November 23, 2009

A numbers game.

There has been much controversy over Juventus’s claim that upon winning another league title they will adorn their shirt with a third star. This star would be to symbolise a 30th scudetto, but as a result of the two revoked after ‘calciopoli’ they theoretically now only have 27.

Their record books show the number as 29, though the 2004/05 and 2005/06 titles are accompanied by a small asterisk. The fans and the players have long claimed that those titles were won on the pitch and many are hoping that after il Processo di Napoli they will be able to reclaim the two ‘stolen’ titles.

Juventus president Jean-Claude Blanc now appears to be towing the line. He stated recently: “If we win this championship we will put the third star on the shirt…I am on the player’s side: if you ask them how many scudetti they have won they will answer 29. Therefore the next one will be the thirtieth.”

Another Serie A president is also closing in on his own third star, Maurizio Zamparini. The Palermo president’s third star will however have nothing to do with league titles; this hypothetical star would mark his 30th sacking of a coach.

This morning the president nicknamed il ‘mangiallenatori’ [the coach eater] fired Walter Zenga. This was the 28th sacking in just over 20 years of presidency, split between his time at Venezia and his current position at Palermo; an impressive record.

Zamparini had poached the highly rated manager from archrivals Catania, an event that was followed by obligatory fan-fury and outrage.

Zenga’s reign was meant to start a new era at Palermo and began with a head turning first press conference. The ex-Inter and Azzurri goalkeeper declared, “I am aiming for the scudetto” adding, “this year I want to win the league”.

These statements are run-of-the-mill when dealing with the top clubs in Serie A. But they where somewhat unusual coming from the mouth of a man managing a club side that has never before won the league, had failed to qualify for Europe in the previous two seasons and only returned to the top flight in 2004.

However unrealistic his scudetto targeting, this big talking is somewhat characteristic of the man that the Inter faithful called Spiderman; Zenga is an eccentric, headstrong and forthright coach.

Whilst he had aimed high the results on the pitch were unimpressive. A spectacular 2-0 win against Juventus was the only positive result from a season opening that otherwise saw the team gain only 16 points from their first 12 games, leaving them languishing in bottom-half mediocrity.

Despite Zamparini referring to Zenga as, “the best coach that I have ever had” it was suggested that a negative result in this weekend’s derby against Catania could see Zenga sacked.

In last season’s derby Zenga, sitting on the opposite bench, masterminded a 0-4 away romp. After that game the Palermo chairman said of Zenga, “He won hands down the head to head with [then manager] Ballardini, he beat him 4-0…he is a experienced, complete manager…Ballardini, instead, is an aspiring manager who will become very good, but there is a clear difference.”

This year’s derby was an altogether different story for Zenga. His Palermo struggled to a 1-1 draw and risked losing to a superior Catania side in the second-half. At the end of the match the manager was subjected to a barrage of whistles from the entire stadium.

This morning came the inevitable sacking and this afternoon it was announced that Delio Rossi, the former Lazio coach, would take up the reins at the Renzo Barbera.

Rossi, who has yet to comment on his new role, will no doubt be hoping for success at Palermo. Given Zamparini’s track record, however, it is unlikely that he will be allowed much time to turn things around at the Sicilian club.


 

A list of coaches dismissed by Zamparini with their replacements in brackets:

 

1988-1989 (Venezia): Cerantola (Fabbri)

1989-1990 (Venezia): Pasinato (Sabadini)

1991-1992 (Venezia): Zaccheroni (Marchesi); Marchesi (Zaccheroni)

1992-1993 (Venezia): Zaccheroni (Maroso); Maroso (Zaccheroni)

1994-1995 (Venezia): Ventura (Maifredi); Maifredi (Geretto); Geretto (Ventura); Ventura (Rossi e Geretto)

1995-1996 (Venezia): Marchioro (Bellotto)

1996-1997 (Venezia): Bellotto (De Vecchi e Fontana); De Vecchi e Fontana (Bellotto)

1999-2000 (Venezia): Spalletti (Materazzi); Materazzi (Spalletti); Spalletti (Oddo)

2001-2002 (Venezia): Prandelli (Buso); Buso (Magni)

2002-2003 (Palermo): Glerean (Arrigoni); Arrigoni (Sonetti)

2003-2004 (Palermo): Baldini (Guidolin)

2005-2006 (Palermo): Del Neri (Papadopulo)

2006-2007 (Palermo): Guidolin (Gobbo e Pergolizzi)

2007-2008 (Palermo): Colantuono (Guidolin); Guidolin (Colantuono)

2008-2009 (Palermo): Colantuono (Ballardini)

2009-2010 (Palermo): Zenga (Rossi)

November 19, 2009

A thorny friendship.

