Tuesday 31 May 2011

The Progressive Old Lady

A view to forget: Stadio Delle Alpi
Even on television, the Stadio Delle Alpi of Turin felt like a stadium to which teams were sent to play as punishment.  A running track encircled the field, obscuring the view of the crowd by adding unnecessary distance, and the acoustics of the cheering crowd sounded like a riot underwater.  The grotesque venue was an architectural conundrum not from any post-modern resistance to defined geometry, but because it left doubt as to whether any planning went into it all.

Built in 1990 for the World Cup, the Stadio Delle Alpi failed to attract a sizable crowd on a consistent basis.  The stadium could hold about 68,000 spectators, but average attendances for seasons were well below that.  The shape of the stadium was certainly a major reason, as were the facts that it was located on the outskirts of the city and that many Juventus fans do not live in Turin (however, it should be noted, even attendances for Torino's games were low).

Juventus' coruscating 3-1 victory over Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final in 2003 was witnessed by an almost capacity crowd, and that remains one of the most memorable nights for the club at the Stadio Delle Alpi.  Yet, it was depressing to watch such a liberating performance play itself out in an oppressive cavern.

In what will come as good and perhaps old news to some of you, the stadium has been demolished for over two years now, and Juventus, who have been playing at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin, are expected to battle in their new stadium next season.

Juventus vs Real Madrid at the Stadio Delle Alpi
The new stadium is called Juventus Arena for now, and will hold about 40,000 people.  It reportedly cost about 120 million euros to build.  Though built on the same plot of land as the Stadio Delle Alpi, it will not suffer from the architectural shortcomings of its predecessor.  The seating, for example, is much closer to the action.  In addition to these improvements, the stadium will also have eight restaurants, four-thousand parking spaces, and an area commemorating the thirty-nine Juventus fans who died at Heysel.  The plans for the stadium were announced in November 2008, and the construction took two years to complete.

While the stadium itself is not impressive when you compare it to where most clubs in the Bundesliga and the Premier League play, in the context of Italian football it is revolutionary.

Juventus are the only club in Serie A to have their own stadium.  Clubs like Roma and Milan have talked about one, but there are no firm plans for construction.  The private ownership of a stadium should boost Juventus' revenues, for they do not have to pay an annual rent to the city council.  The bigger Italian clubs have traditionally relied on TV rights and benefactors to stay competitive in Europe.  However, with the Financial Fair Play rules about to take effect, the benefactor factor may dissipate (it remains to be seen how stringently these rules will be enforced), and Juventus seem to be the most prepared team in Serie A for that possibility.  They now boast a more diverse financial portfolio, which bolsters chances of competing with the bigger clubs of Europe.

Of course, it remains to be seen exactly how much of a success the new stadium will prove to be financially or in terms of popularity with the fans.  Yet, surprisingly, there is relatively little discussion about its potential benefits to Juventus. Juventus' main rivals, Inter and Milan, have still not laid out concrete plans to build a new stadium.

The official website shows work on the new stadium
Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani talked about problems with the San Siro as early as October 2005, claiming that Milan directors had "different ideas" about the stadium than their counterparts at Inter, with whom they share the stadium.  He also admitted that it was imperative that "new stadia be built" in the country in general, due to their dilapidated state (stadia have not been extensively renovated since the 1990 World Cup).

Not all of it is cynicism.  Galliani has been deploring the financial advantages that foreign clubs enjoy for a few years now, but it is Juventus who have taken an effective approach in addressing the growing disparity.  In the post-Moggipoli era, Juventus, whether led by former president Giovanni Cobolli Gigli or the current incumbent Andrea Agnelli, seemed to have done little right on the market, and their results on the field have resulted in anguish for their fans.  However, the club, nicknamed La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady), has shown a penchant for the modern by pioneering with a new stadium.

The late Juventus and FIAT head Umberto Agnelli once said that the Bianconeri "have followed the evolution of the nation," referring in part to how inextricably linked the team became to FIAT, a symbol and register of the Italian economy for decades.  Now, it seems Juventus is also creating a revolution in the nation.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Veteran's Season

Unstoppable: Antonio Di Natale
They were welcome words for the Milan fans who have been clamouring for a rejuvenation of the side for many seasons.  And they came from a man who had been obdurately committed to the older players in the team.

