Isle of Lewis & Harris, Outer Hebrides, August 2017.
Isle of Lewis & Harris, Outer Hebrides, August 2017.
I was asked by French publishing house Solar Editions to design the cover for sports journalist Thibaud Leplat’s latest book, Football à la Française. The project delves deep into the history of football in France, discussing the game’s development and just what makes French football French. Given my fascination for le histoire du foot this was just the sort of project I love, allowing me to trawl an endless archive of gallic soccer images, and learn a lot about French football’s rich and often overlooked past. The book cover’s design incorporates a collage of French soccer icons within a hexagonal grid: the pattern is both reminiscent of a goal net but also representative of the shape of France itself, which is sometimes even referred to as l’hexagone.
Madrid, January 2016.
Loyal readers of this website may recall an article I wrote a few years ago bemoaning a tendency in Hollywood for movies to be titled after their lead character. Last year I wrote a sort of follow-up piece discussing how in lieu of an actual title many films and television shows are lumbered with mere descriptive labels. More recently, a similar trend has caught my attention: movies with nationalities.
Of course, the majority of the world’s commercially successful films are products of Hollywood, and are therefore technically American. The same films tend to be set in the United States, so their plots generally concern American characters. I assume that the idea behind such titles is to infer that a movie may also provide a commentary on American history, culture or society. But in recent years the naming conventions “American + [noun]” and the slightly less common “[adjective] + American” have been used so frequently that their purpose and significance has practically been lost.
After doing a little research I discovered 112 movies since 1950 that follow these patterns, almost half of which were released this century (and that doesn’t include TV series). Whether these figures represent an eagerness on the part of filmmakers to tell uniquely American stories in a post-9/11 world or a further laziness on the part of studios’ marketing departments is open for debate.
American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950)
An American in Paris (1951)
The Ugly American (1963)
Divorce American Style (1967)
American Graffiti (1973)
The Last American Hero (1973)
The American Friend (1977)
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978)
American Hot Wax (1978)
The Great American Girl Robbery (1979)
More American Graffiti (1979)
American Gigolo (1980)
The American Success Company (1980)
American Pop (1981)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Last American Virgin (1982)
American Dreamer (1984)
American Flyers (1985)
American Ninja (1985)
American Anthem (1986)
An American Tail (1986)
Born American (1986)
The Adventures of the American Rabbit (1986)
The American Way (1986)
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)
American Gothic (1988)
American Roulette (1988)
American Angels: Baptism of Blood (1989)
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)
American Dream (1990)
American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1990)
American Friends (1991)
American Kickboxer (1991)
American Shaolin (1991)
An American Summer (1991)
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
The American Gangster (1992)
American Heart (1992)
American Me (1992)
American Samurai (1992)
American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1993)
American Kickboxer 2 (1993)
American Ninja V (1993)
American Yakuza (1993)
The Young Americans (1993)
The American President (1995)
How to Make an American Quilt (1995)
American Buffalo (1996)
American Strays (1996)
American Tigers (1996)
My Fellow Americans (1996)
American Perfekt (1997)
An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)
American Dragons (1998)
American History X (1998)
American Beauty (1999)
American Pie (1999)
American Movie (2000)
American Psycho (2000)
The American Astronaut (2001)
American Desi (2001)
American Mullet (2001)
American Outlaws (2001)
American Pie 2 (2001)
An American Rhapsody (2001)
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
American Girl (2002)
The Quiet American (2002)
American Cousins (2003)
American Wedding (2003)
American Reel (2003)
American Splendor (2003)
American Gun (2005)
American Dreamz (2006)
American Hardcore (2006)
An American Haunting (2006)
The American Poop Movie (2006)
An American Crime (2007)
American Gangster (2007)
American Loser (2007)
American Pastime (2007)
American Zombie (2007)
An American Carol (2008)
American Crude (2008)
American Dog (2008)
American Son (2008)
American Teen (2008)
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)
An American Affair (2009)
American Casino (2009)
American Cowslip (2009)
American Violet (2009)
American Virgin (2009)
The American (2010)
American Flyer (2010)
American Ghost Hunter (2010)
American Maniacs (2010)
American Scream King (2010)
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)
American Animal (2011)
The American Dream (2011)
American Mary (2012)
American Reunion (2012)
The American Scream (2012)
American Hustle (2013)
American Idiots (2013)
American Heist (2014)
American Sniper (2014)
American Justice (2015)
American Beach House (2015)
American Ultra (2015)
Occasionally other nationalities have been applied to movie titles (The Italian Job, The English Patient, The Spanish Prisoner) but these are usually genuine, relevant descriptors. Too often the word “American” acts as nothing more than a tag, hung on a movie in a cheap attempt to elevate it above the mire by suggesting its intentions are somehow worthier than box office success. Market research has probably proven that Americans are more likely to see a movie with “American” in the title. Yet it’s also worth considering that with its diverse incarnations and myriad contradictions, perhaps no other country struggles with national identity in quite the same way as the United States. That “American” movies have only become more prevalent in recent years is proof that America — both the country and the idea — remains a subject of endless fascination.
