Category: FOOTBALL

Viola x Mundial

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.

 

Giancarlo Antognoni

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.

The Hand of Pablo

“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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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′.
Attendance: 62,300.

Watch full highlights of the match here:

Nights at the Excelsior

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.

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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.

me and pippo

Mineirazo

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.

Football without borders

As you will not need reminding, next week’s Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will be the first such game to involve two teams from Germany. The emphatic nature of both clubs’ semi-final victories has caused the media to focus on the fact, although it is already the fourth time teams from a single country have disputed the final of Europe’s most prestigious cup competition. Spain, Italy and England had each achieved the same distinction prior to this weekend’s upcoming Battle of the Bundesliga. In 2000 Real Madrid beat Valencia in Paris, in 2003 Milan overcame Juventus in Manchester and in 2008 Manchester United defeated Chelsea in Moscow. On each previous occasion the league in question had truly dominated that year’s competition: La Liga, Serie A and Premier League provided three semi-finalists in ’00, ’03 and ’08 respectively, making a one-country final almost inevitable. (The “foreign” fourth semi-finalist was made to seem like an interloper who had stumbled into a domestic cup competition, determined to break the monopoly but destined to fail.)

A less well known fact is that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were also the first clubs from the same country to meet at any stage of the European Cup back in 1998, the first season UEFA allocated a place in the Champions League draw for domestic league runners-up as well as champions.* For many, at the time the new ruling seemed a perverse distortion of the European Champions’ Cup’s original ideals, although such an occurrence had long been common-place in the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League), into which Europe’s top leagues have traditionally been granted several entrants. The final of that competition has been disputed by teams from a single country on nine separate occasions.


Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo opens the scoring with a free header against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow. United were victorious in a penalty shoot-out (in which the Portuguese winger missed).

In the modern-day Champions League, if a country still has more than one representative involved come April, commentators are invariably led to conclude that it signifies that league’s current overall strength, often resorting to militaristically-charged terms like “shift of power” or “changing of the guard”. On the surface, a one-country final does provide a good advertisement for that domestic league, but in Spain and Germany in particular, the gap between the top two clubs and those directly below them has probably never been wider.

There are also other, less immediately apparent aspects surrounding this change in the competition that are rarely discussed. I have always been confused by those that choose to root for a club in European competition based on the country whose league it represents. This feeling however does not extend to those involved: players or fans on the losing side at Wembley will certainly not be consoled by the fact that the trophy has been won by a German club besides their own. Historically, club football has never had anything to do with national identity, but everything to do with regional or even hyper-local pride. Yet more recently, the increasingly international fan-bases of Europe’s top clubs have further diluted what traces of national identity were there to begin with. Football may have always been a global game, but today kids on Fifth Avenue are just as likely to be wearing Messi shirts as those on La Rambla.


Andriy Shevchenko sends Juventus goalie Gigi Buffon the wrong way to seal Milan’s victory on penalties in the 2003 Champions League Final at Old Trafford.

By definition, national team football is bound by political borders: for a tournament such as the World Cup, each coach has only the best players from his team’s country available for selection. In club competition there are no such confines in assembling a squad — any limitations are purely financial. Consequently the European Cup is a parade of wealth in the form of global talent dispersed across the continent. For these reasons it has always been synonymous with a certain glamour and sophistication. When two teams meet in the Champions League we are taken on a vicarious return trip across Europe, a mid-week city break amidst cafes and bars, even if we only get to see the inside of a football stadium. Whether it’s the passion of a mid-sized industrial town or the grandeur of an elegant capital, over the course of two legs the tie becomes a cultural, linguistic and tactical exchange that extends to fans, players and those watching on TV.

Though it does not detract from their achievement, this element is essentially lost when two teams from the same country meet in the final of the competition. What is conceived as a showpiece for European football instead reverts to a particularly intense version of an already fiercely contested local derby. This factor undoubtedly provides an added dimension, due to a supposed mutual dislike and over-familiarity. Yet today’s top European clubs are equally accustomed to facing foreign opposition as they are any domestic opponent, by virtue of the simple fact that they compete in European competition almost as frequently. The expansion of the Champions League has allowed the continent’s most successful sides to forge pan-European rivalries akin to those between domestic adversaries. Though the format might differ, for Europe’s elite the tournament has now become a second league (just as it was conceived), and is consequently treated as such. What results is a competition in which nationality and borders are essentially meaningless.


Real Madrid’s Raul rounds Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Canizares to score his side’s third goal in the 2000 Champions League Final, the first such game to feature two clubs from the same country.

The same applies to fans, now just as likely to follow games elsewhere in Europe as they are those taking place in their own country. As a brand the Champions League has become the most successful football competition in the world, but those watching have been spoiled. This season’s competition alone saw several clashes between some of the giants of the European game even before the semi-final stage – Milan-Barcelona, Manchester United-Real Madrid, Juventus-Bayern Munich –- all heavyweight showdowns that would have once been savored for a potential final. Besides a scheme to increase corporate revenue, the nature of the modern Champions League is highly indicative of our society’s more-is-more attitude and insatiable demand for instant gratification.

In the old European Cup, less fashionable clubs frequently reached the latter stages, such was the slim structure of the tournament. But it’s hard to imagine Steaua Bucharest or Red Star Belgrade lifting the trophy again any time soon. The last team outside England, Spain or Italy to win the Champions League was Mourinho’s Porto in 2004. (The team they beat, Monaco, currently find themselves stuck in France’s Ligue 2.) This cycle will be broken on Saturday when for the first time in twelve years the trophy will be awarded to a club from Germany. Whether that team hails from Munich or Dortmund is, in the end, irrelevant. What matters to the winner is that they will have been crowned champions of Europe.
 
 
 
 
 
 

*Prior to the 1997-98 season, the possibility of two teams from the same domestic league qualifying would only arise if the team that won the European Cup did not also win their domestic league, resulting in two representatives from that country in the following season’s competition that were, however, deliberately kept apart in the draw.

Black and blue

In August 1990, just weeks after Totò Schillaci’s exploits at that summer’s World Cup, a shared place of birth would have seemed the only connection between the newborn Mario Balotelli and Italy’s Golden Boot winner. Born in Palermo to two Ghanaian immigrants, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, young Mario had a difficult first few years, undergoing a series of intestinal operations as a toddler. Even after being placed in foster care with the Balotelli family in the northern town of Brescia, the idea that Mario would one day wear the blue of Italy, let alone become a national icon, would have seemed unthinkable.

Fast-forward to this summer and Mario Balotelli’s two-goal demolition of Germany in the semi-final of Euro 2012 cemented his fame and sealed his reputation as an explosive yet unpredictable talent. While a highly welcome addition to the Italian national team, his success is especially significant in a country that has often struggled with the concept of national identity as it attempts to reconcile its mixed feelings towards immigration.

Despite its epic history, modern Italy is a young country created from the merging of strictly autonomous regions, and today remains fiercely regional. During both world wars this phenomenon infamously hampered communication between “Italian” soldiers, and it is often stated that the existence of a common language in Italy is the sole result of the development of a state-run national network of television and radio.

For most of the twentieth century Italy was one of the great emigrating nations: between 1876 and 1976 the Italian diaspora numbered over 25 million. During this period the issue of immigration was essentially non-existent. Immigrants did not begin arriving in Italy until the 1960s, and only in the 1980s did their numbers start to multiply. Italy’s unique geographical position has made it a natural port-of-call for those arriving by sea from both Eastern Europe and North Africa. Today Romanians, Albanians and Moroccans make up the bulk of Italy’s legal immigrant population, which currently stands at over 4.5 million, a figure that has tripled since 2003.

The progress of the immigrant experience in Italy has suffered due to government indecision and indifference, as well as general bureaucracy. This combined with a cautious mixture of stereotyping and skepticism have naturally hindered integration and acceptance, while one-sided reporting often only perpetuates the problem. Balotelli himself has frequently been subjected to racial abuse by opposing fans, both in Italy and during Euro 2012. While many Italians recognize the complexities of the situation, many immigrants still find themselves socially marginalized. Yet statistics suggest that those who persevere are ultimately rewarded.

Indeed, Balotelli’s arrival on a global stage comes at a time when Italy finds itself at a turning point in its immigration history. As the children of the first wave of immigrants become adults, so a seismic shift in attitude is forced upon Italian society. Few Italian classrooms are without the son or daughter of an immigrant these days, a fact that can only have a positive long-term bearing on the way the matter is accepted.

The impact of Balotelli’s success with the national team is not lost on coach Cesare Prandelli. Shortly after taking control of the Azzurri he introduced a “code of ethics”, ensuring players representing their country maintained responsible conduct both on and off the pitch. The forward’s eccentric behavior has challenged this code on more than one occasion, yet Prandelli’s faith in the young talent is now being rewarded, and not only in a sporting sense.

Though he is the first black player to score for Italy (against Poland in November 2011) Balotelli is not the first player of African origin to pull on the famous Azzurri shirt. That distinction belongs to former midfielder Fabio Liverani, who was born in Rome to an Italian father and Somali mother. Yet after making his Italy debut in 2001 Liverani represented his country just twice more over the next five years, and despite enjoying a moderately successful Serie A career never became a household name. Likewise Algerian-born defender Matteo Ferrari (whose mother came from Guinea) made eleven appearances for Italy between 2002 and 2004 yet was not an international regular.

Other black athletes have represented Italy in other sports, but only after switching nationality. American-born long-jumper Andrew Howe changed allegiance after his mother’s marriage to an Italian. Similarly another long-jumper, Fiona May, was born in Britain to Jamaican parents, but enjoyed success with Italy after marrying pole-vaulter Gianni Iapichino. Following her retirement she moved into acting, and even starred in Butta la luna, a television drama series that tackled the issues of racism and social integration.

The subject of Italian identity and the national team is not a recent one. Until the 1960s the Italian national team was regularly graced by the presence of so-called oriundi, or nationalized Italians, often arriving from South America. Despite this long tradition, some still oppose the inclusion of such players, a sentiment perhaps fueled by Mauro German Camoranesi’s confession to feeling more Argentine than Italian after lifting the World Cup for Italy in 2006. Prandelli however has embraced the problem, openly welcoming several oriundi into the national fold such as Thiago Motta and Pablo Osvaldo.

But the oriundo situation is different to Balotelli’s, as these players are born with an existing connection to Italy through parents or ancestry. The French, English and Dutch national teams began featuring the sons of immigrants in the 1970s, yet these too were mostly players whose parents had arrived from former colonies. Even Germany’s current multi-ethnic squad cannot boast a player whose chances were as stacked against him as SuperMario.

What makes Balotelli’s case a rarity is that neither of his parents were born in Italy, nor grew up there, nor came from a country that had any significant historical ties to Italy, which is what makes the young Italian striker’s story all the more extraordinary and encouraging. Naturally, his parents’ nationality gave him the right to play for Ghana, but Mario instead opted for Italy, finally becoming eligible after earning his Italian citizenship upon turning eighteen. For Balotelli it wasn’t even a decision to make. Born and raised in Italy, he feels Italian simply because he is — after all, he knows nothing else.

Balotelli represents a new example of the immigrant experience in Italy. He finds himself the most high-profile of an increasing band of Italian-born players of African origin for whom the national obsession — football — is proving a medium with which to successfully integrate themselves (and thousands others) into the country’s consciousness. Torino defender Angelo Ogbonna (whose parents emigrated from Nigeria) was an unused substitute at Euro 2012, while Milan’s teenage forward Stephan El Shaarawy (whose father is Egyptian) looks set to form an unprecedented partnership with Balotelli at international level. That the pair have only one Italian parent between them can only aid the cause of numerous other Italians of African origin currently plying their trade in Italy’s lower leagues, further from the media’s glare.

Incidents of racism in Italian football often cause casual observers to misbrand the sport and its followers. Yet while the stadium is often sadly an outlet for racism, the sport itself cannot be held to blame. On the contrary, young Italians of have discovered that the democracy of the football pitch has provided them with the structure from which to build a positive future and possibly a career. What their stories repeatedly demonstrate, is that when it comes to acceptance, social integration and community, football is actually several years ahead of the rest of society.

In defence of Serie A

On the night of July 9th, 2006 — just hours after Zinedine Zidane had ended his career in infamy, indirectly propelling Italy to World Cup glory — I spotted the following slur freshly scrawled in bright red paint over a shuttered Florence storefront: “LA MAMMA DI ZIDANE E’ UNA PISANA”. That Florentine Azzurri fans could imagine no greater ignominy than to infer that the disgraced Frenchman’s maternal relatives hail from Pisa said everything about Italy’s pervading sense of regionalism, and beyond that, campanilismo, or town-based identity.

For this reason I was surprised to hear the comments of Sam Wallace from The Independent newspaper this weekend. “You go to Stoke, they’ve got an identity,” Wallace opined during a discussion about Serie A on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement video podcast. “You go to Bolton and that club’s got an identity. When I watch Serie A you don’t feel that so much about the smaller clubs there.” This stunningly ill-conceived statement reminded me of the joke about the tourist who visits Paris only to complain that everyone’s speaking French. Obviously, if you’re not Italian, if you’ve never spent time in Italy nor choose to read La Gazzetta dello Sport on a daily basis, you can’t expect to have the same cultural awareness of the game in that country as those that are, have and do.

Though less expected from the mouth of a journalist from one of Britain’s most respected liberal-leaning newspapers, Wallace’s highly ignorant take on Italian football is indicative of opinion at large among soccer fans in the UK, where Serie A is routinely dismissed as defensive, cynical and boring. As is often recalled, this wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago Serie A was widely regarded as the greatest league in the world, and in the mid-1990s Channel 4’s coverage of the Italian championship regularly drew more viewers than the Premier League on Sky Sports.

In the ensuing years, sponsorship, multi-million television deals and an influx of foreign talent have ensured that the Premier League is today the richest and most popular football league on the planet, making it one of the UK’s greatest exports. In the meantime Serie A has, as Shaun Custis of The Sun newspaper put it, “dropped off the map.” But how exactly did this once universally admired league fall out of favour? Though it is impossible to pinpoint a moment precisely, the tide seemed to be turning by the new millennium, and several individual matches certainly may have helped swing the tide in the minds of British fans.

The first incident worth citing is ten-man Italy’s elimination of hosts Holland at Euro 2000. Despite the Dutch missing five penalties during the game (two during the 120 minutes and three during the shoot-out), the BBC’s Barry Davies still summarized the match with a condescending dollop of disdain: “Who says cheats never prosper?” Two years later a series of bizarre refereeing decisions throughout the tournament led to Italy’s ultimate undoing at the World Cup. The erratic performance of referee Byron Moreno during the defeat to Korea provoked fans to speak of a possible conspiracy against the Azzurri, a notion dismissed by many in the British press as a case of sour grapes. Meanwhile Moreno has since served several suspensions in his native Ecuador, and in 2010 was arrested at New York’s JFK airport with six kilos of heroin packed in his underwear.

England fans should know better than most that the domestic game should not be judged by national team performances, yet it seems these two globally-televised matches were enough for many in the UK to form their own assessment of Italian football in general. The fact that Italy had provided both finalists in Europe’s premier club competition in 2003 might have suggested an upturn in Serie A’s fortunes. But for many observers the Champions League final at Old Trafford — a tensely fought affair between classic rivals Juventus and Milan — seemed ample confirmation of Serie A’s demise, a conclusion apparently drawn from the fact that the game ended goalless after extra-time.

Around this time Spain’s La Liga began to take the place of Serie A in the hearts of British fans who like their soccer spiced with a little Mediterranean glamour. Of course, the fact that La Liga was broadcast on Sky Sports also helped, as did the transfer of David Beckham to Real Madrid. By this point the Premier League was already starting to enjoy its new-found status as a global luxury product, garnering new admirers but also encouraging the attitude of the insular English soccer fan. Britain as a society watches far more television than their counterparts in southern Europe, making them especially susceptible to the excessive and manipulative levels of hype surrounding football coverage in the UK media.

