recognizable and marketable athlete in any sport to Turin.

When Ronaldo finally did arrive at the Allianz Stadium, bronze from the Greek sun, a model of sartorial perfection, to face the media, you knew this was big.  You always did, but he made absolutely sure.

"I am not like other players my age," the 33-year-old Ronaldo said, and the body fat level test later confirmed.  "Many in my stage of their career go to China or somewhere else to play."

Ronaldo chose Italy after unparalleled success in Spain.  This isn't a player on the wane, a superstar who wants to ease himself into a life of poolside indolence.  No, Ronaldo wants to win in Italy, Juventus, and Serie A.

It is a coup for the league.  That's how non-Juventus fans consoled themselves, but it's true.  Ronaldo's arrival raises the bar. For everyone.  For his teammate Paulo Dybala.  For the league's top defenders like Roma's Kostas Manolas and Milan's Alessio Romagnoli.  Even for Frosinone defender Emanuele Terranova, against whom Ronaldo will be facing off 80 kms outside of Rome at least once this upcoming season.

I have enjoyed experts on EPL-centric panels trying to figure out how it all happened.  Why Juventus? Why Italy? How can it be that Ronaldo spurned the chance to go back to Manchester United?

I love it. I love hate-watching the parochialism, the toe-curling comments from so-called experts who still think Roma fluked a semifinal appearance in the Champions League. It warms my heart. 

If they had been paying attention the signs of Italy's ascent have been there.  During the 2014-15 season, the more thoughtful English journalists took note of Juventus's run to the Champions League Final, of the huge success of Italian clubs in the Europa League.  In the past few years, Napoli's fluent play has made an impact to the extent that Maurizio Sarri is now coach of Chelsea.

It's a paradox that while EPL partisans dismiss if not bash Italian football, the top English clubs yearn for Italian coaches.  Ranieri, Ancelotti, Conte, Allegri are all coaches that EPL teams have either employed or have come very close to employing. 

Still not convinced?

Fine, you must be a numbers person.  Look at the UEFA coefficient ranking for countries--Serie A has surpassed the Bundesliga and is closing in on England, who sit uncomfortably in second place.

Ronaldo's arrival is a culmination of the "good things" that Serie A has been doing, a living,breathing, grinning exclamation point, a player that could finally help Juventus take that one final step and win the Champions League.

Juventus fans claim the signing as their own, and so they should.  It is a testament to Juventus's superb business acumen and vision that Ronaldo was ever possible.  To outsiders, the Portuguese star's signing is the only thing worth talking about this summer in Serie A.  But Milan, Inter and Napoli have all been at work as well.

Napoli brought in Carlo Ancelotti as coach after Sarri left to Chelsea.  A Champions League winning coach, Ancelotti is a star signing; Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis will be even more smug next year. 

Then there is Inter, who pounced on Roma's Radja Nainggolan
Carlo Anceotti (left) and Aurelio De Laurentiis
among others to bolster their midfield, and who are rumoured to be after Real Madrid's Luka Modric.  Yes, you read that right--Modric.

Milan have woken up from the nightmare of their Chinese ownership and now have former player Leonardo and former legend Paolo Maldini in the management.  Oh, and the best striker in the league, Gonzalo Higuain, will lead the attack.  He came in alongside Mattia Caldara in a swap deal that saw Leonardo Bonucci return to Juventus.

To ratchet up the nostalgia, Higuain and Caldara waved to the fans from a balcony in the Piazza Duomo in Milan.  To me, it recalled Milan's signing of Alessandro Nesta in 2002, or Ronaldo's presentation at Inter in 1997.

Other clubs have been making the headlines as well.  Parma have returned to Serie A after fighting off their second bankruptcy.  Not romantic enough to have one of the sette sorelle (the seven sisters of Italian football, Milan, Juventus, Inter, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina, Napoli, and Parma) back in Serie A? Consider that defender Alessandro Lucarelli, 41, stuck with the club through the trials of Serie D and administration, retiring just this past season.  

A little further south, newly promoted Frosinone will play in their newly built stadium, Stadio Benito Stirpe, and, at the time of writing, Lazio and Fiorentina have managed to keep hold of their star players like Ciro Immobile and Federico Chiesa.

It has been a glorious summer in Italy.  It is almost as if the league decided to compensate for the national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup.  A lot is happening apart from Ronaldo.  This will be the most exciting Serie A season in a long, long time. 

If you're tired of the familiar villainy of Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho, the same old faces that he pulls in press conferences, the painfully false modesty of Manchester city coach Pep Guardiola, the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, the predictability of a Bayern Munich triumph in Germany, give Serie A a try.  Sure, Juventus have won the last seven Scudetti, but Serie A was the only top league that still had more than one team fighting for the championship two rounds from the end last year (Napoli and Juventus).  This year, it feels maybe, despite Ronaldo, Juventus's hegemony just may be at risk.

You can whisper it for now, and let's see if it becomes reality.

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 facial contortions, 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.