Friday 28 December 2018

Some Thoughts on Milan...

Unrealistic: Antonio Conte
You have to go back to the summer of 2015 to understand the predicament.  Then Milan president Silvio Berlusconi and his CEO Adriano Galliani laid out a project in front of former coach Carlo Ancelotti. Ancelotti deliberated, or respectfully pretended to, and said no.  Milan ended up with Sinisa Mihajlovic as coach, who did not make the impact that his tenure at Sampdoria had promised.

More than three years later, after a string of disappointing results, seemingly everyone around Milan is asking the question, "why don't we hire a big coach like Antonio Conte."  But they are likely to be disappointed like they were in 2015.  The fans who want Conte in place of current Milan coach and former club legend, Gennaro Gattuso, live in a parallel universe in which a) Conte would want to come coach Milan currently and b) UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules don't exist. To land a big name you need to have the ability to pay both for the name and the players he wants, when he wants. Not when you break even or reach the promised land of financial bliss. 

The January market will be telling and decisive. In my view, we’ll see Milan's financial restrictions laid bare. 

"When we bought Paqueta, UEFA sent us a warning letter," said Milan DS Leonardo today.  "It will be a market of opportunities."

The road is still long, in other words. The timing is unfortunate. Juventus resurrected themselves post-Calciopoli when FFP was basically a rumour. PSG/Manchester City when it was yet to be refined.

Milan have filed an appeal to TAS (the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne that also overturned their Europa League ban) against UEFA's verdict for breaching FFP rules.  The club's owners Elliott are litigious, bullish, but it depends how much they want to push UEFA.  Milan have two options: 1) flout the rules and litigate 2) fall in line and shrewdly move on the market.

In these circumstances, a coach like Conte will never come.  He started his career at Arezzo and has subsequently coached Juventus, Chelsea, and Italy; he doesn't need to cut his teeth anymore.

Until a Conte becomes a realistic target, Milan will stick to company men like Gattuso. They don’t ask for much, first of all. They also have the backing of the fans for a decent amount of time. If they manage results all the better. If they don’t, you look around and see alternatives like Roberto Donadoni, and hesitate. Rightly. 

Gattuso isn't Milan's best bet; he is practically Milan's only one. It's clear that apart from the coaching names being circulated in fantasy land, any other coach would simply be a lateral move--and in some cases worse.   

(As an aside, Gattuso also provokes the worst elements online and elsewhere not only to put their neuroses on display, but also their prejudice.  The bad patch had barely started, and people started to take shots at his Calabrianness.  Gattuso was offered a long term contract by Massimiliano Mirabelli, the director of sport who left with the former Chinese ownership.  He was also Calabrian.  This is license, you see.  People ridicule Gattuso for his cliche-laden press conferences during which his linguistic shortcomings become plainly evident, for phrases like si tocca con mano (you can feel it), which features almost every time.)

"Gattuso is not under discussion, even if he knows we expect more," Paolo Maldini said today.  

If there were viable alternatives, I, too, would replace Gattuso. But not with, with all due respect, Francesco Guidolin or Paulo Sousa. 

That failed attempt to land Ancelotti in 2015 is precisely the issue still: Milan needs a big-time coach but can't attract one.  Until it can, it is best to support who we have.  Forza Milan!

Monday 26 November 2018

No Thank You, Prime Minister

Salvini (left) and Gattuso
"Dino Zoff behaved like an amateur," former PM Silvio Berlusconi said of the former coach after Italy's soul-crushing Euro2000 Final defeat to France. "He left Zinedine Zidane completely open."

The word dilettante (amateur) stung Zoff so much so that he resigned as coach a few days later, saying that he didn't need to "take lessons in dignity from Berlusconi."

He needn't have taken footballing lessons from the man either.  Zidane was cancelled out by an excellent Italy.  The goal came in the last few seconds of the game when French goalkeeper Fabian Barthes launched a hopeful ball that bounced off Fabio Cannavaro's head and into the path of Sylvain Wiltord, who put it past Francesco Toldo from a tight angle.  Either Berlusconi didn't watch the game, or he felt compelled to say anything, something, to be part of the conversation.

Throughout his Milan presidency, Berlusconi offered unsolicited advice to his coaches and players, some so ludicrous that you could almost hear the journalists chuckling when asking the various Milan coaches their opinion of the president's umpteenth formation advice.  

It wasn't as if Berlusconi was always wrong, and it wasn't as if he didn't deserve any deference.  But it was the timing, the simplicity, the, well, amateur nature of his advice that at once rankled and amused.

Why does this matter after eighteen years? Well, Italy's deputy PM, Matteo Salvini, once an ally of Berlusconi, is, unfortunately, a Milan fan.  He has no formal association with the team, but he airs his opinions on it and Milan coach, Gennaro Gattuso, seemingly every week.

The final straw seemed to have arrived after Milan's ultimately valuable 1-1 draw with Lazio in Rome. 

"Why didn't Gattuso make substitutions?" asked Salvini.  "You could see our players were spent."

Lazio's equalizer came in the 94th minute.  Salvini's opinion in the 96th.  It was the kind of facile criticism  that the twitterati subsist on.  

Gattuso finally had had enough. 

"As an Italian I could say a lot to Salvini and all the problems in our country," he said. "This isn't the first time, he seems to talk about Milan a lot."
Salvini retreated, and praised Gattuso, saying "he had only spoken as a fan." The self-deprecation arrived too late.

Political figures weighing in on sporting matters isn't peculiar to Italy, but the significance given to them in the media is rarer to find in other countries.  Salvini's and Berlusconi's comments are a provocation, an overreach. Would Salvini tolerate a public figure like Gattuso giving a potentially unflattering verdict of his leadership? Given Salvini's tendencies in general, I'd hazard a guess that he would not.

What irritates the common fan who suffers with the team, who agonizes over formations is not that Salvini or Berlusconi gives their opinion; it's more that those opinions are crude and unsophisticated.  The ordinary fan expects something extraordinary.  In short, something more than what an amateur could manage. 