I was extremely proud to be invited by the good folks at Mundial to produce artwork for the official Fiorentina 2015-16 kit launch. My illustration of Giancarlo Antognoni was exhibited alongside those of several other Viola legends at an event hosted by the magazine at the Le Coq Sportif flagship store in London’s Covent Garden. Given my purple allegiance I was also more than happy to write a short article on Fiorentina’s legendary captain for the accompanying publication, Viola, produced especially for the occasion.
See more of the event on the official Fiorentina website!
In August Mundial magazine organized the official UK launch event of Fiorentina’s 2015-16 home kit at the Le Coq Sportif store in London’s Covent Garden. As a lifelong fan I was delighted to provide artwork and articles for Viola, a special newspaper produced especially for the occasion, in which the following profiles of two Fiorentina legends appeared.
As perhaps befits a man born on April Fool’s Day, Giancarlo Antognoni’s career can be reviewed as a series of cruel “pesce d’aprile” jokes. Considered one of the finest Italian players of his generation, and to this day revered by the people of Florence, the midfielder was also blighted by dreadful luck. Whenever success appeared a possibility, so that chance would be routinely snatched away. When triumph did arrive, it was twisted into bitter disappointment.
When Antognoni was a boy growing up in the Umbrian town of Marsciano, his father ran a bar in Perugia that doubled as headquarters for the local Milan supporters’ club. Like many football-loving Italians of his generation, young Giancarlo idolized Gianni Rivera. Just hours after his debut for Fiorentina at Verona in October 1972, Antognoni was already being mentioned in the same breath as the rossoneri’s famous number ten. High praise for an eighteen-year-old brought into the side to replace scudetto-winning hero Giancarlo De Sisti.
The young midfielder had been playing for an obscure team in Serie D just a few months earlier. But Fiorentina’s manager at the time, the giant Swede Nils Liedholm, never shirked away from giving youth a chance (he later granted Serie A starts to fellow teens Giuseppe Giannini and Paolo Maldini). When De Sisti followed Liedholm to Roma in 1974, he vacated much more than the number ten shirt and captain’s armband. For players and coaches, Fiorentina is often described as a “piazza difficile”, not least because of the city’s passionate yet demanding fans; Antognoni’s promotion was both an opportunity and an obligation.
With his Winwood-esque boyish looks and wavy golden hair, it didn’t take long for Florence to fall for “Antonio”, as he would soon become known. Italian football’s first young star of the seventies, it was Antognoni’s speed, elegance of movement and rare passing vision that compelled influential journalist Gianni Brera to describe him as “il ragazzo che gioca guardando le stelle” (the kid who plays while watching the stars). Recognizing their captain’s star power, the fans on the Curva Fiesole came up with their own, albeit more down-to-earth, nickname: “ENEL”, after the electricity company.
Antognoni continued to shine as Fiorentina started the 1980s brightly, until in November 1981 his lights went out — literally. Racing onto a ball from midfield, “Antonio” attempted to head past the onrushing Genoa goalkeeper Silvano Martina, only to receive a brutal and deliberate knee to the skull. Lying motionless inside the penalty area, the Fiorentina captain suffered a temporary cardiac arrest on the pitch before being rushed to hospital for emergency surgery on a cranial fracture. His return to action just four months later boosted la Viola’s ambitions in their race for the scudetto, but on the final day of the campaign they could only muster a goalless draw against Cagliari. Meanwhile in Catanzaro, a dubious late penalty converted by Liam Brady ensured Juventus won 1-0 and were crowned champions.
Later that summer in Madrid, Antognoni became a World Cup winner. For the twenty-eight year old it was undoubtedly the greatest moment of his career, but even this achievement was tarnished. Frustrated after seeing a fourth goal harshly disallowed in Italy’s famous 3-2 victory over Brazil, Antognoni had gone into the semi-final with Poland determined to right the wrong by getting his name on the scoresheet. His overzealousness led to a strong collision with defender Matysik as he prepared to shoot, and an injury that ruled him out of the final. A focal point of Enzo Bearzot’s national side for years, Antognoni was forced to witness the memorable triumph of his fellow Azzurri from the press box of the Bernabeu. To add harsh insult to his latest injury, burglars later broke into his home and stole his gold winner’s medal.
More setbacks followed. In February 1984 purple title hopes were dashed once again when Antognoni fractured his tibia and fibula in a challenge with Sampdoria’s Luca Pellegrini. As Fiorentina prepared to endure the 1984-85 season without their talisman, Socrates was brought in as a high-profile replacement. But the languid Brazilian seemed to oppose the Italian approach to training, and the team subsequently slumped. By the time their captain finally regained fitness Fiorentina had already signed Roberto Baggio (although his own debut for the club was delayed due to serious injury). Antognoni’s last two seasons in Florence were marred by injuries and managerial disagreements, and he left of his own accord to conclude his playing days in Switzerland.