After the final whistle had blown at the end of Fiorentina’s 2-0 home win against Liverpool in the Champions League, Fiorentina ‘ultras’ marched across the pitch towards the away fans proudly displaying a massive banner with the words, “Welcome Reds your story is for us a legend”.

The two sets of fans had agreed to what in Italy is called a ‘gemellaggio’, a twinning.

Whilst this gesture was not widely reported in England, it was warmly greeted. Dave Murphy of the LFC Official Supporters Club, Merseyside Branch, commented on the Liverpool website, “It promises to be a great occasion, so if you are traveling to the game be sure to come along and meet some of our new friends.”

Despite the twinning happening this year Fiorentina fans have been wearing Liverpool scarves and singing ‘Amo Liverpool’ [I love Liverpool] for over twenty years. The reason this for this is upsettingly clear: Heysel.

After the tragic events of the Heysel stadium disaster, 29 May 1985, thirty-nine people who went to watch the European Cup Final played between Juventus and Liverpool in Belgium never returned home. They were crushed when part of the stadium collapsed. This was caused by bianconeri supporters fleeing from a charging group of Liverpool fans. Thirty-two of the victims were Juventus fans, the other seven were neutrals, Belgian, French and a Northern Irishman.

In the aftermath of the event other supporters in Italy showed almost unanimous solidarity with Juventus. Banners in many stadiums were displayed in remembrance of the dead.

The scene was very different at Fiorentina’s Artemio Franchi stadium the Sunday after the Heysel disaster. Still smarting from losing the title on the last day of the 81/82 season to Juve the Fiorentina fans unveiled an altogether more tasteless banner:

 "Heysel: 39 gobbi in meno" [Heysel: 39 less Juve fans]

In the years that have passed Fiorentina’s hatred of Juventus has grown and the invoking of Heysel and praise of Livepool has not gone away.

As can be imagined Juventus fans were outraged by this twinning. It was seen as an officialized smear on the memory of their ‘39 angels’.

In the run-up to the match that would see Juventus hosting Fiorentina for the first time since the ‘gemellaggio’, Stefano Sartoni, the head of the ‘ultras’ group Collettivo Autonomo Viola that had initiated the twinning, attempted to defuse the situation, stating:

“We know that the Juvetus fans haven’t taken it very well, that’s their problem. We’ve already explained the reason: we’ve always admired the Reds and Heysel is irrelevant.”

Most Juventus fans were unconvinced by these words and during their meeting on the 17th of October they unveiled banners that read: “Honour to the Heysel fallen, we ask for respect” and “A twinning of squalor for fans without honour”.

Despite the words of Sartoni as to the reason for the twinning, their fans arrived in Turin loaded with Liverpool scarves and a banner stating, “Amo Liverpool”. But more disturbingly fans were seen, and photographed, with Liverpool shirts featuring the name and number of an inexistent player: Meno [Less] 39.

Though an innocence can be claimed in the ambiguity of Reds scarves and ‘loving Liverpool’, a shirt with ‘Meno 39’ leaves nothing to the imagination and no room for debate. It’s as clearly a reference to the Heysel dead as it is tasteless.

The official Juventus response was striking; utter silence. The hierarchy is still weak following the events of ‘calciopoli’, but it is still shocking that they made no comment, did not denounce the Fiorentina fans, report them to the Federation or release any visuals of the culprits.

In contrast, a week after the Juventus - Fiorentina match a comparable incident took place on British shores. A Millwall fan wore a Galatasaray shirt to their away match against Leeds, taunting the home fans over the deaths of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight. The two fans that were tragically killed before the clubs away Champions League clash against the Turkish giant.

The actions of the Millwall fan lead to national outrage. Photos of the incident were splashed across newspapers and the Millwall chairman denounced the fan’s behaviour. The supporter is now facing the prospect of a lifetime ban.

Conversely, in Italy there was no mention of the incident in any newspaper. This non-action has given rise to an astonishing campaign by Juventus fans; a mix of fan power and modern technology.