"From now on," said Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, "we will only offer players over thirty a yearly contract."

Galliani also put the policy shift in the context of Andrea Pirlo's impending departure to Juventus: "If Pirlo had accepted a shorter contract, he could have stayed.  It is excessive for players in their early thirties to be hoping for a three-year contract."

Galliani has been talking about a younger Milan for a long time, but he has never been so clinical regarding the reality of ageing players.  Indeed, it is not as if players forget how to play once they pass the threshold of thirty.  However, a twenty-one-year-old upstart speeding past a veteran can emphatically and abruptly bring things into sharp perspective.

Considering those unforgiving realities, it is extraordinary how much success older players enjoyed in Serie A this season.  While players like Robinho and Hernanes serviced Serie A's need for younger star players, the season was also a resounding triumph of the senescent kneecaps, shins, and ankles of players who are well-adjusted, thirty-something members of the league.

Even looking at the Serie A's top-scorers chart and comparing it to that of England and Spain underscores the point.  This season three of the top five scorers in Italy were thirty or above: Antonio Di Natale (33), Samuel Eto'o (30, though only in March, so not really an ageing veteran yet), and Marco Di Vaio (34).  In England Dimitar Berbatov was the only player who had celebrated his thirtieth birthday from the top five scorers, and that was only in January of this year. In Spain not even one player from the top five met that criteria.

The age group of the successful Serie A players should not be used as to diminish the achievements of the veterans.  It is too trite to say that Serie A must be a slower and easier league if players well into their thirties can flourish.  Given how well Ryan Giggs (37) has done this season in the Premier League, a league celebrated for being high-tempo, that criticism is not cogent.

Instead, it is important to look at the type of Serie A players who have succeeded this season despite their age. To see players who are over thirty excel as goalkeepers, defenders, and defensive midfielders is unsurprising, but this year it was three forwards who conspicuously surpassed expectations: Antonio Di Natale, Marco Di Vaio, and Francesco Totti.

Swift and prolific

Di Natale ended as Capocannoniere yet again with twenty-eight goals, finishing just a goal shy of his tally from last season.  This was after sitting out some games injured as well.

It wasn't just the sheer numbers that impressed, but also how nimbly and intelligently he linked up with Alexis Sanchez, a player eleven years his junior, in the Udinese attack.  Di Natale is patently not a striker who skulks in the box, waiting for service; rather, he is almost always flying towards all areas of the final third.  Udinese's attack was fearsome precisely because it was so mobile as Di Natale and Sanchez stretched defences at will.

Udinese's 4-4 draw against Milan at the San Siro and the 7-0 hammering of Palermo typified how devastatingly Di Natale and Sanchez operate together.  In those two games alone, the pair scored five goals each, slicing through the backlines at will.  Admittedly, Daniele Bonera was so abysmal for Milan that he might as well have been playing in black and white, but that should not minimize the skill which Sanchez and Di Natale went about their work.

For a thirty-three-year-old Di Natale to score twenty-eight goals in a league not known for affording time on the ball is impressive.  For him to do it with the swiftness and instinct of a twenty-year-old striker is astounding.

The Miraculous Survivor

Miracle-maker: Marco Di Vaio
Marco Di Vaio already produced miracles for Bologna in the 2008-09 season during which he scored twenty-four goals, and spared the club the despair of relegation to Serie B.

This season Di Vaio ended up with nineteen goals, only one of which was a penalty.  He thus continued his mythical feats at Bologna.  The Roman has played for Lazio, Juventus, Parma, and Valencia in a well-traveled career, and while he scored regularly for Parma, his record for Bologna is the most formidable.  In just three seasons, Di Vaio has managed to score fifty-five Serie A goals.  Consider also that he came to Bologna as a thirty-two-year-old.