A single Coppa Italia from 1975 was the only silverware to point to from his fifteen seasons with la Viola. Had he taken the opportunity to reunite with Liedholm at Roma, or accepted any of Gianni Agnelli’s several invitations to join his Italy teammates at Juventus, Antognoni would have surely earned a heftier trophy haul. Instead he traded in these successes for a much rarer reward: to become a bandiera, a club legend, and enjoy the mutual benefits that such status affords, even long after the boots have been loaned to the club museum’s permanent collection. Though his relationship Fiorentina’s ownership has been strained in recent years, the viola fans have remained ever loyal to Antognoni, just as he refused to abandon them. As he has often maintained, “The love of an entire city is worth more than a scudetto.”
Angelo Di Livio
To say that 2002 was not a good year for Fiorentina would be an understatement. The Tuscan side began the summer with relegation from Serie A after losing their final seven matches of the season, scoring just one goal in the same period. Three months later the club had declared bankruptcy and plunged a further two divisions, before finally being stripped entirely of their identity and history.
Almost overnight Fiorentina’s squad dispersed in all directions, and the new club — Florentia Viola, as they became legally known — was hastily assembled as a mixed bag of unknowns. The one exception was Viola captain Angelo Di Livio, who at thirty-six could have been forgiven for finding a one-year contract elsewhere or even calling time on an illustrious career. But instead, the Italian international — who’d played at the World Cup earlier that summer — accepted the challenge to start from scratch in Serie C2.
A native of Rome, Di Livio had arrived at Florence in the summer of 1999 after six years in Turin, where he’d been an important cog in Marcello Lippi’s Juventus side that reached three Champions League finals in a row. Discarded by the bianconeri, he’d reunited at Fiorentina with his former coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, the man who’d given the player his first taste of Serie A at the relatively late age of twenty-seven.
It was easy to see why Juve teammate Roberto Baggio dubbed him “il soldatino” (the little soldier). A tireless and versatile midfielder, Di Livio was content to patrol either flank like a tightly wound-up toy. If fresh orders arrived from the bench to move into a central position or drop back and support the defence, he’d simply adjust his game accordingly without fuss.
Di Livio had grown accustomed to winning, picking up three Serie A titles, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup during his time in Turin. Following Fiorentina’s most successful campaign in years, there was a genuine chance he could continue that success in Florence. But an entertaining European run and a Coppa Italia victory in 2001 were as good as things would get. Following the departures of Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa and Francesco Toldo, Di Livio took over the captaincy. But the significantly depleted team struggled, and the fear of relegation quickly mellowed into inevitability.
In Serie C2, Di Livio’s hardwork and humility were just the attributes required if the side were to drag themselves out of footballing obscurity. Backed by the city’s tremendous and unwavering local support, la Viola won promotion up to C1, but the expansion of Serie B allowed room for one more team. Fiorentina (they’d bought back their name at this point) were granted entry into the second division on “historic merits”, and at the end of the season a play-off victory over Perugia sealed promotion back to Serie A, a mere two years since they’d left.
As la Viola adjusted to life back in the big time, Di Livio stuck around for one more turbulent season, in which the side eventually staved off another relegation. As the one player to survive the club’s rapid demise and dramatic return to top flight football, il soldatino has since come to symbolize Fiorentina’s plight and period of instability. His choice to focus on the team rather than the individual may have been the ultimate act of footballing loyalty, as well as proof that a good soldier never complains.
“Really? You don’t say!” Evidently our sarcastic taxi driver doesn’t need to be told where to take us — my unmistakeable mid-eighties Club América jersey is a glaring enough clue. We climb in to the back of his Nissan on the edge of Parque España; moments later we are heading south down Nuevo Léon, our destination the Estadio Azteca, where América is hosting Puebla in week three of the Liga MX’s Torneo Clausura.
Calz de Tlalpan is a wide highway leading to the vast forested borough of the same name. Unfortunately it is also susceptible to Saturday afternoon match-day traffic. I watch carriages of home supporters whiz past aboard the Treno Legero that runs parallel to the road. Meanwhile our car has become a stationary blue dot on my iPhone navigation app. I begin to regret not choosing public transport, but our driver assures us that we’ll make it in time for kick-off, which is less than twenty minutes away. I remain skeptical but I’m comforted by the site of more fans packed into cars and buses gridlocked alongside us, none of whom appear as nervous as me.
Pro-América graffiti tells me we must be getting closer, which our driver quickly confirms. “We’re now entering Aguilas country,” he explains, referring to the club’s most common nickname, as we pass dozens of street vendors selling giant yellow flags and blue novelty afro wigs. Suddenly, I glimpse part of the stadium’s roof out of the right window. Before I’ve time to take out my camera the car has come to a halt. “Here we are,” announces our driver, pointing in the stadium’s general direction. “El Coloso de Santa Ursula!”
