Friday 16 December 2011

Faith in Five

Udinese celebrate Antonio Di Natale's equalizer against Celtic
Perhaps it was a rare moment of patriotism, or even a rarer moment of foresight.  When it comes to the club level, Italian football is not normally known for either, and yet what many Italian football fans realized on Thursday, as Udinese played out the dying seconds of the draw that they needed against Celtic to enter the next phase of the Europa League, was that five Italian teams would be in European competition in the new year.  For once, Italian participants in the Europa League, an officially reinvigorated second-tier competition that already seems moribund, put in the graft without any promise of lucrative reward.

Like it or not, as I have persistently written in the past, the Europa League counts just as much as the Champions League when it comes to that well-concealed UEFA coefficient points system, a system that has pervasive consequences for how much money a league can hope to see from the Champions League.  Italy has already lost its fourth Champions League spot, which makes the top three spots in the Serie A coveted real estate.  For this year though, Napoli's searing run through Manchester City has been the apotheosis of Serie A's campaign in Europe.  Quite simply, Milan and Inter have not impressed as much, and that is even after you take into account the Rossoneri's theatrical, for all the good reasons, 3-2 loss to Barcelona.

What Lazio and Udinese have done in the Europa League is crucial work for the Italian bid, leaving Serie A in a position to amass a points total of 15 or greater this year.  Doing so, will let them steer clear of France, who are menacing in fifth spot, but now only have two representatives left in this year's competition--Marseille and Lyon in the Champions League.  Also, if Italy do want to reclaim the third spot in the rankings, then beating Germany this year could be foundational for that challenge.  The Bundesliga only have four representatives left in the competition, and when you consider Bayer Leverkusen are up against Barcelona, Italy's chances to charge ahead of Germany this year seem promising.

Currently, Italy is on 9.500 points (see table below), already about two points behind the total they managed last year.  Remember, a win in UEFA competition for Italy means 2 points (a draw means 1) divided by 7, the total number of positions that Italy is allotted (consider how important, then, it was for Milan to hold onto their 2-0 lead against Viktoria Plzen on Matchday 6, or for Inter to beat Trabzonspor on Matchday 1).

In the Europa League, Udinese have been handed a somewhat easier task of going past Greek side PAOK Saloniki in the round of thirty-two, while Lazio come up against far more daunting opposition in Atletico Madrid.  In the Champions League, the Italian contingent should feel confident.  For one, Napoli and Milan have avoided Real Madrid, and secondly, they are up against sides that they seem able to beat.  Milan will want to avenge the elimination at the hands of Arsenal in the 2007-08 campaign, and they should be optimistic of restitution with a sturdier backline, a competent, at times spectacular, frontline, and a revitalized midfield, which may have problems and some deficiencies, but is nonetheless equipped to play a containing game.  Napoli, on the other hand, will be brimming with self-belief after defeating Premiership champions-elect Manchester City this year to effectively qualify for the knockout stages; surpassing Chelsea definitely does not seem impossible.  Inter's clash with Marseille seems the easiest, and the most conducive to put more distance between Italy and France in the rankings.

With five Italian clubs still in the European pursuit, Italy joins England and Spain in the group of countries with the most representatives left in UEFA competition.  Given that Manchester United and Manchester City have dropped down into the Europe's second-tier, winning the Europa League will be much harder for Lazio and Udinese.  However, the goal should be at least the quarter-final stage for one, if not both, clubs.  As for the Champions League, a sustained run for all three clubs will emphatically put Italy back in contention, and redress some of the European heartache and frustrations of recent years.  There are certainly many structural issues--stadia ownership being chief among them--with which Italy has to contend to bolster its chances in Europe in the long run.  However, while as a brand Italian football may be a bit behind, as a quintessential football product, a result of a school and philosophy, it is still registering.

UEFA Coefficient Rankings taken from Bert Kassies's website

Thursday 1 December 2011

Serie A's Europa League Fight

The right noise...Edy Reja
Finally, at long last, Lazio coach Edy Reja said the right things moments before his side's crunch encounter with Romanian club Vaslui in the Europa League: "We will play a competitive team in Romania."  Speculation suggests that Miroslav Klose will start from the outset as will Djibril Cisse and Hernanes.  

Oh wait, did you forget? Yes, the Europa League is happening right now.  This week, the Europa League theoretically had the European limelight to itself since the Champions League, its richer, better looking, more popular cousin, was off until a reappearance next week.  And yet, earlier this week, there was scarcely any mention in the Italian media of the two matches that Udinese and Lazio had to play.  Most of the focus, perhaps somewhat justifiably, was on Napoli's game against Juventus on Tuesday.

For the future of Italian football, the Europa League is solemnly significant.  As I have written previously, it is not only that Italy have dropped behind the Bundesliga that is the concern, but also that France and Portugal are making inroads on the fourth spot in the UEFA coefficient ranking, a spot currently held by an increasingly nervous looking Serie A.  Well, at least, you would like to think the league is nervous, and not fatally complacent.

"When it comes to the Europa League, our clubs rest players," said the typical harbinger of doom and gloom, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, earlier this season.  "This is why we're behind Cyprus this year."

Europa League Group D standings taken from
Lest the calcio lover is anxious about a power shift from Rome, Milan, and Turin to Nicosia, Limassol, and Larnaka, we need to put things into a more ruddy context. Udinese's 0-0 draw with Rennes last night means they only have to avoid defeat against Celtic at home on December 15th to make it into the next round.  And if Lazio defeat Vaslui in Romania today, then the Biancoceleste will also qualify. 

Europa League Group I standings taken from
However, while these games do not seem monumentally difficult, it is the ability for Italian clubs to make them difficult that is unnerving.  Udinese should have come home with the three points yesterday, but Francesco Guidolin rested players like Antonio Di Natale and Giampiero Pinzi. Notwithstanding that, only the upright denied what seemed a certain goal for Antonio Floro Flores.  Guidolin could argue that it was not only he who rested players yesterday.  Harry Redknapp did too, and Tottenham duly lost at home to PAOK Saloniki.  However, the Premier League isn't fighting for its face, its identity, and its spot at the summit of the coefficient rankings, a spot that looks assured for years to come.

Yet, when Guidolin was asked whether he would stop rotating players if Udinese made it out of their group, he remained non-committal, responding with a "we will see."

As thrilling as they can be, victories like the one Napoli claimed over Manchester City in the Champions League will not solely decide where Italian football sits in a few years.  There is a fight for prominence going on, away from the glare and riches of the Champions League, and it counts.  That fight is in the Europa League--in the back-alley and by the dockside.  Serie A better be ready for it.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Napoli's New Dreams

Soaring...Edinson Cavani of Napoli
You could say it was unexpected.  But you would be denying about 60,000 Neapolitans who were at the San Paolo on Tuesday.  They expected something big from Napoli, from Edinson Cavani, from Ezequiel Lavezzi, and from their poetic faith--and all things fulfilled.  Napoli have beaten Manchester City 2-1 to inch closer to the next round of the Champions League.  The group of death has finally witnessed vitality and life in what is now one of the most feared arenas in Europe.

The deafening rapture in the San Paolo at the final whistle was a giant exhale from a fanbase still breathing, defiantly and loudly, in the post-Maradona age.  Since the Argentinian left Naples two Scudetti and a UEFA Cup twenty years ago, Napoli have seen financial ruin, Serie B, and even Serie C1; and now they have seen a night like this.  It wasn't even a win in a knockout phase of Europe's premier competition, but it was a nudge against one of the opulent European powers.  For a club so used to a narrative that looks back nostalgically at the good old days of Maradona, performing so triumphantly in the present must be an experience to savour.

It wasn't only the fact that they could have beaten Manchester City 5-1 had Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Christian Maggio taken fairly easy chances.  It was also that they played City like they wanted to play them: at a safe distance, expertly muzzling a team that had disfigured Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford a few weeks ago.  Even City's solitary goal was a mistake, a blip, coming from their host's largesse as Salvatore Aronica miscued a clearance, sending it into the path of David Silva, whose shot was parried for Mario Balotelli to tap in.

That was City's only success, and it came after Cavani had headed Napoli into the lead from a corner earlier in the first half.  Admittedly, there was an element of luck in Cavani's goal, as the ball had only grazed the head of the skeletal Uruguayan, but it was enough to creep in at the near post.

Yet, after such a break, City's equalizer should have extinguished Neapolitan hope.  However, with the second half came more Cavani, straight, diagonally, and relentlessly.  And with him came Lavezzi, Andrea Dossena, and Maggio.  Napoli's second goal, the already-hallowed winner, was a sumptuous Lavezzi-Dossena-Cavani combination, a combination that the vaunted Silva couldn't mastermind all night for his team. Lavezzi found a surging Dossena who crossed for Cavani to pounce on, and he did, first-time to leave Joe Hart with no chance.

