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.


  1. Hey mate,

    Big Azzurri/Roma/Serie A fan here in Boston (with four Italian grandparents!) and came across your "Trolls and Tortoises" article. I have some journalistic background, as well, and just wanted to commend you on an excellent, fair and accurate piece.

    It aggravates me no end that I always have to listen to the English commentators massacre these (especially in the Champions League) broadcasts. I can see through the bias and the nonsense, but unfortunately most casual North American fans, not to mention, other English-speaking spectators, are taking their biased gibberish as gospel. After all, they have an English accent, so they must be experts....

    It never ceases to amaze me how quick they are to criticize and stereotype calcio and how reluctant they are to compliment it.

    Congrats on the domination of Arsenal; I really enjoyed watching it, though it easily could have been about 7-0. Napoli have been irresistible in the Champions League this year. Here's hoping they keep it up next week.

    All the best with your writing,


  2. You think John Foot's book is essential reading? He's a tabloid hack, and his book was one of the worst things I've ever had the misfortune to read. It's amazing that tripe like his passes for journalism in England.


  3. @jm...thanks for the kind words...much appreciated!!

    @David...Thanks for the comment. Foot's writing style is quite ordinary, even tedious at times. However, I did think his book on calcio was well researched and covered a considerable amount.

  4. Hey bello nice job again. You need to get some of your writing out to some of these soccer journals. You've got a gift and you should share your views with the greater Calcio world. Cheers