I don’t believe the changes in attitude towards Serie A can be based purely on football. What no-one seems to have picked up on is that the general disregard for Italian football these days is mirrored by a cultural-economic shift in Italy’s standing in the world, and a definitely detectable downturn in the country’s image abroad. Though still a highly desirable destination for Brits, Italy as a nation was once more revered than any other for its art, fashion, food and, of course, football. Thanks to cheap air travel all of that has now been conquered, and suddenly Italy is no longer di moda. Just as many journalists use Silvio Berlusconi’s careless remarks and behaviour to depict an entire country as ignorant and corrupt, so soccer fans, sports writers and even casual observers let their perception of a country as a whole to subconsciously influence their take on every product coming out of Italy, especially football.

Italian fans have sometimes been accused by British visitors of aggression, particularly during matches in European competition. Whether occurring in Italy or anywhere else, problems with violence in and around the stadium have little to do with football, and much more to do with society at large. Whatever you want to call it — sporting pride, peer pressure, twisted machismo, boredom — when a Sicilian teenager feels compelled to throw a fatal flare at a policeman in Catania, a nation and its national game can hardly be held responsible.

I’ve attended home matches at the two biggest and best-supported teams in Spain, and in both cases the match-day experience was underwhelming in comparison to what I’ve seen in Serie A stadia, at least in terms of atmosphere. While the Premier League has been extremely successful in refashioning the stadium as a safe and lucrative venue for all the family, at the same time something has been lost. The last time I went to a game in England I was greeted with a lengthy list of objects which weren’t permitted inside the ground, including flag poles and cameras. Fan participation is integral to the stadium experience, and Italian supporters use a colourful combination of flares, flags, banners and sophisticated choreography to galvanize each other and their team. You can learn a lot about a place and a people by spending an afternoon on the terraces.

The 2006 World Cup began with Italy crawling from the debris of a match-fixing scandal that rocked calcio to its very core, lending further heat to the foreign scorn to which the Italian game had by now become used. Italy’s subsequent triumph in Berlin was a significant, if short-lived, rebuttal to fans and press that had spent the previous months dragging the country through the mud. Unfortunately, calciopoli’s intermittent aftershocks — the most recent occurring only last summer — have hindered Serie A’s potential for returning to the forefront among football fans outside Italy. Naturally, many often connect the scandal to the loss of Serie A’s appeal. While it has certainly damaged the credibility of the league and the sport’s governing bodies, the problem of corruption in Italy is hardly a new development — that it should extend sometimes to football is inevitable. Do people think Italy was some clean and wholesome place during the Baggio era? Most hypocritical however, is the high-minded attitude that such a situation could never happen anywhere else.

Italian football would stand a greater chance in the UK if it were shown regularly on British television. Sadly, since Channel 4 ceased to broadcast Serie A in 2003, the league has been passed between various terrestrial and cable networks without ever finding a settled home. The resulting effect is that British viewers have mistaken the absence of Italian football from their screens for their own choice not to watch — a case of not wanting what isn’t put in front of you.

Perhaps inevitably, the fiercest criticisms of Serie A come from those who don’t watch it. Whether or not it’s a preference for remaining oblivious to what they might be missing out on, it’s frustrating to hear the Italian game belittled by those without the facts or experience to back up their claims. I’ve been watching Italian football on a weekly basis for almost twenty years: on Channel 4 as a teenager, while living in Florence during my twenties, and now from my home in New York, where multiple live Serie A games are beamed into my apartment every weekend. Italy may no longer be a haven for the world’s elite: today’s top players are more evenly spread throughout Europe, but this has more to do with a leveling of football’s economic playing field than a case of Serie A having lost its appeal. While the Premier League has been undoubtedly enriched by the arrival of top-quality foreign players (many of whom continue to arrive directly from Italy), the actual quality of Italian football has never waned. It remains a highly competitive and notoriously tough league, populated by technically gifted players and coaches whose tactical awareness is unparalleled.

Some anti-calcio commentators cite a lack of competition in Serie A, another inaccurate assumption vastly outweighed by the frequency of one-sided matches in both the Premier League and La Liga. In Spain, Barcelona have racked up a 5-0 scoreline on three occasions already this season, and even fired eight without reply past poor Osasuna. Likewise, rivals Real Madrid’s wins so far have included a 6-0 and a 6-2. In England, Manchester United recently demolished Arsenal 8-2. The last time that scoreline was registered in Serie A was sixteen years ago. In the first five weeks of this season, no team in the Italian top flight has won a match by more than three goals.

The golden era of the sette sorelle — when Serie A boasted up to seven sides likely to challenge for the scudetto — may have passed. Modern football deems that Europe’s top leagues are ultimately dominated by the usual two or three powerhouse teams. Certainly some of famous Italian clubs, such as Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Napoli and Torino have endured a turbulent last fifteen years, all spending time in lower divisions. But recently, the relatively cautious approach employed by Italian clubs in the transfer market has promoted a stronger league of competitive sides, while encouraging the emergence of local talent. In Italy, perhaps more than anywhere else, it seems no team is impervious to defeat, even against the most unfancied opposition. Early last season eventual champions Milan were beaten by newly-promoted Cesena, while just last month Inter suffered a 3-1 loss at Novara, a provincial side playing their first Serie A home game since 1955. I doubt the Novara fans suffered a crisis of identity that night.

The complete reversal in UK attitudes towards Italian football over the last decade seems unfounded and essentially without substance, appearing instead to be based solely on conjecture and common misconception. How could the game have changed so much, so rapidly? The ball is still round. The Independent’s Sam Wallace — and other narrow-minded journalists and soccer fans — would do well to buy a plane ticket to any city in Europe, or even simply pick up the remote. They’d find a host of channels besides Sky Sports, and a whole world beyond our shores playing their own beautiful game.

Friday night lights

Where were you ten years ago tonight? I was at San Siro.

“Luci a San Siro di quella sera
che c’è di strano siamo stati tutti là
ricordi il gioco dentro la nebbia
tu ti nascondi e se ti trovo ti amo là”

There’s a very special moment when you enter one of the world’s great football stadia for the first time. You’ve not even begun to look for your seat yet; you’re pacing around the external perimeter looking to match the apparently random series of numbers stenciled onto concrete to those printed on your ticket. Fans hurry past you in the opposite direction and you begin to move more briskly because you fear kick-off is approaching when, through a break in the concrete, you catch a glimpse of what awaits on the inside. The crowd, the grass, the noise. I still remember that moment at Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, better known as San Siro, where, having undergone a routine frisking by the carabinieri, I climbed up the stadium’s vast swirling ramps and spiralled staircases to reach the second tier. Finally locating my section, I stepped out into the blinding glare of the floodlit arena just as the away team was being announced. I looked up and saw the smiling face of Barcelona full-back Sergi being projected from the scoreboard, a beaming mug-shot that provoked nothing but a cacophony of furious whistles from the 80,000 home fans. I gathered my bearings and found my seat. I’d seen innumerable matches at San Siro from the comfort of my living room, and one hot day in August as a fourteen-year-old I’d even implored my dad to take a detour off Milan’s tangenziale, just to spend ten minutes wandering the dusty car park of the deserted stadium. But none of that prepared me for my first experience inside this storied venue which was, and remains, indescribable.

Television does not convey even half of what goes on inside the stadium. San Siro is built with steep tiers that put you on top of the action, and every tackle or attacking move is met with deafening roars of furious disapproval or wild applause. Despite the undoubted glamour of the fixture — Milan vs. Barcelona in the Champions League — I remember little about the match itself, which finished 3-3 (Rivaldo scored a hat-trick and Albertini hit two memorable goals from outside the box). For the bulk of the ninety minutes I was mesmerized by the Curva Sud, where Milan’s strongest supporters’ groups, the Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den) and Brigate Rossonere (Red-and-Black Brigade), congregate. Gigantic flags were unfurled and waved at intervals, huge drums were pounded throughout the match, and goals were celebrated with unruly pink flares. Throughout the evening my gaze became fixated on the top of the curva, where on a plexiglass partition separating the second and third tiers sat a row of a hundred, maybe two hundred pairs of denim-clad legs belonging to calcio-obsessed ragazzi like myself. I went to bed that night with the noise of the crowd still ringing in my ears, unable to quite comprehend where I’d just spent the evening.

ticket

I was twenty-one, and studying for a year in the university town of Pavia, just south of Milan. It didn’t take me long to lose interest in the routinely shambolic Italian higher education system, and I instead began devoting as much time as possible to more pressing cultural opportunities, namely learning Italian and watching calcio. The first of these goals was achieved with minimum effort, as my roommate, a devout milanista named Federico, and I, hit it off immediately. The second required little work on my part either, as Pavia was just a thirty-minute train journey away from Milano Centrale, from where San Siro was a simple ride away aboard Milan’s basic metropolitana.

To my surprise tickets for games at San Siro were easy to obtain, and considerably cheaper than those for matches in the Premier League. I bought a season ticket for the second group stage of the Champions League for 90,000 lire, roughly the cost of a single ticket for a pre-season friendly at Leicester City. I had discovered that Milan tickets could be purchased at my local branch of the Cariplo bank, one of Milan’s sponsors. So as soon as tickets were made available (often less than a week before the match), I dutifully waited in line with local pavesi women in fur coats looking to pay a bill or collect their pension. At the counter I was met with a bleary-eyed cashier, who removed the cigarette from his mouth just long enough to ask me if I had a seating preference. I felt I must be inconveniencing the poor banker who’d been lumbered with the additional task of dispensing football tickets, and I was always amused by how, with a quick tap on the keyboard, his monitor switched from a checking account to a colourful San Siro seating chart.

Considering I wasn’t an account holder, over the next few months I found myself visiting that bank fairly frequently, and I was soon able to tell the cashier precisely where I wished to be seated: secondo anello rosso, preferably right of centre, which was closer to the Curva Sud but still central enough to watch the game closely. I became drawn to San Siro in a way that even drew bewilderment from my football-loving Italian friends. I remember a group of ragazzi looking at me incredulously one cold wet night in January, when I declined their offer of dinner in favour of Milan’s Coppa Italia semi-final with Fiorentina.

I made a habit of seeing Milan more than Inter, primarily because I’d always been simpatizzante towards the rossoneri since I’d fallen in love with calcio a decade earlier. The team coached by Sacchi and Capello had dominated Italian and European football in the late-eighties and early-nineties, and I’d grown up watching Baresi & Co. carving victories out of the Milanese fog. Plus Federico was milanista, and he’d have probably thrown me out had he found out I’d paid to watch Inter. Of course, thanks to my ties to Florence my real team was Fiorentina, who I saw beat Milan 2-1 at San Siro. Against Inter, I wore my Viola scarf defiantly, trying to ignore the stares of the several thousand nerazzurri fans that surrounded me. Perhaps fortunately for me, Fiorentina were hammered 4-2. Away from the bright lights of the stadium it was a different story, and I always removed my scarf or anything that would signal my allegiance before returning to the station around midnight.

It was a far from vintage season for either Milanese club. Milan had slid out of the Champions League at the second group stage after drawing three home games with Galatasary, Paris Saint-Germain and Deportivo La Coruna, thus ending their hopes of disputing that year’s final at San Siro. Despite some impressive earlier results — including a 2-0 victory over Barcelona at Camp Nou and a convincing 3-2 league win over eventual scudetto winners Roma — this was the final straw for Milan president Silvio Berlusconi, who’d never truly warmed to Zaccheroni nor his insistence on a three-man defence. “Zac” was replaced in March by former Milan captain Cesare Maldini (Paolo’s dad), who immediately reintroduced a 4-4-2 system.

Inter’s season had been thrown into jeopardy as early as August, when they suffered a humiliating exit from the preliminary round of the Champions League at the hands of Swedish minnows Helsingborg. A 1-0 defeat at Reggina on Serie A’s opening day led to Marcello Lippi’s resignation; 1982 World Cup hero Marco Tardelli took over the reigns of what would prove to be one of Inter’s darkest seasons in living memory. Having been relegated to the UEFA Cup, the team was knocked out of that competition too by unfashionable Spanish outfit Alaves, after which fans demonstrated their disapproval by burning stadium seats and launching a makeshift incendiary device at the Inter team bus. Domestic results hadn’t helped matters: the entire Curva Nord boycotted the first half of a league match with Atalanta, returning in the second half with a banner that read “Sorry we’re late: did we miss anything?” The afternoon concluded in infamy when a group of Inter fans hurled a motor scooter from the second tier of the stadium onto seats below.

Consequently, by the time the second Milanese derby of the season came around, both sides were effectively out of the title race. In truth, neither side had ever really looked like challenging for the championship. Roma had led the way since the autumn, with Juventus and Lazio in closest pursuit. Although both Milanese clubs were still looking to secure a place in the following season’s Champions League, unusually this derby would not have a direct bearing on the outcome of the scudetto. Yet so much of Italy’s media is based in Milan that the match was still awarded the usual high dosage of hype and hyperbole.

The Milanese derby is known locally as Il Derby della Madonnina, after the little gold Madonna that sits atop the main spire of the city’s Duomo. Due to the upcoming general election on Sunday, unusually the match had been brought forward to a Friday night, and weekend optimism bounced through the sunny May evening as I stepped off the train just in time for aperitivo. It was still light when I strolled from the Lotto metro stop to San Siro. Inside, the stadium was bulging. Clearly more tickets had been sold than actually existed, as myself and a pair of teenage girls wearing Inter scarves found ourselves sharing two seats between the three of us in the front row of the second tier. At my feet a Milan fan lay horizontally so as not to obscure our view, his head propped up by his elbow as if watching television on the living room rug.

Milan and Inter fans are renowned for their generally amicable coexistence, though the derby is always a little different, and the usual deafening atmosphere inside San Siro was spiced with a unique sense of anticipation unlike any I’d experienced during previous visits. The stadium choreography for which Italian fans are known takes months of preparation in secrecy, and Milan and Inter ultràs go to extraordinary lengths to out-do each other in what is an integral part of the pre-derby show. Each curva reveals its efforts shortly before the teams take the field, inciting fans and lending the game further sense of occasion. Milan began by unveiling the giant head of a salivating devil which spanned the height of the second tier, while fans either side held up red and black paper to make a checkerboard effect. Fans cheered and applauded. Inter responded with a gigantic version of its logo and club symbol, il biscione, the snake. Underneath a banner read: “F.C. INTER: ETERNO AMORE”. More polite applause. But Milan’s fans weren’t quite finished. As Inter’s applause faded they unfurled an extra banner off the edge of the tier, in which the hands of the devil were seen to choke the life out of Inter’s snake. Cheers and laughter filled the stadium. 1-0 to Milan, and the teams hadn’t even kicked-off yet.

curva

The pre-match formalities out of the way, all that remained was the game itself, and suddenly I remembered why I was here. Perhaps ceding to fan pressure, coach Maldini had dropped the out-of-favour German striker Oliver Bierhoff, instead partnering Andriy Shevchenko with Gianni Comandini. The young Italian forward had made only a handful of appearances so far, so it appeared unlikely that he should be thrown into the mix in such an important match. But before anyone could begin to question the decision Comandini was already on the scoresheet, having latched on to Serginho’s defence-splitting pass to slide the ball past Inter goalkeeper Sebastien Frey with just two minutes and forty seconds on the clock. The early goal settled Milan, and Inter struggled to react. Shortly afterwards, Serginho found space again on the left wing. The Brazilian winger’s inviting cross was met at the near post by Comandini who doubled his tally and Milan’s lead. Less than twenty minutes had passed and Maldini’s gamble looked to be already paying off.

Derby matches are historically tight affairs, so it in some ways a surprise when Milan added a third goal shortly after half-time. Federico Giunti, starting only due to Albertini’s absence, curled in a dangerous free-kick from the right. Neither attackers nor defenders got a head to the ball and it bounced once in front of Frey, wrong-footing the keeper and landing in the unguarded net. Giunti correctly claimed the goal, the nature and the circumstances of which immediately reminded me of another match on which Milan had imposed a total domination. In the 1994 European Cup final against a strongly-fancied Barcelona, the rossoneri had raced into a two-goal lead through Daniele Massaro, before Dejan Savicevic had scored his side’s third goal with a deft lob from a similar position to Giunti’s on the right wing, effectively ending the contest. Milan ended up 4-0 victors that night in Athens. Where would the scoreline end tonight?

comandinigiunti

The fourth goal wasn’t long in coming. Once again Serginho showed his pace down the left flank, beating Matteo Ferrari to the ball by leaping to swing in a cross with both feet, as if his legs were bound together like those of a table football player. At the far post, Shevchenko got his head first to the ball to put the result beyond any lingering doubt. By now Inter fans had begun to leave the stadium in droves, their home derby having turned into a festa milanista. “Siam’ venuti fin qua, siam’ venuti fin qua, per vedere segnare Sheva!” (“We’ve come here to see Sheva score”) sang the rossoneri faithful, to the tune of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. It was all too much for one overly sensitive Inter supporter, who ran onto the pitch and attempted to altercate with Alessandro Costacurta as he prepared to take a free-kick. Milan’s veteran defender barely reacted, and the fan was escorted swiftyly from the playing field to a chorus of whistles and derision.