Even after that, however, City had fourty-one minutes to strike back, but their coach Roberto Mancini sulked and sunk on the sidelines, watching Lavezzi stretch Hart in the City goal, and a post thwart Marek Hamsik.  He also watched Walter Mazzarri take all the plaudits as the night's more astute technician.  This is Mazzarri's first real shot at Europe, and he completely dominated a man who has been here before--and failed before several times with Inter.

When the draw for this group was made many predicted Napoli to finish last in it.  That they sit in second going into the final matchday, their fate in their own hands, is already an astounding achievement.  If they beat Villarreal and pip a Manchester City team worth a billion euros to the second round, it will send a heart-warming message to the football world.

Joy in Naples...Napoli players celebrate
Since the summer of 2008, Manchester City's ascendancy has been brisk for their fans.  Success, forged and maintained by owners from Abu Dhabi who show no signs of tightening finances despite staggering losses, has culminated in them sitting atop the Premiership, five points ahead of their once unsurpassable rivals, Manchester United.  However, it was Napoli's fluency, their overall coherence, that overwhelmed City.  That is not to say that City are not gelling; rather, they are, which makes Napoli's collective dominance over them even more remarkable.

Mazzarri's side attacked when it had to, defended obdurately when it had to, and won when it had to.  They had already beaten Milan and Inter this season, but this win probably meant the most to Napoli's president, Aurelio De Laurentiis.  He is the man who rescued them from Serie C1 a few years ago, investing, but keeping an eye on his club's long-term health.  The movie producer is an innovator in a country with a predilection for the anachronistic.  While the private ownership of stadia law, Legge Crimi, awaits approval in Parliament, De Laurentiis is already in advanced talks with the city of Naples to take ownership of Stadio San Paolo.  He also has a vision for a youth academy that would nurture potential at all levels. A night like the one against City vindicates all his work, and not least his often bellicose praise of Napoli.

Italian football has suffered and is currently suffering, sitting behind the Bundesliga now in the UEFA coefficient rankings.  While the Premiership's luster continues to blind, Serie A as a brand is struggling.  Yet, as far as footballing philosophy is concerned, clubs like Napoli prove that their approach on the field is as modern as any European club's.  A team that sits seventh in a very competitive Serie A this year has defeated a club that sits at the top of a league that many consider the best in the world.

Quite simply, when it came down to it, Napoli meant more business than the richest club in the world.

Monday 31 October 2011

Get Well Soon, FantAntonio

Cassano fell ill this weekend and needs surgery to fix a congenital heart defect

Sunday 30 October 2011

The Thiago Silva Question

Barcelona target: Milan's Thiago Silva
It seems there is never any rest for Milan fans.  And no, I am not just talking about the injuries to key players this season.

Over the years, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani has boasted of the "family" atmosphere at Milan, which would, inevitably of course, preclude any Milan player to yearn for a new, sometimes more lucrative beginning at another club.  Even as late as 2006, this official line was somewhat tenable.  During that year, Andriy Shevchenko left for Chelsea for thirty million sterling.  The departure of Milan's star player at the time was bizarrely accounted for as a "triumph of the English language" by Galliani, referring to Shevchenko's desire to learn the language, so that he could communicate with his American wife Kristen Pazik.  Clearly, any linguistic shortcomings had not spoiled any nuptials, as both speak Italian, but fans were expected to believe the somewhat ludicrous official line.

Nevertheless, Milan fans rationalized Shevchenko's departure as great business for the club.  He was turning thirty that year, and had spent his best years at Milan.  As painful as his departure was, Milan still had Kaka.

Or did they? The summer of 2006 unearthed the depraved machinations of calciopoli, and in anticipation of the punishments, European giants began to ready their shopping lists.  Indeed, Fabio Capello, who left Juventus that year for Real Madrid, openly, and callously, suggested that everyone was hoping that the big Italian clubs would drop down to the musty dwelling of Serie B (and potentially even lower in the case of Juventus).

He wouldn't see his sadistic wish granted completely.  Juventus certainly did go down to Serie B, and Real Madrid snapped up Fabio Cannavaro, gilded and glowing from a staggering World Cup triumph, and Emerson (I'll forgive you if you forgot about him).  Milan stayed up with a points' penalty, and Kaka stayed on after a contract renewal. But a chasm had appeared: Milan, for the first time, looked somewhat shaken in their confidence of being able to hold on to a star player.

Real Madrid's president at the time, Roman Calderon, complete with vampiric good looks and a vulture's charm, had enraged Galliani with unscrupulous methods of trying to entice Kaka to leave.  Calderon had once said that he would not want his tombstone to read, "Here lies the president who didn't sign Kaka."  He tried everything in (and perhaps somethings oustide) the book to get Kaka to come to Madrid.  It took until 2009, but it finally happened.  Though, much to the detriment of Calderon's already tarnished image, the man who made it happen was Florentino Perez, someone who had warmer relations with Galliani.  Unless Calderon makes a resurgent return to the presidency, which is about as likely as the Gaddafis returning to power in Libya, he may have to resign himself to his dreaded epitaph.

Tellingly, Milan's excuse for the Kaka sale was neither comical, nor implausible.

"We have to balance our books," Galliani said after selling Kaka to Real Madrid for about sixty-eight million euros.  "We can't keep depriving ourselves of this amount of money."

And there it was--an ugly, pragmatic reason of money.  Suddenly, the family values rhetoric seemed tenuous.  Milan had misgivings that most clubs, even the big ones, have, and even the vanity of owner Silvio Berlusconi wouldn't allow for such an extravagant luxury of simply keeping Kaka.

The transfer of Shevchenko and Kaka will never permit any Milan fans to categorically dismiss any speculation surrounding their players.  And the latest speculation, which chastens even now in the crisp month of October, months away from the summer, is around Milan's best central defender, and some say the world's, Thiago Silva.

Barcelona's interest in the defender is genuine and promises to be relentless, and, for his part, Thiago Silva has done little to assure fans of his fealty to Milan.

Adriano Galliani with Kaka
"Adriano Galliani and my agent deal with my contract," Thiago Silva said recently in an evasively succinct response to the 'Barcelona question,' which will undoubtedly loom larger and larger with each passing month.  His answer, though terse, brings his motives into sharp relief: use the media neither to deny nor confirm intentions.  The modern footballer is groomed for precisely this sort of ambiguity, which aims to alienate no one, keeping all options open by absolving oneself of responsibility.  This ruse of self-effacement naturally calls on the divine to get in on the public relations work.   A popular refrain, repeated by his more devout compatriot Kaka was "only God knows my future."  Even Inter's, for how long is anyone's guess, Wesley Sneijder, whose appeals to anything religious were fairly well concealed for most of his career (at least as far as I know), took the same recourse a few months ago when asked about Manchester United's interest.

As much as Milan fans will hate to admit it, Thiago Silva wants to play for Barcelona.  He also wants to play for Milan.  The crux of the issue, however, is how much do Milan want to keep him.  An open rebellion on part of the player is not on the cards.  Last summer, Thiago Silva admitted talking to Barcelona, but left the rest for Barcelona and Milan to talk over.  Milan renewed Thiago Silva's contract until 2016 in May of this year, and therefore had no intention of selling the player.

But for how long? All of the Thiago Silva speculation will be going on against the backdrop of Italian football's glaring decay.  Galliani has become a prophet of doom and gloom in Italian football, never missing an opportunity to remind any that harbour any sort of optimism in any recesses of their hearts and minds that Italian football is and will remain for the foreseeable future far behind England and Spain--or, that is, the top two of Spain, at least.  The simple economics seem to necessitate an eventual transfer.  Barcelona certainly make a lot more than Milan do.  Yet, even that is only a part of it.  At Barcelona, in case you didn't know, they are doing wonderful things, winning titles for fun and winning them with beauty and élan.  Just like the burgeoning fleet of newly manufactured Barcelona fans--they swear they know who Cruyff is--join the ranks of the long faithful, players are tripping over themselves to be part of the great football experiment in Catalonia.