Juventus fans across the Internet, on forums and social networking groups, have begun fighting against this twinning. They have been sharing evidence of misdeeds by Fiorentina fans, but, more intriguingly, they have begun talking to Liverpool fans on their forums.

Since the events of Heysel there has been no love for Liverpool from the Juventus faithful. It is a part of their history they have never forgotten, partly for what they perceive as a lack of effort or care on Liverpool’s part to apologise for what happened.

When the two teams met in 2005, the first time since the tragedy and by coincidence the 20th anniversary of the disaster, the Kop unveiled a huge sign reading, ‘Amicizia’ [friendship]. A large part of the travelling support turned their backs, for them this apology, after 20 years, was far too late.

This twinning however has paradoxically opened communications betweens the two sets of fans. With an open letter by Juventus fans being published all over the Anfield club’s fan forums and other followers of the bianconeri joining online debates.

In this message the Juve supporters give their view on the reason behind the twinning and many Liverpool fans, still wary of their reputation as a result of the Hysel incident, are taking note; not wishing to get involved in something that could potentially be a massive PR catastrophe.

The Liverpool fans have been urged to test Fiorentina’s motives. Juventus fans have suggested that both clubs at the return match at Anfield make some kind of joint gesture in memory of Heysel. The Viola fans, who have also been making their voices heard of the same forums, have, for the moment, not taken kindly to the idea.

Whether this campaign by Juventus fans is successful or not and a gesture is made in remembrance will be revealed when Liverpool host Fiorentina. What is certain, however, is that this ‘gemellaggio’ is not a problem that is going to be laid to rest any time soon, and that both Liverpool and Juventus will continue to be haunted by the ghosts of that tragic day in May 1985.

November 17, 2009

Notes from an international weekend: Cassano, Candreva and Casiraghi

Last Saturday the Azzurri drew 0-0 at home to the Netherlands despite the presence of Superman on the pitch.

For once the Superman mentioned in connection with the Italian national team is not Gigi Buffon, but a pitch invader, dressed as Superman with the words “Cassano in nazionale” [Cassano in the national team] added.

When asked to comment on the unexpected guest coach Marcello Lippi replied, “I had taken off my glasses and I didn’t see anything. You know that when I take off my glasses I can’t see a thing.”

This call for Antonio Cassano to play for the national team is an ongoing saga and Lippi, understandably, has grown weary of answering questions on the subject.

The fantasista is arguably Italy’s most naturally gifted player and since Giampaolo Pazzini joined him at Sampdoria in January the two have been causing havoc to Serie A’s defences.

Cassano also seems to have matured in respect to his past that was characterized by his crazy antics, tantrums and fiery temper. Despite his last ‘cassanata’ taking place two years ago, when during a match against Torino he threw his shirt at referee Pierpaoli, he has not managed to shake his infamous reputation.

The group, with its implicit trust and unity, has always been of fundamental importance to Lippi’s sides. Italy’s triumph in Germany can, in great part, can be attributed to the close nit group that Lippi managed to form, despite the nation being rocked by the ‘calciopoli’ scandal.

Lippi, as a result of Cassano’s personality, views him as a character that could potentially de-stabilize the group. The coach is also a stubborn man and no amount of badgering from the Azzurri faithful will make him change his mind.

A stark parallel can be drawn between Lippi and Roberto Donadoni, the man who lead Italy in their dismal display at Euro 2008. Whilst Lippi is obstinate in his choices Donadoni succumbed to pressure from the media and fans desperate for him to take both Cassano and Alessandro Del Piero to the Championship, having barely used either in the run-up to the tournament.

To put this into context, prior to Italy’s last friendly before the tournament, Donadoni had only played Del Piero from the start in four out of nineteen games. The last time he had called up the Juventus captain was the previous September, and the coach had picked Cassano just twice, for the initial two qualifiers, way back in September 2006.

The Azzurri’s adventure in Austria and Switzerland was a depressing affair and Cassano provided little magic to a generally dull team.

A coach who knows his mind and is headstrong in his choices is exactly what is needed at the helm of a winning team. Lippi is just that, stubborn and successful.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

One positive aspect of what was otherwise a not particularly noteworthy performance was the debut of Antonio Candreva.

The 22 year old ex-U-21 international, currently plying his trade at Livorno, was one of the most impressive players for Italy.

