Sunday 31 March 2013

Udinese, Yet Again The Example

Udinese captain Antonio Di Natale (left) greets Mayor Furio Honsell 
The mayor of Udine, Furio Honsell, is probably used to tortuous complexities given that he was a Professor of mathematics at the Universit√† di Udine until he decided to enter municipal politics in 2008.  He ran successfully as a center-left candidate in the mayoral elections in April of that same year, succeeding the conservative Sergio Cecotti, and has since been the incumbent.

Italian football fans who don't have a keen interest in Italian polity had probably never heard of him until Friday, when Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo emphasized Honsell's "bureaucratic miracle" in helping complete the deal that will finally allow, after a ten-year quest, Udinese to begin construction and maintenance work on the Stadio Friuli, which they will now own.

And it was probably not hyperbole on Pozzo's part.  In the absence of any binding legislation, it is a colossally complicated task to ratify construction or the rehabilitation of stadia across Italy.  To Honsell, the challenge of the Italian bureaucracy must have surpassed the one of Lambda Calculus.  Mediating between the city council, eager to exact rent for the stadium, and the club, longing for private ownership of the stadium to boost revenue, must have been an arduous negotiation.

In the late fall of 2011, Honsell communicated how difficult things were, announcing that he was trying to find a solution for Stadio Friuli's refurbishment, and the logistical requirements of concerts in the stadium.  It is precisely these pressures that make club ownership of stadia so difficult in Italy.  City councils want to ensure their own large stake in lucrative activities that go on in the stadium, and by keeping a firm grip on ownership they can do precisely that.  

It is to the mayor's credit that he ensured Udinese become the third club--after Reggiana (not to be confused with Reggina) and Juventus--to own their stadium, granting a huge boost to a club that has been conscientiously profitable on a modest budget for years.

Similar to Juventus's deal with the Turin coucil, Udinese have obtained a land-lease of 99 years.  They will begin working on the stadium after the end of the current season, reducing its capacity by about 16,000 to 25,000 seats.  Crucially, however, they will now be the exclusive, private owners of the stadium, which allows them to capitalize on matchday revenue without having to pay onerous rent to the city council.

The latest "lease" from the city in this case is nominal and symbolic:  a small sum paid at up front, similar to the single euro that Juventus paid the Turin council before they demolished the Stadio Delle Alpi and built their glowing Juventus Stadium in its place.

Udinese won't be demolishing Stadio Friuli, but they will be dramatically changing its look and feel.

"The stadium will be modern, and have facilities open all week to the public," said Pozzo, underlining the importance of having a stadium that is more an experience than merely a venue.

"As for the fans, they’ll have a stadium with covered seating and every comfort from hospitality to restaurants and pre-match entertainment. The people of the city will also have an area of 20,000 square metres that can be used every day”(football-italia).

Perhaps the most telling thing Pozzo said was that the new stadium will undoubtedly boost revenue, which in turn will allow Udinese to hold onto their players longer.  For a club that produces superb talents only to sell them for unmissable profits, this will be a profound change in modus operandi.

It cost Juventus more than 120 million euros to build their stadium.  However, Udinese's project is on a smaller scale and should cost a third of that (with about 26 million euros required at the start of the project), given that this is more of a reconstruction of parts of the Stadio Friuli than a demolition job.

The construction will also remedy the problem of the track that encircles the pitch, quite similarly to how it used to at the Stadio Delle Alpi.  The stands will now be closer to the action.  Most of the changes should be ready by the start of the 2014 season.

Udinese's success should embolden clubs who have had only nascent success (Roma, Catania etc.) with their stadia plans thus far.  While the law that would make private ownership of stadia much easier, Legge Crimi, has been abandoned, Pozzo and Honsell amply demonstrate that a headstrong determination to deliver results can help clubs reach this essential business objective.  Of course, some city councils are easier to deal with than others, but there needs to be a more serious, concerted effort to permit Italian clubs to own their homes.

Juventus and Udinese may be on opposing ends of the spectrum when it comes to many factors--financial, success on the pitch--but the two clubs also have more in common than just the colour of their shirts: a vision and the determination to realize it.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Beware of Beautiful Italy

Prandelli, Buffon & Pirlo display Italy's Confederations Cup jersey  
Cesare Prandelli's resurrection of Italy after the 2010 World Cup is now not merely a revival of results and spirit.  That was the prosaic job requirement anyway, and one that Prandelli quickly checked off.  No, Prandelli has done much more: he has aestheticized Italy's resurgence.

For the neutrals over the years, the Italian national team has, at best, remained unchanged.  Despite the compelling evidence much, much to the contrary, the hackneyed opinions faithfully did the rounds.  That is, that Italy are a calculating, sneering team, who retreat into defensive cowardice when the opposition is in delightful attacking flow.  And of course, the logical conclusion is that Italy are regressive, and teams like Spain, Germany, and even, laughably, England represent the way forward.