Yet it won't matter what Thiago Silva says or what Barcelona say or what the pro-Barcelona press says (the latest in that media is the laughable story that Thiago Silva has told friends he is leaving for Barcelona).  Instead, it will matter what Galliani says or doesn't say.  The man relishes playing the media, but he has been relatively forthcoming when it has come to players' sales.  After Milan had beaten Fiorentina to secure automatic Champions League qualification in 2009, he was asked in the post-match interview whether Kaka would be sold to Real Madrid (recall that months earlier Milan had made it clear that their prized asset could indeed be sold by their willingness to deal with Manchester City), and Galliani responded with, "let me rest now, there is a lot for me to deal with."  It was a tell-tale response that surprisingly barely registered on the media. At other times, Galliani had been unequivocal, saying in effect that Kaka was untouchable and part of the Milan future.  However, if Milan fans had hoped that the failed transfer to Manchester City in January of 2009 had renewed their club's bonds with Kaka, they were to be mistaken, and Galliani's hesitance betrayed the truth.

Even though it is not always trustworthy, it is Galliani's language to which we must pay attention over the next few months.  Thiago Silva has also already uttered the words that all Milan fans are dreading more than his dithering: "I want to stay at Milan for a long time and be the club captain."  Recall that is exactly what Kaka also said in interviews.

Of course, Galliani is always in lockstep with club owner Berlusconi, and the latter's commitment to Milan is no longer quixotic.  Beset by scandal, he is also leading a country in a parlous economic situation.  It is sometimes facile to make a simple connection between politics and sport, but in the case of Berlusconi the two have always been intertwined.  Many still maintain that Kaka was sacrificed because Berlusconi wanted to show solidarity with a population facing financial hardships. How will Berlusconi contextualize Milan's affairs in the current political realities of the country?

Thiago Silva takes on Barcelona's Lionel Messi
Lest things get too depressing, along came Cafu, the perma-grinned former right-back of Milan, to offer his opinion: "Milan won't easily let go of Thiago Silva.  It makes sense why Barcelona want a player like Thiago in the center of their defence for many years to come, but I do not see him moving."

Barcelona's fervent interest surely does make sense, as Cafu says, even more so after Pato ripped through their makeshift central-defensive pairing of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets at the Camp Nou this season during a Champions League game in September.  Barcelona need cover in the center of defence urgently, not least because captain Carles Puyol is now ageing.

If I had to make a guess, there is a possibility that Thiago Silva will leave for Barcelona in the summer of 2012, but it is more likely for him to leave in 2013.  He will not, in my mind, end his career at Milan.  His transfer also depends on how much money Barcelona have and how much they are willing to pay for a central defender (and of course whether or not Barcelona will remain attractive candidates in two years).  Remember that it proved difficult for them to sign both Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez this past summer.  Their revenue may be prodigious, but the club does have some debt with which to contend.

Milan certainly see Thiago Silva, who just turned twenty-seven this year, as the natural heir to Alessandro Nesta.  He is the defender around whom the back-line can be moulded for several years.  There are few central defenders in the world who can lay claim to being in the same league as the man from Rio de Janeiro. However, frighteningly for Rossoneri fans, it remains to be seen what kind of pressure Milan's desire to hold onto Thiago Silva can withstand--or, indeed, wants to withstand.

Sunday 23 October 2011

A Princely Three

Kevin-Prince Boateng exulting
He may have his doubters, and to be fair, they have a point.  Kevin-Prince Boateng doesn't have the subtlety of a trequartista, the man who plays behind the strikers.  In fact, he often doesn't have any subtlety at all.

On paper, his job description may require a refined touch, one that can discern potential gaps anywhere.  Boateng, however, tore up that description long ago.  And today he tore up Lecce.

It became clear that Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri preferred only a nominal playmaker last season; what he really wanted was a player who knew how to move with the front pairing, to carve out spaces and take chances himself whenever possible. It is to Boateng's credit that he has managed to parse the role and the coach's demands so expertly, and to instill his own vision onto a position that requires precisely a visionary.

Today he came on when Milan were 3-0 down, and seemingly resigned to their fate of not being able to right the ten-year winless record at Lecce.  His introduction in the place of an ineffectual Robinho, and Alberto Aquilani's replacement of an unforgivably terrible Massimo Ambrosini, completely changed the dynamism of Milan in the middle and final third of the field.

With the duo, Milan were different--and worryingly so.  Worrying, not just for the rest of the Serie A, but also for Allegri and the Milan fans, who will nervously try to reconcile such contrasting halves.  Can Milan ever do without any of their starting eleven?

At the very least, they can seldom do without Boateng.  The 24-year-old was a disgrace in the 2-0 loss to Juventus, but he has made up for that with three strikes today, and with three particular strikes in the last two games.

We perhaps had a preview of things to come when Boateng flattened Bate Borisov in the Champions League on Tuesday with a thunderous shot from the edge of the area.  After that goal, he remained intensely composed, simmering, not allowing himself unrestrained joy.  The muted celebration was seen as sort of a penance for his red card against Juventus, and if that penance was not enough--it did come after Zlatan Ibrahimovic had virtually ensured three points--today's hat-trick, in fourteen minutes, which almost heralded Mario Yepes's winner, was surely redemption. His first two strikes were also from the raging thunder category.

Milan will still have a lot of revision to do after this game.  The defence was generous, and the midfield was incapable of imagination.  However, Boateng was capable--and that is worth celebrating the way the Ghanaian normally does.

Thursday 20 October 2011

De Laurentiis a Step Closer to Owning Stadio San Paolo

Stadio San Paolo
I have been reporting about the stadia issue in Italy in some detail in order to keep you apprised of perhaps the most crucial issue effecting Italian football's future.

In my discussions about Legge Crimi being stuck in the Italian parliament and how clubs are moving in response to that impasse, I had suggested that a club's success to own their stadium depended on the willingness of the city councils with which they were negotiating.  While Maurizio Zamparini's bluster in Sicily has not really resulted in any appreciable movement, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis seems to have made some progress in a bid to take ownership of Stadio San Paolo.

News from Italy indicates that Pina Tommasielli, the Councillor of Sports in Naples, is working with De Laurentiis on a deal that would see the latter take ownership of San Paolo, allowing redevelopment of the stadium.   As I wrote earlier, De Laurentiis also plans on revitalizing the Fuorigrotta area, the site of the San Paolo, during the upcoming summer, an ambition that is most probably at the heart of the negotiations.

Napoli's 1-1 draw in the Champions League group game against Bayern Munich on Tuesday was watched by a sold-out crowd at the San Paolo, which can hold a little over sixty thousand people.  However, the method of ticket sales and allocation were criticized by the Italian media, and De Laurentiis irately, and somewhat justifiably, responded to the attacks by indicating that once he owns the stadium, then and only then will people have a right to criticize such matters.

Hopefully for Napoli and Italian football, he can take ownership of the Stadio San Paolo soon.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Ibrahimovic Tired But True to Type

Tired of it all: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
I must admit, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's confession of being tired of football came as a surprise to me.  There have been times in his short Milan career during which he has looked jaded, but I attributed those to the exhaustion and frustration that a footballer often feels during a game--and, of course, to his generally peevish disposition.  After all, not everyone can wear a broad grin like Cafu or remain unruffled like Paolo Maldini when things don't go their way.

Ibrahimovic's candour in admitting his weariness of football is startling, but not completely unprecedented.  Carlos Tevez, currently engulfed by widespread censure for seemingly refusing to come on during Manchester City's Champions League encounter against Bayern Munich, said something similar in the late fall of 2009, deploring the greed and opportunism in football.  Yet, as far as I can tell, the Argentinian's Bartleby the Scrivener-style defiance of Roberto Mancini does not seem to be an extension of those musings.

It is easy and common to dismiss footballers as being many things: overpaid, spoilt, thankless, and arrogant (and when Cristiano Ronaldo sneers at the masses by saying he is booed "because he is handsome, rich, and great at football" those dismissals gain prominence).  The reflexive reaction of some to Ibrahimovic's frank admissions will undoubtedly be of that variety.  However, there is something undeniably refreshing about Ibrahimovic's cynicism, which complements his conduct and career.

Ibrahimovic has never been the one not to speak his mind.  This is the same player, who at twenty-two tartly announced his arrival at Juventus from Ajax, saying "that he is no one's sub."  When he left Inter for Barcelona in 2009, he did not waste any time in criticizing the overtly tactical nature of Italian football, almost seething at how it "ruined" the sport.  No one should expect Ibrahimovic to fawn on his employers, and no one should really expect him to think about anyone other than himself when he talks about his relationship to football.  His is a platitude-free zone, in which he has always been the most important figure.

"I feel that it is not good to stay with one club too long," Ibrahimovic told La Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this year. "You can get complacent."