This season Bologna were docked three points for not paying their players on time, a deduction that left them four points above the relegation zone in January.  Coupled with their ownership issues, the club were teetering, only for Di Vaio to prove a miracle-maker once again.  He scored nineteen of the club's thirty-five goals this season, which emphasizes how much Bologna owe to a player who scorns retirement every year.

Unsurprisingly, despite his age, Bologna have handed him a contract until June 2013.

Still unpredictable

Totti is still baffling at the age of thirty-four.  A man who has done little with Roma outside of Serie A has been enjoying steady success domestically.  He has only won one major club honour, namely the Scudetto in 2001, but he has been vital for Roma's seasons nonetheless.

Every weekend, Totti withstands relentless challenges sometimes without but often with protest.  He still vanishes in some games, an act that he has perfected over the years.  However, he still plays as someone who is ensconced in Serie A, and when he does get it right, the results are astonishing.

For example, this season was a perfect reflection of the whimsical Totti. He scored fifteen goals in total, eight of them from the spot.  He also provided an impressive eight assists.  Yet, for the first half of the season, he was virtually anonymous in Serie A: amazingly, thirteen of his fifteen goals came in 2011.  Tellingly, eleven of those goals came under Vincenzo Montella, who took over in February from Claudio Ranieri, a man with whom Totti clashed during the season.

Despite Totti's spate of activity in the second half of the season, Roma were unable to claim a Champions League spot, having to settle for an Europa League place instead.  Yet, Totti proved once again that while sometimes he can have an arresting influence on Roma with his antics, he does have the ability to justify his presence.

Doing it with style

While this season witnessed the skill of Edinson Cavani, Pato, and Giampaolo Pazzini, players like Di Natale, Di Vaio and Totti reminded us that it is still possible for the older cast of Serie A to carve out a living--and that living doesn't have to be drudgery either.

Thursday 12 May 2011

Palermo's Chance to Redeem 1979

Pink on pink: Gazzetta beams Palermo
Palermo coach Delio Rossi was not exaggerating when he said earlier this week that Tuesday's Coppa Italia match could be a "historic day for Palermo and Sicily."  Palermo's 4-3 aggregate Coppa Italia semi-final win over Milan means that the Rosanero will play the final of the competition after thirty-two years.  For the newly-crowned Italian champions, reaching the final would have been di rigueur; for Palermo, as evidenced by their unalloyed joy at the final whistle on Tuesday, reaching the final means the chance to banish an oppressive historical burden.

Palermo lost both of the Coppa Italia finals they appeared in during the 1970s--the first to Bologna on penalties in 1974, and the second to Juventus in extra-time in 1979.  Despite playing in Serie B during the 1970s, Palermo, owned by Renzo Barbera at the time, enjoyed a successful decade.  However, those two defeats still remain as bitter memories.

The loss in 1979 is particularly painful given how close Palermo came to upsetting a Juventus side that boasted the likes of Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini, and Roberto Bettega.  On June 20th, 1979, coach Giovanni Trapattoni, who had already won two Scudetti with Juventus by then, led his Bianconeri out at the San Paolo.  Within a minute, he saw his side fall a goal behind.

Vito Chimenti (the uncle of Antonio Chimenti, who played most recently for Juventus as reserve goalkeeper) surged into the box and sped past Zoff before putting the ball into an empty net.  It was a dream start for a club that was still playing its football in Serie B, and for Chimenti, whose sparse hair belied an age of just twenty-five years and bore testament to the rigours of Italian football away from the prominence of Serie A and even Serie B.  Chimenti had played his football primarily in Serie C for Lecco, Salernitana, and Matera before coming to Palermo in 1977.

Despite Palermo's euphoric start, Juventus responded with a goal from central defender Sergio Brio in the first half, and midfielder Franco Causio in extra-time.  Palermo had managed to push Juventus well beyond ninety-minutes, but ultimately they did not have enough to pull off an upset.

