Tuesday 29 May 2012

The Familiar Gloom

Under investigation: Domenico Criscito
It seems all too familiar now.  Coverciano, inquests, investigations, raids, recriminations, and strident protests of innocence.  This is all preparing for a major tournament, Italy style.

For 2006, read 2012.  For 1982, read 2012.  Italy coach Cesare Prandelli picked a shortlist of players for Euro 2012 and the news Monday should have focused on who should stay, who should go, who should play where.  In the case of Domenico Criscito, he simply could not stay, so he went, and he will not play a part in Euro 2012.

On Monday morning, police arrived at Coverciano, the headquarters and training ground of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), and questioned the left-back over his involvement in a match-fixing scandal that has already resulted in the arrest of Lazio's Stefano Mauri, who is by no means a low-profile player in Italian football.  Criscito's room was raided by police, and although he is still under investigation, he was told to pack his bags.  For Prandelli, for Demetrio Albertini, FIGC's vice-president and former Milan legend, his presence would have been too much of a distraction.

"Criscito won't be going," said Albertini. "He has to sort this out--it is understandable and the federation has supported the coach."

With less than three weeks left until Italy's opening match against reigning World and European Champions Spain, you could say, without being laughed at, the preparations could be going better.  As if the scandal wasn't enough, the elements have conspired against Italy too, it seems.  Today, their friendly against Luxembourg was cancelled because of an earthquake near Modena.

There is a perverted logic to all of this.  As dedicated optimists will tell you, whenever there are occurrences of this nature around the Azzurri, they perform.  As squalid as the latest match-fixing scandal is, the omen is good.

In 1982, Paolo Rossi arrived at the World Cup after serving a ban for match-fixing--he stormed the tournament, taking Italy to their first World Cup triumph in 44 years.  In 2006, Calciopoli 'broke' before the World Cup.  The debates around that scandal are well-rehearsed, but suffice to say here that the legal crusade of investigator Stefano Palazzi against Italy's biggest clubs concentrated, rather than dissipated, the Azzurri, resulting in Fabio Cannavaro euphorically hoisting the trophy in Berlin.  It was indeed quite the juxtaposition to read of Italy's progression at the World Cup, and the regression of their football back home.

Ashamed: Giovanni Trapattoni
That is the optimistic view.  While the view is comforting, it also tacitly privileges what should be a depraved sideshow.  To say Italy will win again this summer--and indeed I have hoped that the latest match-fixing scandal spurs Italy onto great things in Poland and Ukraine--is, in the end, also to trivialize what is happening.

"In the foreign media our image is abysmal," lamented former Italy and current Republic of Ireland (whom Italy play during the group stages) coach Giovanni Trapattoni.  "We should give a better account of ourselves."

Italian football's problems, from racism to crumbling stadia to match-fixing, inundate any account of its football.  It's a shame.  The latest scandal, which also involves Juventus coach Antonio Conte and his time at Siena, gives another opportunity to people who have had the knives out for Italy a long time ago.

Neutrals and non-Italian football fans, in my experience, despise Italy and Italian football with almost a venomous passion; as if they need any more excuses.  There may be a redemptive element to all of this, and I hope it shows itself, but for now it is a moment to reflect on how low Italian football can sink.  And for another increasingly rarer moment, I can agree with Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, that it is a sad day, and there is not much else to say.

Since 2006, the publicized clean-up of Italian football has not drained the lifeblood of scandal--rather, persistent machinations have engorged it.  It seems that when it comes to Italian football, scandal is not only bizarrely an omen for succes, but also for more scandal.

I will be covering the Azzurri almost exclusively over the next month.  Keep visiting. Forza Azzurri!

Friday 18 May 2012

Memory: The Azzurri's Amsterdam Miracle

Amsterdam joy: Toldo is mobbed by team-mates
Incredible to watch.  On June 29, 2000 Italy took on the Netherlands in a semi-final match of Euro2000.  The men in orange were expected to win, and a devastating 6-1 win over Yugoslavia in their quarter-final portended the worst for Italy.

Italy had had a successful  tournament leading up to the semi-final, defeating Turkey, Belgium, Sweden, and Romania on their way to Amsterdam.  The performances of Stefano Fiore, Filippo Inzaghi, and Francesco Totti (who was only twenty-three at the time) emboldened the Azzurri against the Dutch.