Most of these purveyors of decency don't evoke Claudio Gentile's fanatic marking on Maradona in the 1982 World Cup as clinching proof of Italy's congenital wickedness, but that is simply because their memories and knowledge don't stretch that far back--or, at all.

Yet, you can't dismiss this sort of parochialism off-hand because, despite its flaws, it has led many to dismiss Italy. The truth is, had Spain not finally discovered the Philosopher's stone in 2008, Italy would probably be getting a lot more credit right now.

The Azzurri have become one of the most watchable sides in world football under Prandelli.  Sure, Spain have their brand of hypnotic foreplay, and Germany their cocksure decisiveness, but Italy are developing a calm, considered self-assurance that has harnessed even the libidinal energy of Mario Balotelli.

That they are topping their qualifying group by three points with a game in hand should come as no surprise, but they have also played a football that is barefaced, unrestrained in its directness.  There was evidence of that during the last European Championship, and more of it this past week.

Italy's 2-0 win over Malta in the World Cup qualifier on Tuesday had some stutters but was ultimately routine; yet, their 2-2 draw with Brazil was a re-narrativization that cast the South Americans in a bit-part role.  In the end 2-2 was immense flattery for Brazil. Italy looked like joga bonito; Brazil, a team striving to make acquaintance with themselves.

Admittedly, the Brazilian national team has been soul-searching for a few years now, but that also enhances belief in Prandelli's craft--in such a short time, he has made Italy a resounding success, and one that is easy on the eye.  Also, look around Europe.  National teams are generally underwhelming right now.  England look poorer with each game, France have yet to find their feet, and Germany, despite promising so much, failed when it mattered most at Euro 2012.  After Spain, Italy are doing what they are doing best.

Easy, this: Balo celebrates goal against Brazil
Whether Prandelli's Italy flows better with 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 will undoubtedly be covered by the expert
analysts for months to come.  What really sticks out for me is how Italy have relegated that talk to the periphery.  It is almost as if whatever formation Prandelli comes up with, this Italy will be competitive, and beautifully so.

Milan full-back Mattia De Sciglio and forward Stephan El Sharaawy are just two of the more notable additions that Prandelli has made to the national team, and both have capitalized on a more capacious Italy, one that allows for an expression of young, untried talent.

And let's not forget that Italy were one game away from being crowned European Champions this past summer, but Spain had too much for them.  But, it is not scandalous to say that the Italy that drew 1-1 with Spain in their opening game of Euro 2012 was closer to the truth than the tired and spent one that disintegrated in Kiev.

Italy also dominated England and Germany en route to the Final with a brand of football that witnessed neat shorter passes (see the build-up to Mario Balotelli's first goal against Germany) and also a more direct aerial route (see the brilliant, heat-seeking pass by Riccardo Montolivo to Balotelli for the second Italy goal).  The football was vivacious and liberated, not stifled and stuck in the old defensive school.

This Italy is a dynamic one, despite drawing all of its starting line-up from Milan and Juventus on Tuesday.  It is to Prandelli's and the Italian press's credit that they largely made the selection a non-issue, restoring belief that the group was more important than any regional allegiances, allegiances that have hindered Italy in the past.

However, despite the collective, marshalled so ably by Prandelli, as has happened so often with Italian football, there was one player who still managed to outdo and outshine his teammates this past week.  The newest fuoriclasse is Balotelli, the man who tore Germany apart this past summer, and the man who was in tears after the Euro 2012 Final.

He also scored three of Italy's four goals in the last two games, one a stupendous shot from outside the area against Brazil. His fire will be vital for Italy during the World Cup in Brazil, and if Prandelli continues his unheralded revolution--the next test of which will be the Confederations Cup this summer--Italy may go very far.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Five Things to Cheer You Up After Milan's Defeat

All smiles: Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Sharaawy
So, Milan lost 4-0 to Barcelona and crashed out of the Champions League.  That's the bad news.  Here are some reasons to be optimistic:

1) The Future

Thirteen players departed Milan  this past summer. Thirteen.  They included Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva.  If someone were to tell you that a fledgling team containing Stephan El Sharaawy and M'Baye Niang would boss one of the best club sides ever assembled at the San Siro, you would have guffawed.  Well, it did.  That 2-0 win will be a cherished memory because it was achieved by youngsters who survived the crucible of the first leg remarkably well.  Riccardo Montolivo (not so young at 28, but still), El Sharaawy and Niang are all going to be critical for Milan in the future.

2) The Money

Milan CEO Adriano Galliani recently said that playing Barcelona "was great for business" because of their commercial might.  Milan will earn a huge amount in TV money by having played one of the strongest sides on the pitch and off the pitch in the world. And for a team that is building and is striving to boost revenue, that is heartening news.