After his latest interview, however, it seems that it is not complacency but the diminishing resilience of his body, the fact that he thinks he is "getting old," which has prompted Ibrahimovic to speak like an arthritic, leather-skinned veteran nearing fourty.  For Ibrahimovic, who turned thirty just this month, speaking so fatalistically shows a side at odds with the all-action forward who inadvertently drop-kicked Marco Materazzi during the Milan derby just last season (Zinedine Zidane must have chortled).  But behind the admission is also a dependable and typically ugly honesty, upheld unapologetically by self-regard.  Behind it is not just a streamlined 6'4" frame that is tiring, but also a mental strain that may come at the end of even a successful career like Ibrahimovic's (even if no European glory, eight domestic titles in a row after all).

Not to anyone's surprise, footballers have often contemplated retirement or retired prematurely due to physical injuries.  Even at Ibrahomvic's current club Milan, former great Marco van Basten retired at just twenty-eight in 1995, unable to overcome a persistent ankle problem.  However, it is Ibrahimovic's emphasis on the mental aspect that is compelling.  He has had injuries in his career, but none the seriousness of Brazil's Ronaldo or of Alessandro Del Piero, the latter still playing for Juventus at almost thirty-seven.  Many fans and clubs lose patience with footballers over injuries, but Ibrahimovic has shown that players can lose patience with football altogether for personal reasons separate from physical problems.

Former Germany player Sebastian Deisler suffered ruinous ligament injuries, which ultimately curtailed his career at the age of twenty-seven.  However, it was his well-documented depression at Bayern Munich that also contributed to his early retirement.  Judging by the swagger with which Ibrahimovic acquits himself, many may think he does not have the capacity to be melancholic.  However, his interview has shown that despite having riches and a career that has seen him rise from his home-city club of Malmo to Milan, Ibrahimovic, like other footballers, can get tired of even the sport that has afforded him his lifestyle.

Of course, it is Milan who will be now reckoning with Ibrahimovic's announcement.  Chances are that Ibrahimovic will still continue to be absolutely vital for Milan this season, as he was in the previous.  However, in the event that he is not, you can almost certainly expect people will question his commitment.  Not that Ibrahimovic would care one way or the other.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Serie A Clubs Move Ahead Despite No Legge Crimi

Big plans: Aurelio De Laurentiis
I recently wrote about how the passage of Legge Crimi would dramatically change the modus operandi of Italian clubs when it came to working with a more balanced financial portfolio.  However, as was and is infuriatingly predictable, there seems to be absolutely no movement in passing the law through the branches of the Italian parliament.  Yet, a few clubs have announced their intention to renovate or rebuild a stadium.  It seems in the absence of any forthcoming legal imperative, clubs have shown some welcomed initiative, and the success of their initiative has depended on the extent to which city councils have been willing to negotiate.  For example, in the case of Juventus, the negotiations were swift, and the Turin city council sold the Stadio Delle Alpi to the club.  Of course, given all the well-known problems of the Stadio Delle Alpi--discussed in part here--Juventus elected to level the stadium to build a new home.

While Juventus still lead the way with their privately owned Juventus Arena, replete with commercial and merchandising opportunities, other clubs strive to follow to some degree the Bianconeri's model.  Four clubs are in some stage of improving their habitat.

Napoli: President Aurelio De Laurentiis has exhibited the most bravado.  Before his club's trip to England to take on Manchester City in this season's Champions League, he disparaged his opponents by describing them as unconscientious spendthrifts.  He also called on Michel Platini to be serious in applying the Financial Fair Play Rules.  When he is not antagonizing, De Laurentiis is diligently working to make Napoli a force--on the field and financially.

He has said that he will not bring down the Stadio San Paolo because of its history, but rather improve its existing state, and commercialize the surrounding areas.  He plans on revitalizing the Fuorigrotta area, the site of the San Paolo, during the upcoming summer.  This smaller initiative will contribute to De Laurentiis's broader plan, which includes, as Paolo Bandini tell us, "increasing the training pitches to seven, [and] the construction of living quarter for youngsters, as well as a school building where they can get help with their studies."

Palermo: It is always wise to take what Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini says with sacks and sacks of salt.  However, even in his capricious universe, he seems serious about creating a brand new stadium for Palermo.  During September of this year, he said that soon Palermo will unveil plans for a new 35,000 seat stadium.  Of course, Zamparini has attempted to build a stadium during his ownership of Venezia as well but was thwarted by the typical bureaucratic problems.  This one will be interesting to follow.

Still trying: Thomas DiBenedetto
Roma: President Thomas DiBenedetto arrived at the club with admirable enthusiasm, announcing that building a new stadium would be the priority.  He had probably not accounted for the intransigence of Rome's city council.  Since those claims, Roma have had to put those aspirations on hold until further notice, and they will have to be content with just trying to improve the matchday experience, which means increased commercial activity around the Stadio Olimpico.  The track between the spectators and the stadium absolutely has to go.

Not the unqualified revolution for which many were hoping, but it remains to be seen whether Roma will get some breathing room in the future to realize DiBenedetto's initial hope of a new stadium.  If the temporary solution turns out to be the one that endures, it will be disappointing.

There were murmurs, however, that Roma could have a new stadium in three or four years.  It all depends on the cooperation of the city council.

Udinese: It is unclear whether president Giampaolo Pozzo has definitive plans to build a new stadium.  Some say that there are improvements planned to the current stadium (with reduced capacity making way for better viewing).  What is ambiguous is whether Udinese plan to own the Friuli (buying it from the city council), or if they plan only to work under the existing ownership.

So the news is mixed.  It appears stubborn city councils are still hindering clubs like Roma, but clubs like Napoli, buoyed also by their exploits in Europe this season, are planning big things.  Meanwhile, Milan vice-president Adriano Gallian refuses to cheer up.  He maintains that the feat Juventus have managed in building a new stadium cannot be achieved in Milan.  "The most we can do," he maintains, "is improve the San Siro and make it suitable to host the Champions League Final."  Not the ideal news for Milan fans who were hoping to rival Juventus with their own home.

Nevertheless, as clubs wait for Legge Crimi, which may be far off in the future, a lot of work remains to be done, but clubs are taking some steps forward.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Holding On: Bundesliga Is Not The Only Competition for Serie A

Lazio rejoice during an unnecessarily complicated draw versus Vaslui
It wouldn't totally be a fall from grace. After all, Italian football has had well-documented problems ranging from lurid match-fixing to racism in stadia, so grace probably flatters Italy's footballing context.  However, as far as performances are concerned, the risultati, which Italian teams have often privileged over method and spectacle, Italian football is teetering.

The UEFA coefficient rankings may be imperfect, but they are far more reflective of a league's comprehensive health than the farcical FIFA rankings are of a nation's quality on the world stage.  And as far as the UEFA rankings are concerned, Serie A has not only fallen behind the Bundesliga, but is in genuine danger of being usurped by France's Ligue 1 and even Portugal's Primeira Liga (see table below the article).

The reason is simple: while an Italian team has won the Champions League twice in the last four years (Milan in 2007 and Inter in 2010), Italian clubs in general have treated the Europa League with derisive contempt.  This is even after they know that victories in the Europa League gain valuable points for the coefficients (see a detailed explanation of how coefficients work on this outstanding site). On the one hand, it is difficult to blame them.  The financial incentives to compete in what many see as a perfunctory sideshow to the Champions League are not significant enough to motivate a team like Udinese to field their preferred starting line-up (after all, the winner of the competition earns at best close to six million euros).  For example, Antonio Di Natale is being rested for the trip to Glasgow when Udinese play Celtic on Thursday.

However, even when Italian teams have fielded a semblance of a starting line-up, or at least a fairly competitive one, the results have been disappointing.  Lazio's 2-2 draw with Romanian outfit Vaslui on the first matchday was risible.  The starting line-up contained Federico Marchetti, Cristian Ledesma, Tommaso Rocchi, and new signing Djibril Cisse.  Sure, key players like Hernanes did not start, but Lazio should have, with all due respect to Vaslui, recorded an easy win with the players who did.

The mantra of "there are no easy games," which is ubiquitous in football journalism but remains suspicious, does not apply here.  While there is no way to peer into the hearts and minds of the players, what remains clear is that Lazio did not play with the same urgency and spontaneity they played with when they gained a far more creditable 2-2 draw against Milan only days earlier.

Somewhat similarly, Udinese's slight 2-1 win over Rennes at the Stadio Tardini was an exercise in salvaging three points that should never have been in jeopardy to begin with.  How can a team that came torturingly close to eliminating Arsenal in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League be on the backfoot against Rennes just a few weeks later? Admittedly, Rennes may resent my cavalier attitude, for they did finish sixth in Ligue 1, and were even in the top four for some of the 2010-11 season.