Tuesday 9 October 2018

On France Football's Recognition of Cutrone & Donna

Patrick Cutrone (left) and Gianluigi Donnarumma of Milan
If you don't look hard enough, you may miss it.  But it's there. Palpable. Even empirical.

In a year during which the Italian national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, the Italian league flourishes, providing spectacle and competitiveness.  

The numbers support the talk of resurgence.  For a brief twenty-four hours last week, Serie A overtook the Premier League in the UEFA ranking to sit in second behind Spain.  The lead evaporated when Lazio lost to Eintracht Frankfurt the next day, but the gauntlet for now matters more than the math.  Inter had dispatched Tottenham on the first matchday, and, on the second, Napoli nibbled at Liverpool until they made a hole big enough for Lorenzo Insigne to flit through in the last minute and score.  Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk described it as the only deserved result for his club so far this season.  Coach Jurgen Klopp concurred.

But results and ranking can be fleeting.  Serie A still has a self-esteem problem, a kind of weird inferiority complex, where foreign is good, and domestic bad.  Nowhere is this more evident than how quickly commentators and fans berate up-and-coming youngsters for mistakes.  Foibles quickly become character flaws in Serie A; a misstep a pathology. 

The journey from predestinato (predestined) to sopravvalutato (overrated) can be brutally swift.  To emerge from this crucible the way Cutrone and Donnarumma have is a Herculean task.

France Football released the Kopa Trophy list of the ten best players under the age of twenty-one yesterday, and three players from Serie A are on it, making it the most well-represented league.  The presence of Roma's Justin Kluivert is noteworthy, but not as remarkable as the fact that Milan are the only club to contribute more than one player: goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and striker Patrick Cutrone. 

Donnarumma is 19 and Cutrone 20.  Both have risen to stardom in front of an exacting San Siro public, and both are emblematic of former president Silvio Berlusconi's credo liberally quoted and requoted at the tail-end of his reign as club president--a Milan, young and Italian.  

Now, it would be an absolute scandal if France's and PSG's Kylian Mbappe didn't win in December.  He will, of course, but the presence of Cutrone and Donnarumma is a rejoinder to critics both in Italy and abroad.  

Cutrone is averaging an astonishing 0.40 goals per game--higher than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo managed at the same age.  Donnarumma has already inherited the number 1 spot from Gianluigi Buffon for the Italian national team.  Both players commit errors.  Donnarumma can be clumsy when playing the ball with his feet; Cutrone can sometimes take the wrong option in front of goal.  

But these nominations remind us that growing pains and pure quality are not mutually exclusive, and we need to have a more nuanced and layered understanding of player development.  Despite of all the refinement he lacked on the field, Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso has treated the fragile egos and psychology of both players expertly, standing sentinel between the media and his charges.  Cutrone and Donnarumma are not his inventions, but they are his and Italian football's patrimonio (heritage).  They are here, and they should be loved, protected, and, yes, celebrated.

List in full:

  1. Houssem Aouar (Lyon and France)
  2. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool and England)
  3. Patrick Cutrone (AC Milan and Italy)
  4. Ritsu Doan (Groningen and Japan)
  5. Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan and Italy)
  6. Amadou Haidara (RB Salzburg and Mali)
  7. Justin Kluivert (AS Roma and Netherlands)
  8. Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain and France)
  9. Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund and USA)
10. Rodrygo (Santos and Brazil)

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo, Balconies, and Parma: Why Everyone Should Watch Serie A

The name was almost whispered at first.  Cristiano Ronaldo.  One source reported it, and then slowly others started falling in line.  It was possible.  Ronaldo could play for Juventus.  Somehow, the directors would shuffle salaries and players around to bring from Madrid the most recognizable and marketable athlete in any sport to Turin.

When Ronaldo finally did arrive at the Allianz Stadium, bronze from the Greek sun, a model of sartorial perfection, to face the media, you knew this was big.  You always did, but he made absolutely sure.

"I am not like other players my age," the 33-year-old Ronaldo said, and the body fat level test later confirmed.  "Many in my stage of their career go to China or somewhere else to play."

Ronaldo chose Italy after unparalleled success in Spain.  This isn't a player on the wane, a superstar who wants to ease himself into a life of poolside indolence.  No, Ronaldo wants to win in Italy, Juventus, and Serie A.

It is a coup for the league.  That's how non-Juventus fans consoled themselves, but it's true.  Ronaldo's arrival raises the bar. For everyone.  For his teammate Paulo Dybala.  For the league's top defenders like Roma's Kostas Manolas and Milan's Alessio Romagnoli.  Even for Frosinone defender Emanuele Terranova, against whom Ronaldo will be facing off 80 kms outside of Rome at least once this upcoming season.

I have enjoyed experts on EPL-centric panels trying to figure out how it all happened.  Why Juventus? Why Italy? How can it be that Ronaldo spurned the chance to go back to Manchester United?

I love it. I love hate-watching the parochialism, the toe-curling comments from so-called experts who still think Roma fluked a semifinal appearance in the Champions League. It warms my heart. 

If they had been paying attention the signs of Italy's ascent have been there.  During the 2014-15 season, the more thoughtful English journalists took note of Juventus's run to the Champions League Final, of the huge success of Italian clubs in the Europa League.  In the past few years, Napoli's fluent play has made an impact to the extent that Maurizio Sarri is now coach of Chelsea.

It's a paradox that while EPL partisans dismiss if not bash Italian football, the top English clubs yearn for Italian coaches.  Ranieri, Ancelotti, Conte, Allegri are all coaches that EPL teams have either employed or have come very close to employing. 

Still not convinced?

Fine, you must be a numbers person.  Look at the UEFA coefficient ranking for countries--Serie A has surpassed the Bundesliga and is closing in on England, who sit uncomfortably in second place.

Ronaldo's arrival is a culmination of the "good things" that Serie A has been doing, a living,breathing, grinning exclamation point, a player that could finally help Juventus take that one final step and win the Champions League.

Juventus fans claim the signing as their own, and so they should.  It is a testament to Juventus's superb business acumen and vision that Ronaldo was ever possible.  To outsiders, the Portuguese star's signing is the only thing worth talking about this summer in Serie A.  But Milan, Inter and Napoli have all been at work as well.

