Wednesday 14 July 2021

Forza Azzurri: From Rotterdam to Wembley

Even after Bukayo Saka buried his head in his shirt, I didn't realize what had happened.  Gianluigi Donnarumma picked himself up and walked away slowly, as if nothing had. It was only when I saw Roberto Mancini embrace his staff that the enormity of the moment started to wash over me.  

Somewhere, somehow, in the eternity between Jorginho's and Saka's miss, I had lost count of Italy's most important penalty shoot-out since the World Cup Final of July 9, 2006.

The one count I had faithfully kept, throughout the tournament, throughout the Final, only stopping just before the liquid images of Italy's Wembley triumph started to unfold on television before me, was of twenty-one years.  More than two decades had passed since my most excruciating football memory: Italy's Euro2000 Final defeat to France.

Since then, I have witnessed the thespian range of Italy in South Korea (2002), Milan in Deportivo (2004), Milan in Istanbul (2005), Italy in Kyiv (2012), and Italy in Milan failing to qualify for the World Cup (2018), but none of these farces and tragedies have the jabbing edges that Euro2000 Final has, those barbed images of abysmal dejection. 

It was how Italy lost.  They could sniff the trophy's silver.  Journalists in the press box were practically proofreading their final copy.  The Italy bench was almost spilling onto the field in anticipation.

What happened with less than ninety seconds remaining was unimaginable given how Italy had defended that tournament, and how they had edited out Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry from the Final's storyline.  But deep in injury time, Fabien Barethez's long clearance eluded Fabio Cannavaro, whose desperate attempt to head the ball away only helped it onto the path of Sylvain Wiltord, who snuck the ball under Francesco Toldo from an angle.

That was the moment Italy lost.  David Trezeguet's golden goal in extra time had the inevitability of the next day's tired headlines.  Best team of the tournament won! French football reigns supreme!

Del Piero (left) contemplates defeat in Euro2000
While Alessandro Del Piero (who missed two convertible
chances) stared off into that unredemptive Rotterdam night of July 2, 2000, the silver medal an albatross around his neck, I knew that seeing Italy win the European Championship and right this wrong would become an obsession of mine in the following years.

And during those years, I have witnessed Zlatan Ibrahimovic's backheel at Euro2004, a penalty shootout loss that started Spain's domination of international football (Euro2008 quarter-final) and a 4-0 pasting that marked its pause (Euro2012 Final), and, yes, that Simone Zaza penalty against Germany in Euro2016.  Yes, Italy won the World Cup in 2006, but that was to cancel out my pain of 1990 and 1994; the European Championship was the precise antidote for 2000.

Italy's triumph on Sunday at Wembley needed to shift the trauma of heartbreaking defeats to the genre's most brilliant method actor: England.  

That is the story of possible redemption that I told myself before and on Sunday, but reading the previews leading up to the Final, little space was granted to any Italian perspective in the English media.  Talking about 55 joyless years is a story that subsumes all, even for the neutral, and yet moving that colossal narrative rock only slightly reveals teeming particularities, nuances, missed narratives of big men like Gianluca Vialli and his battle with cancer, of big football countries like Italy standing on the cusp of becoming even bigger. 

I am one of those who believes that winning the European Championship is a higher achievement than winning the World Cup.  Not more significant in national memory, but more of a rigorous test of credentials.  The fact that the last four World Cups have been won by European nations only strengthens my conviction.  

But alongside the football question, Italy also needed to answer the spiritual one, the one that lingered for more than twenty years.  They did.  Nothing will ever erase the pain of that night in Rotterdam, but this helps. A lot.

Forza Azzurri!

Saturday 5 June 2021

On Milan's Return To The Champions League

I'm the type who twins his life's course with his football team's.  Doing so is a tacit acceptance that your daily rituals are inadequate to shape an amorphous sense of time, especially during this pandemic.  You look to the structure of the football week, the rounded edges of rote formations, the clockwork of kick-offs, as your team plays out your life in parallel, on another exhilarating plane above you.

There can then never be a moment without significance this way.  You score any personal success as your team's, and your team's failure as your own.  Just as certain songs comprise your life's soundtrack, your football team's successes constellate your memory, like glowing hooks on which you hang summers.

As Franck Kessie converted the second penalty against Atalanta on Sunday, May 23, he not only booked Milan's ticket to the Champions League after seven years of suffering, but he also opened up my summer to a possibility.  That is all I needed: to be on the cusp of something better.

Nothing focuses your club's rank and relevance in the football world like a Champions League Final.  Despite the thinly peopled stands, the dreamscape of Chelsea vs Manchester City--its stakes, its sheen, the exquisite shades of blue-- felt removed many times from my football possibility.  The last time Milan played the Champions League Final was in 2007, a triumph filtered through standard definition, calibrated necessarily by the mind's eye into speckless brilliance.  

It was as if I need to be roused to be able to register last week's Final, as if the absence of my own team from the competition has cob-webbed my faculties.  In February, I had written of the Scudetto dream; that fell away definitively by March.  What was left was not just the original goal of Champions League qualification, but also a more fundamental question of survival.  Financial health.  The ability to plan on a tight but at least not moneyless budget.  Sporting Director Paolo Maldini materialized whenever my fears would, whenever the league table started to look dicey, grim, reassuring in every interview that even without Champions League football, the project would continue.

But you knew you couldn't be satisfied with another disappointing season spun as success.  More pragmatically, you knew that renewals and loan options hinged on qualifying for UEFA's showpiece event. 