With kick-off nearing, I reluctantly ignore the array of stalls offering replica jerseys, more flags and various gold and blue trinkets. Almost immediately our path is blocked, and we find ourselves trapped behind a line of police officers, their riot shields positioned to form a human barricade. Thanks to the initiative of some quick-thinking Mexicans we are able to round this initial obstacle — the row of cops reacts by snaking into an L-shape but is too late to stop us passing. Once beyond the first blockade we become part of a larger crowd of ticket-holders that is are being prevented from entering through the stadium’s old-fashioned subway-style turnstiles. Five more officers perch awkwardly atop the entrance’s sloping concrete wall, one of whom shouts inaudible instructions through a megaphone which she has neglected to switch on. All of this takes place just feet away from Alexander Calder’s giant sculpture, Sol Rojo, which is now silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. Clearly this isn’t the standard procedure at home games, and the local fans’ confusion quickly turns to frustration, which fortunately is expressed through humour rather than violence. The chief source of entertainment is a middle-aged man in a Puebla shirt, who despite his allegiance keeps the crowd chuckling with a series of witty one-liners.
Clutching my ticket in one hand, my wife’s palm in the other, we squeeze through an increasingly impatient mass of bodies into the calm open space of the other side. Everything about the Azteca is as I’d pictured it, right down to the little stone wall at the base of the stadium’s perimeter. There is little time to marvel at the stadium’s exterior for the match has already started, and collective gasps of anticipation waft at intervals from inside the ground. I follow a group of excited young fans and attempt to fathom the ground’s foreboding outer skeleton, a mid-century maze of sloping ramps and vast beams of concrete. The girl at the gate barely glances at our tickets as we push through a narrow opening and finally walk out into the arena directly behind the goal. Happily the score is still nil-nil, but I always notice that the match itself becomes almost secondary to the spectacle on special occasions such as these.
“Vaaaa-mos! Vamos Ameeee-ri-caaaa!” The home crowd is already in good voice, and I can barely hear the young attendant as he points us in the direction of Section 201, PAN-2, which stands for Platea Alta Norte. When we reach Row 3 a female attendant politely asks the family sitting in our seats to find room elsewhere. As I finally reach the vacant seat 13 a huge cold cerveza Victoria is thrust into my welcoming hand, which evidently can be ordered quite inadvertently simply by making eye contact with a man in a uniform a few rows below you.
Our seats are every bit as good as I’d hoped: we sit on the third row of the second tier, slightly to the left of the goal. Not bad considering our tickets were purchased two days before the match for a mere 125 pesos (around $8.50) each. To put that into some perspective, the last time I went to a match in England tickets cost £25 a head. And that was for a pre-season friendly at Leicester City — twelve years ago.
I choose not to dwell on that depressing thought and opt instead to marvel at my new surroundings. Designed by Mexican architects Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca and inaugurated in 1966 (the roof was added just in time for the ’68 Olympics), the Estadio Azteca quickly grew into arguably the most iconic football stadium of the late twentieth-century, during which period it became the first venue to host the World Cup final twice. It could be suggested that those two tournaments bookend the World Cup’s golden age. Indeed, so ingrained are those colourful competitions into football fans’ collective psyche that I’ve always considered the Azteca to be the World Cup’s unofficial spiritual home, a notion reinforced by it having witnessed the trophy lifted by the game’s two most revered stars: Pelé in 1970 and Diego Maradona in 1986. If I were to ever lift the World Cup trophy myself (a dream that dims a little more with each passing year) I certainly can’t think of a place I’d rather be.
From my privileged vantage point I begin to replay the Azteca’s most memorable moments from those two sun-drenched tournaments. It quickly dawns on me that all the goals that immediately spring to mind were scored at the closest end to us, just feet from where I now sit. Gianni Rivera’s winner for Italy in their 4-3 extra-time semi-final victory over West Germany (a match referred to as “El Partido del Siglo” on a commemorative plaque outside the stadium) and Carlos Alberto’s famous fourth goal for Brazil in the final; Manuel Negrete’s spectacular scissor kick for the hosts against Bulgaria in 1986, Gary Lineker’s second against Paraguay, Maradona’s two goals against England (the Hand of God and the “Gol del Siglo”), his two oft-overlooked strikes against Belgium, as well as Jorge Burruchaga’s late winner against West Germany in the final.
Football stadia have changed a lot since then, some beyond recognition. Wembley has been demolished and rebuilt in recent years, while the modern Maracana bears little resemblance to the stadium that managed to contain 200,000 spectators for the 1950 World Cup final. Many of the world’s top clubs now play at new, corporate-funded arenas. In this regard the Azteca is no different. The stadium is now owned by Grupo Televisa, while vast banners displaying sponsors’ logos are rigged to the roof. The off-white benches that once lined the Azteca’s terraces have recently given way to proper seating, whose colours have been arranged strategically so when the ground sits empty the logos of Coca-Cola and Corona — the same logos that are emblazoned across the chest and shoulders of both teams’ shirts — span the entire stand. Of course, these aspects are invisible when the stadium is full, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the only other significant change since ’86 is the addition of two large video scoreboards at either end.