Fiorentina vs Rangers in the 2007-08 UEFA Cup
What is less arguable than my characterization of Rennes, however, is that Udinese did not play with the same urgency with which they did against Arsenal.  Yet, this alibi of there is no real financial incentive to play well in Europa League does not seem to have legitimacy in Germany or France, and the results are there for all to see.  Just take the last few seasons.  Hamburg and Werder Bremen were involved in the Europa League semi-finals during the 2008-09 season (Werder Bremen progressed to the final, only to be beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk), and PSG and Marseille were in the quarter-finals.  Only Udinese were in the quarter-finals from Italy.  Similarly, during the 2009-10 season, Hamburg and Wolfsburg were in the running during the quarter-finals, with Hamburg making it to the semi-finals.  Last season witnessed Portuguese domination, with Benfica, Braga and Porto competing in the final four.  Porto ended up winning the competition against Braga in the final.

The last time Italy did have representation at even the semi-final stage of Europe's second-tier competition was when Fiorentina lost to Rangers on penalties during the 2007-08 season of what was then the UEFA Cup.  Since then, there have been some high-profile embarrassments.  Just this season, Palermo were eliminated at the qualifying stage by Thun of Switzerland.  Last season, Napoli  played lethargically and drew with the likes of Utrecht, and a last-gasp goal against Steaua Bucharest barely qualified them for the second round, at which hurdle they stumbled to the team they expertly vanquished just yesterday in the Champions League--Villarreal.  And lest we forget, just last season, Juventus could not beat Poland's Lech Poznan to get out of the group stage.

If money is not the motivation, then can not sporting merit be enough in and of itself?  If Italian teams see the Europa League as an opportunity to try out youth and players who get less action during the league season, then why can not a certain quality of performances be virtually guaranteed? Is the failure of Italian teams in the Europa League also symptomatic of a failure of a system that is not producing enough quality?

Indeed, the last question is sobering, and reminds us of how far Italian football has sunk.  Parma and Inter won Europe's second-tier competition five times between them in the 1990s.  However, in the last twelve years, not one Italian team has triumphed.

Yesterday, Serie A had a memorable day in the Champions League.  Inter went to Moscow and managed a thrilling 3-2 victory against CSKA Moscow, while Napoli cruised past Villarreal 2-0 at the San Paolo.  It is also up to the Europa League contestants of Lazio and Udinese to keep the momentum going.  If Serie A clubs do not heed these alarming signs of decline, then Italy will inevitably be fighting to keep hold of the three coveted Champions League spots it does have left.  Trying to win back the third spot from Germany seems improbable; losing the fourth position to France or even Portugal does not.  And even for Italian football, which seems to withstand all sorts of debacles, that ignominy may be one too many.

UEFA Coefficient Rankings taken from Bert Kassies's website

Monday 19 September 2011

Napoli Roar with Cavani

El Matador Edinson Cavani ripped through Milan
Of course, post-mortems of posticipi are always easier when your team isn't involved.  I have always preferred to have Milan play earlier on in the weekend, so that I can watch the "big game" of the weekend, which, in theory, should fall on Sunday evening, with either smugness or resignation, depending on how Milan have done earlier.

When the posticipo in question is a title-tilt, the pressure is unbearable.  Luckily for me, Milan's 3-0 annihilation of Inter last season was on a Saturday evening, so I was spared the agonizing wait for Sunday.  Furthermore, my nerves were fortunately less frayed than they might have been had the game been sinuous.  As it happened, Pato made things easy after fourty-five seconds, and Milan strolled to victory.

Early in the season, when there is relatively little at stake, a fan like me watches for how the landscape will be laid for the season ahead.  The hope is your team grinds its teeth against--with all due respect--the Cesenas and Sienas before tussling with the Scudetto contenders.  Admittedly, Milan's shocking defeat to Cesena last season upturns even this assurance.  Nevertheless, on Sunday, Napoli's resounding 3-1 win over the reigning champions at the San Paolo, during just the second week of the Serie A season, felt a bit like being kicked in the teeth.

It was a posticipo that kicked me out of complacency, at least.  Despite the lack of a big signing, Milan went about their work intelligently this past summer, adding depth to an already parsimonious defence, and even creativity further up the park with Alberto Aquilani.  A team that had led the standings from November to May triumphed deservedly last season; giving the coach options like Philippe Mexes in defence, Antonio Nocerino in midfield, and Aquilani in attack only seemed to set them up perfectly for a successful title defence.

Not so, suggested Napoli.  Even allowing for the fact that Milan were missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, and Kevin-Prince Boateng, their defeat on Sunday was hideous.  It's excruciating to pick out everything that went wrong with the Milan performance, but there are some points that have to be mentioned. Singling out Clarence Seedorf is always easy, so let's go with him.  There are moments in the season when Seedorf decides that a competitive game is a jaunt.  Last night's encounter against Napoli was one such game.  And then there is Pato, who lilts when given space (as Barcelona's Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets found out in the Champions League) and wilts when he isn't.  The striker is undoubtedly talented, but even in his fourth season at Milan he plays with a clumsy urgency, running into a wall of defenders when there are other options.

To be fair his team-mates didn't make anything easy--and neither did Napoli.  Even after Aquilani had given Milan the lead with a dazzling header, Napoli didn't give up.  Their coach Walter Mazzarri could not have asked for a more perfectly executed bite-of-the-thumb from the Southern upstarts at the Northern aristocrats.  Napoli's president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, sat smiling, joyfully and wryly, as Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Walter Gargano and Gokhan Inler ran, often uncontested, at, through, and by the Milan midfield.  Gargano's run to set up Napoli's and Cavani's second goal defied even an attempt at a brutal tackle by the normally pugnacious Mark van Bommel.  It was a moment that indicted, not for the first time, a legless and senescent midfield.  How Milan miss Boateng.

Yet, the game, for all of the dominance of Inler, and for all of the industry of Gargano and Lavezzi, can be summarized in three words: Cavani, Cavani, Cavani.  The Uruguayan's hat-trick undoubtedly was possible because of a capable cast, and it would be unfair to elide their contribution in any way.  Yet, Cavani proved that his twenty-six goals in Serie A last season were the signs of an awesome striker, the real deal who didn't achieve full flight at Palermo.  He is soaring now at Napoli. His third goal, an agile reaction shot after Alessandro Nesta's clearance fell to him, proved that the man is always in the hunt.

It shouldn't be all despair for Milan.  The new summer signings of Aquilani and Nocerino had decent outings (even if the former missed a simple chance to make it 2-2),  and surely this Milan will be different when all their players return.  It is too early to sulk.  Yet, it must worry Allegri that the midfield lost so many balls--or perhaps Milan didn't play with any to begin with.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

A Point Worth Much More- Forza Milan!

Pato and Thiago Silva celebrate in Milan's 2-2 draw against Barcelona at the Camp Nou

Monday 12 September 2011

Memory: Milan vs. Barcelona- October 20th, 2004

Nesta challenges Ronaldinho- October 20th, 2004
It should have been an even battle between two of Europe's most storied clubs.  And until only some years ago it was.

The match between Barcelona and Milan at the Camp Nou on Tuesday is, for many, a foregone conclusion.  The ending, for many, is inexorably determined--but still some persist in the Milan camp.

"We have to stop Barcelona's brain," said an unusually philosophical Kevin-Prince Boateng. "Xavi and Iniesta are the right and left side of the brain."

Boateng characterized his opponents eloquently.  That's what this Barcelona side does.  It combines both sides of the brain--mathematical precision with poetic flourish.  But, terrifyingly, it seems Barcelona do that throughout the team.

Competing with them is difficult, even impossible.  For Milan to do it without their main mercurial talent, their quintessential right-brainer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, seems improbable.  The Swede was ruled out for the game due to an injury sustained in training, meaning that Milan will probably play with one striker in Alexandre Pato.

Tuesday's game brings back many memories.  The 1994 European Cup Final in which Milan dismantled Johann Cruyff's Barcelona side 4-0 is always discussed when these two sides play each other.  Also, Milan's controversial semi-final elimination at the hands of Barcelona in 2006, when a perfectly good Andriy Shevchenko goal was disallowed, will undoubtedly do the rounds. However, a game between the two sides that took place many years after the 1994 triumph and many months before the 2006 disappointment  remains nestled in my memory.

The date was October 20th 2004, and Frank Rijkaard returned to the San Siro as coach of Barcelona.  He was up against his former club, coached by his former Milan teammate, Carlo Ancelotti.  Like Tuesday's encounter, it was also a group game and came early on in the Champions League campaign.

Milan lined up with Dida, Paolo Maldini, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta, Cafu, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi, and Shevchenko.  Barcelona, meanwhile, fielded Victor Valdes, Rafael Marques, Carles Puyol, Juliano Belletti, Oleguer, Giovanni von Bronckhorst, Deco, Xavi, Ronaldinho, Henrik Larsson, and Samuel Eto'o.