3) It Could Have Been Worse...

Let's face it: losing to the preternatural Lionel Messi is no shame.  We are witnessing a player who will do this time and time again, and who has done this time and time again.  Well done, Messi, and, of course, well done, Barcelona.

4) Focus On Serie A

Milan absolutely have to make the Champions League, and though they are only two points off of Napoli, Fiorentina, Lazio and Inter are grunting, hot in pursuit.  Galliani admitted that the contract renewals of many players (not the 'big ones') depended on making the Champions League, so there are prosaic but crucial fiscal issues at stake.  Also, even if Milan were to wriggle through this phase, they had no real chance of winning the Champions League.

5) Mario Balotelli

He will be eligible for Europe next year.  You have all been warned.

Monday 11 March 2013

The Young and Bold: Milan's Youth on The Verge of Making History Against Barcelona

The way forward: Milan's Stephan El Sharaawy
By now, you must know the feeling.  Deportivo, Eindhoven and Istanbul have made sure you do.  They have inscribed, indelibly, trauma on your psychology.  They have turned your head, and things on their heads.  Two-goal leads make you nervous; a cagey deadlock can be more assuring.  It's almost as if you would prefer things to be be precarious going into a second leg of a Champions League tie.

You listen to the commentators and experts talk about how Italian teams have been divinely--or naturally, depending on your preference--selected for survival, for getting a result, and for protecting it.  A 2-0 lead going into the Camp Nou should be a commanding position, and it can be, and maybe it is.  But that feeling still gnaws.

Tomorrow, Milan will find themselves on the verge of a Champions League quarter-final berth at the expense of a team that believes they were divinely or naturally selected-- for keeping the ball and winning, something they consider their birthright, or a biological imperative.

But three weeks ago Milan did the unthinkable for many.  They comprehensively beat that team.  Sure, teams have beaten Barcelona--Chelsea last season, for example--but the way Milan quelled the Catalonians was notable for its ease of manner.  Barcelona had one shot on goal, and it was hopeful.  Milan shunted Barcelona into bewilderment with a tactical setup that predicated itself on pressing constantly, and taking chances when they came.  They came, and Milan took them twice, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari scoring them, with Riccardo Montolivo and Stephan El Sharaawy creating them; this year's Milan, which is a team in transition, did what a team of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva couldn't last year.

Tomorrow's game will see a similar strategy of Milan trying to contain and capitalize, but it will be more difficult against a Barcelona team at home and now positively seething.  In the last three weeks, they have been vanquished by Real Madrid and Milan--twice by the former.

"It will be a heated environment, with a 100,000 people," said Milan CEO Adriano Galliani, about to depart for Spain from Milan's Malpensa airport.  "We must not think we're 2-0 ahead."

Galliani has cheerfully admitted in the past that he has often left his seat when things have gotten too tense for Milan.  Those with a tenacious memory will remember Galliani chose to flee in the final minutes of Milan against Liverpool in the Champions League Final of 2007.  It was too much for him to contemplate that Liverpool could somehow do what they did in Istanbul, or what PSV almost did days before that Final, or what Deportivo did a year earlier.

It didn't turn out that way that night in Athens as Milan held on at the end for a 2-1 win.  Yet, even sitting on a 2-0 lead, in the 88th minute, you feared, and when Dirk Kuyt scored in the 89th, you feared the worst.  The comebacks of Deportivo and Liverpool, in particular (despite the panic, Milan still got past PSV in 2005), desecrated Milan's interiority during those years.  It turned them inside out, and it showed teams that they were vulnerable.

After that Final in Istanbul, Carlo Ancelotti, pallid from nerves and nicotine, lamented that "six minutes of madness" had cost Milan the Final against Liverpool in Istanbul.  There was, then, something irrational about what had happened: the Liverpudlian goblins had hoodwinked Milan out of what they believed was their triumphant destiny.

The looming question is, do these destinies subsume subsequent ones?  That is, if a preceding group or generation of players failed, will successive ones too simply because they play for the same club? Is there a narrative, a guiding script, a sense of fatefulness that grips players and proceedings?

Do not England just fail at penalties because they are terrible at them?  Did not Spain underachieve for all those years merely because they didn't have a generation of players so comprehensively talented as the current one?  And did not Inter finally achieve in Europe with the right mentality under Jose Mourinho?

Admittedly, it is wrong to assume that the weight of history isn't onerous; that is to say, at some level England do indeed feel  the expectation to succeed on penalties quite acutely, but they need not be resigned to their demise.