Just below the scoreboard at the top of our tier congregate América’s most hardcore supporters. A wire fence separates them from supposedly “casual” fans, although judging by their incessant chanting and fervent waving of yellow flags the only thing on their mind is to have a good time (and hopefully pick up three points along the way). A small pocket of away fans is nested high in the opposite end of the stadium, surrounded by helmeted police.
So far neither set of supporters has had anything to cheer about. América, captained by Mexican international Paul Aguilar, is dominating possession and creating plenty of early chances. The home side has seen some new arrivals since winning the Torneo Apertura in December. Among these is Colombian winger Carlos Darwin Quintero, who looks particularly lively. His defence-splitting pass finds another fresh signing, crew-cutted striker Dario Benedetto, who drags a shot beyond the far post. Moments later the Argentine gets on the end of compatriot Rubens Sambueza’s dinked cross and head goalwards, only for Puebla goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota to pull off the first of many excellent saves. Oribe Peralta is next to come close to scoring, racing onto Quintero’s low centre only to fire wide from inside the six-yard box. Before half-time the Mexican international spurns an almost identical opportunity, but this time his shot rebounds off Cota, onto his shins and out of play.
In honour of the home team’s nickname — Aguilas — an eagle is unleashed into the arena during the interval. The giant bird performs a couple of airborne laps of the stadium before swooping down into the centre circle and into the arms of its trusty handler. With the half-time entertainment out of the way, a stadium announcer now attempts to further warm up the crowd by conducting fans in cries of “Vaaamosss! Vamos Am-eeeeerr-iii-ccaaa!”
Early in the second half América’s Uruguayan coach Gustavo Matosas makes three substitutions in quick succession. The third of these — youth team forward Carlos Camacho — wears the number 101 shirt, which is the first time I’ve ever seen a player wearing three digits on his back. The team soon shifts into a higher gear and searches for the opening goal with relentless tempo. Quintero seems to be involved in everything from his advanced position on the right wing. First, his deep cross is met by Benedetto, whose angled header forces Cota to change direction and palm the ball to safety. Moments later, he receives the ball from a corner and shoots from a tight angle, only for Puebla’s rock solid goalie to parry.
Puebla’s forays into the opposition half are as cautious as they are infrequent, their five-man defence appearing more content to deny the Mexican champions from getting on the scoresheet. América are unfortunate not to break the deadlock on 75 minutes. Benedetto picks up a stray cross on the left and pulls the ball back for Quintero. The Colombian takes a touch to evade Orozco’s challenge before bending a right foot shot that rebounds off the outside of the post.
As the sun sets on the Azteca the sky above us turns a warm shade of pink, creating a dramatic backdrop. The closing minutes of the match are played out inside a now floodlit stadium, and the home fans’ restless anxiety becomes quite palpable. With neither side having found the net the loudest roar of the afternoon is reserved for the entrance of substitute Cuauhetémoc Blanco. Though the veteran international now wears the colours of Puebla, the local fans have clearly not forgotten the fifteen years he spent at the Azteca, and he is welcomed into the game with a rapturous reception fit for a local hero. A survivor of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, the 42-year-old has clearly lost a little pace and gained a little weight in the ensuing years. Yet his arrival finally sparks life into the away side. Blanco’s cameo performance of positive runs, clever passes (most memorable of which is an audacious 25-yard no-look backheel inside his own half) and all-round creativity constitutes Puebla’s best spell of the match.
América struggles against its re-energized opponents for the next ten minutes, and the crowd starts to finally show its frustration, resorting to a chorus of deafening whistles. A late chance is presented in stoppage time, when a free-kick is won over on the near touchline. Sambueza swings in a deep and inviting cross. The other Aguilar — Pablo — meets the ball at the far post and looks set to score. But rather than nod home a certain winning goal, he opts to fist the ball into the Puebla net. Though the central defender’s technique would have received high praise had he been spiking a winning point on the volleyball court, from where we’re sitting the foul is plain to see even without the aid of a replay. The referee immediately rules out the goal and does not hesitate to show the culprit a second yellow card.
What compelled Aguilar to use his hand to score into the same net into which Diego Maradona had been assisted by the “Hand of God” 28-and-a-half years earlier? The irony of the situation is not lost on me, and I’m compelled to believe that some strange footballing variety of cosmic force must have been at play. Aside from the infringement itself, the two incidents bear no resemblance to one another — for a start Maradona got away with it! But where Diego jumped speculatively to intercept Steve Hodge’s lobbed backpass, Aguilar was the recipient of a cross aimed towards him. And while the little Argentine would not have reached the ball ahead of Shilton had he not used his left hand, the Paraguayan could have just have easily met the ball with his head. Instead his unnecessary actions instantly recall one of the Azteca’s most infamous moments, and in a bizarre way I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
The disappointment of wasting the chance and losing a man in such circumstances is a blow from which neither the team nor fans recover, and an entertaining match ends goalless. Having lost their previous match at Tijuana, today’s final whistle signals América’s second successive match without finding the net. In no hurry to bring an end to the occasion, we remain seated and watch as the stands empty, slowly revealing the giant logos of America’s chief sponsors. The hardcore home fans are still penned in their section by rows of police, and exiting the stadium proves a more straightforward task than entering had two hours earlier. Once outside we pass a life-size bronze statue of an unknown footballer. There is no plaque to identify him nor his creator, and according to even official sources his origin is a mystery. Maybe they should call him Pablo.