Vito Chimenti
In the decades following that defeat, Palermo have reached the latter stage of the Coppa Italia only once, and that was during the 1995-6 season, when they were eliminated at the quarter-final stage.  Ever since their return to Serie A in 2004, which took twenty-one years, Palermo have consolidated themselves as the challenge from Sicily, especially considering Messina are playing their football in Serie D because of financial troubles, and Catania have finished well below Palermo in recent seasons.  Palermo have even managed to play in Europe, and they are guaranteed to again next season.  All these achievements have come partly because of and partly despite an impetuous owner in Maurizio Zamparini.

Zamparini has often inveighed against the lopsided balance of power in Serie A.  Winning the Coppa Italia against Inter on May 29th will be especially gratifying for him not only because it would redress the pain of thirty-two years ago, but also because it would mean victory over one of the establishment.

They may not be up against Juventus, but beating Milan and Inter en route to Coppa Italia glory would go a long way to atone for 1979.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Placards, Songs, and Diplomacy in Milan

Diplomacy, Ambrosini style
I suppose it was inevitable.

In an article I wrote over the weekend--while lolling in the glow of Milan's eighteenth Scudetto--I alluded to Massimo Ambrosini's less than ambassadorial moment atop the Champions League 2007 celebration bus.  A picture of that moment shows Ambrosini holding up a banner which reads, "Lo Scudetto mettilo nel culo" (stick the Scudetto up your ass).

 The message, delivered with the subtlety of Claudio Gentile, was directed towards Inter, who had won the Scudetto that year in a Serie A drastically conditioned by the Calcipoli verdicts. Inter started eight points ahead of Milan, who were penalized for their part in the scandal, while Lazio and Fiorentina also suffered a points penalty.  Juventus were condemned to play in Serie B, and their 2006 Scudetto was awarded to Inter.

Non-Inter fans, especially of Milan and Juventus, deride the credentials of that Scudetto, and not completely without justification.  Inter's proclamations that they finally won a clean Scudetto, also a claim not completely without justification, contributed to the swelling resentment.  To Inter's credit, they rendered all such discussions inane by winning the Scudetto three years in a row, with last year's treble their coronation.

Nevertheless, the story later became that Ambrosini had been handed the banner by a fan, and Adriano Galliani did indeed apologize to Inter owner Massimo Moratti in the hysterical aftermath.  But it is hard to believe that he didn't allow himself a snicker or two in private.

Memories of that incident have been revived by Gennaro Gattuso singing (don't laugh like Bernardo Corradi, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero did at Gattuso's attempt to reprise Adriano Celentano's Azzurro here at 0:39) with some Milan fans at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday.  The lyrics were similarly vulgar to the infamous banner of 2007, and just as eloquent: "Leonardo uomo di merda."

The fall-out after the release of that footage (see below this article) is the subject of passionate debate today.  Leonardo has asked Gattuso to clarify his position.  Widely reviled FIGC prosecutor Stefano Palazzi, the same man who worked for the federation during Calciopoli, is going to watch footage of the incident before deciding whether to open legal proceedings against Gattuso.  He may find after watching the footage that he has a stronger case for banning Gattuso from ever sitting astride anything in his underwear.

Presently, however, I can help the bemused Leonardo: no matter what he said to you in private (and Leonardo practically claims that Gattuso gave him the blessing to go Inter), a player who has strained his larynx for Milan about as much as Tiziano Crudelli will always resent someone who defected to the other side.  Admittedly, Leonardo had reasons to leave for Inter, but to expect Gattuso not to crow about Milan's Scudetto is almost pathologically sanguine.

For an urbane man like Leonardo, Gattuso's behaviour must be boorish, but it is moments like the one Gattuso provided which democratize football, bringing otherwise inaccessible heroes into the politically incorrect world of the Curva, where they can at last renounce platitudes for a few moments.

Not everyone is as stately as Paolo Maldini or Javier Zanetti.  Indeed, there have been moments in Gattuso's career that have deserved opprobrium.  His behaviour towards Totteham's Joe Jordan just this season springs to mind.  However, if the extent of his insult to Leonardo is singing about him as fecal matter, then the Inter coach should treat the song with the contempt with which it treats him.