For Inter’s shell-shocked players the final whistle couldn’t come soon enough. Television cameras next to the Inter bench caught Tardelli mouthing “Mamma mia…” while looking to the heavens. Yet again the club’s summer spending had failed to generate results. Ronaldo had missed the entire season through a second injury to his patellar ligament, and despite a potent strikeforce comprised of Christian Vieri and Alvaro Recoba, a supporting cast of newcomers such as Farinos, Dalmat and Gresko had failed to have the desired impact. Milan took full advantage. The Georgian defender Kakha Kaladze had slotted instantly into the side since arriving from Dynamo Kiev during the January transfer window. It was Kaladze who made Milan’s fifth goal, drilling in a low cross from the left which Shevchenko pounced on before the oncoming Frey.

San Siro was now quite literally rocking, and I felt the concrete stands vibrating under my feet. Few Inter fans probably saw the sixth goal, their numbers having begun to dwindle rapidly around the hour mark. Milanisti meanwhile had begun to cheer every pass, leaping on the terraces, their arms locked in unison, enjoying chants of “Chi non salta nerazzurra è, è!” (“Whoever’s not jumping is an Inter fan”). There was a pause in their celebrations just long enough to witness man of the match Serginho burst through Inter’s tired back line and end the rout. Six-nil, sei a zero.

* * *

“MILAN 6 STREPITOSA!” screamed the front page of Saturday’s Gazzetta (the number six, or “sei”, is also Italian for “you are”). It was Milan’s first derby win in the league since November 1993 (although they had beaten Inter 5-0 in a Coppa Italia fixture in January 1998). The result sealed Inter’s miserable season and allowed Milan to end their season on an unforgettable high-note. Ironically, Inter actually finished two points ahead of Milan in Serie A, yet both teams failed to qualify for the following season’s Champions League. Not even Silvio Berlusconi’s election victory over Francesco Rutelli (a Lazio fan) two days later could divert attention away from the biggest story of the weekend.

Inter struggled to recover: thumped 4-2 in the next derby, they lost the 2001-02 scudetto on the last day of the season with a shattering defeat at Lazio. The inerazzurri were further frustrated by consecutive Champions League exits in 2003 and 2005 against a Milan side that now included Dario Simic, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, all three of whom had been sold to their city rivals. Inter’s fortunes were resurrected in the wake of calciopoli, the team winning four consecutive titles and racking up a 4-0 derby win in 2009. Milan won the Champions League under Carlo Ancelotti in 2003 and 2007, a trophy which continued to elude Inter until Jose Mourinho led the club to a treble success in 2010.

But the night of May 11, 2001 is hard to forget for either club’s many ardent followers. Less than half an hour after the match had ended I remember seeing a fan already sporting a “6-0” t-shirt on the red line back to Milano Centrale. Today memorabilia commemorating the occasion can still be seen for sale outside the stadium and around the city, while fans and pundits still recall that historic night with a degree of disbelief, suggesting the result has never truly sunk in.

comandini

And what of Gianni Comandini? The two-goal hero of the derby didn’t quite lived up to expectations as one of Serie A’s most promising strikers. In June 2001 — just a month after the derby — Milan sold their number nine to Atalanta for 30 billion lire. He spent the next four seasons at the Bergamo club, with loan spells at Genoa and Ternana, before persistent injuries forced him into retirement at the age of 29. In 2006 he opened a restaurant in his hometown of Cesena, where he has been known to make appearances for Polisportiva Forza Vigne, an amateur club founded by his father, Paolo.

Comandini’s career at Milan can be summed up in that one night at San Siro: his brace against Inter constitutes his only two league goals for the club. I returned to San Siro one last time that season for Milan’s final home game against Brescia (primarily to see great Roberto Baggio in the flesh). I left Pavia, graduated, and moved back to Florence, where one summer evening my wallet was stolen as I was exiting a supermarket. I didn’t care about losing my Italian social security card, bank cards or even the sixty euros I had on me. But the plastic Champions League 2000-01 season ticket that bore my name, and that I’d carried around with me for three years, was gone forever.

In the last decade I’ve watched countless more matches from San Siro on television, both Serie A and Champions League, in bars in Florence and on my sofa at home in New York. Even today, when it’s a big game, I recall instantly the relentless sound of that chanting crowd, their beating drums reverberating through the red mist and fog, and I still can’t quite believe that I too was once there. I wonder if Comandini ever feels the same.

“Ma dammi indietro la mia seicento
i miei vent’anni ed una ragazza che tu sai
Milano scusa stavo scherzando
luci a San Siro non ne accenderanno più.”

–“Luci a San Siro”, Roberto Vecchioni

Ciao Vecio: Italy mourns the end of an era

In Italy they call him “il Vecio”, the old man. But in 1982 Italy coach Enzo Bearzot was a tanned, lithe 54-year-old in the prime of middle-age, a newly-crowned world champion who had led his team to the most unlikeliest of achievements. The nickname (from his native friulano) never had much to do with age but rather a unique Italian personality. Cool, educated and deeply spiritual, Bearzot was an icon of the Italian game who in some ways seemed to belong to another time. An avid fan of music and literature, before the World Cup celebrations had even subdued he’d already hopped a flight to New York to hit some jazz clubs. As a football coach he was incredibly self-confident but never arrogant, instilling in his teams “la forza del gruppo” or group strength, a model on which all top sides are today built. Though he made occasional contributions to La Gazzetta dello Sport, in the final months before his death in Milan yesterday Bearzot only left the house to attend mass or buy the newspaper. Il Vecio had finally become an old man.

Coincidentally, Bearzot died on December 21 just as Vittorio Pozzo — who masterminded Italy’s first two World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938 — had forty-two years ago. Yet nothing about Bearzot’s unremarkable playing days hinted at the success that awaited him as a World Cup-winning coach. Born in Aiello del Friuli in 1927, Bearzot enjoyed a modest footballing career with Inter, Catania and Torino. His role was that of defensive midfielder, known in Italy as mediano, an unfashionable position generally reserved for those blessed with a strong willingness and work ethic rather than any particular flair or natural skill. Over the course of eighteen years he earned just one appearance for the national team, in 1955 against Hungary in Budapest. Italy lost the match, but the Italian marked the legendary Ferenc Puskas out of the game.

After “una vita da mediano” he quit the game in 1964 and immediately went into coaching, beginning as an assistant at Torino before taking over at third division Tuscan side Prato. Prato’s ninth place finish in Serie C Girone B at the end of 1968-69 season would be his last involvement with club football. Instead Bearzot fell into the fold of the national team, with which he embarked upon a seventeen-year odyssey that saw him rise to a role of true protagonist in a period marked by various disappointments and one unforgettable accomplishment.

Bearzot coached Italy’s under-23 side for six years before being brought in to assist existing national team coach Fulvio Bernardini in 1975. Essentially it was Bernardini who remained as Bearzot’s assistant until 1977, when the Friulan unabashedly took sole control with a World Cup less than a year away. Some accused him of weaving a takeover plot behind Bernardini’s back, and skeptics continued to cite a lack of experience as Italy prepared for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Bearzot’s slim CV did not seem to overly concern him: “You don’t need a degree in cibernetics to coach the national team,” he once retorted. Though he’d never coached in Serie A, he was already a veteran of two World Cups, having travelled as assistant coach to Ferruccio Valcareggi to Mexico in 1970 and West Germany in 1974.

Criticism rarely bothered Bearzot. At Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, during Italy’s final friendly match before the 1978 World Cup, he had endured chants of “Sce-mo! Sce-mo!” (Stupid! Stupid!) directed at him by the few thousand fans who’d shown up to support a sterile national team. But though he claimed to give little weight to popular opinion, Bearzot’s inclusion of the youngsters Antonio Cabrini and Paolo Rossi in his 22-man squad suggested the coach had finally succumbed to outside pressure (a theory he always denied). Surprisingly, on the pitch it mattered little. In Argentina an attractive Italy side beat France and the hosts before eventually losing in a third-place play-off, a fourth-place finish they equalled two years later at the European Championships held in Italy. Despite the usual reservations, Italy produced arguably the best football of both tournaments. The 1982 World Cup was still two years away, but the groundwork for that remarkable victory had been laid.

bearzot tardelli

Though Italy’s win in Spain came as a beautiful surprise to most, Bearzot exuded a calm confidence from the outset. “I believe in the spirit I’ve infused in my group of players,” he said, a month before the tournament started. “I’m convinced we might struggle against Poland, Peru and even Cameroon, but we’ll do much better in the next round. In the end my winning mentality will triumph.” However prophetic this statement would prove, to his closest confidants the coach confessed to feeling like Gary Cooper in High Noon: a lonely man with the entire world against him. Not even he anticipated just to what extent Italy would struggle during the group phase, managing only to grind out three uninspiring draws.

Not for the first time, Bearzot’s selection process had raised eyebrows. A preference for Paolo Rossi was primary cause for concern. The striker had shone in Argentina four years earlier but had missed the last two years following a ban from football for his alleged involvement in a betting scandal. Meanwhile Serie A’s top scorer for the last two seasons, Roma’s Roberto Pruzzo, had failed to even make the squad. On such matters il Vecio was typically of one mind. “Gossip, rumour, Italian chitter-chatter,” he said, dismissing accusations. “I don’t chit-chat — that’s what makes me different from other Italians.” Tension with the Italian media had reached an all-time high, resulting in Bearzot’s enforcement of an infamous silenzio stampa which vetoed all outside communication. Many still point to this unprecedented act as the turning point in Italy’s campaign, as it allowed the players to train in peace and focus on their path to glory.

In the second group phase Bearzot’s decisions were quickly forgotten as a revitalized Italy disposed first of holders Argentina, and then tournament favourites Brazil in a match which many still rank as the greatest ever. Stopper Claudio Gentile was praised for effectively marking (by any means possible) Maradona and Zico out of both games. Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick against Brazil and two more goals in the next match as Italy brushed aside Poland in the semi-final. Suddenly, Italy were in the World Cup final against a bulky but tired West Germany, and by the time his team took to the field in Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu Bearzot’s confidence in himself and his players had peaked. Not even Cabrini’s first-half penalty miss could veer the ship off its course.

What followed on the evening of July 11th 1982, has entered into Italian footballing folklore, and the sights and sounds of that night in Madrid are etched upon the country’s national consciousness. Marco Tardelli’s crazed sprint following his team’s second goal (to this day referred to in Italy simply as “l’urlo”), President Sandro Pertini (who many observers called Italy’s political answer to Bearzot) waving his arms in the stands, RAI commentator Nando Martellini’s triple cry of “Campioni del mondo! Campioni del mondo! Campioni del mondo!” at the final whistle, the famously documented game of cards on the plane home. After netting his sixth goal of the tournament in the final, Rossi finished the competition as winner of the Golden Boot. “I am what I am because of him,” he said today of Bearzot. “He was like a father to me.”

When the final whistle blew in the Bernabeu, Bearzot turned to his assistant coach Cesare Maldini and yelled, “I’m never leaving the Italy bench! I’m never leaving it!” After such a long and strained rapport with both press and public, the temptation for many would have been to bow out as world champion and national hero. But Bearzot had forged a rare and oddly personal bond with his country’s national team, to which he always remained connected and associated more than to any club. Despite the tournament’s happy ending he refused to forgive his detractors, who now invited the victorious coach to speak at the post-match press conference. “Don’t you have any more questions for me?” was his response. Of course, leave his position as coach he eventually did, four years later after the World Cup in Mexico, where a lethargic-looking Italy’s lacklustre defence of their title saw them topple to European Champions France in the last sixteen. This time Bearzot had relied too heavily upon the players who’d excelled in Spain, and a cycle which had begun eleven years and 104 games earlier, had finally come to its inevitable conclusion.

Such tenure at the helm of one of toughest jobs in soccer would appear unthinkable in today’s footballing climate of instant gratification and knee-jerk reactions. Instead it took Bearzot seven years to win over press and fans, and then only after having claimed the sport’s ultimate prize, after a forty-four-year wait. It was a victory for a team which spanned generations. For forty-year-old captain Dino Zoff the World Cup put the seal on a terrific career. Zoff had made his Serie A debut before the teenage Giuseppe Bergomi was even born; the Inter defender only retired in 1999. The success helped galvanize a nation that was still reeling from the anni del piombo, a bleak and tumultuous period in Italian history characterized by social turmoil, political corruption and violent acts of terrorism. For once the Italian people were united in a wholly positive way, and the country entered a period of fresh hope and economic prosperity which continued for most of the rest of the century.

The performance in Spain dispelled many attitudes towards the Italian game, reversing a trend for defensive catenaccio-based tactics which had prevailed since the sixties. Few goals in World Cup finals involve two defenders exchanging passes in the opposition’s penalty box, but Bergomi and Gaetano Scirea did exactly that before laying the ball out to Tardelli to drive home perhaps the most memorable goal in Italy’s World Cup history. By the mid-1980s Italy had become football’s spiritual home thanks in large part to a sudden influx of new money and world talent, a period for which the 1990 World Cup held in Italy was an apex. Only around the turn of the millennium did this view of Italian football shift back again, as the game in Italy began to be viewed with less praise than scorn. By the time the Azzurri conquered the world again in 2006, the bubble that started with Bearzot had burst.

Parallels between Italy’s World Cup feats of 2006 and 1982 are obvious. Both were born out of the rubble of domestic scandal, while both coaches relied on a collective group strength rather than the talents of any one individual. Sadly, there were also similarities in the way both titles were relinquished: just as Bearzot’s aging World Champions had appeared sluggish at Mexico ’86, Lippi’s heroes of Berlin failed to ignite South Africa in 2010. But there the comparisons end. The Italian public never warmed to Lippi or his winning team as they had for Bearzot’s Italy twenty-four years earlier. The rakish, fresh-faced calciatori who beat the world’s very best in 1982 seem like a different species to 2006’s squad of professional athletes, with their shaven heads and tattooed torsos, who combated their way to an intense shoot-out victory. Despite the more recent title, Italians still recall 1982 with fondness, but not simply out of nostalgia. They consider the success more real, more human, more Italian. There were no fireworks at the Bernabeu in 1982, no novelty hats, no headbutts: just emotional embraces and azzurro blue jerseys soaked through with sweat and spumante.

Not long after I moved to Florence I got to know Dott. Fino Fini, Director of the Museo del Calcio at Coverciano (the Italian Federation’s training headquarters). Dott. Fini had been the Italian national team doctor from 1962 to 1982, and the museum was packed with memorabilia from that fertile period. The blue shirts of each player from Bearzot’s winning team were hung in hinged glass frames which swung to reveal the shirt numbers on the other side: 14 Tardelli, 16 Conti, 20 Rossi. In another frame was Bearzot’s entire outfit from that jubilant night in Madrid: grey trousers, blue shirt, navy tie, and the famous blazer, complete with embroidered ITALIA crest. It had always appeared plain white to me on TV, giving its wearer the air of a medical professional, a mediterranean doctor of soccer, but on closer inspection the jacket was made up of narrow navy pinstripes, almost like seersucker. It was a strange feeling to see something in the flesh I’d seen on television a hundred times, like seeing a costume or prop from a favourite movie. Also on display was Bearzot’s trademark pipe, without which he was rarely photographed. “If there was no smoke emanating, that’s when you knew he was a little ticked off,” said Giancarlo Antognoni, who missed out on the 1982 final through injury. Bearzot’s World Cup winners were all quick to recall the human side of il Vecio. “I’d like to remember him sitting on a wall,” said Tardelli. “Smoking his pipe, alone.”