Yet it was Italy's defence that would steal the show in Amsterdam.  Italy were facing a catastrophe in only the first half after Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off in the 33rd minute for a second bookable offence.  All signs pointed to a Netherlands win, but Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, and goalkeeper Francesco Toldo put on a show that I will never forget.

Toldo saved Frank De Boer's penalty in the 38th minute, and Cannavaro and Nesta ensured that Dennis Bergkamp and Patrik Kluivert were kept quiet the entire game.  After De Boer, Kluivert missed a second Dutch penalty, but the Netherlands continued their unremitting onslaught.  Somehow, Italy clung on and took the game to penalties, during which Toldo saved two--one again from De Boer and one from Paul Bosvelt.  Jaap Stam blasted his penalty into oblivion, and Kluivert was the only Dutch player to score from the spot.  For Italy, Luigi Di Biagio, Gianluca Pessotto and Totti scored, and Maldini missed what was to be an inconsequential penalty in the end.

It was an Italian win that some would find prosaic and totally fortuitous.  For a fan of calcio, however, it was a cerebral display of tactical mastery.  Cannavaro and Nesta were simply unbeatable, and while the Netherlands continued their vain search for a goal, the duo slowly deprived the game of space and chances.  It was the ability of Toldo, Nesta and Cannavaro to stay undaunted in front of a partisan crowd which really stood out.

Before the game, Dutch legend Johann Cruyff had said Italy could not beat the Netherlands, but the Netherlands could lose to Italy.  However, to look at that game solely as Dutch suicide is to detract from Italy's ability to cope with the situation far more intelligently than their opponents.

Yet, the indignation at the Italian win was widespread.  For example, the BBC described Marco Delvecchio's near-goal in extra-time as a potential "travesty." And this was in just a regular match-report.

Leading up to the tournament, Italy were not fancied to go far.  They were without key players as striker Christian Vieri could not travel because of a thigh injury, and first-choice goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon broke his arm a week before the tournament.

Coach Dino Zoff was a lugubrious figure throughout Euro2000, and even his side's largely unexpected win in the semi-final did not visibly elate the man.  "Let's wait until the final," he responded to a journalist when he was asked to smile after the game.

Of course, Italy would lose the final heartbreakingly to France, but that game in Amsterdam is my most cherished memory of Euro2000.

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Best...Grazie Ringhio.

Gattuso is leaving Milan at the end of the season

Sunday 13 May 2012

The Best...Grazie Inzaghi.

Inzaghi is leaving Milan at the end of the season

Thursday 10 May 2012

The Best...Grazie Nesta.

Alessandro Nesta is leaving Milan at the end of the season

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Vindication: Juventus Back On Top in Italy

Top...Chiellini leads the celebrations for Juventus
After Milan's tumultuous 4-2 loss to Inter, and Juventus's 2-0 win against Cagliari, I sent a quick email to a close Juventino friend of mine from Italy, congratulating him on a well-deserved Scudetto.  His response was emphatic, eloquent: "End of nightmare!!!"

As the depravity of Calciopoli assailed Serie A fans six years ago, as the Bianconeri's long-faithful--and long-unfaithful when considering Luciano Moggi's instrumental role in the match-fixing--exited tearfully, defiantly, disgraced, and broken, one got the feeling that the club's very identity was at stake.

The last six years have indeed been a sort of nightmare for Juventus, relieved only by a motivational sense of indignation and injustice--however unfounded.  The overwhelming feeling that Juventus were punished too severely has sustained the club through a time that has seen their two main rivals, Inter and Milan, win Scudetti and European Cups.  Most gallingly, in the case of Inter, Juventus's most despised rivals, domestic superiority between 2007 and 2009 owed a lot to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a former Juventus player brought to the club from Ajax by Moggi in 2004, but one who left to Inter when Juventus were relegated to Serie B after the scandal.

Now, finally, there is some redemption.  For all of their past faults, Juventus are pointing the way forward for the whole of Italian football.  The club's first Scudetto since 2003 (or 2006 depending on your perspective) comes in a season at the start of which they unveiled their very own stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that has consigned the cavernous Stadio delle Alpi to a distant memory.  Juventus are the only club in Serie A, and one of two in Italy (Reggiana being the other one) to own their own stadium.  Admittedly, business sense does not always equate to on-pitch success, but Juventus's season has been a sort of homage to their fiscal foresight.  It is almost as if their success on the field is an inauguration of a modern era:  Juventus are not only winning, but they have laid the commercial and financial groundwork to keep on winning.