In the end, Milan finished second. They managed to beat every team in their peer group (Inter, Napoli, Atalanta, Juventus, Roma, and Lazio) at least once, including a thumping 3-0 win over the defending champions in Turin.  They managed 16 out of a possible 19 away wins, which is a league record. 

There are so many players, so many numbers, so many people to consider when discussing how a team with the youngest average age in Europe, assembled through bruising negotiations and pennies (relatively speaking), comprised of loanees, an almost 40-year-old Ibrahimovic, managed to do what it did this season.  The fanboy in me wants to answer with one name as being responsible for it all, Maldini; others will say, Ibra.  But there was much more to it.

For me, it was not crucial to write about each element that contributed to the success, but only the crescendo of success itself.  To know that if my team is headed in the right direction, so am I.



Tuesday 2 February 2021

Dreams Of A Milanista Past The Half

There comes a time when you have no choice but to share your dream.  After twenty rounds, Milan still sit, somehow, at the top.  They did so after nineteen rounds as well, at the halfway point of the season, but I daren't have written this then, even though I had dared to dream much earlier.  The podium for the Winter Champions is laid down only in discourse, and after a bruising 3-0 defeat to Atalanta in the nineteenth round the title felt emptier than usual.

I had been anxious before the game against Bologna this past Saturday.  I feared it would defy what was on paper, all of Milan's work so far would falter in front of the heaving beast that is The Narrative, which has maintained that Milan are, at best, a third-wheel: Inter and Juventus have the better squads and over time it will tell.  The twentieth game, the start of the return fixtures, would show that the first half of the season had been a dream, a madman's dream, and in the second half Milan would find themselves in someone else's, walled out as the familiar Juventus cavalcade moved triumphantly ahead in the distance.

In these times, dreams compensate more than usual.  This Serie A season will be unwitnessed by fans in the flesh.  It will be asterisked for posterity as a perversion.  The noise of fans in stadia has been replaced by howls of players clipped in flight, the pantomime of a coach's protest by his bellowing--and it is on this stage that Milan have emerged as contenders. 

In a way it's fitting.  Milan's owners Elliott are used to surveying carnage before finding a position of advantage.  As the pandemic rages, Milan inoculates itself against financial and sporting ruin.  The wage bill has been slashed, players surplus to requirements have been moved on, there is no debt owed to banks, the fanatical line of buying only young players has been moderated to include old hands like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer, and a whole department dedicated to precise statistical analysis offers directors Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara profiles that they then pursue in the market.

The result is that a team with one of the youngest average ages in Europe sits on top of a league that has always been suspicious of too much youth. Now, though, the suspicions have been momentarily diverted. 

If this had been a normal season, Milan's young players would have disintegrated under the pressure of a packed San Siro, some say. If they hadn't been awarded all of their penalties, they would sit third at best, often the same people say.

The first can't be proven; the second is tenuous, not even taken seriously by honest Inter or Juventus supporting journalists.  

No one can argue with the math, so they argue with the method.  Coach Stefano Pioli faces the snide line of questioning with customary grace, swatting away questions of penalties, reminding them that a team which has been sweeping almost all before them since July of last year isn't here by chance.  They have earned the points and the penalties (note: all but maybe two of Milan's fourteen penalties were blatant).

Supporting Milan isn't exactly a martyr's fate.  The fanbase of a club that has won the European Cup seven times and the league almost three times that forfeits the right to complain of lean years.  But in the interregnum between 2014 and now, when Milan didn't have the towering leadership of Ibrahimovic or the business stability, there was almost nothing to surrender at the halfway point.  Milan were almost always realistically out of contention for a Champions League spot after nineteen rounds, let alone the Scudetto.  

It feels strange as a Milan fan to have something at stake this far in the season.  To ease the pressure, the line publicly remains that finishing in the top four is the season's goal, but the editorial lines have already converged across Italian media.  Papers and podcasts of all political colour agree that Milan are among the favourites.

What you fear as a fan is the dream, preferring to defer it.  We'll see where we are after ten rounds, you said at the start of the season.  At round ten, you said fifteen.  At fifteen, nineteen.

You fear something ghostly, which periodically assumes contours: a disproportionate amount of injuries, COVID-19 cases that have reduced your key players to posting Instagram videos of themselves on stationary bikes at home, and the recent spat between Inter's Romelo Lukaku and Ibrahimovic during the Coppa Italia. 

At first glance the spat had all the hallmarks of how footballers square up--like rams they touch heads, sometimes falling, sometimes keeping their balance and at least some dignity, as was the case here. But without the noise of the fans drowning out the verbal exchange you heard everything.

No need to rehash it further, but the (non) issue has been typically exaggerated in the Italian media, and the talk of a ban on both (possibly extending into the league) strikes at that part of you that has started to believe.

That belief has been steadily building, collapsing, rebuilding, resurrecting itself again and again.  For every slip, there is a wonder Rafael Leao goal (one of which was the fastest to have ever been scored across Europe's top five leagues); for every story that heaps doubt on the club, there is one that heaps praise.  Milan's season has bloomed during a time of disease, and it therefore feels like a full-blooded rebirth.

Davide Calabria, Theo Hernandez, Franck Kessie, Ismael Bennacer, Ante Rebic, and the man who always supplies the key, Hakan Calhanoglu--there is so much to look forward to at last.  

For now, you tell yourself what they tell you: finish in the Champions League places.  But the January window that added a player like Mario Mandzukic (among others) tells you something else.

Hopeful, you look towards May, still a flicker in the distance.