In his later years, Bearzot had become disillusioned with all aspects of the modern game. “I haven’t been to the stadium in a long time,” he revealed a few months before his death. “The stands have become a platform for shouters to hurl the most ferocious insults.” He didn’t much enjoy watching football at home either. “The TV is less likely to make me angry when it’s switched off,” he quipped. His principal complaint arose from a perceived lack of respect among those involved. “It irritates me when former referees insult referees, or when coaches insult other coaches. I’ll never understand those who insult their colleagues.” But Bearzot also expressed concerns over the business of the sport. Speaking of his decision to retire, il Vecio explained, “It appears that money has moved the goalposts. It seems football has become a science, though not an exact one. For me it will always be a game.” Bearzot’s death signals the loss of one of international football’s legendary figures. But perhaps more significantly, it also comes with the undeniable realisation that the game he spoke of is well and truly over.

Enzo Bearzot, 1927-2010

My pink pages

“I don’t understand people who don’t read La Gazzetta dello Sport. Men, at least: I don’t understand them. I just don’t get it.”

— Sandro Veronesi, writer


It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Italy. It took me a little longer to fall in love with football. You’d probably find it hard to believe if you met me today, but in 1988 I was quite indifferent about The Beautiful Game. That was the year I first visited il bel paese (I’d been to Sardinia five years earlier but that doesn’t count, as any Sardinian will tell you). Strolling with my parents through the streets of Florence, Rome and Venice, I was too preoccupied with gelato or the Colosseum or whether to blow all my lire on a die-cast scale model of a Ferrari 308 GTB to notice that I’d stumbled into soccer’s spiritual home. My only football-related memory of that summer is the replica shirts on display at market stalls outside the Uffizi, and being drawn to the azure blue of Napoli — not due to Maradona, but because the team’s jersey was emblazoned with the logo of my favourite chocolate bar.

I was lucky enough to return to Italy the following year, and the year after that, and the one after that, until the question as to where we’d spend our summer holidays was no longer asked. Meanwhile somewhere along the way a light-switch had been flicked and by the time the 1990 World Cup had started I was a borderline soccer obsessive. I don’t know how it happened. The transformation came almost overnight, like magic.

My family had made several Italian friends, and they all loved indulging me in conversations about Gary Lineker or Totò Schillaci. Some friends of ours had a house near the coast of northern Tuscany, not far from Massa-La Spezia. On our way back from the beach we’d often stop for a late afternoon drink at Bar Sport, a dusty little café located between a fork in the road and a railroad crossing. It was operated by a woman and her daughter, and was the kind of place where old men sat and drank aperitivi while kids in flip-flops played videogames in the back. It was here one sultry afternoon that I first came across a newspaper called La Gazzetta dello Sport. I probably first picked it up because it was printed on pale pink paper, something I considered to be most unusual. Once unfolded it covered the entire table, forcing others to lift up their drinks. Most interesting to me however, was that it appeared to be devoted solely to football.

Of course, as its name confirms la Gazzetta is technically a sports daily, but anyone who’s been to Italy knows that sport means 90% football and 10% everything else. That’s how it was for me too. I immediately became fascinated by this alluring and exotic publication, a pink-and-black window into the culture of calcio. It became my portal into a world – Italy, football, Italian football. I already knew I wanted it, and had now been presented with a chance to get to know it better.

Suddenly my visits to Bar Sport became less about liquid refreshment and more about whether or not Sampdoria were really going to sell Gianluca Vialli. My Italian at the time being limited to the usual first words (ciao, grazie, margherita, gelato), I was initially drawn not to the speculative articles but to the daily double-page spread highlighting the goings-on in Serie A’s summer transfer campaign. This section featured a complex table which detailed the players each team had already bought and sold, who they were still hoping to buy, and what the probable starting line-ups would be come the start of the new season.

Soon my first task upon entering a bar, any bar, was to scan for la Gazzetta, which usually lurked folded on the counter or at an empty table. At this point I still didn’t have the money or language skills to justify purchasing the paper for myself, and when the bar’s copy remained occupied I’d sit and fidget impatiently without touching my glass of acqua minerale. But quickly, out of a sheer desire to understand, I picked up the meanings of several words and began to grasp phrases in Italian, albeit most of them football terms and sporting jargon: acquisti, cessioni, trattative, probabile formazione

Obviously, Italy in the summer is great for lounging poolside but as any Inter fan knows the game isn’t played under the ombrellone. La Gazzetta takes on much greater relevance once the season has begun and there’s some actual football to talk about. Monday’s issue traditionally sells the most copies, since it contains all the reportage and post-mortem of the weekend’s games. My Dad used to travel to Italy for work once or twice a year, and he began bringing Monday’s Gazzetta home for me. This is when I first became aware of le pagelle, the paper’s individual reviews and votes for each player’s performance after each match. According to common pagelle thought, a six is considered sufficiente. Several players have received a nine, but not even Platini, Maradona or Van Basten ever scored a perfect ten.

In 1992 the British terrestrial network Channel 4 began televising live Serie A matches, a decision which initially coincided with the transfer of English stars Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Des Walker to Italian clubs. The show quickly transcended these players’ activities however and stuck around long after their Italian adventures had ended. A new legion of Italian soccer fans in the UK were rapidly converted by what was at the time universally considered “the best league in the world”. Particularly popular was the Saturday morning highlights show Gazzetta Football Italia whose host, the peerless James Richardson, would present an irreverent and informed perusal through the week’s football papers from an elegant piazza somewhere in Italy. When I wasn’t hatching a plan to steal Richardson’s job, I was delighted to have a slice of the Italian life I yearned for beamed into my living room.

My family returned to Serriciolo, the town where I’d first picked up la Gazzetta, during the World Cup of 1994. The day we drove down through Switzerland Italy were playing Spain in the quarter-final. I remember because the man in the tollbooth was watching the match on a portable TV and told us the latest score as we exited the autostrada (“Uno-zero, Dino Baggio”). We watched an inspired Italian team dispose of Bulgaria in the semi-final at Bar Sport, where for the final against Romario’s Brazil they moved the TV outside into the car park and set up rows of seats for locals to come and watch. I sat wearing my blue Italy shirt holding a tricolore flag on a stick which I’d bought six years earlier in Siena. I felt a strong connection to the Azzurri — after all, the country had played as much a part in my football life as anywhere else. When Roberto Baggio’s penalty sailed over the bar into the southern California sky those feelings grew even deeper. Women and children were in tears, and powerless ragazzi began hurling plastic and wooden chairs over the fence and onto the train tracks out of sheer frustration. The next morning la Gazzetta had sold out at the local newspaper shop, so the woman who ran the bar gave me her copy as a souvenir. It was stapled, and the front page read “Poker Brasile”.

After high school I began studying Italian at university, and a couple of years later I embarked on a study abroad program in the northern Italian town of Pavia. I moved in with another student named Federico who as luck would have it was a fellow soccer nut, and an avid Milan fan. After our first weekend in the apartment together, he turned to me over breakfast. “It’s Monday,” he said. “Which means there’s something very important you have to do this morning.” “What’s that?” I asked, imagining some typically Italian bureaucratic nightmare I was unaware of, with long queues and unhelpful clerks. Federico’s eyes widened. “Buy la Gazzetta!”

I was delighted to have found a like mind with whom to share my passion for calcio, which had now become a full-blown obsession and a personal area of encyclopedic expertise. In Pavia I’d leave the house each morning with 3,000 lire: 1,500 for la Gazzetta and 1,500 for a coffee at the bar. I’d then come home and read the paper cover to cover at the kitchen table until lunchtime, when Federico and I would eat spaghetti or tortellini and discuss the day’s big stories.

Sometimes we’d even buy Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based rival to Milan’s Gazzetta. Italy actually has three sports dailies, although I considered Turin’s Tuttosport shameless in both its outlandish front page stories and clear bias towards Juventus. By now I had become fiercely loyal to la Gazzetta, or “la Rosea” as Federico sometimes called it. Both Tuttosport and Corriere are printed on plain off-white newspaper, and neither could entice me as la Gazzetta first had all those years ago.

I spent most weekends in Milan, either shopping or attending a game at San Siro, where la Gazzetta served as both half-time entertainment and a handy seat cushion. Whether on the train or at the stadium I soon realised that carrying la Gazzetta in Italy provided me with a sort of camouflage, a quick and easy prop for instantly fitting in. Just as I’d always been able to identify Italian paninari in London by their 501s and Invicta rucksacks, surely no-one would peg me as a tourist with la Gazzetta tucked under my arm.

Now fluent in Italian, I returned to Cambridge where I was able to continue reading la Gazzetta on a daily basis. Happily for me, more often than not it was the only newspaper left unread at the Italian coffee shop where I’d stop for a macchiato each afternoon. After graduation I moved back home where foreign newspapers are harder to come by. As I result I’d even resort to taking the twenty-minute train ride to the next big town to get my hands on Monday’s Gazzetta (on Tuesdays, since it always arrived a day late).

My future uncertain (apart from knowing I didn’t want to live in small-town England), I moved back to Italy with the hope of making some kind of life there. I had one or two work prospects and stayed with a family friend in the town of Borgo San Lorenzo, an hour north of Florence. Borgo was a quiet town — fortunately I knew a lot of people and was quickly introduced to more. I even began giving English lessons and Art History lectures at the local high school, where I learned that my favourite newspaper was a useful social tool with which to ingratiate myself to the local ragazzi, affording me minor celebrity status among under-25s in the Borgo San Lorenzo area. For hoards of small-town Tuscan teens I wasn’t just the English guy, I was the English guy that reads la Gazzetta and supports Fiorentina.

For work (and social life) purposes I moved to Florence, where I was one of thousands of foreigners, but still probably the only one with a folded Gazzetta permanently in his back pocket. By this time the paper had become such a part of my life that I even brought my copy with me when purchasing a bag at Emporio Armani, just to make sure it would fit snugly inside. The newsstand on the corner of Viale Matteotti was my first stop every morning; after a few weeks I no longer had to tell the guy which paper I wanted. He even saved the issues I’d missed when I went home for long weekends. We never chatted for longer than thirty seconds at a time, and subjects didn’t extend far beyond the plight of Fiorentina or the weather. Imagine his surprise when after several months he discovered I was English! Over a period of a couple of years I can recall not buying la Gazzetta on only a handful of occasions: once when I overslept, once when staying in the remote countryside and once after the most severe snowstorm to hit Florence since 1985. Not counting those rare exceptions I was never without it; just as Linus had his security blanket, I had my Gazzetta. It was quite literally la vie en rose.

The twenty-first century Gazzetta now cost one euro, and had begun to enhance its own legend with full-colour graphics, a glossy Saturday supplement called SportWeek, and limited edition DVDs celebrating the soccer’s former greats. One day I was stunned to see that the paper had turned green to promote the release of the movie Shrek 2. Inside I learned that when it was formed in 1896 la Gazzetta had originally been printed on green pages, before switching to pink three years later. Undoubtedly, its distinctive colour has helped it stand out from the competition, but also seep into the Italian consciousness as a beloved national institution, even among those who’ve never read it in their lives.

Though I never missed an issue, my life — both professional and personal — had become so busy that I rarely had time to open it. Some days I’d only get the chance to unfurl the morning’s Gazzetta after getting into bed at night; in extreme cases I’d reluctantly place it atop a growing stack of newspapers that had been saved for a later date. I began to question my motives for buying la Gazzetta every single day. Was it because I wanted to, or because I felt I had to? That pink newspaper had become such an everyday part of me I didn’t even think about it. It was a piece of my personality I had to maintain. No longer just a morning ritual, it had become a habit, and when I calculated how much I’d spent on it down the years I felt like a total idiot.

Giving up la Gazzetta in a World Cup year was always going to be tough, and let’s say that I failed miserably. In the summer of 2006 I watched every Italy match at the same café, where the paper sat carefully folded on my lucky table #5 during the Azzurri’s dramatic and unexpected road to glory. The celebrations lasted all night, and by dawn Piazza Duomo was a sea of green broken glass. At around 7 o’clock a truck pulled up and dumped bundles of newspapers onto the ground, each one featuring the same front page photo of a jubilant Fabio Cannavaro holding aloft the World Cup trophy. The truck driver cut open the package and handed me la Gazzetta: it was still warm, like the fresh bomboloni at Pasticceria Donnini.

Suddenly my unwavering devotion to La Gazzetta seemed less foolish. It had taught me more about Italian culture and history than any textbook, and it was precisely for moments like this that I’d read it with almost religious regularity for so many years. Italy’s fourth World Cup victory had come after years of hard luck and controversy — I wasn’t even Italian, but I felt like I’d earned it.

It’s easy to live in Italy, it’s much harder to stay there. Not because life isn’t pleasant — it’s rarely anything else, and therein lies the problem. I knew if I ever left la Gazzetta would be one of the three things I’d miss the most (panettone and Campari Soda are the other two). In New York I can still live like an Italian to an extent, except here few people want to talk about football, and a black-and-white version of la Gazzetta on darker pink paper now costs three dollars. Not long after I moved to America the paper underwent a radical transformation from broadsheet to tabloid format, a revamp which was accompanied by a high-budget television commercial and a guerilla advertising campaign in which pink confetti fell like snow onto Milan’s centro storico. The effect was like seeing a best friend who’d undergone an ill-conceived cosmetic procedure. In the last few years La Gazzetta has seen more changes at the top than Juventus since calciopoli, and each new director has tampered with both its appearance and philosophy. I ended my readership on principle (the exorbitant cost may have also had something to do with it) and instead began consulting gazzetta.it for my Serie A news. I’m the first to admit that a flickering LCD screen can’t beat crisp newsprint, but knowing that la Gazzetta was no longer the same made me miss it a lot less.

Last month I returned to Italy with work. It was my first time back since leaving Florence, and I was excited to indulge in old pleasures. It was a Saturday morning when I arrived at Malpensa airport, and I was already glancing through la Gazzetta with a coffee at the bar as my colleagues waited at the carousel for their luggage. Driving through the foggy plains of Lombardy — where a decade earlier I’d lived as a student — I began thinking about Italy, and how the country had shaped my adult life over the last two decades. I’ve certainly spent significantly more of my “grown-up” years there than I have in my own country. It’s where I got my first real job, where I first paid a bill or monthly rent, where I learned to make a devastating spaghetti carbonara, where I once shook hands with Paolo Maldini. I even met my wife there.

It occurred to me that the one constant through all of this has been pink soccer daily la Gazzetta dello Sport, to this day the only newspaper I’ve ever bought with any degree of frequency. Much has changed in the last twenty years — Italy certainly has, and in many ways so have I. But my love for that country and its calcio has never waned. Call it nostalgia or a simple passion for a certain modo di vivere, but whenever I wake up in Florence or Milan or Rome my first thoughts are always the same: Gazzetta, cappuccino, brioche — in that order.

Morality misinterpreted

The World Cup wouldn’t be the World Cup without its highly controversial episodes, and in the last week this tournament’s been full of them. Thanks to the blogtacular age we live in, such events can propel fans around the globe to vociferously express their unsolicited points of view. What’s most remarkable this year however, is that the incident that’s got everybody talking the most wasn’t all that controversial. But it was certainly dramatic. With the quarter-final between Ghana and Uruguay poised at 1-1 in extra-time, an entertaining and closely fought match was just seconds away from a penalty shoot-out when Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez cleared Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header off the line with his fists, thus illegally preventing an almost certain winning goal. Portuguese referee Olegário Benquerença had no hesitation in showing Suarez a red card and awarding a penalty to the Ghana, which Asamoah Gyan crashed against the crossbar with the last kick of the game. Uruguay won the subsequent penalty shoot-out 4-2, and advanced to the semi-finals for the first time since 1970.

Perhaps Suarez did little to ingratiate himself to Ghanaian fans when, moments after receiving his marching orders, he interrupted his journey back to the dressing room to celebrate Gyan’s penalty miss while halfway down the tunnel. After the game he perhaps overstepped the boundaries of good taste in comparing his crime to the most famous handball of all. “The Hand of God now belongs to me,” he joked, a reference to Diego Maradona’s fisted goal against England in 1986 which is likely to garner more headlines in England than in Ghana.

