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 √©lan.  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.