After failing to gain much playing time at Udinese, last season Candreva went on loan to Livorno in Serie B. He helped the team win promotion and become a key first team player. On the back of this success the loan was renewed and this season he has been the brightest star for the Serie A strugglers.

An intelligent, creative player, Candreva is able to play anywhere in midfield and during the weekend’s game he could be found helping the Italian team all over the field.

Though a few passes were misplaced, what stood out was the understanding that Candreva had forged with his teammates, despite having never previously played with them. Brimming with confidence, he grabbed the occasion and looks set to start again in Wednesday night’s friendly against Sweden.

One for the future.

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Friday the thirteenth proved to be unlucky for Italy U-21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi as he masterminded a 2-0 defeat to Hungary. His side has managed just one win in the opening three qualifiers for the U-21 European Championships. Casiraghi’s side now faces an uphill battle to qualify.

The poor runs comes despite having a team of talented youngsters including, Balotelli, Poli and De Silvestri, all regular starters from clubs in Serie A’s top 5. David Santon, who despite not recently playing for Inter is still a phenomenally talented youngster and Bari centre back Ranocchia, who has helped the club maintain the best defensive record in Serie A.

The Azzurrini have only failed to qualify once for the European U-21 Championship, 1998 in Romania; this is a competition that has been running biennially since 1978. They are also the most successful European nation at youth level, having won the competition five times, their last success in 2004. Failure to reach the tournament would be a disaster.

Casiraghi was appointed as Claudio Gentile’s successor in 2006. Under Gentile’s guidance the team won the European U-21 Championship in Germany, 2004, and in the same year also won the Bronze medal at the Athens Olympics.

The current coach was an unexpected appointment given his lack of managerial experience. His name was suggested by his friend Demetrio Albertini, after the role had been turned down by Giuseppe Bergomi, Ciro Ferrara and Bruno Conti, among others.

It is rumoured that the president of the Italian Olympic Committee, Gianni Petrucci, only found out about the appointment reading the newspaper the next day.

Italy’s youth side is taken seriously and if today’s qualifier against Luxembourg goes badly then it is likely that Casiraghi’s tenure will be brought to a premature end.

When the head of the Italian federation, Giancarlo Abete, was asked if Casiraghi’s job was on the line he responded, “At this moment we should be concentrated on Tuesday’s match.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Replacements are already being studied. Angelo Peruzzi and Angelo Di Livio, two more managers with little experience, and current U-20 coach Francesco Rocca are all being touted.

Let us hope that if another appointment has to be made, which at this point seems likely, that this time the Italian federation gets it right.

November 16, 2009

Super Mario: in search of mentorship.

Last Sunday (8/11/2009) after Inter’s 1-1 home draw against Roma coach José Mourinho was asked by journalists to give a verdict on Mario Balotelli’s performance. He replied:

“Close to zero. Little movement, few dangerous actions, I didn’t like it. The problem with him is that you never know what to expect, he can give a lot or he can give nothing.”

These words appear harsh, when we consider that Super Mario turned 19 only a few months back. They do, however, sum him up well; Balotelli is inconsistent.

In many respects he is much like Wayne Rooney was as a teenager, supremely talented but with a fiery, unpredictable and difficult temperament.

Rooney, in recent years, has managed to channel his temperament and put it to good use, he is still prone to the odd ill-tempered moment but this can only be expected. Becoming, in the process, one of the world’s best forwards. This can be put down to hard work on his part and, importantly, the mentorship of authoritarian Alex Ferguson.

It is hard to see, in the current Inter setup, who will be able to provide this mentor figure for Balotelli.

The first candidate for the job would be manager Mourinho. But this is a coach with a questionable disciplinary record himself.

In the little over a year that he has been in Italy the ‘Special One’ has had the honour of being sent off in three Serie A matches. His record in England for touchline misconduct was no better having called referee Alan Wiley a ‘Son of a whore’ during a 3-3 draw with Tottenham in the FA Cup.

Mourinho’s Chelsea side were also often subject to accusations of harassing and intimidating the referee, an offence for which they were eventually charged after a match away against West Brom in 2006.

The most famous of all Mourinho’s misdemeanours was his scathing attack on Swedish referee Anders Frisk in 2005. Mourinho claimed that Frisk had invited Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard into his dressing room during the half-time break of the first leg last-16 Champions League tie between the two teams, played at the Camp Nou.

