Thursday 16 February 2012

The Revenge of Trolls and Tortoises: Milan's Demolition of Arsenal and Lies

Boateng celebrates his dazzling goal against Arsenal
So, did you hear? Milan beat Arsenal 4-0 at the San Siro yesterday.  Yes, Milan, the club from Serie A, the league that some English football fans associate with trolls and tortoises.  Their arguments for such a position organize themselves around two main themes.  First, and this one has had legitimacy for a long time, is the argument that Serie A players, especially Italian ones, are mischievously provocative, excelling in getting the worst out of a game, by fouling, diving, and, well, cheating. Second is the argument that most of the big teams in Serie A play with senescent and slow has-beens, who are no match for the blistering youth of the Premier League.

The build-up and banter to Wednesday's Champions League clash between Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro produced little to unhinge the well-laid narrative.  Milan hadn't won against English opposition since their victorious 2007 Champions League campaign, exiting the tournament to an English team three times in the last five years (Arsenal in 2008, Manchester United in 2009, and Tottenham in 2011).  Massimiliano Allegri's men had already had a trial by press, forums, and British punditry, and they were condemned, almost obligated, to lay down for the Wengerian juggernaut, even if it has been sputtering for a good part of the season in England.

Fan forums around the internet are not supposed to be a bulwark against chest-thumping; indeed, chest-thumping is one of their purposes.  It is ritual. It is one of the preferred, electronic alternatives to the Arsenal vandals who assembled outside Milan's Piazza del Duomo.  What is astonishing is the ability of some English commentators to vandalize common sense.  The commentary I was following in Canada on Sportsnet was innocuous for the most part, its rather neutral tone interrupted only by former West Ham player Tony Gale insisting that "this Milan side aren't really that good."

It was a delusional response to what the left-leaning Italian paper La Repubblica called a "massacre."  I almost got the impression that this was Gale adjusting to the nightmare unfolding before him, a symptom of post-traumatic stress before the trauma was actually complete.  You almost imagined him saying it as he was rocking back and forth, arms around knees.

Perhaps Arsenal did not play that well, but suggesting that they lost to themselves rather than a Milan team that barely let them complete three meaningful passes all game is comforting.  The logic is, of course, simple: once Arsenal come out of this self-inflicted stupor, the hierarchy of football, atop which the Premier League beams down at the rest, will be set right again.

What attests to how comprehensively Arsenal were beaten is Arsene Wenger's inability to come up with one real excuse from that inexhaustible source he possesses in the post-match press conference.  Before the game there had been talk of the abysmal condition of the field, with some commentators gleefully reaching for the trite Machiavellian metaphors to suggest, jokingly, the conspiratorial at work.  All that talk is in abeyance for now.

What is needed after yesterday's match is to provide a proper context that stretches a little further back than February 15th, 2012.  Just as Milan's surrender to English opposition for the last few years was not proof of Italian football's irredeemable decline, so too Milan's crushing win over Arsenal is not proof of the opposite.  Neither is Napoli's win over Manchester City earlier this season.  Italian football has several problems, like the state of their stadia, racism and a fall in the UEFA co-efficient rankings, with which to contend, and the euphoria of European nights like yesterday only banish them temporarily.

Teammates embrace Ibrahimovic after he scores from the spot
Italian football's relation to English football is also a bit more complex than sneering and sloganeering.  John Foot's essential Calcio: A History of Italian Football illuminates just how "until the 1970s when [Italy started beating England] regularly [. . .] the nirvana of victory against England obsessed [Italian] managers and players for decades, and even led to defeats being presented as victories, as with the Lions of Highbury game in 1934"  (Foot 479).  More recently, the chattering class of Italian football has been somewhat deferential to English teams.  That is not to say, however, there isn't chauvinism towards the English among them, but rather that that chauvinism isn't emblematic of a widespread outlook.

Even if for a few moments, Gale actually managed to see and speak in tabloid on Wednesday, unsurprisingly perhaps, for he does write for The Sun.  And yet he is not even the worst offender.  Indeed, his comments were mild compared to what the now disgraced Andy Gray served up in 2007, when he foolishly claimed that Manchester United had Milan "running scared" after a 3-2 semi-final first leg win at Old Trafford.  Milan buried Manchester United 3-0 in the return leg.

