Friday 22 December 2017

Calcio Memories: Doni's Fall From Grace

Tarnished: Cristiano Doni
Let's take a look back to almost exactly six years ago, when former Atalanta and Italy midfielder, Cristiano Doni, found himself in legal trouble.

He was said to have been hiding in his garage, trying to elude the police when they came.  By then, it was vain protest, the type of tragicomic defiance that often precedes the arrest of mobsters in Italy.  Cristiano Doni is no mobster, but the way the police escorted him out in the night from his home had the resonance of high-profile disgrace.  Doni appeared briefly in the warm light of his home, but as he walked out, impassive policemen all around him, he became a shadow against the stone and chalk of walls.  And then he disappeared into the dark.

At thirty-eight, Doni must have thought things would be different.  The man with the almost perpetually bedraggled hair never saw his career in Italian football reach the pinnacle, but it has now reached a nadir.  He was already banned in the summer for three and a half years for his part in a match-fixing scandal, even if his involvement was overshadowed by that of Giuseppe Signori, the former Lazio, Bologna, and Italy hero, and by all accounts, as far as football people go, the man at the forefront of the iniquity.  Doni, the Atalanta hero, was supposed to end his career in the brightness of Serie A, after his twelve goals in Serie B last season helped promote the club from Bergamo.

With his arrest, such things must seem like distant luxuries.  Doni was arrested as part of an investigation that has seen sixteen other people arrested for a match-fixing scandal that involves betting rings and stakeholders as far as Singapore.  There are some Serie A games from last season under suspicion as well.  "This is just the beginning,"  Roberto Di Martino, the Cremona prosecutor, said ominously.

Indeed, it may be.  For Doni, though, it is an inexorable end.  More than five years after Calciopoli, Italian football is still purging its rogue elements, which are so pervasive that you cannot help but be cynical about the entire administration of the sport, and Doni will long be remembered as one of them.

And yet, it would be unfair to relegate the Roman to the band of Italian football's most notorious figures.  Exactly almost a decade ago, Doni was demanding attention for all the right reasons.  The date was November 7, 2001, and Italy were playing Japan in a friendly in the city of Saitama.  The Azzurri were trailing 1-0 from an early first-half goal, and Doni, making his international debut, replaced Francesco Totti at half-time, much to the surprise of Japanese fans, as long-time Italian football journalist Paddy Agnew recalls:

"When the teams took the field for the second half of Italy's friendly against Japan in Saitama in November, local fans were much dismayed by the non-reappearance of Roma's captain Francesco Totti.  Italy's playmaker had been replaced by the relatively unknown Cristiano Doni of Atalanta, who at 28 was making a tardy international debut." (Agnew, World Soccer, February 2002)

Doni went on to score the equalizer in the 50th minute when Alessandro Del Piero's corner eventually bounced invitingly for him to smash home.  Italy's coach at the time, Giovanni Trapattoni, was unashamedly devoted to Totti, so Doni was never going to threaten the Roma playmaker's place, but he nonetheless lauded Doni for his versatility and temperament: "I really liked the way Doni played, not just because he scored the goal but also because of the way he rose to the occasion.  Doni could prove very useful because he can also play on the left side of midfield." (World Soccer, February 2002)

Doni in action for Italy against Croatia during the 2002 World Cup
Doni would be included in Italy's dismal World Cup 2002 as well.  However, even from that wreckage, he salvaged much more credit than Totti.  Italy's controversial group stage 2-1 loss to Croatia is remembered for egregious officiating, but Doni brightened the game by providing an assist for Christian Vieri with a cross and setting up a goal that should have stood.  The non-goal came from a moment of brilliant improvisation.  With Zambrotta lurking in the box, Doni provided him an expertly weighted lob, and Zambrotta flicked it on at full stretch for Vieri to head in.  The goal was incorrectly ruled offside, but Doni proved with his swift thinking that he was not awed by the occasion.

He started that game in a midfield that contained Zambrotta, Damiano Tommasi, and Cristiano Zanetti--Totti was to play further up front, closer to Vieri--and he played with a remarkable level of boldness and ease.  Though he was substituted by Filippo Inzaghi about ten minutes from the end, the move was only Trapattoni's panic response to going 2-1 down.

Italy did prove the culmination of his career in some ways, but Doni could have also made a significant mark at club level beyond Atalanta had he been picked up by interested clubs such as Inter or Juventus after the 2001-02 season, during which he was under the tutelage of coach Giovanni Vavassori (now at Verona).  However, for various reasons, the moves never materialized.

Instead, he turned out to be one of Italian football's nearly-men.  He started his club career at Modena, before moving onto Rimini, Pistoiese, Bologna, Brescia, Atalanta, Sampdoria, Mallorca in Spain, and finally Atalanta again.  It was at Atalanta where he was to score over 100 goals, and make almost 300 appearances.  It was at Atalanta, however, that  he would earn both fame and shame.

He has always been adored by the club's fans, but his arrest may have pushed them to the brink.  In many ways, they probably saw the recent debacle coming.  In 2000, Doni was also suspended for his role in match-fixing, involving a Coppa Italia game between Atalanta and his old club Pistoiese, who were then in Serie B.

But the punishment did not restrain the man.  Instead, he is now in the dock once again, and this time he has no chance to restore his image.

Ten years ago, Doni trivialized his status as a late-bloomer, emphasizing that while it took him "all those years to mature, both physically and professionally, it was nobody's fault it took so long--the important thing was to get there." (World Soccer, February 2002)

For a man who showed such patience in his career, it is a shame that he attempted to circumvent the honest road right at the end.  That, and not his undeniable skill, may well define him in the end.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Of Gufi and Vedove

The Italians call them vedove (widows) of the old regime: fans, former players, pundits and journalists so loyal to Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani that they can't but cast aspersions on Milan's new ownership.  There are many Milan fans who have wholeheartedly embraced the Chinese project and the prospect, at least, of a diversified revenue portfolio--a modern Milan, in other words.

But there are still others who seem to be in a perpetual state of mourning, nostalgic for the old ownership, even after it corroded the club over the last decade.

Then, there are the gufi (literally, owls), fans of other teams or even Milan who wish to see the club fail.  These come in two forms: either as insincere well-wishers or straightforward haters.  

To be a Milan fan these days is to negotiate a reality away from this psychotic mess.  But it's difficult.  The territory in which a Milan fan can find comfort and patience is thin; the majority has already been ceded to the swelling mass of disinformers and misinformers.

There are legitimate concerns around the transparency of Milan's new ownership.  Is president Yonghong Li, for example, a simple prestanome (frontman) for a group of investors?  If in the absence of official confirmations one clings to every word that Milan CEO Marco Fassone says, it would seem so.  In recent days he has spoken of investors, not an investor.  Plural not singular.