Saturday 7 May 2011

The Scudetto That Took Seven Long Years

Campioni d'Italia--Milan win their eighteenth Scudetto
Finally,  Milan's seven year wait for the Scudetto ends with an anti-climactic, but immensely welcomed 0-0 draw against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

For not an insignificant part of the last seven years, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani has accommodated the Rossoneri's domestic shortcomings by changing the subject.  While journalists would be trying to make sense of another underwhelming performance in Serie A, Galliani would be talking about one of those positive mid-week European performances.  Milan fans remember them because there were so many of them, and for a long time.

For the three seasons following their last Scudetto triumph, Galliani's mantra of 'The Champions League is our natural habitat' had currency: Milan reached the final in 2005 (in which an epic collapse prevented them from winning), played the semi-final in 2006, and won in 2007.  The record was staggering and allowed Milan to scorn the Scudetto, an attitude encapsulated in Massimo Ambrosini's less than ambassadorial moment moment atop the 2007 Champions League celebration bus.

Of course, Milan's contempt for the Scudetto challenge during the 2006-07 season was also determined by their points penalty for their involvement in Calciopoli, but the sentiment that Milan use the Champions League as an excuse has been voiced on many occasions.  Four forgettable, indeed at times embarrassing, European seasons following 2007 systematically exposed an ideology and team in decline, and, most dismayingly, a management in apparent denial.

It was not until the summer of 2010 that club owner Silvio Berlusconi decided to ease his seemingly dedicated austerity.  Perhaps it was Inter's treble that rankled Berlusconi into action; whatever his motivation, Milan were reconfigured.  In came Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and coach Massimiliano Allegri.  Out went Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Marco Borriello, coach Leonardo, and a counter-productive over-reliance on Senatori like Clarence Seedorf and Massimo Ambrosini.

The result has not been European success, but a much awaited Scudetto, won with a steady accretion of new ideas by Allegri and critical contributions from not only Ibrahimovic and Robinho, but also players like Ignazio Abate, Thiago Silva, and peripheral members like Rodney Strasser and Mario Yepes.  Even players like Seedorf, who looked cynical last season, have been rejuvenated by Allegri's method of distributing the burden of a season throughout his squad.  Indeed, Milan's Scudetto win is more telling than their 2007 Champions League win because it is a comprehensive assessment of the team throughout the season.

Allegri (right) led Milan with equanimity
Allegri's transition from Cagliari to Milan is laudable not just because he has landed a major trophy in his first season or because he could also achieve the double with a Coppa Italia win, but because he has assimilated in the peculiar glare of a big club so well.  Many raised eyebrows when he rather than a tried and trusted name was selected in the summer of 2010 to lead Milan, but Allegri withstood that scrutiny and also parlous moments throughout the season.  The way he handled a two-point lead going into the late-season derby against Inter was a definitive assessment of his Milan tenure.

His modesty throughout the campaign was edifying also.

"I'm fortunate to have come to Milan at a time when the club chose to invest," said a self-effacing Allegri recently.  Yes, certainly the investment has undoubtedly made his life easier, but it is under Allegri that Abate has become a marauding right-back that Milan have missed since Cafu, and under him Kevin-Prince Boateng was transformed into a convincing playmaker.

Milan's success was built on a defence held together uncompromisingly by Christian Abbiati, Alessandro Nesta, and Thiago Silva, who was even deployed in midfield in January to adjust for an alarming shortage in the middle of the park.  Further, when Nesta was injured, Yepes defied all expectation by ensuring that he deputized for him appropriately.  Milan's defence let in just twenty-three goals all season.  Today's 0-0 draw with Roma staged a microcosm of the defence's modus operandi.  Abbiati's point-blank save on Mirko Vucinic, Alessandro Nesta's crucial tackle to cut out Marco Cassetti's searching ball, Thiago Silva's unremitting attitude to prevent any danger, and Abate's indefatigability on the flank have been a feature all season.

During the last several months, the midfield was in constant flux due to injuries or suspension, but the level of application did not dip.  Gattuso, Ambrosini, Seedorf and Pirlo all contributed according to expectations, but so did  Mark van Bommel and Urby Emanuelson, the latter seldom used but bringing an urgency to proceedings when chosen for action.  Youth team products Strasser and Alexander Merkel also had memorable outings, which are promising signs for the future.