But while Suarez will, as expected, sit out Uruguay’s semi-final against Holland on Tuesday, there are those that feel that this particular sporting injustice warrants further investigation, starting with a lengthier suspension than just the compulsory one-match ban. Those outraged by the incident say Suarez — and Uruguay as a team — need to be suitably punished. What they fail to remember is that the appropriate punishment was dealt immediately, in the form of a red card for Suarez and a penalty for Ghana. After that it was up to the Ghanaian player to score; it’s not Uruguay’s fault that he didn’t. Any player who wouldn’t have done the same thing as Suarez surely shouldn’t be playing professional football, an attitude shared it seems by anyone who has ever involved in the game, judging by the solidarity shown to the Uruguayan by television’s legion of football punditry.

In a World Cup which saw two staggering errors by officials the last round, this latest controversy — unlike those involving Frank Lampard and Carlos Tevez last weekend — at least cannot be pinned on the referee. The incident inevitably drew comparisons with Thierry Henry’s handball against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup play-off back in December, in which the French forward controlled the ball with his arm before laying on a pass for William Gallas to score the winning goal. But Henry’s crime was far worse than Suarez’s, for two reasons. Firstly, the circumstances were not so extreme as to cause Henry to act instinctively: it was not the final minute of the match, and had Henry let the ball fall out of play he would have only conceded a goal-kick. Secondly, and far more importantly, is the fact that Henry’s foul was not spotted by the referee.

In basketball, towards the end of every close game (the final two minutes) the trailing team commits tactical fouls in the hope that the opposition will miss the free throw, allowing them to retain possession as quickly as possible. What we saw in Johannesburg was essentially the same tactic applied to football. It doesn’t happen often in football simply because the consequences (penalty, red card) are far greater. Had Suarez committed the handball earlier in the match it would have been riskier for the team, but since it was in the dying moments he decided it was preferable to Uruguay’s almost certain elimination had he let the ball flown past him and into the net. A friend of mine pointed out that this incident was unusual because Suarez had no incentive not to commit the foul (besides jeopardizing his own personal involvement in a possible penalty shoot-out and the rest of the tournament) due to it occurring in the last minute of extra-time. But how does a referee determine at what point there would have been an incentive to concede the goal? Those who follow football are always complaining about a lack of consistency among officials; it would be highly hypocritical, as well as ludicrous, to expect a referee to apply different measures based on the match’s circumstances or how many minutes are left on the clock.

Many have gone so far as to brand Suarez a cheat. But breaking the rules and cheating are not the same thing. To cheat is to break the rules while seeking to avoid punishment. Of course, if a player breaks the rules he should be punished accordingly. But how have these critics managed to quantify the morality of a foul? By their rationale, should a defender not bring down a forward if he’s through on goal because it would be immoral? A foul is a foul: a trip in midfield is punished with a free-kick for the opposition; a handball on the goal-line is punished with red card and a penalty. What’s the difference?

Moreover, Suarez was not trying to cheat. He knew what he was doing and what punishment would be forthcoming (despite his “Who me?” gesture towards the referee as he brandished the red card). To describe Suarez’s actions as “immoral” is to suggest he shouldn’t have committed the foul in the first place. This, to me, is a moral misinterpretation of the game. When you begin saying that certain fouls should not be committed in the name of sportsmanship, the whole sport unravels and is rendered pointless. Players have no moral obligation to FIFA, God, or anyone else – that’s why there is a referee. There is nothing whatsoever immoral about a handball: it was a foul, and on this occasion under extremely dramatic circumstances, but the referee saw it and made the correct decisions. Had he missed the incident, then there would have been suitable cause for outrage.

By extraordinary coincidence, Ghana were involved in an almost identical incident earlier in the tournament, when Australia’s Harry Kewell used his arm to stop a shot on the goal-line for which he was rightly sent off. Had Gyan tucked his penalty away against Uruguay as he had against the Socceroos, I doubt many people would have spent the weekend criticising the South Americans. This reveals a tiresome double-standard among football followers, and shows exactly to what extent most people who saw an injustice in Friday night’s game allowed their opinions to be swayed by context. Several neutral fans I’ve spoken to about the handball incident strongly disagree with my take on it and have all put forward arguments as to why. But they are ultimately united in their inability to assert real culpability, each independently and vaguely describing Suarez’s actions as “not right.” If you can’t blame the player, and you can’t blame the referee, perhaps on this occasion there is no-one to blame.

Not quite the end of the world

Remember the name: Kamil Kopúnek. For Italian fans the Slovakian can now take his place alongside Pak Doo-Ik and Ahn Jung-Hwan on the Azzurri’s podium of World Cup infamy. It may seem an unlikely trio, but all three players have in their time put paid to the Italy’s World Cup hopes, and in doing so represent the lowest points in the four-time winners’ otherwise impressive tournament record. But while defeats to North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002 sent shockwaves reverberating around the football world, Italy’s lacklustre performance and ultimate capitulation in 2010 had a certain inevitability. After disappointing 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, a win – while not essential – was certainly the Italian objective in their final group match against Slovakia. Instead, the Azzurri found themselves two goals down after 73 minutes, and despite rallying a late fight-back, Italy’s elimination was effectively sealed the moment late substitute Kopúnek burst between two defenders to lift the ball over Fabrizio Marchetti with his very first touch of the game. So low were expectations surrounding the defending champions’ campaign in South Africa that reaction to Slovakia’s third goal was less one of outrage and more a collective groan of relief and resignation.

Italy’s disastrous exit from the World Cup in 2010 made the euphoria of Italy’s victory in Berlin – still fresh in the memories of all Italians – suddenly seem every bit four years ago. In 2006, few would have predicted both finalists in Germany crashing out at the first hurdle in South Africa. And yet while the French can point to internal struggles and their federation’s misguided faith in an increasingly eccentric coach, whose bizarre alienation of fans, press, staff and players is reason enough for their shambolic demise, the Italians have fewer excuses. Certainly that was the view of fans, who on Italy’s return from South Africa, subjected their fallen heroes to a tirade of jeers and abuse as they trudged with hung heads through the arrivals gate at Rome’s Fiumicino airport.

To assess just how Italy went from World Champions to national disgrace requires a quick rewind to Berlin four years ago, when, just as in 1982, Italy’s national team emerged from the wreckage of domestic scandal as unlikely but worthy World Cup winners. The Italian coach Marcello Lippi had already decided not to renew his expiring contract with the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio), and three days after enjoying what he described as his “most satisfying moment as a coach”, was replaced by former Italian international Roberto Donadoni. It was a surprising choice: Donadoni’s greatest achievement as a coach so far had been to lead unfashionable Livorno to the top half of Serie A, and he certainly lacked experience at a major club. He was also faced the unenviable task of taking over a winning team in which any negative result is bound to be greeted with criticism. With the team still riding the highs of Berlin, Donadoni’s side’s performances were always going to compare unfavourably with Lippi’s, and the new coach struggled to assert his own identity on the world champions. It was a reign which seemed doomed from the start: Donadoni’s contract contained a clause stating it would only be renewed should Italy reach the semi-finals of Euro 2008 — when Italy were eliminated in a penalty shoot-out by Spain in the quarter-finals, everyone knew the game was up.

More surprising was what was to follow. The FIGC, in an unexpected move, recalled Lippi, who had spent the two years since the World Cup on the beach and at home in the Tuscan coastal town of Viareggio, basking in his new life as a national hero. Arriving at his first press conference since being recalled out of retirement, Lippi appeared tanned and relaxed, happy to once again don the federation blazer and “ready to pick up where [he] left off.” This statement of intent sent a twinge of discomfort down the spines of watching fans. The phrase “minestra riscaldata”, literally “reheated soup” is used in Italian soccer circles to describe the ill-conceived return of an ex-player or coach to his place of former glory, the idea being that it’s never as good second time around. Keen observers had to ask why Lippi, having achieved the sport’s ultimate accolade, would choose to give up a life of permanent hero-status to take Italy to another World Cup? The Azzurri’s victory in 2006 may have seemed unlikely at the outset, but even less probable was a repeat in 2010. Only Vittorio Pozzo, Italy’s coach in 1934 and 1938, had led a team to back-to-back successes, and not since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 had a nation won two World Cups on the bounce. Yet Lippi seemed happy to risk forever tarnishing his image of cigar-chomping hero of Berlin by attempting this extraordinary double.

Italy’s World Cup-winning captain, Fabio Cannavaro, was guilty of a similar arrogance. Unlike former captain Paolo Maldini, (who retired from international football after the 2002 World Cup, only to watch his would-be teammates lift the trophy four years later), Cannavaro had won it all but still wanted more, just like Lippi. Majestic at the World Cup four years ago, his performances in Germany were enough to earn him the Ballon d’Or in 2006. A World Cup victory seemed like a natural moment to call it a day, yet Cannavaro continued to lead the Azzurri, despite showing inconsistent form since returning to Juventus from Real Madrid. Once one of Italy’s quickest defenders, Cannavaro’s rapid decline culminated, sadly, in being made to look every bit the 36-year-old in South Africa.

The defending champions qualified for South Africa relatively comfortably, yet Lippi’s dependence on the core group of players that had triumphed in 2006 spoke volumes about not just his short-term priorities but also his obsession with Italy’s World Cup win four years earlier. Many questioned the reliance on certain players from Juventus: given the Turin club’s poor season the inclusion of wayward stars Camoranesi, Iaquinta and the aforementioned Cannavaro this time around seemed to have more to do with Lippi’s strong ties to his former employers. Lippi’s coaching philosophy emphasises team spirit and unity, but while the heroes of Berlin still had a role to play, many had lost the form they’d showed four years ago, and – perhaps more importantly – all were four years older. Lippi’s responded to critics by reminding them of his World Cup pedigree, and to those who raised concerns over the age of the squad pointed out that its average age was actually younger than in 2006. But in Germany Lippi had struck upon a group of top professionals players at their peak, in 2010 the gulf between levels of experience was startling.

Perhaps in an attempt to silence doubters Lippi selected several younger players who shared just a few caps between them as late inclusions into the squad. All had enjoyed positive domestic seasons yet none had been used regularly during Italy’s qualifying campaign and all lacked international experience (the fact that most were plucked from Serie A’s smaller clubs meant they were unfamiliar with the kind of pressure reserved for top-of-the-table clashes or matches in the Champions League). Though their selection seemed a knee-jerk reaction by Lippi, some of these players were immediately thrown into the deep-end in South Africa. Genoa left-back Domenico Criscito and Fiorentina’s elegant playmaker Riccardo Montolivo acquitted themselves well in tough circumstances, but others, such as Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio and Cagliari goalkeeper Fabrizio Marchetti, appeared out of their depth. Montolivo and Marchetti only became first choices due to injuries to otherwise certain starters: Milan’s regista Andrea Pirlo damaged a calf just days before the tournament, while Gigi Buffon bowed out at half-time in Italy’s opening match after aggravating a problem with his sciatic nerve, an injury which ruled him out of the rest of the competition.

Though injuries to key men naturally proved a massive blow for Italy, the team was further hampered by Lippi’s disparate squad, which consisted of too many players unused to performing at this level. For a country with a long history of world-class playmakers, Italy went into this World Cup without an out-and-out number ten, a designated trequartista or fantasista in the Roberto Baggio mould. Without a player with such qualities, in all three of their matches Italy looked desperately short of creativity in the final third. At 35, Alessandro Del Piero was judged past his prime, while Francesco Totti’s protracted retirement from international football had effectively excluded him from rejoining the squad. Lippi’s stubbornness is perhaps most evident in his failure to call temperamental forwards Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli to the international fold. While Balotelli still shows regular signs of immaturity, Cassano has consistently impressed for Sampdoria over the last two seasons, helping the Genoese club to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in eighteen years. Yet Lippi continued to ignore him to the frustration of fans, often refusing to answer the press’s questions regarding the player’s exclusion.

The attitude of Italians — coaches, players, press, fans — before a World Cup is typically one of cautious optimism (or false pessimism). You may say Italians love a crisis: it takes the pressure off and makes an ultimately positive campaign all the more enjoyable. The national team is a notoriously slow starter in major tournaments, and most fans expect a rocky road to success. Yet this year Italy started poorly and only got worse, and there was a pervading sense of imminent failure prior to the defeat against Slovakia.

South Africa 2010 officially ranks as Italy’s worst ever World Cup performance. Just as in 1966 and 1974, the Azzurri failed to progress from the group stage, but this year they were unable to record a single victory in three matches — against Paraguay, New Zealand or Slovakia — finishing bottom of Group F. Following the disastrous elimination, it was Lippi who predictably received most of the blame. The coach even shouldered all responsibility in his post-match press conference.

Certainly Italy’s notorious press was quick to pounce. Alberto Cerruti, chief football correspondent of the Milan-based daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, described Italy’s performance as “unwatchable”, but seemed particularly disappointed with the casual manner in which Italy’s hard-earned title was relinquished. The director of Rome’s Corriere dello Sport, Alessandro Vocalelli, was more scathing, appearing on an online video just hours after the final whistle to bemoan Lippi’s “incomprehensible selections and inexplicable tactics” which had resulted in a “total, humiliating failure, from which nobody should be exculpated.” Yet others saw a greater issue with Italian football at large. Former Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi, himself no stranger to the scorn of critics, felt the root of the problem lay in Italy’s culture of “ignorance and violence”, citing a “crisis in the Italian system.”

Sacchi may be going too far by condemning contemporary Italian society, yet the state of the country’s game has been in decline for several years, to the extent in which it has become almost de rigeur to disparage Serie A, Italy’s domestic championship, once the most admired league in Europe. Sacchi pointed to the fact that Italian clubs crashed out prematurely in European competition last season. The one exception, Inter, have a foreign coach and an almost completely foreign squad. Indeed, of the twenty-three players Lippi took to South Africa, not one hailed from José Mourinho’s treble winners, the first time ever an Italian World Cup squad has not contained a single player from the nerazzurri. The conclusion one takes from this is that there is an excess of foreign players in Italy, whose presence denies promising Italian youngsters the chance of breaking through at the biggest clubs. Consequently, Italy’s 2010 squad included players from Genoa, Bari, Udinese and Cagliari, clubs hardly renowned for providing members of the Italian national team.

There are those in Italy that have suggested the return of a restriction on the number of foreign players a team may field at one time. But Italy is definitely not the only nation with a strong domestic league faced with this dilemma. England has also discovered that top-class foreigners may make for an entertaining league but their presence can be detrimental to the national team’s success. Spain – despite the plethora of foreign players in La Liga – seem to have solved this problem by selecting a squad mostly comprised of players from the two biggest clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid. In contrast, German clubs work in closer conjunction with its federation, and their philosophy of investing in youth rather than spending heavily naturally encourages a strong national side.

FIGC president Giancarlo Abete has already announced an inquiry into Italian football’s “structural crisis”, but to suggest a shake-up of Italian system is excessive. The problems cited as causes of Italy’s poor displays in 2010 were already in place in 2006, when Italian football was also still reeling from the aftershocks of calciopoli. Some claimed it was this scandal which galvanized the team to victory in Germany, and Italian players certainly appeared lacking in motivation in South Africa. But Lippi was correct to blame himself: his return was gearing solely towards this event, and so he had no interest in making long-term plans and no vision of the future since it did not concern him. He was obsessed with the victory of 2006, and intent on repeating it all costs, at the expense of his own better judgment. Sadly for Italy, he did not have the means — either tactically or technically — to realize that dream. The FIGC showed desperate short-sightedness in rehiring Lippi, who in turn showed an alarming degree of footballing-masochism in attempting a second win in succession. For all Donadoni’s inexperience, had the Italian federation stuck by him Italy would have probably arrived in South Africa with a more balanced and settled side. Likewise the younger players who did not appear ready at this tournament would have no doubt been groomed specifically in preparation for the World Cup stage.

The effects of calciopoli have tempered spending in Italy, and over the last two seasons the biggest Italian clubs –Inter, Milan, Juventus, Roma, Fiorentina and Sampdoria — have put their faith in local young players who have grown into first-team regulars. Lippi’s replacement, 52-year-old Cesare Prandelli, has been selected by the FIGC specifically for his proven track-record with younger players. At Verona, Parma and Fiorentina specifically, Prandelli had built attack-minded teams around the promise of youth. Though he spent six seasons as a player at Juventus, Prandelli may benefit from having never coached one of Italy’s biggest clubs, and his lack of close connections to Italian football’s superpowers may work in his favour. Certainly he will employ a fresher, more open approach to player selection, already stating that Cassano and Balotelli will figure in his plans. More unexpected were his comments surrounding the sometimes controversial oriundi (naturalised citizens eligible for the national team) whom he declared “new Italians.”