But clinging easily shades into grasping.  It is maddening not to know the identity of the people behind your club, or definitively whether you are in the hands of one amateur speculator, whose personal fortune the New York Times questioned a month ago, or a group of capable investors who won't come out in the open for various political reasons (China's various restrictions on foreign investment, for example).

This uncertainty is the provenance of the attacks against Milan.  Once the ownership is in question, the media takes extraordinary liberty, especially when there is a crosstown rival, Inter, owned by Suning, the large and visible Chinese electronics retailer.  

But there is no even-handedness.  I won't get into the financial state of Inter currently, but Bloomberg and Calcio Finanza recently ran interesting stories that shed light on their debt structure, their bond ratings etc. If the Italian media had wanted to, it could have ran these stories as widely as it does every Milan one.

And it just doesn't stop at the finances.  Every day, Milan's players, apparently, are preparing for a mass exodus.  Milan isn't even afforded the dignity of bidding farewell to them in the summer; they all have their bags ready for January.  

In the summer, every Italian outlet reported of a release clause in Donnarumma's contract.  Depending on the paper's agenda, the clause's value was either nominal or substantial.   Fassone had joked at the time that the media seemed to know more about the contract than he did.  It turned out recently that Donnarumma has no release clause in his contract.

This was an extraordinary revelation for several reasons, chief among which was the fact that Milan had prevailed over the repellent agent Mino Raiola.  Milan will sell Donnarumma on their terms despite Raiola's machinations.  Milan won. Raiola lost.  Milan 1 - 0 Raiola.

Rather than admit their failings, the media adeptly changed the subject.  The focus became UEFA's rejection of Milan's Voluntary Agreement. This, the media argued, would cause a firesale anyway, and Milan would lose Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci, Suso, and Alessio Romagnoli.  Mercifully, they spared Milanello in their speculation.

Never mind that Milan were the first club to try for a VA.  Never mind that the Settlement Agreement, the alternative to the VA, is something Inter and Roma have already opted for, despite the solidity of Suning and the transparency of James Pallotta.  

When Fassone said that UEFA's demands were unrealistic, the media scoffed.  I treat "media" as a monolith here, which despite its individual biases has been in lockstep in smearing Milan.  The media said the real issue was Milan's lack of resources, transparency, debt etc.  The gufi and vedove gleefully joined in.

Yesterday, however, Umberto Lago, the former president of the Chamber of Commerce, essentially said that there was a solid basis to agreeing to the VA and that UEFA's decision was political, something Fassone echoed later.

Lago's words were a footnote for the media.  So, in summary, an eminent expert and his opinion hold little weight and value.

We need a degree of honesty from everyone involved.  When Milan announced their ritiro (retreat in which the team is not allowed outside contact) a few days ago, a prominent journalist, Enzo Bucchioni, branded the move as something from the 80s.  In reality, the ritiro has been employed several times in recent memory.  Former Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic opted for it in April of 2016.   It is hardly an anachronism.  But perhaps Bucchioni preferred the ownership of a year ago.  The same ownership that let this club languish in mediocrity for the last decade; the same ownership who collected ageing and forgettable players as a hobby. 

There are many more examples of scurrilous attacks, but we shouldn't lose sight of the concrete achievements of this new ownership.  They have resolved a large portion of Milan's debt with banks.  They have delivered the most exciting transfer market in years.  They have been utterly transparent in their communication, and have never once prevaricated like Galliani did.

We are in December, and the team has yet to find itself. They deserve patience.  They deserve better.  

Saturday 9 December 2017

It's Time, Giovinco

I have never really cared about Toronto FC despite the red hordes that I pass by frequently on gameday, or friends who have been dedicated fans since the franchise's inception in 2005.  I mean, TFC are part of the MLS, that weird league of European football's pensioners and middling North American talent, right?

I write, then, from a place of profound ignorance when it comes to TFC (and the MLS); as someone who has voluntarily remained on the margins of the club's success and failures, even as they unfolded in a city in which I work and live.  My interest was only piqued when pint-sized Sebastian Giovinco came to find redemption in Toronto two years ago.  It wasn't enough for me to follow or watch the team regularly, but it was enough to at least keep an eye on the scores--and Giovinco's ascent in the league.

Through the lens of Italian football I have come to see TFC.  It is a lens that at once distorts and provides acute clarity.  It is the only lens that I have.

Today, I will be cheering on for Giovinco as TFC take on the Seattle Sounders in a repeat of last year's MLS Cup Final.  I care about the civic implications of a potential TFC win, what it would mean to this city if one of its franchises was to deliver silverware.  I want to see the subway clogged; I want to see TFC take revenge for last year's defeat to the Sounders, so that Toronto's sporting self-esteem can finally brim and then spill out onto major intersections in the form of celebrations. 

But above all, I want to see Giovinco, a man who enjoyed only flickers of success in Italian football, achieve what would be the pinnacle of his career.  I want to see a virtuoso performance that will cancel bittersweet memories of his days at Juventus or Empoli.

The city deserves it, but so does he.

Giovinco's compatriots Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo came to the league decorated and satisfied.  Giovinco came to the MLS at the peak of his powers--finite in Serie A, but infinite in the MLS.

The Italian or Portuguese enclaves of this city only rejoice over football after a World Cup or European Cup win. TFC would provide another footballing excuse to block traffic, to unite behind a player who left the demands of a strenuous league to breathe more freely.

At some level it matters little whether the MLS can be considered a demanding or competitive league.  What matters is that it's evolving, and that away from the peculiar demands of European football it can allow players like Giovinco to play in front of raucous crowds and ignite debate of whether he should be included in the Italian national team.

Giovinco has already won a lot; now he needs to take that final step.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

What Italy's Failure Does NOT Mean

Italian players absorb the blow
Whenever an inquest follows a failure in Italian football, there is a tendency for the examiners to
overreach.  Their dejection permeates everything, and nothing seems right--even the things that did a few months ago.

In the social media debris following Italy's disintegration yesterday, people are desperate to find their footing (including yours, faithfully), some clinching reason or evidence that explains everything.

You can't blame them exactly.  Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958 is a catastrophe.  And that catastrophe, especially for the fans, leaves a void that everyone rushes to fill with theories.

In a perverted way, it is comforting to think, for example, that the Italian national team's failure mirrors the broader shortcomings of the nation, that somehow Italy's high median age has an impact on the FIGC's personnel and outlook, that the federation's administrators are a symptom of the nation's political culture of backroom deals and raccomandazione (influence and backing to secure and stay in key positions).

These ideas are seductive because they allow us to imagine solutions at a more manageable level:  a purge of easily identifiable culprits in football rather than of the whole infected political class of the country.

