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.