Liga MX Torneo Clausura 2015
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
Club América 0-0 Puebla FC
América: 23 Moisés Muñoz, 2 Paolo Goltz, 6 Miguel Samudio (101 Carlos Camacho 64′), 12 Pablo Aguilar, 22 Paul Aguilar (17 Ventura Alvarado 62′), 3 Darwin Quintero, 5 Cristian Pellerano, 11 Michael Arroyo (10 Osvaldo Martínez 55′), 14 Rubens Sambueza, 9 Dario Benedetto, 24 Oribe Peralta. Manager: Gustavo Matosas.
Puebla: 30 Rodolfo Cota, 4 Facundo Erpen, 16 Michael Orozco, 26 Mauricio Romero, 7 Luis Noriega, 18 Luis Esqueda, 19 Flavio Santos, 22 Freddy Pajoy (10 Cuauhtémoc Blanco 78′), 28 Francisco Torres, 11 Matías Alustiza (29 Wilberto Cosme 45′), 21 Luis Gabriel Rey (24 Sergio Pérez 73′). Manager: José Guadalupe Cruz.
Referee: César Arturo Ramos Palazuelos (Culiacán, Sinaloa).
Bookings: Noriega 5′, Samudio 27′, Romero 33′, Goltz 66′, Esqueda 81′.
Sent off: Pablo Aguilar 91′.
Watch full highlights of the match here:
It has been put to me on more than one occasion (by more than one person) that a career in celebrity photojournalism may have been my true calling in life. I have always refuted the notion — frankly, the idea of spending my days hidden behind a hedgerow waiting for the latest B-lister to take out the recycling is less than appealing. That said, should I spot an actor or singer I admire on the street I will happily say hello, much to my wife’s embarrassment. But the suggestion that I would be happy to stalk the rich and famous probably came about because there was a time, around a decade ago, when I did indulge my inner paparazzo far more actively.
Flashback to November 2004. I’d been living in Florence for about a year and in the typical fashion of sporadically-employed Englishmen, often found myself with oodles of leisure time. The Saturday evening in question was no different: I’d spent the afternoon browsing old record shops, taking a few pictures, and enjoying a passeggiata along the pretty streets of the Renaissance city. With nothing else to do and no particular place to go I turned and found myself on Borgo Ognissanti, a narrow road lined with antique stores, though fairly quiet after dark. Turning into the piazza of the same name at the corner of the Hotel Excelsior, I was struck by the sight of an enormous blue-and-black bus parked a few feet in front of me. Standing next to the vehicle was a group of four people, the tallest of whom was wearing a tracksuit that matched the colours of the bus. At this point my mind finally caught up and realised that it was none other than Inter goalkeeper Francesco Toldo! Inter were due to play Fiorentina the next day, a match I had a ticket for; the bus was the team’s transportation and the team would be spending the night at the hotel.
Something of a living legend in Florence, Toldo had spent eight seasons at Fiorentina before moving to the nerazzurri, so I assumed he must still have friends in the city. The anonymous members of the group paused their conversation and turned to look in my direction, clearly waiting to follow Toldo’s lead. I’d always had the impression that the former Italian number one was a pretty down-to-earth guy (he married a supermarket checkout girl and arrived at his own wedding on the back of a Vespa), so I didn’t hesitate to ask him for a photo. He seemed more than happy to satisfy my request, and so I handed my Sony Cybershot-U to one of his friends so he could immortalise the moment. Toldo’s expression was so beaming that after seeing the resulting photo my friend Laura was convinced I’d posed next to a 6’5″ cardboard cutout.
After that unexpected encounter I wandered around the outside of the hotel for a minute, in the hopes of running into one of Inter’s many other star players. Aside from Toldo the piazza was essentially deserted, but through a window looking onto the Lungarno I did spy club captain Javier Zanetti, coach Roberto Mancini, plus Italian legends Giacinto Facchetti and Gabriele Oriali cheering excitedly in front of a television set. I ran to the nearest bar to see that Juventus had just lost to lowly Reggina. The following afternoon Toldo was back at the Artemio Franchi stadium to face his former club. The match ended in a draw, and the veteran goalkeeper left the field in tears, so moved was he by the home fans’ cries of “Tol-do! Toooolll-dooo!”