Predictably, yesterday, there were calls to rid the Italian federation of its "dinosaurs," the 74-year-old president Carlo Tavecchio, and his choice for coach,  Gian Piero Ventura.  They should both go, undoubtedly.  The reprehensible Tavecchio should have been gone soon after his racist outburst in 2014.

But they shouldn't be fired because they are septuagenarians (or in the case of the 69-year-old Ventura, an almost-septuagenerian).  They should be fired because they were not the right men for the job.

Marcello Lippi was almost 60 when Italy won the World Cup in 2006 (incidentally, Franco Carraro, the former president of the FIGC who resigned following revelations of his involvement in Calciopoli, was 67).  It is not as if at 69, a coach automatically becomes incapable of training a group of players to make it past an average Sweden side.  The silver-haired paternal mister is as much part of Italian football's iconography as the fresh-faced Coverciano graduate.

But putting a number on the failure gives contours to it, something to cling to, an outline in a time of darkness. 

4-2-4 was another shape in the dark.   Ventura's preferred formation throughout the qualification campaign was a concave, suffocating jar that didn't allow players to express themselves.  Players like Lorenzo Insigne, who most of Italy (including Daniele De Rossi) has glorified as the saviour who couldn't save the nation yesterday because Ventura didn't play him.

Insigne has played for Italy 21 times since 2012. And he has scored a grand total of 3 goals.  Antonio Conte didn't rely on him either.  For Italy, he provides the illusion of movement, the illusion that there is something happening when he has the ball at his feet.  But seldom anything does.  He has shot or crossed as much into the stands as he has on target.  As much as Candreva. As much as Darmian.

Italy's fate didn't go through the feet of a tiny Neapolitan.  It didn't hinge on a moment, on just a formation.  It was a steady accretion of Venturian incompetence.  A player like Insigne should be an important part of a team that functions; he shouldn't come on as a player to compensate for a lack of functionality.  He's good, but not that good.

In my last post, I wrote of how difficult it is to understand what this Italy side is trying to achieve under Ventura.  After yesterday's debacle, it is even more difficult to understand.  Ventura is spectacularly incompetent, but he has been throughout qualification, not just yesterday, or on Friday.  The only thing he has done methodically in a year and a half is undo Antonio Conte's work.

And he must have undone that work every time the national team met, with every drill that he oversaw, with every formation that he devised in training and the matches.  It feels as if it was more difficult to get this Italian team to unlearn what Conte had managed to instill in the players than it was to get them to continue on the same path, or make slight adjustments for their new coach.  But Ventura has managed that seemingly extraordinary feat with distinction.

The situation is so patently absurd that we are nostalgic for the summer of 2016, when Italy were inches away from ousting Germany in the Euro2016 quarter-final, when Italy were busy swatting away Spain, when Eder curled a winner past Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.

Even allowing for clichés, 18 months is not a lifetime in football.  It is just 18 months sometimes.  Ventura has taken virtually the same raw material that Conte had and fashioned something hideous.  A generation hadn't passed between Euro 2016 and yesterday. 

Gigi Buffon breaks down
But now it has.  Ventura's signal crime is not allowing Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini the send-off they deserved.  It was too much for poor old Gigi, who has shed as many tears as his fans have collectively.  He was a teary mess leaving the field and during the post-match interview.  In recent times we have seen him cry in finals, quarter-finals; Ventura managed to make him cry at the qualification stage.

Despite all that has happened, Italian football is not in crisis as a whole.   The national team is an expression of a country's football, not the expression.   The clubs are doing well in Europe; Juventus have played two Champions League Finals in three years; the league looks to be the most competitive it has been for many years.  This failure is not due to something rotting at Italian football's core.  This failure is not due to a larger number of foreigners in the league either, despite the xenophobes tripping over themselves to say so.

Italy were good enough to beat Sweden.  Ventura was not.  Tavecchio picked the wrong man.  Tavecchio is the wrong man.  There needs to be a slight adjustment; not root and branch changes.

A little more than fifteen years ago, Italy were similarly brooding over a football crisis.  South Korea had eliminated a team of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero, and Christian Vieri at the 2002 World Cup.  The criticism then, too, spread across the spectrum: some raged at the referee Byron Moreno, some at Giovanni Trapattoni, the coach they denigrated as a relic, some at foreigners in the league, and some at the players who, despite several obstacles, should have taken care of an enterprising but ultimately modest South Korean team. 

It seemed that Italian football was headed into a period of obscurity.  But in the four years that followed, Milan won the Champions League (after an all-Italian Final against Juventus) and Italy the World Cup.  The latter triumph came after the Calciopoli scandal had ripped apart the domestic game.

Nothing needs to be ripped apart now except Ventura's contract.   A coach, a young one or one with a grizzled head like Carlo Ancelotti, just needs to revive the confidence of these young players and figure out a system that allows them to play coherently.  It is not a radical approach, but it was one that eluded the hapless Ventura for many months. 

Thursday 9 November 2017

Italy vs Sweden Thoughts: What is this Italy?

Gian Piero Ventura with his Italy team
Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said this week that he hasn't even considered his team not making the World Cup next summer. But almost a month ago he had.

Italy had just drawn 1-1 against Macedonia in Turin, and Ventura was frank: "If we play like this, we will not qualify for the World Cup."

Three days later, Italy eked out a 1-0 win against Albania in Shkoder, guaranteeing themselves a playoff spot for the World Cup, and Ventura maintained that he had always remained fiducioso (confident) of their progress.

"We made small steps forward," he said. "But I have been and remain confident."

Ahead of Italy's play-off against Sweden tomorrow, many outside the Italian camp seem less confident.  It is not that they believe Italy doesn't have what it takes; it's more that they don't seem to know what this Italy has.

The last time the Azzurri had to negotiate a two-legged play-off to reach the World Cup was against Russia in 1997.  Coach Cesare Maldini could call upon Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, his own son, Paolo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini, Alessandro Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli, and Christian Vieri.   Italy prevailed 2-1 on aggregate and reached the quarter-finals of that World Cup, where they lost out to the hosts and eventual winners, France.

Almost exactly twenty years later--a last-gasp Wiltord goal, a South Korean debacle, a Totti spitting incident, a Grosso World Cup winning penalty, a Pirlo panenka, and a Simone Zaza chicken dance later--Italy are currently a team that could be or could not be Italy. 

Over the past few months, Ventura has methodically dismantled all of Antonio Conte's work.  Ventura's work has almost been a perfect inverse of his predecessor's.  He has almost got it exactly wrong: Italy's 3-0 defeat to Spain in September came a little over a year after Conte led Italy to a commanding 2-0 victory over Spain at Euro 2016.  