Barcelona had a burgeoning reputation at the time, and many fancied them to go all the way in Europe (they did the season following).  Milan had won the Champions League in 2003, and only a dramatically absurd collapse against Deportivo La Coruna had prevented them from going past the quarter-final stage the previous season.  The encounter, then, was between two teams primed for success.

The match was engrossing in the initial exchanges.  Early in the first half, Shevchenko forced an outstanding save from Valdes from a tough angle, and a few minutes later Larsson hit the crossbar with only Dida to beat.

The decisive moment came in the 31st minute.  Marcos Cafu found space down the flank, and crossed for Shevchenko, who won the aerial battle against the Barcelona defence and headed home.

Milan may have had the better of Barcelona in the first half, but they had to withstand relentless pressure in the second.  Eventually, to the relief of the home support, they secured the three points.

It wasn't a vintage Milan performance, but it remains a cherished memory of mine.  Here's hoping that Ignazio Abate and Pato do tomorrow what Cafu and Shevchenko did almost seven years ago.

Forza Milan!

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Prandelli's Azzurri Show Poise

Cannavaro reckons Italy collapse
Fabio Cannvaro's head-in-hands reaction to Italy's collapse during the World Cup in South Africa seems so long ago now.  Italy's 1-0 win over Slovenia on Tuesday clinched their place at Euro2012 next summer with two games remaining.  A team that looked irredeemable just a year ago has been revived by Cesare Prandelli.

Admittedly, there was little chance that Prandelli could do worse with Italy than Marcello Lippi had during the previous World Cup.  Italy's sojourn in Africa during the summer of 2010 was not even characterized by the drama that usually accompanies their campaigns.  After all, even when they lose, the Azzurri find a way to register on a tournament.

Take for instance the 2002 World Cup loss to South Korea.  Even allowing for the fact that South Korea were hosts who had careered past Poland and Portugal in the group stages, no one expected Italy to stumble during their second round clash given that they were starting with the much vaunted trident of Christian Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero, and the consummate enigma, Francesco Totti.  As it turned out, however, Italy lost 2-1 to a golden goal, and Totti, who had seduced coach Giovanni Trapattoni enough for him to liken the Roman's talent to Vincent Van Gogh, did little before being controversially sent off by the now disgraced referee, Byron Moreno.  The acrimony surrounding the patently scandalous refereeing detracted from Italian shortcomings in general.  Italian failure was accommodated by an almost unanimous appeal by journalists and fans to the conspiratorial.  Italy were defeated, but they weren't about to indulge in any drawn out, profound inquests.  They exited the stage with a flourish, and strident cries of "foul."

In contrast, conspicuous by absence during their performances at the World Cup in South Africa was a pulse.  Italy looked spent.  It wasn't only the fact that Fabio Cannavaro was long, long past his Berlin self, or that it was mystifying how Simone Pepe had a starting berth; it was more that the performances illuminated how anachronistic a modern man like Lippi could be.  His faith in the tired and weary was one thing; it was how he obdurately stuck to those selections that was so maddening.  For a man who earned not an insignificant portion of his renown for meticulous attention to detail--a disposition even evident in his garb--Lippi did the big things wrong.  The fact that he had won the World Cup four years earlier gave him credibility that was ultimately misplaced.  Italy exited the World Cup without winning a single game--something that no Italian team had done previously.

When Prandelli came into the frame, enthusiasm for the national team was low.  The belief that had gained currency was that the Italian generation of players was simply not good enough.  It was a belief prompted partially by the despair of South Africa, but also because the defence, something that most Azzurri sides could always boast, looked the most unsettling part of the team.

Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini, the mainstay in the back four, is the standout defender, but he is not nearly at the level of Alessandro Nesta or Fabio Cannavaro in their prime.  Yet, he provides the solidity and the hard-nosed attitude that Prandelli wants.  It is around his towering presence that Prandelli has moulded his defence.  Chiellini has started every single game of the Euro2012 qualifiers, but around him a varied cast of defenders have come and gone.  His partner for the last three games has been Inter's Andrea Ranocchia, who took over from Chiellini's Juventus teammate, Leonardo Bonucci.  The full-backs have changed frequently with the likes of Gianluca Zambrotta, Cristian Molinaro, Mattia Cassani, Federico Balzaretti, Domenico Criscito, Christian Maggio, and Lorenzo De Silvestri having all started at some point during the qualifiers (incredibly, this list does not contain Milan's Ignazio Abate, which tells a lot about how exaggerated claims of a chronic lack of decent defenders are and were).

Cesare Prandelli
However, and this fact redounds to Prandelli's acuteness as a coach, despite the changes, Italy only conceded one goal during the qualifiers (it should be noted, the game against Serbia was awarded 3-0 to Italy after fan violence, but a remarkable statistic nonetheless).  Prandelli may not have been able to rely on the personnel the quality of Nesta or Cannavaro, yet he has managed to prove that it is not crucial to have the best defenders in order to have the best defence.  That is, his back four, notwithstanding a constant state of flux, has managed to defend superbly as a unit.  Of course, Italy have not always been up against daunting opposition during the qualifiers, but remember how easily they were carved open by Slovakia at the World Cup.

Addressing the defensive problems so effectively has been a signal achievement for Prandelli.  However, his flexibility in changing formation from 4-3-3 to a 4-3-1-2 depending on the need has allowed this Italy side to maintain a shape with three solid points of references in midfield and attack: Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, and Antonio Cassano.  These three players, alongside Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon in goal, are virtually guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.  Further, similar to how Lippi assembled his team for the 2006 World Cup, Prandelli has used players of varying strengths around this nucleus, from Stefano Mauri to Giuseppe Rossi.

The results have been better than most expected, and the culmination of Prandelli's hard work came to a sentimental point on Tuesday.  The coach conceded that securing qualification at the Stadio Franchi, the stadium he called home for the five years he coached Fiorentina, was "a tremendously emotional moment."  That is all he conceded.  He  was eager to refocus, regroup, and rethink for Euro2012, by stating that preparations for the tournament would begin in earnest now.

Characteristically focused, Prandelli, a year on, seems to have the same poise Lippi did before the 2006 World Cup.  To expect the same result may at first seem wildly optimistic; however, judging by the confidence with which Prandelli's Italy play, that optimism may seem eminently reasonable next summer.

Thursday 4 August 2011

The Criminal Dithering Over Legge Crimi

Rocco Crimi
Imagine that Italian football clubs are suddenly allowed to build privately owned, modern stadia, so that they can capitalize on match-day revenue by not having to pay city councils for rent.  Imagine also that by doing so, clubs expand their revenue sources and effectively compete with the other clubs in Europe, which have long enjoyed privately owned stadia.

Private ownership of stadia seems eminently pragmatic, does it not? Even in the chaotic world of Italian football and politics, where equanimity may not always prevail, many have at least come to recognize that it does. The Secretary of Sport, Rocco Crimi, proposed a law known as Legge Crimi, which aims to allow clubs to take exclusive ownership of stadia, which in turn would mean they could build new venues or improve the current ones.  Further, the gate receipts from matches would go entirely  to the clubs, and not towards the cost of renting stadia from city councils.  The Italian Senate approved the law in late 2009, but it is still awaiting approval from Parliament.

In March 2010, Crimi lamented the chronically neglected state of stadia in Italy, and emphasized the importance for clubs to diversify their financial portfolio:

"With their resources club presidents will be able to build better stadia than our current ones.  This way we would avoid the situation in which the State pours money into stadium infrastructure, like they did for the World Cup in 1990, and then not continue to invest. [. . .] Italian clubs currently earn 65% of their revenues from TV rights.  They should have more sources of revenue."

It is now August 2011, and the law is still yet to be passed.  On July 7, 2011, Crimi said that work is being done to bring the law to fruition.  The excessive deliberation over a law that seems absolutely essential for Italian football highlights the political listlessness of the country.  The delay also lends credence to Adriano Galliani's perennial cries of the decline of Italian football.  Just yesterday, the Milan vice-president likened Italian football to a "pizzeria" when compared to the more opulent "restaurants" of other footballing countries in Europe, like Spain, England, and Germany. One of the major causes of this disparity, Galliani claims, is the stadia issue.  Many rebuke him for his seemingly pathological pessimism, but Galliani is just delivering the bitter truth of Italian football.  It does, after all, seem reasonable to listen to a man who has been a part of Milan's success for twenty-five years.