Napoli brought in Carlo Ancelotti as coach after Sarri left to Chelsea.  A Champions League winning coach, Ancelotti is a star signing; Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis will be even more smug next year. 

Then there is Inter, who pounced on Roma's Radja Nainggolan
Carlo Anceotti (left) and Aurelio De Laurentiis
among others to bolster their midfield, and who are rumoured to be after Real Madrid's Luka Modric.  Yes, you read that right--Modric.

Milan have woken up from the nightmare of their Chinese ownership and now have former player Leonardo and former legend Paolo Maldini in the management.  Oh, and the best striker in the league, Gonzalo Higuain, will lead the attack.  He came in alongside Mattia Caldara in a swap deal that saw Leonardo Bonucci return to Juventus.

To ratchet up the nostalgia, Higuain and Caldara waved to the fans from a balcony in the Piazza Duomo in Milan.  To me, it recalled Milan's signing of Alessandro Nesta in 2002, or Ronaldo's presentation at Inter in 1997.

Other clubs have been making the headlines as well.  Parma have returned to Serie A after fighting off their second bankruptcy.  Not romantic enough to have one of the sette sorelle (the seven sisters of Italian football, Milan, Juventus, Inter, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina, Napoli, and Parma) back in Serie A? Consider that defender Alessandro Lucarelli, 41, stuck with the club through the trials of Serie D and administration, retiring just this past season.  

A little further south, newly promoted Frosinone will play in their newly built stadium, Stadio Benito Stirpe, and, at the time of writing, Lazio and Fiorentina have managed to keep hold of their star players like Ciro Immobile and Federico Chiesa.

It has been a glorious summer in Italy.  It is almost as if the league decided to compensate for the national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup.  A lot is happening apart from Ronaldo.  This will be the most exciting Serie A season in a long, long time. 

If you're tired of the familiar villainy of Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho, the same old faces that he pulls in press conferences, the painfully false modesty of Manchester city coach Pep Guardiola, the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, the predictability of a Bayern Munich triumph in Germany, give Serie A a try.  Sure, Juventus have won the last seven Scudetti, but Serie A was the only top league that still had more than one team fighting for the championship two rounds from the end last year (Napoli and Juventus).  This year, it feels maybe, despite Ronaldo, Juventus's hegemony just may be at risk.

You can whisper it for now, and let's see if it becomes reality.

Monday 16 July 2018

World Cup 2018 Review: Italy and The Dangerous Safety of Nostalgia

Despair and triumph: Baggio 1994 and Mbappe 2018
So, after twenty years, France are champions of the world again, and Croatia have played in their first Final.  What's not to be happy about? Well, the handball decision on Ivan Perisic for one, but let's put that aside for now.

I have enjoyed this absorbing World Cup, but throughout its course I have also looked for refuge in memories of past Italian campaigns.  It's a coping mechanism, an attempt to find a footing in the discourse and the events so inexorably not about the team I support.  

But is it harmless to retire every now and then from a reality that is unfolding without you, that is indifferent to your yearnings? The refuge of nostalgia is a tenuous one, a dangerous one, a hovel always on the brink of collapse.  

Tomorrow will mark twenty-four years since Roberto Baggio skied the decisive penalty against Brazil in the World Cup Final.  It was, at that time, a moment that reduced me to tears.  Now, it 's a memory that marks in my mind not Italian defeat, but supremacy dashed only by bad luck.  It was only penalties that kept Italy from beating Brazil on that sweltering Pasadena day.  I can explain that defeat away, identify it as a comforting counterpoint to what is the current state of Gli Azzurri.

A World Cup has just finished without Italy in it, a World Cup that was by any standard one of the most compelling ones in recent memory.  What value does nostalgia have in the face of this sneering, teeth-baring reality?  I would argue that it's placebo more than antidote, a vial of pills that comes without direction and takes you in no particular one either.   You cast your mind back to glory, linger for a moment, only to be jolted back to face reality: Kylian Mbappe and not Patrick Cutrone, Paul Pogba and not Marco Verratti. 

The French football system has won in Russia, and the Italian system was only to be found in faint traces, in the boots of Croats like Marcelo Brozovic of Inter and Mario Mandzukic of Juventus.  Clairefontaine has outstripped Coverciano: that should be the tearful point of departure from which coach Roberto Mancini can begin to fashion the raw material at his disposal to something approaching an Italian team worthy of the name.  

France has now played five major finals in the last twenty years, winning three of them.  Italy has played three in that same period, winning just one.  These two nations are not poles apart, but the question at the heart of all of this is what qualities will Italian football rely on to compensate for a lack of an outstanding generation? 

In February of this year, Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini accused former Barcelona and current Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola of ruining Italian football because all Italian coaches try to imitate him.  It was a stretch, but he was broadly correct.  It has come to the point where  Napoli are content with being considered Barcelona-lite, the ones who pass the ball around beautifully only to lose valiantly. 

France have turned the page because they can.  They have the quality.  But consider that only when they played with Olivier Giroud up front this World Cup were they able to strike a balance, so that other more talented individuals on their team could express themselves.  It was a tweak, a ploy that coach Didier Deschamps persisted with after the first group game despite Giroud managing zero shots on target all tournament.  Deschamps didn't solve the lack of output with more quality, but less.

It is this ability to flirt with paradox that Italian football lacks currently, an ability it cheerfully flaunted in the past.  On the eve of Euro2000, everyone lamented the lack of quality Italy had.  They reached the Final.  Similarly, the 2006 team was arguably less equipped than the 2002 one, but they won the World Cup with Palermo's Fabio Grosso (who? casual fans asked at the time) winning the semi-final and converting that penalty in the Final.

I take Chiellini's point.  Imitation of others is not the way ahead, but neither is trying to imitate a past version of yourself.  Former coach Antonio Conte worked with the constraints of the current generation and brought Italy to the cusp of qualifying for the Euro2016 semi-finals.  

We can look back longingly to the blurry-edged Azzurri memories, but this French generation agitated against precisely that.  As Andrew Hussey writes in the Guardian, they didn't want middle-aged white males telling them about the 1998 victory anymore.  They wanted their own memories; to create their own experiences. 