That Euro2016 victory against Spain in Paris should have been the reference point.  Since then, however, Ventura has managed nothing of note with virtually the same set of players.  

"I am satisfied with my work," Ventura said this week.  Admittedly, to come second in a group containing Spain is not a catastrophe.  But to capitulate so quietly to that same team just over a year later should not provide satisfaction. 

When Conte achieved that famous win over Spain there was a feeling that he had extracted every last ounce of quality and expression from his players.  He had, as Marcello Lippi once memorably said, managed to do what a good coach should: squeeze the lemons at his disposal.   Where his Italy team were deficient, Conte compensated with a clear method, inculcating tactics and design to the point that Eder's and Graziano Pelle's legs managed magic in spite of themselves--to the point that that pairing could actually work for Italy at a major tournament. 

The gestalt of that Italy team was heartening.  It distracted from some of the individuals, reinforced the belief that even if the players are not outstanding, coaches trained at the renowned Coverciano center in Florence could not just maintain equilibrium, but infuse the team with animus. 

Attacking threat: Belotti and Immobile
But Ventura's Italy side haven't even played within themselves.  The 69-year-old hasn't deployed his main attacking threats of Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, and Lorenzo Insigne convincingly.  They were all on the field against Spain but couldn't assert themselves.  Two of those three were on the field against Macedonia in Skopje (Insigne missed out), but Italy needed the last fifteen minutes of the game to earn a chaotic 3-2 victory.

Against Sweden, if Italy manage to be even a sum of their parts they should easily win, but the question around their quality will remain.  Is it the case that Ventura is not exploiting his resources, or are his resources just not good enough?

The answers were clearer twenty years ago, ten years ago, two summers ago.  When Italy lost to France in 1998, the press turned on Cesare Maldini's defensive tactics, which wasted the talents of Del Piero and Baggio.  When Italy won the World Cup, the press hailed, among other things, Lippi's ability to incorporate Simone Barone and Cristian Zaccardo in a team that contained Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti.  When Italy lost to Germany at Euro 2016, Conte was excused, and the press focused on the indecency of those Zaza and Pelle penalties.

This time, critics can't get their hands around the culprit. 

Ventura has been underwhelming, but so has Italy's nominal star player, Marco Verratti.  Immobile and Belotti have at times looked an effective pairing, but at other times they have ghosted out of games.  Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have been characteristically dependable, but Ventura has tried several permutations in defence.  

Even when Ventura invoked the time-honoured stereotype of Italian teams playing better under pressure a couple of days ago, it sounded as if it didn't apply to this team, as if he was merely assuming that his players had inherited that gene by virtue of nationality.  Hopefully, he is right, and this Italy finally shows the fluency and fight against Sweden that we have been waiting for. 

Forza Azzurri!

Monday 6 November 2017

The Protean Pirlo

Pirlo in action for Milan
Andrea Pirlo announced his retirement from football today at the age of 38.  This article takes us back to May 2011, when Pirlo was on the verge of moving to Juventus. 

The divorce was quieter than you would have expected.  There were no hysterics from either side, and the gossip surrounding the couple was spared by considerations of the long, good run they had.  After all, a ten-year relationship is a lifetime in today's football.

The reason of the divorce was simple and heartbreaking: one of them had fallen out of love with the other.  Andrea Pirlo and Milan were a vaunted item for ten years, but Milan now want someone younger and feistier.  They no longer need a player who sees the football field uncluttered, who can find his man over players, hills, and mountains.  A few days ago, Milan assistant manager Mauro Tassotti succinctly summarized what many had feared and expected: "he isn't the type of player the coach [Massimiliano Allegri] wants."

Who could argue with Allegri?  He has just won a Scudetto largely without Pirlo, who was injured for most of the season.  Milan didn't really miss him.  It wasn't a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.  Milan's midfield has players--Mark van Bommel, Massimo Ambrosini et al.--who don't have the elegance or vision of Pirlo, but who are capable of winning the ball, keeping it, and running with it, all on their own.  It is for their tactical ability that Allegri prefers them.

Furthermore, the coach already has a player (though no one can tell for how long) who can provide the required skill and directness in midfield.  As maligned as Clarence Seedorf is by Milan fans, he can compensate for the heavier touches of players like Mark van Bommel and Massimo Ambrosini.  Consider also that Kevin-Prince Boateng was the trequartista of the Milan side this season, which says heaps about what Allegri prefers: direct players who can keep the tempo not ticking like Il Metronome--an epithet for Pirlo--but bursting.

The idea that Pirlo is a luxury in today's footballing context has persisted for a long time.  The theory goes that in modern football you need players who can do defensive duties in midfield while plotting creatively.  To some extent, it is true: in his role as regista, a deep-seated playmaker who sits in front of the defence, Pirlo has been coddled by diligent midfielders around him. The tactical adjustment always made sense because it accentuated the natural visionary capability of the player, and because Milan have traditionally had combative midfielders.

Pirlo playing for Brescia
Some also argue that Pirlo does not function well as a conventional playmaker because the lack of protection around him leaves him exposed. However, despite the common criticisms of his ineffectiveness further up the park, Pirlo was successful for Milan even as a trequartista, especially during the latter part of the 2001-02 season.  It was the presence of Rui Costa and Clarence Seedorf that prompted Carlo Ancelotti to move Pirlo to a deeper role, a role that he had played under Carlo Mazzone at Brescia.  By the adjustment, Ancelotti accommodated all three players.

It was as a regista that Pirlo earned acclaim, but he he could play well in different set-ups as well.  During Italy's triumphant 2006 World Cup campaign, he played a more advanced role in a flatter midfield that had the assurance of Fabio Cannavaro behind it, and Gennaro Gattuso in it.  The result was a tournament that definitively established Pirlo as a midfielder of startlingly rare and refined talent.  Where the more direct, all-action midfielder like Frank Lampard failed, Pirlo stamped his authority on the tournament with patience, equanimity, and, most importantly of all, an incisiveness that isn't always apparent from the langour with which he moves with or without the ball.

His pass to Fabio Grosso, which resulted in the winning goal of the semi-final against Germany, only came about from a corner that he had originally won.  The pass, though not his best, also recalled  the brilliantly weighted one that Demetrio Albertini, Milan's Il Metronomo of the 1990s, provided Roberto Baggio in the 1994 semi-final against Bulgaria.  Albertini and Pirlo are certainly different players in several ways, but they were able to position themselves freely on time's continuum, thinking and seeing seconds in advance.

Not to build a team around, or at least with, a talent like that takes temerity, but Pirlo has somehow eluded many in football.  Inter's decision to sell him to Milan in 2001 is now a running joke, but it is sobering when you stop to think about it.  Admittedly, there was stiff competition for a starting place in that Inter team, but selling Pirlo to a direct rival remains a colossal blunder.

