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.



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