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.