While Italians may be Italy’s biggest fans, they’re also its harshest critics, and once the dust settles on Lippi’s second era in charge they’ll probably realise the future doesn’t appear quite so bleak. It would take a brave man to bet against Italy going far in Brazil in 2014. As this World Cup has already proven, four years can be an awfully long time in football.

Breakfast in America

In case you hadn’t noticed, the World Cup got underway last weekend in South Africa. For one month every four years, the planet’s greatest sporting event has, historically, had a tendency to consume my every waking second. This year is no different, although since Italy lifted the trophy in 2006 I’ve obtained United States residency, meaning I am experiencing the tournament from this side of the Atlantic for the very first time. This situation has led to some interesting observations, some more expected than others, as I grapple with the clichéd notion of being an avid soccer nut in a country that — as we’re so often told — just doesn’t care.

Johannesburg is six hours ahead of New York, so I get to watch the day’s earliest match before leaving for work. Once in the office I close my internet browser and hunker down until I can return home, where, thanks to the miracle of DVR, two more games await my viewing pleasure. Though avoiding the score has proven more difficult than expected. I’ve had to change my route several times when I’ve seen soccer fans amassed outside a sports bar, and was even forced to move to the other end of a subway car when I heard some Brazilians talking futebol.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to set the alarm for football matches. During the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan (when I was still living in England), most games were scheduled for the early morning, a novelty which resulted in BBC commentator John Motson developing a tiresome fixation with breakfast-related puns. Watching football on American networks can also bewilder, but for entirely different reasons. I still don’t understand why the commentary is called “the call” (as in “Martin Tyler with the call”) or why half-time is known simply as “the half” (“We’re goalless at the half.”). The alternative is the local Spanish language channel Univision, where the World Cup is co-hosted by young latinas in figure hugging national team jerseys, and any punditry is generally forsaken in favor of dancing, chanting and fervent flag-waving. Over on ESPN coverage is generally quite polished, with some big names on the panel: Klinsmann, Gullit, McManaman, McCoist, Lalas, Bartlett, Martinez (OK, some names are bigger than others). It’s clear the anchors are being fed information about players and previous tournaments by a soccer intern with encyclopedic knowledge of World Cup history, in a desperate but comprehensible attempt to dispel the myth that Americans know nothing about the game.

Whether you see it as a failure or a refusal, the fact that America has never fully embraced soccer is both fuel for those who dismiss the sport and a burden to its genuine fans. New York, of course, is a bit different. The city is still a natural port of call for anyone arriving from overseas or across the border, and some 36% of the current population is foreign-born. That’s a lot of soccer fans. New York State has no official language: English is obviously the de facto language but of the nine million people who live in the city less than half are native English speakers. On a day like today — when the air is thick and temperatures hit the mid-90s and football is blaring out of every bar, deli and taxicab – New York feels a lot closer to Naples or São Paulo than the United States.

That’s not to say the locals don’t make themselves heard. Yesterday I saw dozens of young Americans in USA jerseys heading to bars to watch their team’s match with Slovenia, while for several weeks shoppers on 57th Street have been subjected to Clint Dempsey’s screaming face looming large on the exterior of NikeTown. The United States’ games have even made the front pages of the Times, Post and Daily News. Despite only intermittent success in recent years, interest in the national team has steadily risen to a point where they today merit respect and generate media frenzy and support during the World Cup. Many casual American soccer fans become genuinely curious about the tournament, and perhaps even a tad envious of the kind of passion it invokes in people of other nationalities.

But come September it’s unlikely these same fans will be getting up at nine on a Sunday morning to watch European league matches. For this reason I sometimes sympathize with the professionals representing the United States, as they’ve had to work doubly hard to garner support from skeptics and casual, fair-weather fans whose interest is piqued only every four years. It’s like when people get excited about synchronized swimming during the Olympics.

A college friend of mine (and self-confessed soccer ignoramus) wrote to me recently asking me for my take on why the game has never taken off in the United States. After all, since the 1960s a host of characters from the worlds of football, politics, entertainment and business have tried to make soccer a more serious sport here, without ever fully succeeding. In the 1970s some of the sport’s biggest names — including Pele, Beckenbauer, Best and Cruyff — made the NASL a marketing man’s dream, but the novelty wore off by the early 1980s and the league collapsed soon after. In 1994 the United States even hosted a highly successful World Cup (breaking all attendance records), but the MLS (which was created as part of the U.S.’s hosting bid) has had a turbulent history ever since, and remains a relatively weak league whose rosters are populated mainly by young American talent and veterans from South America, despite more recent high-profile European arrivals, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry.

Soccer is the most played sport at high-school level in this country, and extremely popular in the major cities and particularly among the under-30s, but I don’t think it will ever “take off” in the way my friend was implying. The problem is precisely that: football doesn’t really “take off” anywhere – it’s ingrained culturally and people either get it or they don’t. Sadly for America everyone gets it but them. In Asia, large populations with growing economies such as Japan, China and India, have embraced the game more fervently in recent years, but they didn’t have their own hugely popular and highly lucrative sports leagues in place. In the United States the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL are very much ingrained; soccer is not really necessary, neither economically nor culturally.

Then of course there is the game itself. A lot has been made of the cautious nature of the first round of matches at this World Cup, but it seems the ones who complain about the football (or the vuvuzelas for that matter) are the ones who don’t really enjoy soccer and probably begrudge having to sit through it. Many Americans I’ve spoken to this week have questioned the number of matches which have ended in parity, their impression being that a tied result is somewhat unsatisfactory. That a game must have a winner strikes me as a deeply American idea. I got into a very heated row with my boss twice this week after he suggested football would be improved if they eliminated draws from the sport entirely. Most surprising when you consider my boss is Italian — albeit one who moved to the Bronx in 1970 and now catches a football match only every four years (and then only when the Azzurri are playing). Major League Soccer conducted a similar experiment when it relaunched back in the mid-nineties. Concerned with the prospect of tied games, the league’s commissioners imposed an instant one-on-one sudden death shoot-out in the event of a match ending level after ninety minutes. In a perverse twist on the penalty shoot-out, the forward would start with the ball from the halfway line with only the goalkeeper to beat. This attempt to avoid alienating mainstream sports fans by making league matches — and penalty kicks themselves — more exciting only alienated soccer purists, and the league soon reverted to a conventional win-lose-draw points system.

In this regard both the MLS and my boss were guilty of seeing the game purely from the perspective of entertainment, which in this case means the ball crossing the goal-line. Personally, I’d always prefer to watch a tight 1-1 draw between two quality teams than an end-to-end goal-fest between two average ones. Fans who describe close World Cup or Champions League matches as “boring” also fail to recognize one of the elements that makes the game so special. Football is different to practically all other sports in that scoring is supposed to be difficult, so when a goal is scored it’s a big deal. It is a game built on patience and tactics, which of course enhances the tension and drama, which in turn are what make important games so absorbing. In basketball there is no element of tension or drama until the last 120 seconds of the fourth quarter, and that’s only if the teams are closely separated.

The very nature of football is contrary to the instant gratification provided by high-scoring American sports, which are first and foremost entertainment (and big business). Football is obviously entertainment in Europe too (and an even bigger business globally), but there are deeper cultural, social and political elements that give the game a greater resonance beyond the stadium, which if you’ve never lived in Europe or South America is perhaps not something that’s easy to comprehend. It’s for these reasons more than any other that I think soccer remains a sport that most Americans won’t think of again for another four years. But until then, if they ever change their minds they know where to find the rest of us.

A career of two halves

Spring is approaching, and true to tradition in World Cup years, serious injuries are beginning to afflict England players faster than you can say “metatarsal.” Unsurprisingly, Michael Owen is among the first to be sidelined. The Manchester United striker has embarked on a slow and sad transformation from master goalscorer to chronic invalid, and today it was announced that he will miss the remainder of the season with a torn hamstring. Owen picked up the injury during United’s Carling Cup Final victory over Aston Villa at Wembley last Sunday. A scan has revealed that what was initially thought to be a slight pull is in fact a full tear, for which the 30-year-old will undergo surgery on Monday, effectively ending the his already slim hopes of making a return to Fabio Capello’s England squad in time for this summer’s tournament in South Africa.

The news comes less than a month after a fractured left ankle jeopardized Ashley Cole’s participation in the World Cup, but for Owen it’s an even bitterer blow: after all, this was supposed to have been his comeback season, in which he would rediscover the form that made him one of Europe’s deadliest marksmen, and hopefully earn a recall to the England squad. At least, that was the plan. It’s just the latest disappointment in a career which in recent years has been defined by long-term injury. This week’s torn hamstring is the tenth severe physical set-back Owen has suffered since he left Liverpool, an endless series of career interruptions which have included a calf strain, three thigh strains, two operations on a broken metatarsal, a concussion, mumps, as well as the injury to the anterior cruciate ligament which put an end to his last World Cup in 2006.

It now appears Owen’s transfer to Real Madrid in the summer of 2004 proved to be a significant turning point in the player’s fortunes. Having waved goodbye to Anfield in part due to Liverpool’s repeated failure to win major trophies, Owen must have felt a slight twinge as he watched his former teammates achieve Champions League success in their first season without him, particularly since he now found himself habitually confined to the bench at the Bernabeu. In 2005, with the World Cup less than a year away, the arrival of Robinho and Julio Baptista at Real prompted Owen to seek first-team football elsewhere. Newcastle United certainly seemed a step backward for the 2001 Ballon d’Or winner, and Owen’s spell on Tyneside was characterized by indifferent performances and erratic fitness, not to mention an unstable St. James’ Park boardroom and management.

In the summer of 2009, following Newcastle’s relegation from the Premier League and the conclusion of his contract with the Magpies, Owen chose Manchester United as the ideal platform from which to relaunch his career, with the ultimate goal of reclaiming his place in the national team. The move to Old Trafford certainly raised some eyebrows. Many fans felt Sir Alex Ferguson was taking an unnecessary gamble, and expressed concern regarding Owen’s inconsistent form and susceptibility to injury. But the season began promisingly. A last-gasp winner in a thrilling 4-3 derby victory over Manchester City and a hat-trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League suggested that United’s risk may just pay off. But since then Ferguson has used Owen fleetingly, and Fabio Capello has been clear in his need for players who are playing regular league football.

Owen scored United’s opening goal last Sunday after only twelve minutes, before the hamstring went and he was forced to limp off before half-time. It leaves Ferguson with a severely depleted forward-line for the rest of the season, with Wayne Rooney’s remarkable recent form scant consolation. Fabio Capello’s World Cup plans are unlikely to be affected: Owen has featured only sparingly since the Italian took over as England coach. Bookmakers are already quoting 1-8 odds against Owen ever pulling on the national jersey again. Owen’s international record currently stands at 40 goals in 89 matches, making him the 7th most capped England player of all time. Only Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves have scored more goals for their country.

If Owen has played his last game for England, it will be a truly sad end for a player who promised much more than he ultimately achieved. Though he worked hard to give himself, his team and country another shot, the odds were always stacked against him. There are those that will say that he’s lost his pace, and that he may not have made Capello’s squad even had he been fit, both of which are valid, sobering points. But for a few years, Owen was as vital a goalscorer for England as Lineker had been a decade earlier. His hat-trick in the 5-1 mauling of Germany in Munich and his goals in the quarter-finals of World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004 remain fresh in the memory, not just for their spectacular opportunism but for their power to make fans believe that anything was possible with him in the side. How Owen’s stuttering demise plays in stark contrast to his fairytale introduction to the world, on a warm night in Saint-Etienne twelve years ago. Not even Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney can claim to have enjoyed such an explosive impact on such an important global stage. No England fan can forget the blurry image of a boyish Owen fizzing across the screen, leaving several Argentine defenders in his wake to score one of the finest goals in World Cup history. That hungry teenager may be all grown up, but one can’t help feel he deserved one more chance to run at them.

Eire of their ways

By the time France’s William Gallas had nodded the ball into the net in extra-time in the second leg of the World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland, effectively securing his country’s passage to South Africa next summer, the debate surrounding the goal had already begun raging.

Just moments earlier, the French captain Thierry Henry had used his arm twice in the build-up: first, to prevent Florent Malouda’s deep free-kick from exiting; then, to bring the ball under control, before tapping it with his foot into the path of Gallas for the defender to score with his head from two yards. As French players celebrated, the Irish protested vehemently, but in vain: neither Swedish referee Martin Hansson nor his two assistants had seen the incident and the goal stood. Having won 1-0 in the first leg in Dublin, a 1-1 draw in Paris was enough for France to qualify for the 2010 tournament with an aggregate score of 2-1. For Ireland, it was a cruel defeat which generated immediate sympathy throughout the football world.

Fans in the Stade de France and those watching around the globe instantly recognised it as a sporting controversy which would live long in the memory — a “Maradona moment”, as the BBC pundit and former Ireland international Mark Lawrenson put it, drawing an obvious comparison with the infamous “Hand of God” incident. Though while undoubtedly the most gifted player of his generation, Diego Maradona’s fisted goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England was generally seen as a piece of plucky opportunism appropriate for a man who, whether in the slums of Buenos Aires or on the football field, had fought adversity his whole life. Thierry Henry may have grown up in a difficult Parisian suburb but his image, especially in England, is one of the cultured Frenchman: a gifted purveyor of the “champagne football” championed by Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, where he was a key player before his transfer to Barcelona in 2007. How could such an elegant professional stoop to commit such a petty crime?

It seems sports commentators and journalists often forget that when competing on grass all footballers, regardless of talent or background or moral composition, usually only have one thing on their minds. Writing in The Times, former Ireland international Tony Cascarino seemed confused that someone who “speaks so eloquently” could also be “insincere, a faker, someone who cares only about himself,” clearly refusing to believe there could be any overlap between articulacy and immorality.

Henry immediately confessed to his offence but seemed reluctant to take sole blame for the outcome. “Yes, there was a handball,” he told reporters after the game. “But I am not the referee. He did not whistle and I continued to play.” He later released a statement in which he further attempted to justify his actions. “It was an instinctive reaction to a ball that was coming extremely fast in a crowded penalty area. As a footballer you do not have the luxury of the television to slow the pace of the ball down to be able to make a conscious decision.”

France’s reaction to the incident and its effect on the game’s outcome was one of extreme discomfort, local newspaper Le Parisien even suggesting that Henry’s handball was “a decisive contribution to the recurring theme: being French is being ashamed of one’s national team.” Henry’s former Arsenal and France teammate Emmanuel Petit described a feeling of embarrassment among the French public. “We didn’t want to qualify in controversial circumstances — the handball will not send out a good message.” A staunch opposer of France’s national team coach Raymond Domenech, World Cup-winning full-back Bixente Lizarazu stated “It was not something to be proud of. I’m not going to party.” Domenech himself appeared the only person involved not to recognise the gravity of the situation. “We needed to qualify and we did that,” he said. “Victories like this one, at the end of a difficult campaign, give this side heart and soul.” Many French fans consider Domenech fortunate to still be employed by the FFF (Féderation de Football Français) following a disastrous early exit at Euro 2008 and a poor qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010.

Robbie Keane, Ireland’s captain and goalscorer on the night hinted at favouritism towards France among Europe’s footballing authorities. “They’re all probably clapping hands, [UEFA President Michel] Platini sitting up there on the phone to [FIFA President] Sepp Blatter, probably texting each other, delighted with the result.”

It was an outburst borne of anger and frustration, but one which caught the ire of the other Keane, Roy, the outspoken and hot-tempered former Irish captain, who saved his criticism for the Irish Football Association. “They can complain all they want but France are going to the World Cup – get over it,” he said. “I’d be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry. Ireland had their chances in the two games, and they never took them — it’s the usual reaction.” Keane also pointed out the fact that controversial decisions had gone in Ireland’s favour during the qualifying campaign, not least a generous penalty award against Georgia which helped them to a 2-1 win back in February: “I don’t remember the FAI after the game saying we should give them a replay.”