It didn’t occur to me to return to the Excelsior until exactly a year later, when Inter’s city rivals, Milan, came to town. After politely declining an invitation to meet friends at the bar I arrived at Piazza Ognissanti fully prepared for a repeat of my Toldo experience, only to find the square bustling with guests, taxi drivers and doormen. My plan had been to waltz into the hotel as a “guest”; if anyone tried to stop me I’d play the “oblivious foreigner” card. But on this occasion the hotel had engaged an employee to act as security and oversee comings and goings. Dressed in a black topcoat, which he accessorised with an earpiece and walkie-talkie, the young man appeared to relish his responsibility and was seemingly determined to refuse admission to anyone who dared to attempt to breach the lobby’s large revolving door. Alongside me was a young Italian couple whom I soon discovered were there for the same reason as me. I was unsure whether the pair would prove useful sidekicks or draw unwanted attention to my own agenda, but either way my plan was so far being foiled.
I wandered up Via del Moro and around the corner to the nearby Caffè Megara, a favourite locale of mine for having lunch or watching football. The Saturday night match between Roma and Juventus was just starting, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered a chiara media. At half-time I took a final swig of my beer and decided to check back in at the Excelsior. It was now around 9:30pm, the time most people would be eating dinner, and the square was a decidedly quieter place. The hotel’s one-man security team was nowhere to be seen, and as I approached the entrance I was surprised to find the revolving doors completely unguarded.
Now that I’d crossed that initial threshold I immediately set to putting my carefully thought-out plan into practice. Taking one cursory glance around the room to get my bearings, I sauntered over to the front desk, where I made some vague inquiry to supposedly justify my presence. From a selection fanned out on a table the woman handed me a brochure, an ideal prop as it turned out, and I pretended to read it while casually making my way around the lobby, naturally looking up every three seconds to check for passing footballers.
When I reached the far end I came to a set of elegant wooden doors with frosted glass windows leading into another large room. At that moment one of the doors opened, and out stepped Carlo Ancelotti. The Milan coach walked straight past me, across the lobby and into a vacant lift. He’d left the door to the room slightly ajar, and peering inside I saw that the Milan squad was inside eating dinner. Alessandro Nesta and Christian Vieri were seated at the same table in matching red tracksuits, so I began leaning my head from left to right in an attempt to spot other rossoneri players. Just then, I heard a bell ring to my left: ding! I turned as the doors of a second lift were opening: from inside its warm, wood-paneled glow stepped Paolo Maldini.
What happened next is something of a blur, but before I knew what I was doing I’d glided across the marble floor and was a foot away from the great defender, who looked every bit il capitano in his dark Milan blazer. Instinctively I stuck out my right hand, which Maldini received in his, and we made eye contact for a few fleeting nanoseconds. Uncertain how to sum up my years of admiration for the man with the economy that the moment required, I simply thanked him for nothing in particular. According to his profile Maldini and I are the same height, yet he seemed to tower over me — though maybe only because by this point my legs had turned to spaghetti. But that didn’t stop me looking to take things one step further. I reached into my bag and pulled out a pristine, glossy photo of the Milan captain, which Paolino was gracious enough to sign with the permanent black marker I’d brought along for this very purpose.
By now we were in the middle of a suddenly crowded lobby, and Maldini’s attention had already been diverted by someone with whom his relationship was older than sixty seconds. I then noticed that the young Italian couple had also made it inside, but their squeals of excitement were just the kind of behaviour that could jeopardise my progress. When I felt a tap on the shoulder, I knew my fear had been realised. It was the over-zealous security man from earlier.
“How did you get in here?” he asked accusingly.
“Um, the door,” I responded, gesturing towards the giant revolving entrance directly behind him.
Confident I’d committed no crime, I turned away from the hair-gelled pest to find myself face-to-face with Milan’s Portuguese number ten, Manuel Rui Costa. The ex-Fiorentina midfielder was exiting the bar area and had a friend in tow, who happened to be none other than fellow Viola legend, Gabriel Batistuta. Dressed in civilian clothes, the Argentine striker (who at the time was playing in Qatar) had evidently come over to catch up with his former teammate.
“Ciao Rui,” I said, thrusting my hand in his direction. Rui shook it but kept his gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance.
“Ciao Bati,” I said. Batigol grabbed my hand in his, locked eyes and greeted me with a warm and friendly “Ciao!” as if we already knew each other, which, in a spiritual sense perhaps, we did.
I knew my time was running out, so I decided to quit while I was still ahead and leave the premises of my own accord.
Having met three of my idols in the space of five minutes I realised that the evening could unlikely be improved upon. I stepped back out into the cold piazza and began texting everyone I’d ever met.
Another year passed before I returned to the Excelsior. By now I was a skilled veteran in the fine art of loitering, and felt confident that my mission could be accomplished with the right amount of preparation and stealth. Again the visiting side was Milan, although this time the match with Fiorentina was scheduled for a Saturday night. So on Friday evening I arrived at Piazza Ognissanti to find the square all but deserted. Encouraged by this promising sign, I swept into the lobby fully expectant to be soon shaking hands with more calcio royalty.