There have been months during which Pirlo has struggled for form, but it is hard to escape the feeling that ideas about him have ossified over the years because of how protean he is as a player and as a personality.  That is, because he is so difficult to characterize entirely, people have continually circulated the same timeworn notions about the player.

Pirlo does fly in the face of neat definitions.  As a midfielder who was at the absolute top of European football for a good part of the last decade, he was and is seldom seen wheeling through the middle of the park. Instead, he possesses an innate sense of economy that sees him cover vast areas of the field without the urgency that many come to expect from midfielders.  

Champions League joy with Milan
His sleepy appearance contributes to his critic's accusation that is as self-discrediting as it is self-describing, namely that Pirlo is lazy.  He may often stroke the ball around, dither on it even, but he has on many occasions decided the outcome of a game in a second. 

One thing that is certain is that Pirlo is leaving Milan for Juventus.  The Rossoneri will probably bring in a player more consistent with their new philosophy, but the fact that Pirlo, at the age of thirty-two, is still coveted by a top club tells a lot about the quality of the player.

He exits Milan with grace and an outstanding amount of success. Two European Cups, two Scudetti, and a World Cup will always be concrete achievements of a player that has often proven difficult to understand completely.

Friday 3 November 2017

Calcio Memories: The Lesson of Roma vs Barcelona

Totti fights off Barcelona on February 26, 2002
It could have been 4-0, or even 5-0, but Roma's 3-0 victory against Chelsea this week in the Champions League evokes a precise memory of more than fifteen years ago.

On February 26, 2002, Roma hosted Barcelona in a Champions League group game at the Stadio Olimpico in almost the exact same position as they were at the start of play this past Tuesday--two points behind the leaders, at home, coming off a draw against their opponents in the previous encounter, and not expected to run out emphatic winners.   

Roma coach Fabio Capello started Francesco Totti, Marco Delvecchio, and Gabriel Batistuta on that day, but it was Emerson who opened the scoring.  Well, it's generous to say he did anything intentionally to get the final touch.

Totti received a ball from Emerson in the area, and Barcelona defender Philippe Christenval latched on to him so committedly that his captain's armband came off.  Totti, while dangling the white armband, passed to Vincent Candela whose shot deflected off Emerson into the goal.  Roma went on to score two more goals through Vincenzo Montella and Damiano Tommasi, who replaced Delvecchio and Batistuta respectively.

The Giallorsosi won 3-0 in the end in a game that was memorable not only for the scoreline, but also for the exquisite Roma jerseys on display--two even blocks of maroon and yellow, the Scudetto patch, and the Ina Assitalia insurance company sponsor across the front.

That game was also pivotal in changing the group's complexion at least for that night, but it only proved in the final calculations Roma's glimpse into what could have been.  Their position at the top was short-lived.

Roma drew the next game to Galatasaray 1-1 at the Olimpico,
Stephan El Shaarawy celebrates his goal against Chelsea
meaning they only had to avoid losing by more than one goal away to Liverpool at Anfield.  

They lost 2-0 after goals from Jari Litmanen and Emile Heskey in a game that had a depressing predictability about it before kick-off.  You just knew Roma would collapse.  Gerard Houllier's Liverpool, along with Barcelona, went through to the quarterfinals.

There are similarities this year as well.  Roma lead the group now, needing three points to go through.  They play Atletico Madrid in a testing encounter in Spain before hosting the gritty Qarabag at home.  For Atletico Madrid read Liverpool; for Qarabag read Galatasaray.  

Roma should look to wrap up their progress in Spain, which won't be easy, but given Atletico Madrid's recent struggles, it isn't impossible.  

They brushed aside Chelsea with a comprehensively superior performance on Tuesday, but there is history that suggests Roma should be cautious.  

Monday 16 October 2017

Those 25 Minutes of the Milan Derby...

Disappointing: Leonardo Bonucci and Lucas Biglia 
It is testament to how desperate Milan are for an identity that the players, coach Vincenzo Montella and some fans have clung to twenty-five minutes against Inter as the real evidence of the real Milan.  Those twenty-five minutes in the second half resulted in two Milan goals, an Andrea Silva shot against the post, two brilliant Samir Handanovic saves, but also unforgivable--and unforgiven--mistakes.  

"If we play like this again, we will not lose," Montella said after the game.  That may be true, but Montella seemed to be glossing over the overwhelming evidence that Inter interpreted the game, its rhythm, better than Milan did.   They soaked the pressure when they had to, and applied it when they had to.  And when they did concede, they sliced through Milan several times right after.  

Those twenty-five minutes in the second half, during which Milan were running right through Inter, need to be sustained throughout ninety, but can they be? They seemed to have been realized through adrenaline rather than geometry, and it showed.  When Lucas Biglia lost the ball in midfield, it was inevitable that Milan would concede because the team was overcompensating.  

The derby defeat is particularly painful also because Biglia, apart from the mistake, didn't have the regista's presence in midfield.  He didn't leave an impression on the game the way Inter's Borja Valero did.  

To compound Milan's problems, Leonardo Bonucci, the other experienced head on the field, played two or three steps slower, a sluggishness that Mauro Icardi didn't forgive. 

Things may start turning around for Milan starting with the next two games against Genoa and Chievo, but only if those twenty-five minutes against Inter can be fine-tuned and used to forge a distinct identity.  The season is long, but it can turn out to be much longer if Montella isn't able to put out a team that can capitalize on what have been fleeting moments of superiority. 

"I think we could have even won considering the chances we created," said Montella, in yet another example of special pleading. It is true: Milan could have won based on the chances they created, but that's not the point.  Those chances have to come from a discernible design.  

Whether that design is 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 is for Montella to decide, and quickly. 

Saturday 14 October 2017

Calcio Memories: The Man Who Commanded For A Day

Gianni Comandini celebrates on May 11, 2001
In anticipation of the Derby della Madonnina tomorrow, let's take a look back at Gianni Comandini. This article originally appeared on this blog in January 2012.

He is asked some tough questions about his injury-plagued career.  He is asked about his premature retirement at 28.  It is a line of questioning that would make the most impassive man bristle.  And yet, despite the prying, he remains composed, candid:
"I perhaps visited doctors who cared more about sporting results than my health [...]  People think football is only about training and matches, but it isn't--like almost any profession, there is a lack of transparency."

And there they were--words more transparent than the business of football from a man who proves, even to this day, un-transparent.  Gianni Comandini is a man whom Inter fans want to forget; he is a man whom Milan fans will never forget; he is a man whom football has all but forgotten.