In 2002 Keane famously walked out on Ireland’s World Cup squad from its camp in Saipan, Japan, after a row with then-coach Mick McCarthy regarding what he felt were sub-standard training facilities. He has since then continued to criticise the FAI for its disorganization, hypocrisy, and tendency to act victimised. Certainly, the exaggerated actions taken by the FAI following the incident hardly enhanced their reputation, and any sympathy felt towards Ireland was soon undone by its own protests to FIFA. The FAI’s poorly conceived suggestions as to how this footballing injustice might be corrected ranged from naive to ludicrous; acts of desperation rather than any sporting logic.

In the aftermath of the incident, observers on both sides felt the match should be replayed. In an attempt to perhaps absolve himself from culpability, even Henry suggested it would be the “fairest solution.” But while the Irish entertained faint hopes that FIFA could still grant them a second chance at qualification, French players’ choice to side with the wounded party was deeply invested in the knowledge that such a decision had virtually no precedent in international football.

As was expected, the FAI filed a formal complaint with FIFA demanding a replay. Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern also called upon soccer’s governing body to act on the grounds of fair play. Cowen went so far as to raise the issue with Nicolas Sarkozy at an EU summit in Brussels on November 19, a move which was handled with sympathy and diplomacy by the French President, but seen as inappropriate by the French Prime Minister François Fillon, who stated that the “Irish government should not interfere in footballing decisions.”

FIFA’s inevitable response was to reject the FAI’s request on November 20th, six days after the match, in a statement which referred to the Laws of the Game, in which “decisions are taken by the referee and these decisions are final.” The FAI expressed “deep disappointment” at FIFA’s decision, but continued their quest for justice a week later in Zurich, where an Irish delegation met with FIFA President Sepp Blatter to further discuss the matter. The FAI agreed that if the match could not be replayed, they should be allowed to enter the World Cup together with France, as an unprecedented 33rd entrant. This unexpected proposal had the backing of Bono but apparently drew laughter when Blatter brought up the suggestion at a Soccerex conference in Johannesburg.

The reasons why Ireland’s latest request would have been impossible are almost as blatantly obvious as the handball which provoked it. A World Cup requires years of logistical planning: an extra competing nation would require a complete redesign of the tournament’s structure, as fixtures and venues would have to be reconsidered. Secondly and far more serious is the effect such a decision would have on the very credibility of the competition. As Blatter pointed out, if Ireland were to be admitted, Costa Rica would have to be considered also, having been eliminated by an offside goal in their play-off with Uruguay. Which would inevitably lead to every other team who will miss out in South Africa pointing to refereeing decisions that had gone against them. The consequences of which would threaten to plunge FIFA’s system into chaos, jeopardising the entire tournament.

Some have brushed aside Henry’s handball as part of the game: an avoidable but unfortunate occurrence which hurt all teams from time to time. But this leads to a greater and more complex argument: when does an incident in football go from “part of the game” to something worthy of greater investigation? On this issue, Blatter claims “the highest crime in football is touching the ball with your hands.” But surely a foul is a foul, however committed, whether pre-calculated or instinctive. The perpetrator of a particularly violent or cynical challenge can be punished with a yellow or red card, but the opposing team is only ever awarded a free-kick (or penalty kick should the incident take place inside the box), irrespective of the nature of the offence. It has been pointed out that two French players were in offside positions as Malouda struck his free-kick. Had France scored a goal which should have been ruled “merely” offside, would Ireland have been so insistent in their protests to FIFA? The FAI’s suggestion that Henry’s handball was somehow a worse crime than any other foul committed during the match is purely mistaken — it only seemed that way because his was so blatant and directly resulted in a goal.

On a similar note, following a FIFA EGM it was announced that the governing body’s disciplinary committee would open an investigation into the Henry’s handball, with the possibility of a one-match suspension of the player taking effect at the start of the World Cup in June. This decision came after Blatter had told Henry the incident was not his fault. While some claim FIFA have earned back some credibility in singling out Henry, had his handball been spotted by the referee, it would have most likely resulted in nothing more than a free-kick to Ireland and a booking for the culprit. The French captain was criticised for celebrating the goal and said the emotion of the moment had prevented him informing the referee of his handball. Some also took offence to Henry’s deliberate decision to sit with Irish defender Richard Dunne after the final whistle in an act of solidarity, rather than celebrate victory with his teammates (“If I’d have been Irish, he wouldn’t have lasted three seconds,” said former French international Eric Cantona).

Richard Williams, chief sports writer at The Guardian, saw it as “the perfect stage for an act of unselfishness, of honesty, of genuine sportsmanship”, bemoaning Henry for not taking “the opportunity to neutralise the effect of his reflexes.” But surely it is unfair to have expected the player to make such a sportsmanlike decision, or for him now to be made an example of by FIFA for an act which is commonplace. After all, what footballer would have acted differently? Even those involved with Ireland agree the blame must not lie ultimately with the Barcelona forward. “If it was down the other end and it was going out of play, I would have chanced my arm,” said Irish winger Damien Duff. “You can’t blame him — he’s a clever player.” Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland’s veteran Italian coach — a man not unused to being on the losing end of a World Cup controversy — admitted, “It wasn’t up to Henry to say “I touched it with my hand.””

Their knee-jerk treatment of Henry suggests FIFA are still uncertain as to how best handle the situation, while Blatter’s indecision and vague comments have done little to enhance his reputation as a man with little interest in the good of running the game. The man former Irish star Liam Brady described as a “loose cannon” and an “embarrassment to FIFA” this week opined that referee Hansson “should have taken the time to reflect rather than immediately awarding the goal.” Blatter neglected to offer a suggestion as to exactly how much time would have been appropriate, but his refusal to fully blame either Henry or the referee is telling.

Hansson himself seemed happy to avoid taking full responsibility. Though FIFA rules prevent him from discussing the game until the investigation has concluded, Hansson told Swedish press he will “ride this storm,” but that the handball was neither his nor his assistants’ fault. He explained that a graphic printed in The Times, which demonstrates how three Irish players were blocking his view at the vital moment “clears the whole refereeing team in this incident.”

The natural consequence of the Henry affair has been to further strengthen the argument for the introduction of video evidence being available to officials should a referee fail to witness a contentious incident like the handball in Paris. Blatter has consistently opposed the use of technology in football, promising to maintain “the human face of football.” A more feasible alternative in the meantime could be Additional Assistant Referees (AARs), currently under trial in the Europa League, although FIFA has stated that no changes would be introduced in time for next year’s World Cup. In the meantime, Blatter has mentioned the possibility of awarding the FAI what he referred to as “moral compensation” in the form of a special fair play prize, an offer Dunne described as “taking the piss.”

Ireland’s grievance is understandable, but they are not deserving of special treatment. Furthermore, why would they want it? In requesting FIFA bend the rules in their favour they are no less guilty than Henry. They are not the first team to fall victim to a referee’s mistake with plenty at stake, and until FIFA introduces measures to address the problem, will definitely not be the last. But as Thierry Henry tried to explain, sometimes, in the heat of competition, passion and the desire to win can get the better of good judgment and common sense. Take those elements out of football and what are we left with?

San Siro send-off turns sour for capitano Maldini

It was a sunny afternoon in Milan last Sunday as Paolo Maldini led his team out onto the San Siro turf for the final time. The Milan captain was greeted by the fervent roar of home support from a crowd of over 70,000 that had gathered to cheer their hero one last time and to honor an extraordinary career. Each fan waved aloft a special scarf commemorating the occasion, and even the players of Roma, Milan’s opponents for the day, wore GRAZIE PAOLO t-shirts over their playing jerseys as they took to the field.

As the teams lined up, an emotional Maldini saluted his family in the stands, before glancing to catch teammate Andrea Pirlo wiping away tears: “Ragazzi, let’s not start now, eh?” Indeed: despite the celebratory atmosphere, there was a game to be won, and for the victor a potential spot in next season’s Champions League beckoned. Yet it was at this moment that the Curva Sud, the area behind the goal on the second tier which is home to Milan’s most fanatical followers, chose to have its say, by unfurling a large banner which controversially criticized the man of the hour:

“Grazie capitano: sul campo un campione infinito
ma hai mancato di rispetto a chi ti ha arricchito”

“Thank you Captain: on the pitch an ageless champion
but you have shown a lack of respect towards those who made you rich.”

The celebration had been marred by a small section of Milan supporters, who chose Maldini’s farewell home match to turn on their loyal captain. For one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors, a model of service and fair play, it was a shocking reception.

The match kicked-off, and Milan came twice from behind before eventually losing 3-2, a defeat which has thrown their hopes of playing in Europe next season into jeopardy. At the final whistle, all twenty-two players ran to embrace Maldini, who then, at the encouragement of his colleagues, somewhat reluctantly embarked on a weary lap of honor. As he approached the curva, the same disgruntled fans took its second dig at their captain, unveiling a second banner.

“Per i tuoi 25 anni di gloriosa carriera sentiti ringraziamenti
da chi hai definito mercenari e pezzenti”

“For your glorious 25-year career you’ve received praise and thanks
from those you once defined as mercenaries and tramps.”

Spray-painted banners, known as striscioni, are a common sight in Italian soccer stadia, and play a significant role in ultrà culture. Gli ultras are Italian teams’ most die-hard supporters, the kind of people for whom being a football fan is a full-time job. Often topical and usually humorous (ultràs love a good play-on-words), striscioni can be used to great effect in rallying home fans or breaking the tension in an important game. If critical, they generally target the club’s upstairs management or a teams’s poor performances. Rarely do individuals come under personal attack. But in Maldini’s case, it was clear the milanisti had old scores to settle. To further rub salt into Maldini’s wounds, they even dusted off a giant red-and-black striped flag with a huge white number six, the shirt number (since retired) worn by former Milan legend Franco Baresi, from whom Maldini inherited the captain’s armband in 1997. The bitter disappointment was etched on Maldini’s face as he shot a sarcastic thumbs up to his critics on the second tier on the curva — he could even be seen mouthing the words “figli di puttane”, though after the game his only official comment was “I’m proud not to be one of them.”

“It’s my home — it always has been, it always will be.” This is how Paolo Maldini once described Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, more commonly known as San Siro after the area of the city from which its imposing twists of concrete spiral into the Milanese fog. For decades it has been home to both Milanese clubs, Milan and Inter, but far more than just a historic soccer ground, for Maldini the famous stadium has also been his place of employment for the past twenty-four years. Maldini made his Serie A debut for the rossoneri in January 1985; he has since pulled on the red-and-black number three shirt 901 times, collecting seven scudetti (the Italian league championship title) and five European Cups/Champions Leagues in the process. He also won 126 caps for Italy between 1988 and 2002, playing in four World Cup tournaments. Maldini’s berth in football’s hall of fame has been assured for some time. Famed not only for his success but also his longevity, today the Italian is internationally adored and universally recognized as one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game. After extending his contract for one final season in 2008, the Milan captain finally announced his decision to retire from playing at the end of this season, just four weeks before his forty-first birthday.

So why the sudden backlash, and from his own fans no less? Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport tried to get to the bottom of the affair on Monday, even reporting comments of members of those responsible. “We just wanted to make a few things clear to him,” said Giancarlo Lombardi, leader of Milan’s organised support. “Maldini hasn’t always been respectful towards us in the past.” Nicknamed “Sandokan”, Lombardi claimed to be on his way to a bar just yards from Milan’s administrative headquarters in Via Turati. With him was Giancarlo Capelli, also known as “Il Barone”, historic capoultrà of the Curva Sud. Neither man was at Sunday’s game since both are already banned by Italian law from attending sporting events, but their orders had clearly been carried out.

Their grievance goes back to May 2005, when Milan dramatically lost the Champions League final to Liverpool after a penalty shoot-out, despite having galloped to a comfortable 3-0 lead at half-time. On Milan’s return from Istanbul the team ran into a group of hostile fans at Malpensa airport, who told the players they should ask for forgiveness. It was at this moment that Maldini, who had scored the game’s opening goal after just sixty seconds, responded with his now infamous “tramps” remark.

The second incident was before the 2007 Champions League final, in which Milan got their revenge over Liverpool, winning the match 2-1. A large portion of the curva ran into problems with the law in Athens, and did not appreciate Maldini’s decision to distance himself from the issue. As a consequence, the following August the entire curva refused to support the team at the 2007 European Supercup in Monaco, even preventing the more casual fans to cheer as the rossoneri ran out 3-1 winners against Sevilla. The surreal atmosphere continued at Milan’s home games for several months during the 2007-08 season.

“I don’t know why they decided to dredge up these things now,” said Maldini, recalling the incident in Wednesday’s Gazzetta, his first interview since the Sunday’s controversy. “I’ve never had a close relationship with the fans,” he told Giovanni Battista Olivero, “But not out of snobbery — with my last name I always had something to prove, and so I wanted to be judged solely by what I did on the pitch.” Maldini was referring to his father, Cesare, who captained Milan to its first European Cup success, over Benfica at Wembley in 1963. “I guess there are those who interpret this as arrogance or disregard.”

Asked about his strong comments immediately after the match, the Milan captain stands by them. “It was an instinctive response to an act which had been premeditated for days, months, maybe years. I didn’t have the chance to think. I was a wounded man.”

More than the attack itself, what hurt Maldini most was the silence of the club itself. “I don’t like the way they haven’t taken any position on the matter,” he explained. “There hasn’t been one comment. From the president down, not a word of solidarity towards me. Call me an idealist, but I believe that a club like Milan should disassociate itself from certain episodes.”

Italian fandom, like Italian politics, is an extremely complex world, both nationally and within the confines of a city or club. So complex in fact, that most outsiders (including the majority of the foreign press) too often resort to fulfilling lazy stereotypes rather than trying to fully understand the socio-cultural make-up of a club, city or nation. Though not a violent incident, Sunday was the latest poor advertisement for Italian fan behavior, in a week when Manchester United fans travelled for the Champions League final to Rome, dubbed “Stab City” by the Times of London. Of course, these same knife-wielding thugs are also responsible for the intricate and spectacular choreography common in Italian stadia, and so admired across Europe.

For several years the positions taken by Milan’s organized support have become increasingly unpredictable, and its relationship with the club’s management evermore turbulent. The notorious Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den), the first ultràs group founded in Italy, was dissolved in 2005 almost overnight, following political disagreements with other fan organizations and an alleged collaboration with Digos, a special operations branch of the state police. The inner-politics of the various curva groups and their relationship with the club and the team has been strained ever since. The ultràs‘ biggest gripe, perhaps justifiably, has been Milan’s reluctance during recent transfer campaigns to invest in younger talent, instead opting repeatedly for established stars on the wrong side of thirty. This policy is perhaps harder to take given the fact that since the late-1980s until recently Milan — under the financial backing of media tycoon and current Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi — had spent large sums of money each summer on some of the world’s finest players, resulting in the most sustained period of success in the club’s history.

Maldini himself has faced criticism before. “It’s not the first time the fans have turned on me,” he recalled. “During the 1997-98 season, I’d been captain for six months when they began suggesting I wasn’t worthy of the armband. They even painted a banner outside my house which read, ‘Less Hollywood, more hard work.'” (Hollywood is a famous discoteca in Milan, and a popular hotspot where footballers, models and stars of TV can rub shoulders. Ironically, Maldini, his wife Adriana, friends and teammates spent the evening at the nightclub after Sunday’s game.) Perhaps due to his stature at Milan, and within the sport as a whole, Maldini has the mental capacity to render himself impervious. “These things make you grow,” he said. “I’ve developed an intellectual freedom and a freedom of expression which I’ll never give up.”

Over the course of the week the international football community has been quick to leap to Maldini’s defence. On Thursday, the morning after Barcelona’s Champions League victory over Manchester United, Barça coach Pep Guardiola dedicated the triumph to the Milan captain, saying, “He has all of Europe’s admiration.” The same day Milan’s general director Adriano Galliani officially responded to Maldini’s criticism of the club’s handling of the affair and lack of support towards him in the form of an open letter, which appeared on the club’s official website:

I read your interview and I understand your sadness: as you know, I’ve been under escort for the last two years because of the very same people who contested you.

It was me who took the decision to remain quiet: not just because I’d been advised, but because I believed, and still believe, that silence is the most effective weapon, and I did not wish to give these people further exposure after what happened on Sunday.