So did Croatia.  Their defender Dejan Lovren said that this Croatia team can eclipse the vaunted one of 1998 that reached the semi-finals--and they did.

Nostalgia can at once motivate and paralyze.  It can clarify and distort.  In a world where politicians and pundits profit from people's selective memories, from vignettes about how things used to be before these people arrived, nostalgia should be handled responsibly. 

I sign off, then, with a Forza Azzurri! and a Andiamo avanti! Let's Go Azzurri! We go ahead!  We must.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Manufacturing Calcio Memories

Marco Tardelli unleashes after scoring in the 1982 Final
What if a memory that you cherish, a memory that you remember with stunning clarity, is not really yours? What if you never made it?  I have a few of these calcio memories tucked away in the bank.  They are like false currency, but only upon closer inspection do they reveal themselves to be counterfeit.

I was three when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when Marco Tardelli roared with abandon in the final against West Germany, when coach Enzo Bearzot played cards with the then Italian president Alessando Pertini, Dino Zoff, a moustachioed Franco Causio, and, of course, the World Cup itself--gold, impassive, self-satisfied.

By all accounts, I was more interested then in Ernie's antics on Sesame Street, or Scooby Doo's sleuth work that seemed just like antics to me, or not disgracing myself during a meal.  I had different priorities back then positioned as I was in that painfully irrecoverable space between consciousness and lucidity (I don't drink).

Why then do I remember the 1982 World Cup? What right do I have to Tardelli's facial contortions, to Pertini raising his arms in glee after Italy's third goal in the Final? 

The answer reprimands you: you consumed the images later and you stole them for yourself.  They are now part of an iconography that you have internalized and fabricated in parts.  You have swallowed falsehoods along with truth.   

My writing here often deals with memory.  In the About section I write about how I became an Italian football fan:

"For many years, one of my indelible memories of Italian football was, in fact, mis-remembered.

Italia'90 had many moments that could lodge in a young football fan's mind.  There was Roberto Baggio's flight through the hapless team of what was then Czechoslovakia, or Salvatore Schillaci's bug-eyed celebrations after scoring a goal.  But the most enduring memory I have is of a tearful Aldo Serena sinking to his knees after missing a penalty against Argentina in the semi-final. 

The only problem is the man doing the sinking was Milan's Roberto Donadoni, who had missed a penalty before Serena.  I had, as I recently found out, unwittingly conflated Donadoni's dejection with Serena's; or, perhaps my Rossonero disposition had led me over the years to ascribe the most defeated gesture of that bitter penalty shoot-out loss to Serena, who was then at Inter and who had enjoyed his best years there as well.  Whatever and whomever, the net effect of Italia'90 and its pains and tears was that I was an Italy fan for life."
From left to right: Zoff, Causio, Pertini, Bearzot

Mis-remembering rewarded me with calcio, a life-long gift.  But when does mis-remembering dangerously shade into manufacturing? Each flicker of an image or footage from 1982 that has insinuated itself into my memory now passes itself off as lived or seen experience.

I was merely alive in 1982, but that seems to have given me license.  I have seen Gianni Rivera help Italy to the 1970 Final on video, but that Italy was older than I am.  I have seen black and white pictures of the Italian squads of 1934 and 1938, but that Italy was older than my father.  The one from 1982 though sticks, and not just because Italy won, but because it happened around the same time I did.

This seems like vanity that I can't apologize for.  I am richer because of these memories, and it is only when I hold them up to the light of the 1990 World Cup, the 1994 one, the 1998 one, and the 2006 one do I realize that something about them is different--perhaps counterfeit, but, somehow, not devalued. 

So, when I say to my friends, "I don't really remember the 1982 World Cup, so 2006 was something special" it is at once a lie and the truth.

On this day, thirty-six years ago, Italy won its third World Cup, a triumph that I at once remember and don't.

Saturday 7 July 2018

When Third Place Meant Something to Me: Italy vs England

The World Cup's most pointless exercise is the third place game. Italy and England had both experienced heartbreaking defeats to Argentina and Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.

Nonetheless, this was the first World Cup that I can say I watched knowing what was going on (I was too young for 1986).  I had already shed tears  in the semi-final, and I wanted a measure of redemption by watching Italy beat England.

Seventy minutes passed in Bari before Italy broke through. England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, playing in his last international game, fumbled a ball in the penalty box, and Roberto Baggio pounced on it.  The ball rolled to Salvatore Schillaci, who evaded a challenge and passed for Baggio to shoot high into the net.

David Platt equalized for England moments later with a towering header, but Baggio and Schillaci combined again to give Italy the victory.  Baggio went on an irresistible run through the field, and passed for Schillaci, who was fouled in the box.

Schillaci got up and stroked the ball past Shilton to end as the tournament's top scorer with six goals.  It was a victory that I celebrated with some enthusiasm, as I watched my heroes deservedly take Italy to a high finish in the tournament.

Thursday 5 July 2018

Baggio, Mussi and Benarrivo Jolt Italy Into Life

Somehow, you kept believing.  It couldn't end like this, could it?

Ten-man Italy were wilting at the Foxboro stadium in Boston against Nigeria.  

The drama had been perfectly Italian, replete with controversy, fluffed lines, and stage fright.  Nigeria had taken a lead in the 26th minute from a nothing corner.  Birthday boy Gianfranco Zola had been sent off for a nothing foul in the 76th (the tiny Sardinian had made faces, had held himself, had dropped down to his knees at the red card decision; in short, he had behaved as any kid would have after a spoiled party).  The Italians were doing nothing really except disintegrating.  Going nowhere except for the second round exit at the 1994 World Cup. 1-0 down with time running out.

But Roberto Baggio was still there.  It was all still possible.  Somehow, you kept believing.

Then in the 89th minute, it happened

Torino defender Roberto Mussi found himself but, more crucially, Baggio in the box.  He made a quick pass, and Baggio stroked the ball right into the bottom corner of the goal.  

It was 1-1.  The psychology of the game had shifted.

In extra-time, Parma's Antonio Benarrivo won a penalty that Baggio scored off the post.  Italy had scraped by.