Without the new law, clubs have to try and negotiate the ownership of stadia with city councils eager to maintain the status quo for financial gain.  The councils do little to modernize the stadia, but still demand exorbitant fees from clubs to rent them.  As I recently wrote, Juventus have taken the right steps and invested in a new stadium by demolishing the old Stadio delle Alpi.  Palermo are now also building their own stadium, the construction of which will start in 2012.  However, these clubs have been fortunate in that they have found their city councils to be less obstinate than others.

The Legge Crimi needs to come into effect as quickly as possible so that all Italian clubs can have the opportunity to maximize revenue from their stadia.  Without the law, Italian football does not stand a chance.

Friday 1 July 2011

Serie A's Schizophrenic Summer

Lugubrious: Milan's Adriano Galliani
Depending on whom you ask, and when you ask, Serie A's purchasing power is either irretrievably curtailed, or on the verge of steadily increasing.  If you ask Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani in the aftermath of another TV rights meeting, you could be forgiven for thinking that Italian football is on the brink of financial ruin brought about by a chronic unwillingness of clubs to pull in the same direction.  Yet, if you ask the Juventus management, still beaming from a huge cash injection from Exor and their new, privately owned stadium, the Bianconeri are pointing the way forward for Italian football (incidentally, despite the widespread enthusiasm, the money from Exor comes with strings attached, as this article in La Gazzetta dello Sport explains).

We should look at both positions with skepticism.  Galliani's incessant claim that impending or existing legislation domestically (a more equitable TV rights distribution mechanism, high tax rates) and abroad (Financial Fair Play rules) will relegate Italian football to an emasculated middle class of European football is not simply alarmist.  However, his complaint should always be contextualized in the years and years of crippling financial mismanagement of Serie A--mismanagement that the likes of Milan, Juventus, and Inter were complicit in.

During the 2000s, Juventus, Milan and Inter were the most egregious examples of clubs who refused to operate on a level playing field.  Since no Italian club owned its own stadium, TV rights became the main polarizing force.  The bigger clubs of Serie A each negotiated obscenely lucrative viewing rights for their games, while those in the lower reaches of the table were left to drudge on.  When the minnows did complain, perennially and vehemently, they were treated as upstarts who had to be placated for the more important show to go on.

And so, we would face delays to the start of the season, until the bigger clubs of Serie A would deign to let some of the money trickle down to those beneath them in Serie A and Serie B. Of course, Galliani used to lament the state of Italian football then too, but not as stridently as now.  After all, Milan were one of the biggest beneficiaries of an innately exclusive system.  And when Galliani's conscience would slightly prod and prick, he would sanctimoniously say that clubs need to lower their costs.  Francesco Totti is hardly the shining example of eloquence, but he was able to brilliantly characterize Galliani's infuriating diplomacy by once tartly remarking, "Galliani complains about costs, [and] then goes and signs Rivaldo."

In the near future, I plan on providing a comprehensive account of how TV rights have developed and influenced Italian football; here, I am more concerned with how the transfer market in Italy continues to confuse.  On the one hand, you have a person like Galliani, who always reminds us of the imminent decline of Italian football, during and after which Italian clubs will ruefully recall days when they used to rub shoulders with the European elite on and off the pitch.  On the other, you have a club like Juventus, who have built a stadium and are after Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aguero, one of the hottest properties on the transfer market, whose worth is in excess of 30 million euros.  All signs suggest that they may get their man.  What is the true state of Italian football, then?

High profile: Sergio Aguero
That Milan, Juventus and Inter are finding it harder and harder to compete with the top clubs of Spain and England is becoming excruciatingly clear.  However, there is a dissonance between that sobering reality and the demands of the fans.  While some profoundly fear what the Financial Fair Play rules will do to Italian football (with no benefactors able to pump cash in the gap between Italian clubs and others will grow), others still believe that the rules are nothing but bluster from UEFA, who are in thrall of the European elite clubs, and would never seriously disbar any club with clout from European competition.  The latter contingent expect big arrivals this summer.

UEFA's commitment is hard to gauge currently, and there may be some truth to what the skeptics are saying. However, more important is for Serie A to consider how to get back to some form of level terms with the bigger clubs of Europe.  The political intransigence (city councils will just not let go of stadia) in the country means that private ownership of stadia is not a forthcoming reality.  Moreover, while Juventus may be boasting about their stadium (and it is revolutionary and commendable, as I recently wrote), it remains to be seen how much matchday revenue they will actually generate from an audience that has been shying away from stadia due to racism and violence.  And even if fans do flock to the new stadium, there is no guarantee that gate receipts will fetch the exorbitant amounts that clubs in the Premiership enjoy.

It is all an inscrutable and frustrating mess.  Recently, I wrote an article about Milan's need to buy a big name this summer, but I attempted to adjust my enthusiasm to the crushing realities of European football. It isn't fun, but fans may also have to modulate their expectations of what the big clubs in Serie A can do.  Unfortunately, it becomes very difficult when the press mentions names like Aguero, Carlos Tevez, and Fabregas routinely.

Not for the first time, and not for the last, Serie A appears to be enduring, or perhaps performing another schizophrenic summer.  The transfer market in Italy has always been gripping theater, and this latest confusion only enhances the intrigue.  Recall that last summer, after publicly decrying their poverty, Milan raised the profile of the league by bringing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho.

Pulling off something similar this summer may be more difficult.  Or not. You can never tell with Italian football.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Novara After Fifty-five Years

The Piedmontese club Novara return to Serie A after fifty-five years.  They defeated Padova in the Serie A play-off on June 12, 2011.  Here are some videos of Novara from the 1950s:

And here are some highlights from their play-off against Padova:

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Nesta and Now: A Summer of Expectation for Milan Fans

Still missed: Kaka
It's a case of a gift and an identikit.  Those are two of the few things we really know about Milan's transfer market this summer.  Yet, for journalists and Milan fans, the summer of 2011 is teeming with transfer speculation despite and because of those two factors, which promise much but reveal little.

First, the club's supremo Silvio Berlusconi has promised a regalo, a gift, for the Milan fans.  Secondly, Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri has revealed an identikit of the player, saying that the player may have thick hair, blue eyes, and a height of 183 centimetres.  The revelation of the desired attributes have sparked a virtual manhunt on internet forums.  Every day, a player matching the description is mentioned.  Axel Witsel, Marek Hamsik, Daniele De Rossi...

What remains certain is that this summer will not just conclude with the signings of Philippe Mexes and Taye Taiwo.  Milan have just won the Scudetto and have identified the trivial matter of the Champions League as their next target.  The current squad is certainly good enough to defend the Italian title, but to compete in Europe, Milan need a signing that will give them a quality that cannot be legislated for, that mercurial ability to turn a game on its head, an ability they had with a player like Kaka.

This team may actually be more complete in other departments than the team that won the Champions League in 2007.  Yet, even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho it lacks incisiveness, a fact conspicuously evident in Milan's hollow capitulation to Tottenham this season.

As far as transfer markets go, this summer may be Milan's most important one in nine years.  At the end of the 2001-02 season, Carlo Ancelotti had ensured that Milan would qualify, by the smallest of margins, for the Champions League.  In preparation for Europe, Milan conducted a memorable transfer campaign, bringing in players like Clarence Seedorf and John Dahl Tomasson to join the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Rui Costa, and Filippo Inzaghi, all three of whom were purchased a year earlier.  Yet, it was one salient transfer in 2002 that punctuated both Milan's intent and the core of the team that would see the club lift the Champions League a year later.  On a personal level, it was a transfer that went a long way to mitigate the pain of the 2002 World Cup.

For me, Italy's ludicrous World Cup campaign in the Far East loomed over the summer of 2002 as a melancholic reminder that the failure of the national team could now be added to other problems afflicting Italian football.  The Azzurri, it seemed, were only obliging to an encroaching sense of malaise in the game.

Things were not looking good.  The two bigger clubs of the country, Lazio and Fiorentina were in disparate but desperate levels of financial trouble.  Cinema producer and Fiorentina owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori, whose company produced the classic Life is Beautiful, had managed a ugly denouement for the club.  Despite devastating debts, investigations into his false accounting, and a collapsing empire, Cecchi Gori did not sell Fiorentina, forcing the already-relegated club to liquidation and a new beginning in Serie C2.

Nesta in Lazio colours
Lazio's president Sergio Cragnotti and his Turin-based food conglomerate Cirio were facing fiscal problems of their own.  However, Lazio's crisis was not acutely existential; hence stars like Hernan Crespo and homegrown central-defender and captain Alessandro Nesta were put on the market to ease the club's trials.