But let's remember.  The date is May 11, 2001, and Carlo Pellegatti and Tiziano Crudelli are priming their larynges for the Milan derby.  There is nothing to play for, and there is everything to play for.  There are five games left in the season, but Milan and Inter, level on points, are twenty points behind a Roma side moving closer to their first Scudetto in eighteen years.  Almost destined for the UEFA Cup, the two clubs from Milan know that only winning the derby really matters for the season.

Cesare Maldini, caretaker manager of Milan after the sacking of Alberto Zaccheroni, decides to field the dependable striker Andriy Shevchenko alongside Comandini in attack.  A midfield of Gennaro Gattuso, Federico Giunti, Kakhaber Kaladze and Serginho supports the duo in front of a defence comprised of Thomas Helveg, Alessandro Costacurta, Roque Junior, and Paolo Maldini.  A 36-year-old Sebastiano Rossi guards the goal.

Looking at that Milan line-up more than a decade later still causes pause for thought, and not just because Roque Junior is in the defence.  It reminds Milan fans like me how well we were covered on the left side of the team.  Serginho, Il Concorde, could play either at left-back or on the left flank of midfield, but Zaccheroni could use his pace and incisiveness further up because he had the peerless Maldini to count on at the back.

That team may have had deficiencies, but the link-up play on the left was not one of them.  And it is to that dynamism that Comandini owes a large part of his odd renown: scoring only two goals for Milan during his one and only season, and scoring them on that very day of the Milan derby.

Well taken goals, too.  In the third minute, Inter's Matteo Ferrari tries to clear the ball, but Maldini intercepts it near the middle of the field for Serginho to burst forward.  Two defenders make for the Brazilian, who dissects them with a ball for Comandini in the penalty area.  Comandini receives the ball with his back to goal, but nonetheless swivels before putting it past Sebastian Frey.  His subsequent celebrations momentarily dissipate his agony; he finally makes his mark on the club who bought him from Vicenza at the close of the previous season. 

But it gets better.  In the 19th minute, Serginho, finding for himself a luxury of space, crosses for Comandini to head home from a tight angle.  This time the celebrations are only slightly less subdued, as he is gradually mobbed by teammates.

Tough times...Comandini at Genoa
And then it only got worse--for Comandini, that is.  Of course, Milan would proceed to flatten Inter 6-0 (see video below) with Serginho instrumental in the annhilation, but Comandini would move to Atalanta the following season, where he would score seven goals in four years.  After Atalanta his career lurched to Genoa and Ternana, before he finally retired in 2006, due to a peristent back problem.

He was brought to Milan to form a prolific pairing with Shevchenko, but instead he is remembered as almost a cult-hero by Milan fans, a player who only got going when it mattered most.  Tinged with tragedy is the fact that those two goals were probably his most high-profile moments because they came in one of Europe's biggest derbies; however, he, understandably, refers to his other achievements as being more memorable.

"People remember me most for those two goals," he said in the summer of 2006.  "But really the best year for me as a player was when I ended up as top-scorer [20 goals] with Vicenza in Serie B, and when I won the Under-21 European Championship with Italy the summer before I came to Milan."

And yet, even yours truly, chooses Comandini's two goals as a portal to glimpse at the man.  I do that not because his career is obscure to me, but because those two goals distill in a kind of fleeting moment, a what-could-have-been moment in his career.  That day stands out more than, say, how he played with Nicola Ventola for the Italy youth side.

And then there were the injuries, the moments you never want to remember about a player.  Comandini is slightly dispassionate about what happened, a distance that undoubtedly gives him comfort.

"I had had two back surgeries, and my back was still not better in the long-term," he said in an interview last year.  "I realized at the age of 28 that my performances were declining."
A career that started at Cesena and spanned Vicenza, Milan, and Genoa faded in Ternana almost six years ago.  However, Comandini sought out a new beginning by starting a restaurant in his native Cesena.  He also plays football at the amateur level.  Rather than rue what could have been, he remains philosophical, accommodating his premature retirement as an opportunity to start a new life.

"When I was suffering through my injuries, I came to a realization that it was time to change," he says, reflecting back on the last days of his professional playing career.  "I wanted to see what was outside of football."

Thursday 12 October 2017

Inter vs Milan: The Panacea of the Derby Win

Mirabelli, Montella, and Fassone
The lull of the international break still has its moments of anxiety.  You worry whether your club's key players will come back injured, and you agonize over every negative piece of news without the remedy of a weekend fixture to look forward to.

The two weeks can seem interminable.  Milan fans know the feeling.  Smarting from the 2-0 loss against Roma, they had hoped for some good news about sponsorships and finances before the derby against Inter this Sunday.  These comparably prosaic aspects assume an exaggerated importance when there is no club football.

But the news has been mixed.  Each time CEO Marco Fassone has spoken of contingency plans in the event of not qualifying for the Champions League, imminent sponsorship deals, and a secure financial future, the media have done the opposite.  They are all in lockstep: Milan don't have a future under President Yonghong Li, they are months away from being delivered into the hands of the vulture fund, Elliott (the likelihood of which Fassone estimated at 0.01%), and the talk of refinancing their debt on more favourable terms with another party is empty (again, Fassone has said that they will achieve refinancing by 2018).  Just this week it was reported that Adidas will sever ties with Milan at the end of the season, which many on social media took as an ominous sign of the club's future.

Against this backdrop, Milan will take on Inter on Sunday in a hugely anticipated derby.  After years, the quality on the pitch will be more fitting of the clubs' histories.  There is also the usual added intrigue of a coach supposedly on the verge of being sacked, namely Vincenzo Montella.  The Milan coach has said that his team will have to do anything to win.  A look at the table shows why. Milan are already 9 points off of top spot, and 7 off of Inter. 

But Montella seemed to be reaching for something more
Andre Silva
significant.  There is a feeling that if Milan are to win on Sunday it would suddenly right everything.  The media's tune would change, the balance sheets would balance, and Milan would suddenly be contenders again for the fourth spot, and maybe not just. 

This is the peculiar absurdity of the situation, that an Andre Silva winning goal, let's say, could suddenly change the editorial outlook.  Ever since the summer, Milan fans have felt that the press has had it in for them, for their owners who they've enjoyed depicting as poveri (poor), and Inter's as having the real potenza (power).

Even after the last derby in April, in which Cristian Zapata equalized with seconds to go, it was reported that Inter owners didn't deign to shake hands with Milan's.  There is more at stake here than the 3-5-2 formation, or whether Nikola Kalinic or Silva should start; a derby win and a series of subsequent wins will change the atmosphere around the club, vindicate Fassone's and sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli's work in the transfer market, revive the memories of amnesiacs who have forgotten the qualities of Leonardo Bonucci and Lucas Biglia.  