It was also in attack that Milan were tested all year.  Boateng deserves to strain superlatives for revealing his previously latent playmaking skill, but also the ability to be direct in front of goal.  Indeed, Boateng was more crucial in front of goal than he was in providing assists.  He scored three goals and assisted in two, but he was menacing throughout the campaign, drawing defenders to himself to allow others to do the damage.

The damager-in-chief, even if some may not like to admit it after his recent suspension, was Ibrahimovic.  The man, who has now won eight consecutive league titles in his itinerant career, managed eleven assists and fourteen goals.  He also regularly scored winners when Milan looked dependent on him: a lobbed winner against Genoa, the penalty winner against Inter in the fall, and an outrageous bicycle-kick winner  against Fiorentina stand out as his most memorable moments.  Petulant, yes, but never ever insignificant.

Ibrahimovic--moody but instrumental
The accusation that Milan were over-dependent on him proved somewhat unfounded in the second half of the season.  Without Ibrahimovic, Milan managed to beat Inter 3-0, and it was Alexandre Pato who stole the show that day.  Allegri took time to get the balance right, but he made sure that easy, critical labels would not apply to his team. Robinho covered ground all season, running forward with purpose, but also tracking back conscientiously.  Where his finishing well short, his tempo and skill in tight spaces compensated, and it is a credit to Allegri that he got a player who many consider to be erratic to play so assiduously.

Milan's glory also vindicates a carefully thought-out transfer strategy.  Galliani's decision to purchase Antonio Cassano in January meant that Milan did not miss the injured Filippo Inzaghi as much as they would have. Van Bommel's addition initially looked disastrous, as he earned card after card, but ultimately Galliani was proven right to bring in the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich player.  Van Bommel was finally able to channel his aggression productively in the latter part of the season.

Milan's eighteenth Scudetto ends Inter's hegemony over Serie A, which has stretched back to 2007, or 2006 if you consider that they were awarded that title because of Calciopoli.  It also puts Milan level with Inter in terms of Scudetti won.

For those who think that the Serie A this year was not as competitive as in recent times, and therefore think that Milan's win does not deserve plaudits, consider that Milan were playing in a league that consisted of the reigning European champions, a revived and possessed Napoli side led by Edinson Cavani, and a Lazio team that enjoyed the upper-reaches of the table all season.  Throw in teams like Udinese and Roma, both of whom gave not only Milan but the entire Serie A all sorts of problems, and people may be then able to contextualize Milan's emphatic win fairly and properly.

And now they must look to where they have always looked: the Champions League.  Galliani has already stated that the goal is to get back on top of Europe.  He has also added that the club's transfer season will be worthy of champions.  With a solid and capable team, tested over the rigours of a season, to build upon, Galliani may finally be able to see the value of winning not just in Europe, but also domestically.

After all, the Milan teams of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello did just that.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Memory: Andriy Shevchenko Strikes for Scudetto

Almost exactly seven years ago, on May 2, 2004, Milan's Andriy Shevchenko scored what proved to be the game and Scudetto winner in the second minute against Roma at the San Siro. Cafu collected the ball in midfield, and passed it to Kaká, who resisted one challenge before crossing the ball for Shevchenko to head home.

On Saturday, there will be no Cafu, Kaká, or Shevchenko, but there will be Ignazio Abate, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Milan can claim their eighteenth Scudetto against Roma at the Olimpico with just a draw.

Forza Milan!

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Remembering Il Grande Torino

Captain Valentino Mazzola leads Torino out
Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the Superga tragedy, which resulted in the death of the epic Torino team of the 1940s. On May 4, 1949, the team was returning from playing a friendly in Lisbon when their plane crashed near the Basilica di Superga due to inclement weather, killing all thirty-one passengers on board.

That Torino team is widely considered to be the greatest Italian club team of all time. Its dominance during the 1940s was staggering, as it won five consecutive Scudetti during the decade. Il Grande Torino was also overwhelmingly represented in the Italian national team.