Milan were not exactly furtive when it came to their interest in Nesta.  The turbulent negotiations between Milan and Lazio went on for much of August, and it was not until the last day of the transfer window that Milan announced they had signed the Rome-born player, who was twenty-six at the time.  The deal was worth 31 million euros, a sum to be paid to Lazio over three years, and came after the Biancoceleste had rejected a bid of 26 million euros earlier in the month.

Nesta's arrival certainly lifted some of my summer gloom.  However, implicit in his transfer was an indictment of the financial mess that Italian football was in.  Lazio and Fiorentina were part of La Sette Sorelle (The Seven Sisters), a group that consisted of the movers and shakers of Italian football during the 1990s and early 2000s (Milan, Juventus, Inter, Parma, and Roma were the other clubs).  To see two of Italy's bigger clubs flail and even dissolve in one case was astonishing, depressing, but, sadly, predictable.

Apart from being symptomatic of systemic financial problems in Italian football, Nesta's transfer also marked a watershed in Milan's transfer dealings.  That is, it combined three qualities that no Milan transfer has had since.

First, Nesta cost 31 million euros, a figure Milan have not spent on any player since 2002, let alone a defender.  Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani and sporting director Ariedo Braida have assidiously searched for bargains, promising youth, and free transfers, and to their credit the strategy has been largely functional.  The transfers that have demanded a prominently high fee since Nesta have been of Alberto Gilardino (24 million euros), Robinho (18 million euros), and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (24 million euros, should Milan choose to buy him), and not one of them required a greater outlay than Nesta.

Secondly, Nesta came to Milan at the peak of his powers.  There have been many big names that have arrived at Milan since Nesta, but their signings were qualified by different reasons.  Ronaldo arrived from Real Madrid with brittle knees and his erratically best years behind him.  The snap of his knee in February 2008 during a game between Milan and Livorno was an emphatic signal that the player was now finished at the highest level, and that Milan's faith in him was bizarrely optimistic.  His compatriot Ronaldinho may have been slightly luckier with injuries and only twenty-eight when he came to Milan, but he was a player who had had a surfeit of success in football, and his performances for Milan were tellingly listless. Finally, and this one is perhaps arguable, Ibrahimovic arrived last summer as a player beginning his descent from the peak.  Though he was central to Milan's Scudetto this past season, he turns thirty this year.

Thirdly, Nesta arrived without any real doubts around his caliber.  He had already won a Scudetto in a Lazio team that had the redoubtable talents of Diego Simeone and Pavel Nedved.  He was also a mainstay in the Azzurri defence. In contrast, Gilardino was yet to establish himself at a big club, even if he rescued Parma from relegation in 2005.  His subsequently nervous performances for Milan were an indication of a player who did not have the temperament for the unrelenting scrutiny that comes with playing for a club like Milan.  Robinho has risen to the occasion at Milan this season, but he also impressed at Real Madrid before injuries and tactical decisions marginalized him.  His stint at Manchester City was also sporadically brilliant before injuries hampered his progress.  However, despite glimpses of his true worth, he was still seen as a player yet to live up to his billing when Milan purchased him last summer.

Of course, Nesta did not arrive entirely without any reservations surrounding him.  The initial physical problems that he experienced at Lazio were an ominous signs of what was to come, and his Milan career has been continually interrupted by injuries.  However, his transfer was unreservedly ambitious.  Milan wanted the best defender on the market, and they got the best defender on the market.  There was bargaining, yes, but there was no settling for any less than Nesta. The move paid off instantly as Nesta was critical to Milan's Champions League triumph the following season, forming an intimidating defence with Paolo Maldini.

Impossible: Cristiano Ronaldo
Eight summers later, Milan, still beaming from their fresh Scudetto win, are in search of a mezz'ala, a left-sided midfielder, and, while they may not admit it openly, a trequartista.

There have been a litany of names linked to Milan.  For not an insignificant time, Cristiano Ronaldo was being mentioned as a possible transfer.  The risible suggestion, impossible on so many levels that it is almost insulting to the reader to put it down in print, gained some legitimacy because Berlusconi had said in April that if Milan were to win the Scudetto they could sign "one or two great players, and one of them could be Ronaldo."

Whether those were ramblings of a cynical prime-minister attempting to ease the political crisis immersing him, or of just a senile man in general is difficult to ascertain.  What is certain is that Ronaldo is not coming. However, the fact that there was even speculation reveals a distinct obliviousness on part of Milan fans.

The truth is, Milan are not in the position to buy a player like Ronaldo despite Berlusconi's wealth.  Apart from the fact that Berlusconi will not pay a lurid amount of money for the Portuguese, he also does not want to pay that much money.  Few could fault him for at least attempting to appear partially sane in an increasingly grotesque transfer market and as prime-minister of a country struggling with recession.  Some other factors also contribute to Berlusconi's frugality, including perhaps a waning interest in the club, advanced years, and children, Piersilvio and Barbara, who want him to be more cerebral and less sentimental when it comes to the club.

Of course, the advent of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules have given Berlusconi an alibi to remain financially responsible.  And few could fault him there as well.

If the rules are even applied to the spirit of the law and not to the letter, any gargantuan signings in the future look impossible for Milan.  The rules are fairly unequivocal.  UEFA will permit clubs to have losses of 45 million euros between the years 2012 and 2015.  After that, clubs can still have losses of 30 million euros over three years, before the allowance of losses is restricted further for future years.  UEFA is threatening to deny clubs entry into European competition if they do not follow the rules.

The dismaying fact for Milan fans, and Inter fans as well, is that the rules do not permit a rich owner investing money directly into the club.  And for those who think the rules can be bypassed by an owner's company signing a lucrative sponsorship deal with the club will be disappointed.  Sponsorship deals must be agreed upon at market price.

Galliani has already said that the FFP rules "hurt Italy," but it is the limited sources of revenue that is the real bane of Serie A.  For example, Milan will continue to rent the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza from the city council until 2016, meaning they cannot purchase and refurbish the dilapidated mess that the stadium, which is one of the better stadia in Italy, has become to earn more money from naming rights, corporate hospitality etc. (this article is not a financial report on Milan, but if you are interested in that aspect, see Swiss Ramble's excellent piece).

Dream signing: Cesc Fabregas
When Milan signed Nesta, Serie A had clubs in precarious financial positions.  Currently, while Serie A clubs in general may be operating in a marginally more salutary context, Milan are having to reconcile chastening financial realities with the demands of the fans.

Some fans, and not an insignificant amount I can assure you, still believe that Milan will sign Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal.  If Milan do end up doing so, then the club's hierarchy may know something that we do not.  Sure, there are ways to get around the FFP rules, but to compete with the likes of Barcelona (Fabregas's most likely destination if he is to move) without your owner's money and half the revenue seems impossible.

Yes, it seems to be so.  However, even with all the overwhelming obstacles, there is an eerie, not entirely unprecedented surreptitiousness around Milan's dealings this summer.  Somehow, despite the odds, fans are still expecting a signing that will be more luminous than players like Hasmik, Ganso, or Alberto Aquilani.  Fabregas would be incandescent.  And not just because he is a star--admittedly it helps--but also because he has the attributes and the quality to be vital for Milan in a creative role.

Yet how would that be possible given all that has been discussed? In this year's June edition of World Soccer, Nick Bidwell and Gavin Hamilton indicate that there is less "financial transparency" in Italy, and that "English clubs have come under greater scrutiny simply because they are more open about their finances" (24).  To land a player like Fabregas with the FFP rules in place will not only involve a large outlay (more than 35 million euros) from Milan, but also a certain secrecy around their finances.  Further, if the cost of a big signing is amortized over a few years, then Milan will feel the financial burden to be less onerous.  Consider, too, that the club may be relying on a certain flexibility when the rules actually come into effect.  After all, UEFA have indicated that clubs incurring greater losses than the permitted amount may be allowed to compete if their losses are showing signs of decreasing.

If Berlusconi is to make a large investment, this year seems to be the most opportune summer to do so, and not just because the FFP rules are yet to take full effect.  Berlusconi's political career, for which he has often used Milan, and, more recently, which he has privileged over the club, appears to be teetering.  Just this week, he lost a key vote, indicating that the man has squandered the confidence of a good portion of the Italian public.  A huge signing would be some solace for him, briefly galvanizing a popularity that is even declining in the city of Milan.

For now, Milan fans are for the most part divided between those who are cynical and all too aware of the possible implications of FFP and those who are in willful denial of the rules.  Then there are those like me, who are aware of the imminent changes, and Galliani's proclamations of poverty, but who continue to dream.

Nine years ago Milan bought Nesta, and two Champions League and Scudetti later he still remains on guard.  If Milan are to inaugurate another several years of European success, the right and the big signing has to arrive this summer.