Another remarkable detail about the victory was that aside from Baggio, two defenders had made the difference.  First, Mussi's enterprising movement had found Baggio in the penalty area, and secondly, Bennarivo's threat had forced a penalty.

Italy would march on thanks to those two as well.

On this day, twenty-four years ago. 

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Andiamo a Berlino (Beppe): Grosso. Del Piero. Final.

Fabio Grosso was crying as he wheeled away.  He whizzed past teammates trying to get a hold of him; he wagged his finger in total incredulity, as if to say no, no, it can't be.  Finally, he was reined in, a heap of Italian players exulting with him.

That goal ended Germany and put Italy in the Final.  That unlikely Grosso strike of perfect geometry finished off the World Cup hosts in Dortmund.

But Alessandro Del Piero made absolutely sure.  People will most likely remember Grosso's goal over Del Piero's.  But not me.

In my calculations, both goals had equal weight.  

Sure, Grosso's was technically the winner, but Del Piero's goal was six years in the making.  In the Euro2000 Final against France, he found himself twice in a position to finish the game off.  Twice he failed, and France eventually went on to win.

This time he didn't. 

Fabio Cannavaro intercepted the ball, passing to Francesco Totti, who found Alberto Gilardino, who provided a quick pass for a Del Piero surging into the penalty box.

What would he do with the ball? The finish looked difficult, but Del Piero managed it, curling the ball past a defeated, exasperated Jens Lehmann in the German goal.

It was 2-0. Del Piero unleashed in celebration.  This time Del Piero didn't miss.

It is those moments of redemption that stick out for me.  I remember Roberto Baggio's penalty against France in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal shootout not because it was an exceptional penalty, but because of what Baggio did after scoring it.  

He looked at the crowd then lowered his eyes while raising his finger to his lips, as if to silence the voices that blared inside of him.  He was having a word with himself.  He had redeemed himself partially for the miss in the Final against Brazil four years earlier. Things made a little more sense again.  He still knew how to kick a ball in the right direction.

And so it was with Del Piero.  Maybe the Euro2000 Final was just a bitter, insignificant counterpoint in his mind as he celebrated, but the catharsis owed its intensity to the failure of six years earlier.  Del Piero was red with ecstatic rage.

Fabio Caressa yelled, "ANDIAMO A BERLINO Beppe!" to his co-commentator Giuseppe Bergomi.  We are going to Berlin, Beppe!

And so Gli Azzurri were.

On this day, twelve years ago.

Saturday 30 June 2018

Luca Toni Arrives, Zambrotta Shines, and Pessottino Siamo Con Te

Zambrotta celebrates after opening the scoring against Ukraine
Luca Toni had not yet arrived in Germany.  He was hard to miss at 6'5".  He was there to be sure.  But he had not yet really justified his position as the forward of choice yet.

There was that shot that he had thumped against the crossbar against Ghana in Italy's opening game of the 2006 World Cup, but precious little else.

It was time.  The press was hoping that he would now break out as Paolo Rossi had in 1982.  The quarter-finals of the World Cup seemed like the perfect opportunity.

It was June 30, 2006.  Italy were facing Andriy Shevchenko's Ukraine.  Gianluca Zambrotta's rasping low shot had given them an early lead. 

But things were tense.

Somehow Ukraine had failed to score after a scramble in front of Italy's goal.  Their coach Oleh Blokhin stood on the sidelines dumbfounded. 

Italy had to put the game beyond reach, and what better person to do that than the tallest man on the team?

Toni struck twice in ten minutes.  First,  in the 59th minute, he headed home a sumptuously weighted cross from Francesco Totti, and secondly, in the 69th minute, he tapped in a pass by Zambrotta, who had done excellently to get past Ukraine's defenders in the box.

It was 3-0.  Everyone raved about Toni, but it was also Zambrotta's shining moment in the World Cup.  His performance was remarkable.  He scored only his second goal for the Azzurri and provided the assist to seal the victory.

For a moment, just for a moment, you forgot the football scandal, Calciopoli,  raging on back in Italy.  The proposed penalties, the cost, so far had been administrative. Rumours of relegation for the teams involved.  Points deduction.

It wasn't until former Juventus player Gianluca Pessotto jumped from a window in an apparent suicide attempt that the devastating impact of the scandal came into focus.  Pessotto survived.  On that miserable day, Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro was told to cut a press conference short after the news had began to filter in.  It was perhaps the most poignant moment of the World Cup up until that point.

Cannavaro and Zambrotta, who had both been Pessotto's teammates at Juventus during the season that had just ended, held up an Italy flag at the end of the victory against Ukraine with the words Pessottino siamo con te (Pessotto we are with you) written across it.

On this day, twelve years ago.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Enter Francesco Totti

"Io non sono un mezzo giocatore."

"I am not half a player."

Seemed like a reasonable thing for Francesco Totti to say after cannoning home the winning goal from the penalty spot in Italy's Round of 16 encounter against Australia.

Totti was there, whole, not a fraction, and not a fraction less, when he stepped up to face Australian goalkeeper Marc Schwarzer. 

The problem was the media didn't quite believe the evidence.  Just four months previous to June 26, 2006, Empoli's Richard Vanigli had broken Totti's fibula in a Serie A game.  Not intentionally, of course, but there Totti was, clutching his ankle, and NOT writhing in agony, which confirmed to me that it was serious. 

When the diagnosis came in later, I anxiously recalled how long it had taken me to recover from a broken fibula a couple of years previously.  6-8 weeks, I thought.  But it seemed Totti's ligaments were involved too. But maybe that would be offset by the standard of care he would receive?

Over the ensuing weeks, the Italian media ensured they kept me apprised of Totti's convalescence. The race was on to heal for the World Cup.  There Totti was smiling in a picture from the hospital bed.  There Totti was wearing a bulky cast in the stands, taking in a Serie A game with partner Ilary Blasi.

He made it for the World Cup, and Marcello Lippi started him in Italy's 2-0 win against Ghana, but Mauro Camoranesi came on for him in the 56th minute.

The criticism took shape.  Was Totti a liability?  Was he picked because of his name, and, really, he was still not himself, but only half of what he could be?