Every day there seems to be a new voice, unheard in the summer, criticizing Milan's transfer campaign.  Today, it was Roberto Pruzzo, saying Milan could have bought better in the summer.  Even former owner Silvio Berlusconi, on the periphery of most things since his illness in the summer, questioned adding eleven players in one transfer window recently.

It is the excitement of that transfer campaign that seems to have been squandered, and the press won't relent.  Milan have to win on Sunday.  A draw would be only an incremental step.  A win would change the season's complexion.  It is precisely that dramatic. 

For the record, I think Andrea Silva should start. 

Friday 6 October 2017

Calcio Memories: Invernizzi, Lombardo, and the Scudetto

Crushed: Serie B is too much for Angelo Palombo
A look back at Sampdoria's relegation in 2011, Invernizzi, Lombardo, and the 1991 Scudetto.

It still strains belief: Sampdoria, a team that won the Scudetto in 1991 and reached the European Cup final a year later, are going to be playing their football in Serie B.  Admittedly, two decades is a generous amount of time to allow for all sorts of upheavals.  After all, Sampdoria were also relegated from Serie A in 1999, but as recently as this season, they were within touching distance of qualifying for the Champions League proper.  Only a spirited Werder Bremen side and perhaps the awe of the occasion denied them that opportunity.

As heartbreaking as that loss was, surely no one expected their entire season to unhinge and lie splayed with one round to go. Recently, I had written of how costly Riccardo Garrone's well-publicized squabble with Antonio Cassano may prove in the final calculations; secretly, I had wished my portentous tone was misplaced. Even without Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini, I felt, somewhere, that in players like Angelo Palombo and Nicola Pozzi (who was outstanding in the last few games) Sampdoria had insurance against catastrophe.  The post-mortem of the club's season is painful as it is bizarre.  A team that was sixth after fifteen rounds of play will not even suffer the final-day drama of a tense relegation battle.

While Sampdoria fans despair now, it is perhaps some solace for them to look back on happier times (though depending on dispositions that may depress even further).

My earliest memories of Sampdoria are from that 1990-91 season, during which the club won their one and only Scudetto.  Alongside the popular, unforgettable characters of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli, I also recall Giovanni Invernizzi and Attilio Lombardo.

An ecstatic Lombardo (left)
Midfielder Invernizzi didn't score many goals for Sampdoria, but he thudded one in against Cesena on the opening day of the season.  After a tangled struggle for the ball in the box, the ball landed at the feet of Invernizzi, who half-volleyed it from the edge of the area.  The ball was struck with the ferocity of Invernizzi's celebrations after the goal.  The midfielder had given his side the perfect start to the season by scoring the only goal of that game.

Any memory I have of Lombardo is punctuated by a bald head which moved in earnest with his slaloms.  It wasn't just a case of the follicles jilting the pate, but almost a wholesale betrayal.  Lombardo's surging runs with that memorable head were a feature all season, but his strike against Bologna was simply stupendous.  With his back to the goal, he received a pass in the area, wrong-footed two defenders with a quick turn, and fired home an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.  It was a goal that would make Alessandro Del Piero proud.

Sampdoria would have many magical moments that season, but I picked these two goals because they came from players whom people don't always recall from that side. This season Sampdoria were deprived of Cassano and Pazzini, undeniably two marquee players, but it was the failure of what was left that is most saddening.  And what was left was not Serie B material by any means.

Sampdoria, you will be missed.

Saturday 30 September 2017

On UEFA Coefficients and Serie A's Progress

Papu Gomez celebrates Atalanta's equalizer vs Lyon in the Europa League
In the late summer of 2002, the question of whether Serie A could still be considered the best league in the world seemed more pressing than ever.  No Italian club had reached the quarter-final of the Champions League in the season that had just ended, the national team had disintegrated at the World Cup, and the league's star Ronaldo had left Inter for Real Madrid.

In truth, the question had been asked for years, quietly or stridently, and at the start of the 2002-03 season the answer seemed obvious: no. 

Eight months later, however, Inter, Juventus and Milan were in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and journalists had to revise obituaries.  On May 28, 2003, Old Trafford hosted the first all-Italian Final between Milan and Juventus.  Serie A was vindicated, robed in the glitter of UEFA's premier event, but the game was played in the cagey spirit for which Italian football is stereotyped and maligned, as if the two clubs were determined to torture their detractors, slowly, with flints and chisels.  The Final was rarely carved open.  Milan won on penalties, and Italian football's critics paid them--for being too quick to close the door, to forget the qualities that make Italian football competitive and relevant.

Today, fourteen years later, the question of whether Serie A is the best league in the world has a clear answer yet again: no.  The criteria that many use to arrive at this conclusion varies--entertainment, star power, financial health et al.--but more and more are now using what only a small core of fans did several years ago, the UEFA coefficient system (for a quick explanation of the system check out Bert Kassies's valuable site).

Every Champions League and Europa League matchday, I become a better person and cheer for all Italian clubs.  The reason is sentimental but can also be expressed as a formula.  This season, for every win Italy gets 2 (for a draw 1, for a loss 0) divided by 6 (total number of teams allotted) points, or 0.333 points.  So, this past matchday, Italy managed 5 wins (Milan, Napoli, Juventus, Lazio, and Roma) and 1 draw (Atalanta), totaling 1.833 points.  As a result, Italy climbed up to third spot in the UEFA coefficient rankings, ahead of Germany, and now sits tantalizingly close to England (Spain are far, far ahead).

The meaning of that success has few practical consequences in the immediate term.  Late last year, UEFA announced that the top 4 leagues (Spain, England, Italy, and Germany) would enjoy four representatives in the Champions League from the 2018-19 anyway.  But the coefficient ranking nonetheless quantifies a league's success, setting aside the gnashing of teeth and making numeric the vexed and emotional 'which league is best' debate. 

UEFA Coefficient rankings (image taken from Bert Kassies's site located here)
The UEFA coefficient system does have its flaws.  For example, it weighs victories in the Europa League the same as those in the Champions League, with only bonus points awarded upon progression in the latter to compensate partially for the calculation.  But the system remains the closest thing we have to a deterministic criteria for judging the health and strength of various leagues across Europe.

It also matters for the league's vanity, for its self-esteem.  After every matchday, it is now common for Italian journalists on social media to remind us where Serie A is in the rankings.  And this season, no one expected Serie A to be more than 3.5 points ahead of Germany.  There have been some performances of distinction as well, like Atalanta flattening Everton 3-0 in the Europa League a few weeks ago, and earning a point against Lyon in France just this past week, or like Napoli totally dominating Nice over two legs in the Champions League play-offs. 