Immediately I spotted a young man in a Milan tracksuit reluctantly making conversation with an eager journalist. It was Milan’s centre-forward Marco Borriello, who seemed to be attempting to take refuge between a giant stone column and an enormous Christmas tree. Irrespective of the fact that he was otherwise engaged, Borriello was hardly the calibre of player with whom I’d grown accustomed to rubbing shoulders. Convinced I could do better, I continued past him unchecked. At the far end of the lobby a group of large leather armchairs had been clustered together around a coffee table. In one chair, tapping idly on his mobile phone, sat Milan’s combative midfielder Christian Brocchi. In another, staring into the void, was seated a supremely bored-looking Filippo Inzaghi. Since he seemed like a man whose schedule for the next twenty-fours hours was fairly empty, I didn’t hesitate in asking for a photo. The Italian World Cup winner duly obliged and leaned in for an impromptu selfie with yours truly. Having clicked the shutter and checked that the resulting snapshot was to Super Pippo’s satisfaction, I was about to thank him and leave when I noticed a familiar presence standing to my right. It was my old chum from hotel security, still armed with a walkie-talkie and still doing his best to protect the establishment’s millionaire athlete guests from the persistent swathes of ruffians coming in off the street.
I don’t know if he recognised me, but he insisted on the same pointless exchange as last time.
“How did you get in?”
I began to gesture towards the revolving door but before I could say anything he interrupted me.
“Look, don’t talk to the footballers.”
I turned to my new pal for assistance, but Inzaghi didn’t want to get involved. Brocchi hadn’t looked up from his phone the whole time. The following evening I was at the Stadio Artemio Franchi to see Fiorentina and Milan draw 2-2. Inzaghi came on as a late substitute for Brocchi. Borriello stayed on the bench, Maldini was injured. Rui Costa had moved to Benfica and Batistuta had retired. Toldo was still at Inter, but was no longer first-choice between the sticks. I never went back to the Excelsior.
Northampton, Florence, August 2014.
Though I may be one of the biggest football lovers I know, I’ve never been to a World Cup match. Despite the packed crowds at every tournament the vast majority of soccer fans only ever experience the game’s greatest spectacle through the medium of television. While I wouldn’t turn down two tickets to Brasil ’14, nothing brings home the exotic glory of the World Cup quite like the sight of sun-drenched foreign stadia beamed via satellite from a faraway land, straight into one’s living room.
With this project I wanted to celebrate the relationship between TV and football, and how especially with the World Cup the two things become even more closely linked. In many ways the commentator’s is a frankly thankless task: often he’s a distraction or an irritation, other times he goes unheard beneath the cheering. I’ve always thought a commentator’s job is a bit like that of the referee. It requires enough personality to be able to put one’s authority on the game but not so much that it’s to the detriment of the spectacle or contest.
Most of these clips have been shown repeatedly down the years, their narration as familiar as lines from a pop song or hit movie. No goal has ever been ruined by lousy commentary, in fact a goal of great beauty or significance serves only to enhance the work of the commentator. Sometimes a goal’s commentary can become even more iconic than the goal itself, as in the case of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s oft-repeated “They think it’s all over” line in 1966. What they were saying may have been straightforward, but their tone gave their words greater power.
But although these are simply spontaneous reactions blurted out in the heat of a moment, when seen and not heard the words take on a different quality. The diagrams of the movement leading up to the scoring chance are simply a visual reference, further highlighting the futility of illustrating a goal and the odd sensation of experiencing commentary without footage.
In 2014 television plays a less fundamental role in our consumption of the World Cup, and we can replay any goal at any time in the palms of our hands. But I still prefer to watch games on TV, at home, where I can give the match my full concentration. Today’s commentators seem intent on creating a narrative before the game has started, and going overboard as they grapple to convey the enormity of the occasion. The role of the commentator has become more conversational, their speech peppered with pre-written puns and ham-fisted alliteration. The voices are still there, but it seems no-one’s really listening.
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Brazil’s road to the semi-finals in this World Cup had begun to remind me a lot of France in 1998. The team appeared to be riding an increasing wave of public emotion and getting results, sometimes luckily and without ever convincing. Tonight’s emphatic result in Belo Horizonte brought that comparison to an abrupt end and exposed the psychological fragility of this Brazilian side. After conceding the killer blow that was the second German goal the Seleçao stopped playing for the next five minutes. Unfortunately that was all the time their opponents needed to score another three. Like a modern-day “Maracanazo”, this performance will no doubt wear on the national psyche and probably take a long time for Brazil, its players and fans to recover from. Yet while it may set them back a few years, it has also restored my faith in the nostalgic notion that Brazil’s football is unlike that played anywhere else — I can’t conceive of any other national side capitulating in such a manner at this stage in the competition. But I have to concede that my wife put it best when she said that the result was a perfect metaphor for Brazil’s questionable preparation for this World Cup, on and off the pitch.
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