"What they have done in Turin cannot be repeated in Milan," said Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani this season. "We cannot build a stadium here, but for now we can renovate the San Siro."

Not what Milan fans wanted to hear.  The San Siro is becoming a hollow, sun-deprived anachronism.  A part of its turf is denied regular light due to a tier built during Italia'90, and the results of that architectural blunder have been embarrassing for the club, as both Arsenal and Barcelona complained very publicly about the patchy field.

Encapsulated in the state of each of Milan's and Juventus's stadium is the narrative of this season.  While Juventus boss Antonio Conte did revert to the conspiratorial this year, pathetically blaming the referees for being afraid to give Juventus decisions, he pioneered a path forward for a side that had finished seventh the last two seasons.

"Remember," said Conte in the wake of any mishap or slip during the season, "we were seventh only last year."

When you consider how marginalized Juventus have been from the title race since 2007, Conte has done an incredible job to steer them to a Scudetto.  Milan, on the other hand, capitulated to a languor, a post-Barcelona arrest that came as a result of an exhausting Champions League quarter-final.  It was a hangover that cost them everything.  With a month to go in the Scudetto race Milan were ahead of Juventus with a much easier run-in.  However, a loss to Fiorentina, a draw to Bologna, and a humiliating 4-2 loss to Inter on Sunday buried their challenge in a heap of stupidly concocted excuses, old ideas, and old players.

"That one incident cost us," maintained Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri often this season.  The "one incident" was the Sulley Ali Muntari goal against Juventus that was shockingly disallowed.  That game ended 1-1 and at the time Milan had a point to complain.  But since that incident Milan have been fundamentally incompetent.  They simply didn't deserve the title.  Their record against the 'big' teams this season was atrocious.

True, they were playing two competitions, while Juventus were essentially playing one.  Also true, they had the most injuries of any team in the league, and Juventus the least.  However, that is precisely my point: Milan's loss of the Scudetto this year is a clamorous defeat of their system, their philosophy.

Expectant...Zlatan Ibrahimovic
We heard many things about the vaunted Milanlab, but the injuries kept piling up.  "It cannot go on like this," Zlatan Ibrahimovic said after Thiago Silva, foolishly risked in the Coppa Italia by Allegri, was ruled out for more than a month. "Something has to be done about the injuries."

We heard much of the commitment of the senatori, but they looked jaded, glaringly past their sell-by date.  For one telling example, Clarence Seedorf played with a disgusting sense of entitlement, petulantly reacting to being substituted late in the season in the game against Bologna.  Seedorf's attitude was only so bold because the club has allowed old players generous contracts rather than showing them the door.  It may sound callous, but it is the only way to run a football club--and keep key players happy.

"I was told we were making a Grande Milan," said the begrudging voice of the club, Ibrahimovic. "Let's see if they are still interested in doing that."

Ibrahimovic heaved sighs throughout the season, but he did his part and then some: he has already scored 28 league goals, and he was ubiquitous against Arsenal in the Champions League second-round first-leg.  But playing behind him throughout the season were players who couldn't even provide service, the partnership, the collegial inspiration that he wanted and deserved.  Antonio Cassano did only occasionally because he was out with a heart problem for a long part of the season, while Kevin-Prince Boateng was injured far too often.

Ibra must be tired.  He must be tired of an old system with old players. It is not only that Arturo Vidal lines up for Juventus in midfield while Massimo Ambrosini does so for Milan; it is not only that Juventus won the key games of the season; it is not only that Juventus have stayed unbeaten thus far; and it is not only that Milan suffered untimely injuries.  Juventus's win was also a vindication of their modernity, their rejection of complacency, their good work in the transfer market.

When asked if Milan would be signing top players this summer, Galliani replied idiotically, "we already have two in Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva."

The former is being pursued by Real Madrid, the latter by Barcelona.  Both will probably stay this year, but both will want guarantees of a competitive team.

Milan's attitude is even more bizarre when you consider that they are still, despite Juventus's new stadium, the team that earns the most in revenue in Italy.  However, it is their failure to adapt to the changing landscape, their failure to bring in players who can complement the likes of Ibra and Thiago Silva that may prove disastrous for seasons to come.

Juventus have the momentum now, and with Champions League revenue, they will buy key players.  The club from Turin, maligned in recent years, has done it the right way, and they are at the top of Italian football again.  And it is up to Milan to prevent the Bianconeri laying down a hegemony over the league for seasons to come.