Totti had a chance to issue one rejoinder at least--emphatically, decisively--from the penalty spot.  It was the third minute of injury time, and 10-man Italy looked to be heading into extra-time against Guus Hiddink's Australia.  Guus Hiddink, the man who four years earlier had been the architect of Italian embarrassment.  His South Korea had managed extra-time against Italy, and had won.  Then, Totti had been sent off to leave Italy playing with ten men.  On June 22, 2006 Marco Materazzi had for Italy.

The symmetry of the situation increased the pressure. 

The penalty had been won by Fabio Grosso. Generously, the Australians would contend.

It didn't matter to Italy.  Totti stepped up. 

It took an eternity to set the ball up.

The referee fussed about the placement (correctly, Totti would later admit).

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon turned away, not able to look (as he so often does).

The camera honed in on Totti's eyes, slightly squinting in the sun and from the focus.

But what would he do? How would he kick it? This is a man, after all, who at the age of only 23 was audacious enough to fool Edwin Van Der Saar with a panenka or cucchiaio from the penalty spot. And that in a semi-final of the European Championships no less.

"I thought about doing it," Totti later admitted.  "But it was hot."

He looked at the referee once more to see if he had complied with everything.

And then, he blasted a penalty that gave Schwarzer no chance.

It was 1-0. Italy were through. Totti sucked his thumb in celebration. 

Whole again, defiant against the media, ready to show off his knowledge of fractions: "Today, at least for quarter of an hour, I was a complete player."

You were, Francesco.  You were.

On this day, 12 years ago.

Monday 25 June 2018

What Now, Mr. Li?

Milan president Yonghong Li keeps his own counsel.  After a year, it's still difficult to understand who he really is. A prestanome, or figurehead,  for a group of investors, the Italian media and Milan fans sometimes speculate.  But almost always, the guesses get more and more bizarre from there.

Perhaps he has a fortune tucked away under a mattress.  Perhaps it is his wife who is really wealthy.  Perhaps he is backed by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the well coiffured Xi Jinping himself, but because of the way the Chinese work, he can't come out in the open.  Perhaps he is just washing Silvio Berlusconi's dirty money.

"Riciclaggio (money-laundering)! Complotto (conspiracy)!"  the ones who love a good conspiracy (and there are a lot) scream.

"Testa di legno (blockhead)!" scream others, others who reckon that Li is a poor schmuck, out to make a buck, in over his head, and probably scared.

Some time in the last year, to spice things up, the New York Times published an article about how the offices registered under Li's name in China are teeming with...nothing.  Well, spare a trashcan festering with maggots.

Li, in other words, is a no one. A cipher. 

Every prominent Italian with some links to China has said they have never heard of him. Former Italy coach and current manager of the Chinese national team, Marcello Lippi, says, nope, never heard of him.  Former Milan and current Jiangsu Suning coach, Fabio Capello? Yeah, no idea.

I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point.

Li sometimes shows up in Italy wearing a hideous lime green blazer (surely, a cardinal sin in Milan, no?), struts through Milanello with his children and wife, and then leaves.  He sometimes simpers next to CEO Marco Fassone. Once he wished Milan fans a Happy Chinese New Year over skype from a dimly lit room, sitting in front of a giant wall-unit.

The video was bleak, when it was meant to be reassuring.  The kind of video captors force captives to do.  If so, I guess it worked.  It confirmed for me that Li was alive--which is more than I could say about Milan at the time.

It has been fourteen months since upon becoming president Li delivered a prepared statement in Mandarin at Casa Milan.  He read from a card.  Tired. Jetlagged.  A far cry from the Berlusconi helicopter landing.  Then came Franck Kessie. Leonardo Bonucci! An obscene Gianluigi Donnarumma contract renewal.  

Fans cut him some slack.  It was a joyous time.  So what if he had relied on a massive loan from the vulture fund, Elliott, to buy Milan? The president, whoever he was, was maintaining his promises and commitments.

(And Bonucci!)

Li ha sempre mantenuto i suoi impegni (Li has always honoured all his commitments), the fans wrote online on forums. And wrote. And wrote.

Every capital increase was a benediction for his supporters.  

"He is rich," some said.  "That's why he keeps paying." 

"He has rich backers, and that's why he keeps paying," said others.

Milanisti in the twittersphere became overnight accountants.  Spreadsheets appeared on prominent accounts.  People quibbled over numbers, gaining an education in finance under the auspices of their president--absent, taciturn, but real, and worthy of respect.

The media, meanwhile, continued its inquiries.  Li's secrecy supplied them with ample material. The conclusion was almost always the same: Suning, Inter's owners, were real; Li was a fraud.  He would lose the club to Elliott unless he found backers.  The more charitable quarters of the Italian media still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But now, Li has squandered even the faintest trace of goodwill.

Last week, the president didn't make the last 32 million euros capital increase required of him, and Elliott did.  If Li doesn't pay them back in ten days, he loses the club.  Meanwhile, UEFA, not taken with Li or his methods or Fassone's doubtlessly passionate powerpoint presentations about how Milan's accounts are better, much better, from last year, rejected the club's settlement agreement.

All of this leaves Milan teetering on the brink of uncertainty, and, possibly, irrelevance--even dissolution.

Too much? Perhaps. UEFA's punishment is rumoured to be severe. A two-year exclusion from Europe. At best, one. 

Which player would want to stay? Which player would want to come?

If Milan do end up with Elliott, what will stop the vulture fund from doing whatever it takes to get their money back? Some have said, no, they will put Milan up for auction.  Then what?  There could be serious buyers, sure, but that is an uncertainty.

There is hope, however, and it comes from the USA (typical--you can almost see the cocksure suits surveying the carnage, dead confident they can salvage something).

The owners of the Chicago Cubs, the Ricketts family, released a statement on Friday saying they were interested in purchasing Milan.  They wanted to build something with a city and its fans.  They would be in it for the long haul.  

Li's right-hand man Han Li was in New York negotiating.  But then media said, no, a Mr. X, a man with 4 billion dollars to his name, was ahead and about to close the deal to buy Milan.  This man was being pushed by Goldman Sachs.  The Ricketts by Morgan Stanley.