Maldini has routinely stated that he does not plan to go into coaching following the end of his playing career. Having played under his own father for both Milan (2001) and the Italian national team (1996-98), he has witnessed first-hand what effect that job can have on a man and his family. Paolo’s eldest son Christian is currently working his way through Milan’s youth ranks, and has by all accounts already developed many of his Dad’s signature defensive attributes. Milan have already made public their plan to resurrect the number three shirt (set for retirement along with Paolo) should another Maldini make the first-team squad.

Some feel that this final ugly act may push Maldini even further away from the game. He certainly has other interests outside of football, most notably the popular casual clothing line Sweet Years, which he founded with former Inter striker Christian Vieri in 2003. Though inexorably associated with one city and one club, Maldini clearly sees a world beyond the confines of Milan, both the team and the city. He has often expressed a desire to live in the United States –- he already owns a vacation home in Miami and is a regular visitor to New York.

On Sunday Maldini will play his last ever professional game against Fiorentina, a match which essentially has become a play-off for third and fourth place in Serie A and an automatic Champions League position. Whatever happens in Florence, Milan will begin next season with a new coach, the Brazilian Leonardo, a new captain,

Portugal’s generation gap

Any child developing an interest in football over this past year could be forgiven for believing Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest player the game has ever seen. The popularity of the Portuguese winger’s club, Manchester United, combined with the generally over-hyped Premiership coverage on Sky Sports would be enough to fool any impressionable youngster. But the fact that the football media can so strongly influence adult fans is much more surprising. Following Ronaldo’s fine form for United this season — in which he scored 31 goals (a Premiership record for a midfielder) — there was much talk amongst fans and journalists before Euro 2008 that the player might “do a Maradona”, and single-handedly (no pun intended) lead Portugal to European glory.

Of course, this suggestion was both unlikely and pointless, least because Portugal need not rely solely on one player. Deco, the naturalised Brazilian, is a playmaker in the South American mold, combining a compact physique with fine control and vision. But he can drift in and out of big games, often without ever leaving his mark. When I first saw Deco play — for José Mourinho’s FC Porto side which won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in successive seasons — I was impressed. He was skillful and tricky, and the team revolved around him. At star-studded Barcelona he was one of many, sharing top-billing with the more imaginative (and popular) Ronaldinho. A similar fate may await him at Chelsea, for whom he signed following Portugal’s lacklustre quarter-final exit from Euro 2008 at the hands of Germany, and where he will be reacquainted with the now ex-Portugal coach, Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari.

At Euro 2008 Portugal perhaps peaked too early, making them instant favourites. Ronaldo and Deco combined well in the 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic, but neither player could galvanize the team enough to overcome the might of a German team in its stride. Though I risk descending into common football cliché by saying so, both Ronaldo and Deco also suffer from attitude problems, particularly when it comes to winning a free-kick, feigning injury, and, at worst, ensuring an opponent is booked. These cynical tactics are obviously common-place in football in all countries, but I find it unfortunate for a country that is renowned for its attractive football, that its two most celebrated players should adhere so closely to this ugly stereotype. Each is no stranger to controversy, on and off the pitch. At the 2006 World Cup Deco received a red card in the match with Holland, and Ronaldo was seen as provoking the dismissal of Wayne Rooney in the quarter-final with England. Meanwhile, both players have been involved in incidents concerning prostitutes and organized sex romps.

None of this does anything for either player’s likability — both Ronaldo and Deco are far too talented to resort to such lowlife behaviour, yet perhaps simply too stupid to recognize how they are tarnishing their image. This, for me, is one of the primary differences between the current Portugal team and the oft-heralded “Golden Generation” which helped win the World Youth Cup in 1991 and afforded the senior team the title of “Brazilians of Europe”, which had to do with much more than historical connections between the two countries.

By the late-1990s this crop of talent had spread itself throughout the best leagues in Europe, ensuring Portugal’s position as serious contenders at major championships. The national team’s two biggest stars in this period were Luis Figo and Manuel Rui Costa, without doubt the two finest players Portugal has produced since Eusebio. Like Ronaldo, Figo began his career at Sporting Lisbon, before making a name for himself at Barcelona and, in a controversial move, Real Madrid. A marauding winger in the old-fashioned sense, his slightly hunched-over forward stance meant he could beat players with just a drop of the shoulder and shove of the ball. He wasn’t as fast as Ronaldo, nor did he share the United star’s heading ability, but he won the Ballon d’Or in 2000, and the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2001.

Rui Costa was Portugal’s heart and soul, a serious man who lived and breathed football — the very first word to come out of his infant mouth was “Benfica.” (Cristiano Ronaldo was named after President Reagan — who do you prefer now?) After several fine seasons at the top in Lisbon, Rui Costa joined Fiorentina in 1994, where together with Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta he shared an excellent understanding on the pitch, and idol status off it. Perhaps unlike Figo, Rui Costa was an elegant playmaker in the mold of a classic number ten, and a joy to watch in full flight. The Florence club’s bankruptcy caused Rui Costa to somewhat reluctantly transfer to Milan in 2001 — he famously broke down on a local radio station trying to explain his move to la Viola’s disappointed fans. He was also hugely popular at San Siro, but after an instrumental Champions League-winning season in 2003, he became marginalized by the arrival of an extraordinarily talented young Brazilian named Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite — otherwise known as Kakà.

Portugal were semi-finalists at Euro 2000 but flopped at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Deco and Ronaldo overlapped with the older generation at Euro 2004, which was held in Portugal, although the host’s campaign was marred by behind the scenes bickering. Figo allegedly disapproved of Deco’s presence within the squad, stating that he wanted to win with a team that was “100% Portuguese”. Despite the tension within the home side — and coach Scolari’s indecision over whether to field Deco or Rui Costa — this was undoubtedly Portugal’s best ever chance to win a major tournament. They almost did it, reaching the final only to lose 1-0 to surprise package Greece (for the second time in the competition).

Figo left Madrid in 2005 to sign for Inter, where he has won three consecutive Serie A league titles (although Inter’s detractors would recall the effects of calciopoli on these successes). In 2007 he even changed his mind on lucrative transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United States in order to stay with the Milanese giants for another season. Rui Costa left Milan in 2006, taking a significant salary-cut in order to fulfill a boyhood dream and end his career at Benfica. He made a final emotional farewell to football in May of this year at the age of 36, making his last appearance in front of Benfica’s home fans in a 3-0 victory over Vitória de Setubal at Lisbon’s Estadio de Luz.

Liberté, egalité… surrealité!

Raymond Domenech might just be the luckiest man in football. Seventeen days after his France side were dumped out of Euro 2008 following three wretched performances, the Féderation Français de Football (FFF) today announced it would be holding onto the coach’s services for another two years, much to the disbelief of French fans and media. Despite France’s disastrous results in Austria and Switzerland, a meeting with the 56 year-old coach led to 18 of the FFF’s 21-member federal council voting in favour of Domenech’s tenure, with one abstention and two absentees. France’s uninspired displays at Euro 2008 earned them just one point in the game with Romania, which was followed by successive defeats against Holland and Italy. Throughout the tournament Les Bleus appeared consistently lethargic and uninspired, with many players seemingly lacking motivation, including Thierry Henry, who scored his side’s only goal of the tournament in the loss to Holland.

Moments after France’s 2-0 defeat to Italy, Domenech appeared on live French soccer show 100% Foot, where he was invited to explain his side’s apathetic exit from the tournament. The unapologetic Domenech avoided the question, instead taking the opportunity to propose to M6 channel hostess, Estelle Denis, who also happens to be his girlfriend and mother of his two children. “The only thing I can think of in this moment is for me to marry Estelle,” he said during the interview en direct. “It is in moments such as this that one needs close relations. And now I need them.” When he did finally address the issue of Euro 2008, he blamed France’s abject failure on bad luck, harsh refereeing and unfavourable weather.

A defender with Lyon, Strasbourg, Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux who won eight caps for France, since taking over the national team in 2004 Domenech’s relationship with the French public, and press, has been strained. A keen amateur dramatist and astrologer, his team selection and tactics have often raised eyebrows. He is said to be distrustful of those born under the sign of Scorpio, resulting in his decision to leave Robert Pires out of the World Cup squad in 2006. Ludovic Giuly was also omitted after rumours led Domenech to suspect the Barcelona midfielder of having an affair with Denis. In his autobiography, Giuly claims he and Estelle only ever exchanged one text message, and that “Estelle Denis doesn’t attract me — we never had a relationship, or wanted to have one.” Domenech was somewhat reprieved after France finished runners-up in Germany, but in August 2007, he refused to accept Claude Makalele’s retirement from international football, forcing the Chelsea midfielder to participate in qualifying games for Euro 2008 and the tournament itself. The exclusion without explanation of other talented players — particularly Philippe Mexes and Matthieu Flamini — from this year’s squad left fans frustrated and mystified.

Given his troubled history, not to mention France’s shameful recent form, Domenech was expected to be replaced following this latest débacle. Despite obtaining the support of current captain Patrick Viera, several members of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning side — including Bixente Lizarazu, Christophe Dugarry and even Zinedine Zidane — had spoken out against Domenech’s methods, calling for former captain Didier Deschamps to be offered the job. Even FFF president Jean-Pierre Escalettes — one of Domenech’s supporters — had harsh words for his coach. Speaking immediately after the council’s decision, he revealed how Domenech had admitted making “a whole series of mistakes” during his time in charge, citing “public relations that were at times disastrous because they were too personalised” and “excessive aggression and a lack of transparency” as combining to “rub salt in wounds”.

A sense of relief grew amongst French journalists as Escalettes seemed to seal Domenech’s fate: “Euro 2008 was a resounding failure, not very glorious from a sporting view point and, perhaps more seriously, in terms of how it tarnished the image of the French national team. The first person responsible is the manager. He isolated himself, and today he explained to us how. The players share responsibility too, as do the president off the FFF and the members of the federal council who didn’t want to detect the failure because of the success of 2006.”

Then came the unexpected news. “If we were going to look for someone else, there would be a period of uncertainty,” pondered Escalettes, before adding, bizarrely, “The bravest solution is not to go with what the public or the media want.” Escalettes did not remind anyone of the fact that he had also granted Domenech a two-year extension to his contract on the eve of Euro 2008. He did attempt to fan flames by announcing that Domenech’s position will be reassessed after the first three qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup. Escalettes has been henceforth warned to “communicate only about the team, not his own mood and feelings.”

Goodnight Vienna

Last night’s Euro 2008 final was the last live broadcast by John Motson, BBC Sport’s most senior commentator and the voice of its football coverage for over thirty years. His decision came after the BBC lost the rights to screen live football as of next season. Motson will continue to commentate on BBC1’s Saturday night Premier League highlights show Match of the Day and BBC Radio 5 Live, but will not be present at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “I’d been thinking about it at the start of the season,” says the 62 year-old, on the eve of Spain’s European Championship triumph in the Austrian capital. “But now I’ve decided I don’t want to be tearing around South Africa at the age of 65. It’s physically and mentally challenging.”

Motson was hired by the BBC in 1968 as a sports reporter for Radio 2, and replaced Kenneth Wolstenholme on Match of the Day in 1971. The son of a Methodist minister, Motson was born in Lancashire in 1945 but educated in Suffolk, where to his dismay football was not among the sports played. Famed for his sheepskin coat and encyclopedic knowledge of the game, Motson habitually spent evenings before matches compiling statistics and laminating team-sheets. “People who know me think its an obsession,” he says. This unwavering method of preparation and boundless enthusiasm for facts and trivia have often led to derision amongst critics and armchair fans, though I for one have always admired such old-school professionalism. It’s certainly preferable to the smug, pat-on-the-back, 19th-hole boy’s club banter that passes for BBC football coverage these days.

Motson’s first appearance on Match of the Day was non-league Hereford United’s shock victory in an FA Cup fourth round replay over Newcastle in 1972. He went on to commentate at 34 FA Cup finals, nine European Championships, nine World Cups and more than 200 England internationals. Motson excelled at major tournaments, where his true appreciation of drama and unparalleled ability to evoke a sense of occasion were most valuable. He picks out Italy’s Paolo Rossi-inspired win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup and the epic France-Portugal semi-final at Euro 84 as two of his most memorable games.

For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, Motson was replaced for big games — including most famously the 1994 World Cup final — by Barry Davies. Though well-respected in the world of sports broadcasting, Davies’ style often suggested condescension towards both players and viewers, especially later in his career, and his over-pronunciation of foreign names — plus occasional bias — began to grate. I remember listening to him getting into a live heated debate with John McEnroe while commentating at Wimbledon the day after Italy knocked Holland out of Euro 2000, and in doing so revealed himself to know less about football than a former tennis pro from New York.

Motson however made good use of his co-commentators. For many years his partner for big matches was the calm and intelligent former England and West Ham player Trevor Brooking. Sometimes, when handing over to Brooking, Motson would literally shout his name in full at the end of a particularly excited sentence without pausing: “And with that goal Gary Lineker has yet again saved England in this World Cup Trevor Brooking!” Less memorable have been his more recent collaborations with the charmless and patronising Mark Lawrenson.

Like all live commentators, Motson was prone to the occasional on-air gaffe or ridiculous outburst. Here are some of my favourites:

“It’s a football stadium in the truest sense of the word.”

“For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in the yellow strip.”

“So Arsenal 0, Everton 1, and the longer it stays like this the more you’ve got to fancy Everton.”

“On a scale of one to ten that was one hell of a strike.”

“And Seaman, just like a falling oak, manages to change direction.”

“That’s an old Ipswich move — O’Callaghan crossing for Mariner to drive over the bar.”

“I think this could be our best victory over Germany since the war.”
— On England’s 5-1 defeat of Germany in Munich, September 2001.

“Northern Ireland were in white, which was quite appropriate because three inches of snow had to be cleared from the pitch before kick off.”

“The referee is wearing the same yellow-coloured top as the Slovakian goalkeeper. I’d have thought the UEFA official would have spotted that — but perhaps he’s been deafened by the noise of this crowd.”

“It must be like being stuck in the middle of a giant Outspan.” — Motson imagines life as a Holland fan.

“You couldn’t count the number of moves Alan Ball made… I counted four, and possibly five.”

“I’ve just heard that in the other match Real Madrid have just scored. That makes the score, if my calculations are correct, 4-3! But I’m only guessing!”

“I’ve lost count of how many chances Helsingborg have had. It’s at least five.”

“Chelsea haven’t got any out and out strikers on the bench unless you count Zenden who’s more of a winger.”

“In a sense it’s a one-man show… except that there are two men involved, Hartson and Berkovic, and a third man, the goalkeeper.”

“And what a time to score! Twenty-two minutes gone!”

“The World Cup is a truly international event.”

“Middlesbrough are withdrawing Maccarone the Italian, Nemeth the Slovakian and Stockdale the right back.”

“Trevor Brooking’s notes are getting wet with the rain. I must lend him some of the perspex I always bring to cover mine.”

“It’s so exciting we’re talking at the same time for the first time ever!”

“I was about to say before something far more interesting interrupted…”

“Actually, none of the players are wearing earrings. Kjeldberg, with his contact lenses is the closest we can get.”

“It’s so different from the scenes in 1872, at the Cup Final none of us can remember.”

“That shot might not have been as good as it might have been.”

“Not the first half you might have expected, even though the score might suggest that it was.”

“He’s not quite at 110 per cent fitness.”

“There is still nothing on the proverbial scoreboard.”

“Whether that was a penalty or not, the referee thought otherwise.”

“Bruce has got the taste of Wembley in his nostrils.”

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in Athens since Homer put down his pen.” — reacting to Greece’s surprise triumph at Euro 2004.

“Koller shares a hairstyle with Jaap Stam. Of course, they have no hair.”

“Say something, Mark, say something!” — For once at a loss for words, a shell-shocked Motson implores his co-commentator Mark Lawrenson to make sense of England’s disastrous defeat to Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifier.

During the 2002 World Cup Motson famously developed something of a fixation with the fact that games being played in the evening in Japan and Korea were broadcast live in the early morning in the UK, and attempted to insert references to cooked English breakfasts into his live commentary at every opportunity:

“Just one minute of overtime, so you can put the eggs on now if you like.”

“You can have your breakfast with Batistuta and your cornflakes with Crespo.”

“I can confirm that Trevor Brooking did have his own eggs and bacon before setting off this morning.”

“England will be having Sweden for breakfast.”

“Hold on to your cups and glasses… You can smash them now! David Beckham has scored!”