Alongside the players, club officials, journalists and aircraft crew also perished.

One of the most searing descriptions of the Superga tragedy is in John Foot's Calcio. He captures the despair of the tragedy by providing the account of former World Cup-winning Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo:

"The horrific task of identifying the victims fell to Vittorio Pozzo, journalist and ex-manager of Italy. It was not easy--many of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Pozzo walked around the crash site for four hours but some victims were only identified from documents found in their pockets or rings on their fingers. Pozzo, who wrote for La Stampa, the Turin daily, filed his copy that same evening. 'The Torino team is no more,' he wrote, 'it has disappeared, it is burnt, it has exploded...the team died in action, like a group of shock troops, in the war, who left their trenches and never came back.'" (Foot, Calcio, 90-1)

The players of Il Grande Torino: Valerio Bacigalupo (gk), Aldo Ballarin, Virgilio Maroso, Mario Rigamonti, Pino Grezar, Eusebio Castigliano, Ezio Loik, Guglielmo Gabetto, Franco Ossola, Valentino Mazzola (c), Dino Ballarin, Milo Bongiorni, Rubens Fadini, Ruggero Grava, Danilo Martelli, Piero Operto, Julius Schubert, and Giuseppe Grezar.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Sampdoria's Three Games of Agony

Cassano and Garrone embrace during happier times
Secretly, away from the rehearsed platitudes in front of the camera, perhaps Antonio Cassano is looking back at his spat with Riccardo Garrone with vindication.  In the late fall, Garrone ostracized Cassano from Sampdoria for refusing to attend a local awards ceremony as a personal favour to him.  Of course, the refusal was accompanied by the usual battery of flattery Cassano-style, during which he reportedly likened Garrone not just to fecal matter, but old one at that.  In the aftermath, Cassano apologized repeatedly, but Garrone remained committed to his position, insisting that it was a question of dignity and integrity.

Penitent, Cassano even offered to drink petrol as atonement, but Milan obviated the need for that by rescuing the player from Sampdoria.

Since then and since the departure of the commensurately influential Giampaolo Pazzini to Inter, Sampdoria have been taking steady doses of petrol every weekend, and the conflagration of Serie B is now a distinct possibility, despite a spirited, but ultimately wasteful 3-3 draw against relegation rivals Brescia this weekend.

To think that Sampdoria could be playing in Serie B next year seems unpleasant but realistic as just a point separates the club from Lecce, the unwitting hinge of the relegation trapdoor.  Since Cassano and Pazzini departed, nothing has gone right for Sampdoria.  Their loan signing of Federico Macheda from Manchester United promised to offset the departure of the two players, but he has not managed to find the net once since his arrival.  Massimo Maccarone, meanwhile, has netted a grand  total of three.  Nicola Pozzi seems the most promising forward not because he has been especially prolific but rather because his goals have been timely.  He scored last and this weekend to allow Sampdoria's fans not to plunge completely into despair.

Startlingly, Sampdoria were sixth after fifteen rounds of play this season.  Remember, too, they came within tantalizing distance to qualify for the Champions League proper this season.  Serie B is still not an inevitability by any means, but considering they have the derby della lanterna against Genoa, Palermo at home, and Roma away still to come, one feels that Sampdoria's best chance to put some distance between them and the trio at the bottom was this weekend.

What makes this debacle even more bitter for me is that despite the trauma of this ersatz Sampdoria, I still remember the skillful Blucheriati of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli, and the lesser known Giovanni Invernizzi and Attilio Lombardo.  I remember not just the European Cup final defeat to Barcelona in 1992, but also the club's relegation in 1999.  For the club to spend another few purgatorial years in Serie B would be especially agonizing given both the talent of some players like Andrea Poli and Pozzi and the comparative ascent of Genoa, who despite disappointing this season have looked like they belong in Serie A.

With the Scudetto all but decided, the relegation struggle remains compelling.  Three games could claim a large casualty of Sampdoria for Serie B. Three games remain for Sampdoria to turn things around, and to vindicate the intransigence, principled and admirable though it was, of Garrone.