Suddenly, Milan fans whitewashed American finance. Goldman Sachs?  Morgan Stanley? All part of a legitimate lexicon.

The 4-billion dollar man was Rocco Commisso.  He wanted Milan, and he wanted it all.

Li now finds himself with three options: 1) somehow pay back Elliott the 32 million for the latest capital increase and drag everything to October 2) do nothing and lose the club to Elliott 3) accept an offer where he will either have a minority share or no share at all.

Milan fans wait for that and the UEFA sentence.

Milan being out for 2 years would be catastrophic for the club.  One can be tempted to compare the situation to Juventus's after Calciopoli.  For sporting irregularity, substitute financial weirdness.  

Juventus's descent into Serie B was purgatorial, and so could a European ban prove for Milan.  

But the context is entirely different.  The gap between Juventus and other Serie A clubs is now enormous.  Juventus's stadium is part of it, but a part that is exaggerated, in my view. 

The real reason behind Juventus's dominance, financial and on the field, is that they're backed by the Agnelli family, a family that is invested in their success, and since 2012 a family that has ensured that no one gets a look-in. Dibs on players. Deep runs in the Champions League.  Earning obscene amounts from those deep runs. Selling players at a huge profit and replacing them with quality ones.  Coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Success begets success.  It will be colossally difficult for Milan to regain ground.

These are dark, dark times.  

Maybe, maybe, if Li accepts an offer quickly, Milan can hope for some clemency from UEFA.  


I am at once relieved and angry.

On the one hand, I can understand UEFA's decision, and, thankfully, it has forced Li into action (behind the scenes, of course).

On the other, I do think UEFA is punishing Milan so harshly because they can. Milan have no clout. Milan is only nominally a big club, currently. Punishing it makes all the sense in the world for UEFA.

In the meantime, the system will become even more stratified. The upper-class of Europe will enjoy the Neymars and Ronaldos of the world, and continue to vie for continental trophies.

Milan's stupendous transfer market, a heavily leveraged buyout, and an outstanding debt are things UEFA can't and won't ignore.  Fassone can try to separate Li's debt from Milan's but they are linked. Milan's fortunes are linked to Li.

A man whom we still know almost nothing about.

Saturday 23 June 2018

Dino, The Other Baggio

My early memories of Gli Azzurri coalesce around Roberto Baggio.  How could they not? During the 1990 World Cup he was 23 and jostling for preeminence; four years later, it seemed that he was doing the same. Absurdly. Criminally.

It was June 23, 1994.  Ireland's Ray Houghton had condemned Italy to defeat in the first group game, so they were playing Norway in a must-win encounter.

The early signs were promising.  Coach Arrigo Sacchi fiddled with his methods, switching from two forwards that he had used against the Irish to three against Norway: Baggio, Pierluigi Casiraghi, and Giuseppe Signori.  He also brought on Inter's Nicola Berti in place of Sampdoria's Alberigo Evani in midfield. 

Italy seemed on the verge of a goal until the 21st minute when goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca rushed off his line and fouled a Norwegian player.  He was shown a red (later he joked that "at least I entered history"). 

Lazio's Luca Marchegiani stood up to replace Pagliuca.  The question was which outfield player would come off.  Sacchi opted for Roberto Baggio, the coach slipping seamlessly and callously into the role of anti-hero.

I was livid.

Baggio looked around, scanning his teammates for an answer.  "Who me?" he asked them, totally bewildered.

It was to be him.  Baggio came off.  Sacchi would stand with the weight of his decision on the sidelines for the rest of the game.

It would get even worse.  Captain Franco Baresi came off in the 49th minute with a knee problem, the less illustrious Luigi Appolini taking his place in defence.  Whatever could go wrong for Italy had.  Sacchi had removed the man the press and the fans adored; a suspect knee had removed the defensive stalwart.

Italy toiled for a goal in the Giants Stadium of East Rutherford, New Jersey.  It came from Baggio, finally.  No, not the one watching from the sidelines, but from one who wasn't even related to him.

It was Dino Baggio, the lanky Juventus midfielder.  He rose to meet a Signori free-kick, delivered with sumptuous precision, to smash a header past the Norwegian goalkeeper.  There were still more than twenty minutes left to play, but you had the feeling that Italy had done what they needed to. 

And so it proved.  Baggio, Dino, not Roberto, ensured the victory.  Sacchi's decision to take off Baggio, Roberto, not Dino, didn't prove as costly as feared.

At the time, I was fifteen.  I just remember my joy at Dino scoring, and I remember my anger at Roberto trudging off.  I wasn't aware then of the broader debate.  English language broadsheets stripped the national significance of the Baggio substitution; they could never capture the recrimination in Italy.

It is only with the benefit (or drawback) of hindsight that I can now put into context all that was going on.  Articles.  Books. Videos.  My ability to speak Italian.  All these things at once enrich and dilute my memory of that day.

Even the audio in my head has been replaced by commentator Bruno Pizzul's voice faltering at the substitution, before rising again at the goal. 

The Sacchi-Baggio subplot now colours almost everything.

But the victory remains unadulterated.  The essential Italian victory, on this day, twenty-four years ago.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Baggio, The Man With "Educated Feet"

Italy is not in this World Cup, but my memory can rival its HD.  In it, Roberto Baggio is not frayed at the edges.  His memory doesn't yellow or smear.  No, in it, Baggio emerges from the grainy fog of a 1990 broadcast a speckless blue, his perm bobbing, his i piedi educati, or educated feet, talking, teaching.

They dialogue with Giuseppe Giannini in a 1-2.  They are at times diplomatic.

He skips, floats past the Czechoslovakian players.  They are at times duplicitous.

One Czechoslovakian, two, (maybe three)? It's irrelevant.

What matters is that Baggio spies space.  Openings. Percentages.

He scores.

And then he collapses, lapping up the adulation.

On this day, 28 years ago.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Udinese's and Italy's Stefano Fiore

Inzaghi and Fiore (right) celebrate the goal against Belgium
Stefano Fiore celebrates his 43rd birthday today. Here is a look back at his career.