Undaunted: Massimiliano Allegri
Why should Milan disintegrate like they did in Istanbul or the Riazor?  After all, what does Stephan El Sharaawy, a 20-year-old rising star, have in common with Andriy Shevchenko, other than Milan, the linchpin of success over the years? El Sharaawy's time at Milan will be determined by the peculiarly modern pressures of a perpetually changing football world, through which the youngster will have to negotiate his own way.

Captain Massimo Ambrosini may be the sole survivor in the starting XI from that surrender in Istanbul, but, more crucially, and decisively, the club's hierarchy, its philosophy of winning still endures.  Milan has briskly remodeled itself for relevance in a football world about to change profoundly--so we're told--with Financial Fair Play's introduction.

This young team--indecently young, and not just by Milan's standards--has a chance to inaugurate something, an era.  It was only last year that Milan came shockingly close to squandering a 4-0 first-leg lead against Arsenal, a brilliant save from Christian Abbiati denying a potentially crippling Robin van Persie goal in the return.  However, even that team contained many players who have departed--no fewer than thirteen players left Milan this past summer.

But critically, one man stayed.  Coach Massimiliano Allegri, the deceptively diffident operator, has transformed this group into a winning one after many labeled it a ragtag bunch not worthy of the Rossoneri shirt.  If Milan go through tomorrow, he will be supremely vindicated--and not just from a tactical point of view.   Under him, Milan have that which all managers privilege: the right mentality.  It is this mentality that has seen Milan surge up the standings from near the relegation zone into third.

The vista of Milan's future for Allegri is his prime motivation: his chance to continue Milan's success, but in his own way, one that plans to nurture a group of world-class players, rather than purchase them, and one that isn't irretrievably linked to the past.

When asked about Milan's near-capitulation to Arsenal last season, Allegri answered bravely: "I am not thinking about that match. Tomorrow we will have two players born in 1992 [El Sharaawy and Mattia De Sciglio] and one in 1994 [M'baye Niang].  If we progress, it will be a historic night for this young team."

Here's hoping.  Forza Milan!

Monday 4 March 2013

Galliani and Cristante on La Domenica Sportiva

Bryan Cristante of Milan
The upsurge in Milan's recent fortunes and form has seen commentators gushing over its players, and even over Milan CEO Adriano Galliani.  Galliani suffers an exorbitant amount of abuse when the club missteps--and it has been lurching recently, with the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva this past summer--but he profoundly cares about Milan.

It is dispiriting to think that he has to tolerate censure even for decisions taken by club owner Silvio Berlusconi, decisions that have made him appear at times callous.  However, take a look at Galliani's unadulterated joy when Milan score to understand that he refuses to watch games with a dispassionate, admnisterial eye, and how much he is invested in the club.

So, he deserves credit now as well.  On Sunday, Galliani made an appearance on the sports talkshow La Domenica Sportiva, alongside Milan's newest addition to the senior squad, Bryan Cristante. 

As Galliani fielded questions that covered a whole range of topics to do with Italian football, one got the feeling that here was a man, finally, able to beam about Milan's 'project,' which has been, in its incipience, acutely painful for Milan fans at times.  Admittedly, it is not a simple task to tell fans of a club used to buying the best players that they will now create and nurture them. 

Further, even the most sanguine Milan fan could not have imagined Stephan El Sharaawy and Mattia De Sciglio would make such an emphatic statement this season.  And now Galliani ardently hopes that Cristante can be the latest revelation.

Cristante, who turned eighteen on Sunday, signed a five-year contract with Milan on Monday.  The six-foot-one midfielder won the 2013 "Golden Boy" award, which is awarded by journalists to the outstanding player of the Torneo di Viareggio (the youth tournament played annually in Tuscany).  Galliani reminded the studio that Gianni Rivera also won the award for Milan.

When the panel started comparing Cristante to Fernando Redondo, the Argentine who had a flourishing career at Real Madrid, but who suffered for four years at Milan with injury, Galliani quickly added that Cristante "has more speed than Redondo."

When asked who his favourite players were, Cristante said he liked Riccardo Montolivo, whom Galliani praised on the same show as having a tachometer on his feet, and Marco Verratti.

Cristante promises a lot.  He is an imposing midfielder with notable speed.  He made his debut for Milan on December 6, 2011 against Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League, and owes his remarkable ascent into the first team to Milan's new youth policy. 

"It is very fortunate for us youngsters [that things have changed in Italian football this year]," said Cristante.  "I want to thank Mr. Galliani for having trust in me."

And so do all Milan fans.

Other points that Galliani made

- We had been following Mario Balotelli for two years, and once we sold Pato his signing became a real possibility

- Our scouts are working hard and all over--we have already picked our signings for next year

- Andrea Rizzoli [the referee for Milan vs Lazio] did well not to award the penalty when Candreva fouled El Sharaawy, but he should have given it when Marchetti fouled him