This season may be Serie A's best chance to solidify its position in third, and even replace England in second when you consider both the quality of their representation, and that they will have one more representative next season (meaning a higher number to divide the points by, and thus a lower return for a win, for those keeping track).  Milan and Lazio should go deep into the tournament (Milan's ludicrous 3-2 win over Rijeka on Thursday notwithstanding), and Atalanta have started convincingly with four points from their two toughest games.  And then there are Juventus, who have played two losing Champions League Finals in the last two years, but who have nonetheless earned Italy valuable points, and should earn more this year.

Serie A may not be able to repeat what it did in 2002-03 in the Champions League, but the feats of 2014-15 are achievable, and, hopefully, surpassable.  That season, Italy earned 19 points.  Lazio and Napoli played the semi-finals of the Europa League, and Juventus the Final of the Champions League.  The early signs are promising. 

Monday 18 September 2017

Learning to Like Kalinic

Kalinic thinks he has scored a hat-trick against Udinese
Milan's signing of Nikola Kalinic was not the one many fans had hoped for after a summer of
reportedly dealing with names like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Andrea Belotti, and Alvaro Morata. When the former Fiorentina striker went on strike in the middle of August, refusing to train with La Viola
 in an attempt to force the move, it endeared him neither to the Fiorentina fans nor the Milan ones.

His proponents talked about his mobility, his sacrifice, his twenty-seven goals in two seasons for Fiorentina, and how well he would fit in coach Vincenzo Montella's team, but that was also where the problems lay for his detractors.  Kalinic was too much of a safe choice, whose output and limits were predictable.

There is something eminently insipid about Kalinic for the modern football fan.  His haircut is maddeningly conformist.  His face shows no torment of the thirty-years-or-so footballer, no affected gravitas of a Messi-style beard, or the lined forehead of the journeyman struggling for relevance. 

Clean-shaven and generally unimpressed, Kalinic seems to show up more for work than he does for a match, applying himself with corporate reserve on the pitch.  Even when he celebrates a goal, he does it as if he knows exactly where it figures in life's calculus of joys.

So, when he stuck three fingers up to the San Siro after scoring what he thought was his hat-trick goal against Udinese on Sunday, his matter-of-fact celebration was fitting, precise, showing that despite everything Kalinic hadn't lost his bearing--or count.  

The 'goal' was ruled out by VAR, but Kalinic's other two counted in Milan's 2-1 win over Udinese. The first was brilliantly improvised, as Kalinic passed to Davide Calabria on the right, and poked the return ball home.  The second goal showed the Croatian is not above putting his tall, awkward frame at the service of the team, stabbing the ball into the goal with one of his long legs as he collapsed to the floor from a challenge.

Both goals came through a crowd of legs or a heap of bodies, as if Kalinic was brute-forcing his way into San Siro recognition.  

He may not be the number 7 that Milan fans wanted.  He may not be the number 7 that Milan fans had with Andriy Shevchenko either.  But even on that count, Kalinic has an answer, mundane but disarming.

"I am a number 9," he told SKY after the game. "But it was taken by Andre Silva, so I took 7 instead."

Kalinic is a reluctant number 7, and Milan fans have reluctantly accepted him as the shirt's heir.  But if he continues what he has started against Udinese, eventually reaching that elusive twenty-goal mark this season, fans may forget how close they came to Aubameyang or Belotti during the summer.

Monday 11 September 2017

Lotito and the Morality of Numbers

Lotito basks in Lazio's Supercup win against Juventus
In their Sunday edition, La Repubblica previewed Milan vs Lazio as a match between two clubs at the opposite ends of the financial spectrum.  It was a case of a deficit vs. surplus.  Milan had closed the transfer campaign at -165 million euros, and Lazio at +37 million euros.

To a degree, La Repubblica were buttressing what Lazio owner and president Claudio Lotito had told  Il Messagero  in an interview a couple of days earlier.  In issuing a thinly-veiled attack on Juventus, Lotito also branded Keita Balde Diao's behaviour as 'extortion.' Juventus knew the player's contract was running out in 2018, and that Diao only wanted to play for them, so they duly exploited that fact when low-balling Lotito, who refused to sell the player at any other price than the one he had in mind.  As it turned out, Diao went to Monaco for more than thirty million euros, twice what Juventus were offering, thus vindicating Lotito's summer-long intransigence.

Tellingly, the Lazio president also boasted about his club's books, pointing out that Lazio would close the financial year with a 14 million euros profit.  It was the kind of money-minded response that rankles the Lazio support, many of whom still remember the headier days of Sergio Cragnotti's ownership, during which Lazio, most notably, won a Scudetto in 2000.

Lotito is a different president, one who has not privileged financial health over sporting success, but one who has always sought a fine balance between the two.  Cragnotti's, of course, is a cautionary tale.  When his company Cirio was in ruins, so were Lazio.  Lotito operates as the antithesis of that approach, a counterpoint to excess.

La Repubblica, then, were not just laying bare numbers down to highlight disparities in accounting, but were also making a familiar argument more subtly, namely that fiscal responsibility is also a moral one, and that Lazio in a way were already moral victors before a ball had been kicked at the Stadio Olimpico.   That they crushed Milan 4-1 with Lotito beaming in the stands, vindicated once again, was according to this line of reasoning a just conclusion.

Milan CEO Marco Fassone has already once forcefully defended his club's finances against Roma owner Pallotta's charge of "madness" this past summer.  Milan are in transition, looking to get back to where they were, and have spent with a plan in mind.  But fairly or unfairly (mostly unfairly) the numbers will permeate everything that they do this season. 200 million euros spent means you can't lose 4-1 to Lazio.  That sum subsumes all other considerations like whether the defeat is due to geometry (3-5-2 vs 4-3-3) or chemistry (Montella's insistence that the team has yet to gel).

Lotito's Lazio, on the other hand, can be a paradigm for Serie A's middle class, one that is simply not content to eke out an existence, but to flourish despite the spending of clubs above them.  It's not an easy task to achieve the ideal balance between finances and success.  Take Fiorentina, as an example.  The Viola were rescued by the Della Valle family years ago, but just suffered a miserable season, and lost key players over the summer like Borja Valero (Inter), Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus), and Nikola Kalinic (Milan).

In contrast, Lotito has kept or introduced Lazio's key elements, while offloading players without whom the club can still win.  Lazio have already won the Supercup this season against Juventus, and the way they dismantled Milan suggests they are genuine contenders for the Champions League places--and all that without spending much.

Players like Ciro Immobile, Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Lucas Levia were the stars on Sunday, and didn't cost hefty sums.   Simeone Inzaghi, a former Lazio player and youth team coach, the man now being lauded as one of the best coaches in Italy, was hastily appointed at the helm when Marco Bielsa resigned after just two days, two summers ago.

Lotito was defiant in the face of protests then as well, insisting that Inzaghi was the right man for the job because he reflected the club's values.  His methods have been proven right once again, and he also has the numbers to show for it.