Of course, there were other notions that were totally discredited yesterday, like Ibrahimovic not turning up for big games, but I chose to focus on the commentary for a reason.  Arguably, English commentators have more of a responsibility to strive for some semblance of impartiality because they operate in and with the most widely spoken language in the world.  Their words will and do have a greater resonance than commentary in Italian or Spanish.  And yet the Grays and Gales are the ones who are parochial, relying on outdated and misplaced notions, unwilling to come up to speed with the nuances of the Italian game.  A bit like trolls and tortoises.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Milan Take Friuli Flight

Savouring the moment...El Shaarawy
There we were: about fifteen minutes away from another reckoning, another excruciating post-mortem.  Milan were 1-0 down to Udinese at the Stadio Friuli in the 76th minute.  They were third in the table, they were soon to be potentially miles away from Juventus at the top, and they were soon to be a point behind their inhospitable tormentors.   Another big team--after all, Udinese have earned their keep under that category--another Milan loss.  Once again, editorial real estate on blogs and broadsheets was about to subsidize room for the hackneyed--and  Milan were once again to provide the subsidy.

It hasn't taken much imagination to write of Milan's problems recently.  They have done all the work for journalists and commentators.  From the non-signing of Tevez in January to a dependable ability to lose to the big clubs, Milan have simply not acquitted themselves like Italian champions.  It as if they have inherited disgrace from their owner Silvio Berlusconi, whose politics are as incoherent and egregious as Milan's left-back position--though Djamel Mesbah may take exception to that comment after some of his competent performances. 

To say until the 76th minute on Saturday Milan were as incisive as Francesco Totti would be during a parliamentary debate is an exaggeration.  After all, Totti has some background in politics, famously inspiring the slogan meno tasse per Totti (less taxes for Totti), a variation of meno tasse per tutti (less taxes for all), the famous slogan of Berlusconi's Forza Italia! party in the early 2000s.  On Saturday, Milan were blunt, boring, and bad, seemingly content to let Antonio Conte's far from sterling Juventus side leisurely jog to the title.  

In the first half, Massimo Ambrosini was doing his best babe in the woods routine: unseemly not just because there was no time for it, but also because he is well past the time for it. On the other hand, Clarence Seedorf may have done better to have stayed home in a robe, eating from a tub of ice-cream, ruing his loss of speed in front of a television beaming the 2002-03 Champions League highlights.

No one told Stephan El Shaarawy of the suicidal master plan though.  The 19-year-old, with his Sonic the Hedgehog haircut, showed quick feet, running and running in the second half, collecting kilometers as if they were golden rings.  He had little support for long periods of time, but when Massimiliano Allegri finally brought on Maxi Lopez, the wrong Argentinean striker to have been signed in January as far as many Milan fans are concerned, the front-line took a more discernible shape.  The goal came in the 77th minute when El Shaarawy, Il Faraone, the half-Italian, half-Egyptian teenager who has bewitched many before Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, unleashed an awkward shot from a tough angle outside the area.  Handanovic parried the ball into the path of Lopez who slotted it in.

The goal vindicated two things.  First, it proved beyond any doubt that Lopez can score when it seems impossible not to.  That alone makes him more reliable in front of goal than Robinho, who couldn't hit any one of a herd of sedated, wading elephants from twenty centimeters with a ball.  Secondly, it proved beyond any doubt that Milan can actually score without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (he is serving a three-match ban for warming Salvatore Aronica's ear).

The winner was a beautiful inverse of the equalizer.  Lopez collected the ball out wide, passed to El Shaarawy who powerfully flicked the ball past Handanovic.  In the space of eight minutes, Milan had staggered Udinese, condemning them to their first loss at home of the season.  In the space of eight minutes, Milan had leaped to the top of the table, even if maybe temporarily (Juve have two games in hand).

The man of the moment, of the match, was El Shaarawy.  He had played exquisitely when he needed to, and pragmatically when he needed to, tracking back to make solid tackles.  The victory achieved without Alessandro Nesta, Alberto Aquilani, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Ibrahimovic, Pato and others, seemed like a pivotal point of the season.  Milan have been battered by big teams all season, but just before the Champions League tie against Arsenal on Wednesday, they stretched out of quicksand a hand of defiance.  Despite playing drudgingly for most of the game against Udinese, Milan got the three points.

It is games like this that decide seasons.  It is games like this that make stars.  February just got a little warmer for Milan fans.