At Euro2000, the usual debate of 'which superstar should play' had followed the Italian national team into the tournament. Was it to be Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero?  After the group stage, it seemed coach Dino Zoff preferred a twenty-three-year-old Totti to Del Piero.  The Roma man started the first two victorious games for Italy against Turkey and Belgium, scoring in the latter; Juventus's Del Piero started the last meaningless one against Sweden, in which he nonetheless scored a blistering winner in the 88th minute.

The debate staged the usual regional anxieties and allegiances that the blue of the Azzurri never seems to soothe completely.  But while the media quibbled over their preferences, a Cosenza native by the name of Stefano Fiore had announced his arrival on the international stage with a breathtaking goal of his own against Belgium.  

Fiore didn't represent any of le sette sorelle (the Seven Sisters)--a now disfigured sisterhood, but once comprised of the ultra-competitive clubs of Parma, Roma, Lazio, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, and Juventus.  He had just finished an outstanding season at unfancied, sensible Udinese in which he scored nine goals playing more of an attacking role in Luigi De Canio's midfield.  Zoff deployed him closer to the strikers, but he considered him equally adept at playing a more conventional position in central midfield.  Fiore was even deployed on the left flank during his career as well.

It was a bittersweet versatility.  

"My preferred position has always been to play inside of a 3 or 5 man midfield, but it was where I played less in my career," he recently said in an interview to fantagazzetta. "I have played as a regista and often as a trequartista, and even on the flank."

His goal against Belgium at the Baudouin Stadium that summer night illustrated precisely what Fiore was capable of when played closer to the front, as he exchanged a quick pass with Filippo Inzaghi before releasing an unstoppable shot from near the edge of the area.  But it was his celebration that was emblematic of his career: pointing to his name on the back of his jersey as he wheeled away, Fiore was reminding everyone that he still existed, that he still mattered.  

That night he earned his sixth cap for Italy at the age of twenty-five, but only keen followers of Italian football knew who Fiore was.  His career wasn't particularly decorated, even if at Parma he had won a UEFA Cup serendipitously at only the age of twenty.

"I was co-owned by Cosenza and Parma, but I ended up at Parma after they won a bid," he recalls.  "I was playing for the youth team, but then found a place in the senior side, and won the UEFA Cup."

In 1999, he would win the UEFA Cup again with Parma after
Fiore in action for Udinese
playing a much more crucial role in that season, but he only came on as a substitute for Juan Sebastian Veron in the 77th minute of the Final against Marseille.  Marginalized, Fiore went to Udinese where he finally earned the recognition that he had sought.  

But his success was transient.  After Udinese, came Lazio, Valencia, Fiorentina, and Livorno but Fiore was never able to replicate the success of the years between 1999 and 2001 (it should be noted that he had his moments while playing for Lazio and Fiorentina).  That period was his apotheosis as a footballer, and near the end of his career Fiore slowly faded into relative obscurity.

For Italy, after that game against Belgium, Fiore continued to have a remarkable tournament.  He provided an assist for Totti's goal against Romania in the quarter-final, and started the Final against France, which Italy lost to a golden goal.  When I watch replays of that Final even now after seventeen years (I make sure to end my viewing right before Wiltord's equalizer, of course), I still allow myself a smile when the panning camera lingers for a second or two on Fiore during the Italian national anthem.

I read about him in April of 2017 after he was involved in an accident in Rome that killed a 22-year-old man.  Fiore was cleared of any culpability in the death.  Fittingly, he now works for the youth sector of the club that propelled him into recognition--Udinese.  

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Daje Roma!

Manolas scores and sparks a frenzy of Roma celebration
For once, Italian football was not a spectator to someone else's resurgence, remontada, or, more fittingly after the last twenty-four hours, someone else's rimonta, the Italian and not the Spanish word for come-back.

Overturning 4-1 deficits, 3-0 deficits, is the preserve of the Spanish and English.  Think Deportivo and Milan. Think Milan and Liverpool in Istanbul.  Think back to just last year when Barcelona did to PSG what Roma did to them last night at the Stadio Olimpico.

Italian clubs are known for negotiating ties more than upturning them.  But after last night, that reputation may start to change.

Roma had to do the unthinkable: score three at home against Barcelona and keep Lionel Messi and Suarez from scoring.  They did both, but it was the latter they did with supreme distinction.  Barcelona were nowhere. Roma had accounted for every blade of grass on the Stadio Olimpico's pitch; everything was in their purview.

3-0 is what they had to achieve, and they did, stubbornly picking away at Barcelona until the Catalan club disintegrated.

When Edin Dzeko scored, you thought, well, it's a matter of time until Barcelona would; when Daniele De Rossi smashed the penalty home, you thought now Barcelona would steal a goal; but when Kostas Manolas headed home for 3-0, the sought-after result, you knew Roma were going to achieve what almost no one thought they could. 

There are times when language betrays you because you have betrayed it in the past; you are out of superlatives, you are out of adjectives because you have squandered them in the service of less deserving occasions. 

At the final whistle yesterday, you thought to yourself, how do you describe something so utterly absurd? That is not to say that the result was a case of anything resembling fluke; no, what makes the 3-0 even more stupefying is that Eusebio Di Francesco legislated for Barcelona in every possible way.

You saw the design.  You saw the organization, but you still asked yourself, how could this happen?

Roma players, hoarse from celebrations, told you how in post-match interviews, almost reprimanding you for not believing.

They believed.  They always had,  they said. Juan Jesus. De Rossi. Radja Nainggolan, all of them had, and all of them had planned for this score.  They had laboured for the miracle: this was no bolt from the blue. 

When Manolas ran to the bench after scoring Roma's 3rd in the 82nd minute, his eyes were open wide, unblinking, the spectacle washing over him, as he tried to take in every blur of flying limbs and screaming fans he could see.  After the final whistle he walked around bare-chested, completely straight, shoulders pegged back. 

His celebration was emblematic of the win: Roma were colossal. 

Now, I hope for a repeat of the 1984 European Cup Final between Roma and Liverpool--and I hope for a different result.

Daje Roma!