Mourinho’s outburst was followed by death threats to Frisk’s family from fans, the referee taking early retirement and UEFA official Volfer Roth branding the Special One “the enemy of football”.

All things considered Mourinho may not be the right man to lecture an unruly teenage talent and guide him on matters of attitude and discipline.

Could Balotelli then hope for some guidance from higher up? Could multi-millionaire oil tycoon president Massimo Moratti prove to be the man to guide the boy?

Considering Moratti’s tack-record on dealing with Inter’s stars his credentials do not seem any more promising.

Christian Vieri during a recent television interview revealed what he and co-star Ronaldo were able to get away with whilst playing for Inter:

“It is true that we returned home at night at 5-6 in the morning, because we were out partying. But then I would sleep for two hours and go running on the pitch, whilst he [Ronaldo] lay on his bed eating brioche and drinking coffee. The problem is that the next evening, at midnight, he would arrive at my house and honk the horn of his car until I came downstairs and we went out again.”

More recently Moratti has also failed to curb the drinking and partying of another star striker, Adriano. This led to poor-form, disciplinary problems and ultimately to the rescission of the Brazilian’s contract.

Another ex-Inter striker, Alvaro Recoba, was a favourite of the Inter president. Moratti insisted that Recoba remained part of the squad despite the player’s lack of focus and the resulting lack of faith from managers. Recoba recently made this statement about his attitude whilst at Inter:

“I know that every player needs to train to improve, but in all honesty I don’t think that I ever wanted to get better.”

Balotelli risks being the latest in a long line of talented strikers that have not been brought under control at Moratti’s club.

There is, however, a third figure that may be able to help steer Super Mario Balotelli in the right direction. The man in question is captain Javier Zanetti. Zanetti, 36 has been playing for inter since 1995, collecting almost 500 appearances for the club and received the armband way back in 1998 after Giuseppe Bergomi retired from the game.

In these years he has become an Inter legend. A humble, hard-working, team player, Zanetti is famous for his sense of sportsmanship and professionalism. He is, in essence, the exact opposite of Balotelli.

There was a sign a few weeks ago, during Inter’s 5-3 home win against Palermo, that Zanetti has accepted his role in nurturing Balotelli.

Balotelli had been fouled in the box and was eager to take the resulting spot kick himself, despite the fact that Samuel Eto’o was the designated penalty taker. A stand off took place in the penalty area with Eto’o waiting to strike but with Balotelli refusing to step aside. Up stepped captain Zanetti, who calmly diffused the situation, taking Super Mario by the hand and leading him away.

The respect for his captain was obvious. As soon as Zanetti intervened Balotelli backed down, leaving Eto’o free to strike.

Zanetti must continue trying to help the problematic Balotelli adjust to life as a professional footballer, about whom he spoke these words in a recent Gazzetta interview:

“It is only with hard work that you emerge in football today and at eighteen years old you cannot allow yourself to act like a footballer that has already arrived.”

Wise words from a wise captain. We can only hope for the good of Italian football that some of the Inter captain’s professionalism rubs off on the talented but troubled youngster. Only then may we might be blessed with one of the finest footballing talents for years to come.

November 15, 2009

Witness reveals truth behind match-fixing scandal. Or perhaps not.

Calciopoli a sensational testimony at the Processo di Napoli” screamed the headline of last Saturday’s Gazetta dello Sport, "This is how we fixed the referee draws.”

The headline promised an explanation of Italian football’s darkest hour.

One could only wonder what kind of trickery had been revealed during the Processo di Napoli, the criminal trial into the events of 2006’s Calciopoli scandal. When matches were allegedly fixed to help Juventus claim the 2005 and 2006 league titles. The headline implied that incontrovertible proof of Moggi and Co’s corruption would finally be delivered.

There has already been one Calcipoli trial in the summer of 2006, straight after the Azzurri's World Cup triumph in Germany. That famously lead to Juventus' demotion to the second tier, the stripping of two scudetti and the docking of points from Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina. But those sentences were handed down by a sporting court that was hastily put together by the Italian football federation (FIGC). That investigation lasted less than a month and was not a criminal trial.

Luciano Moggi, the Juventus general manager for twelve years from 1994, did not attend the first court case. The alleged mastermind of extensive match-fixing, Moggi decided to defend himself against the allegations in a criminal court.

The criminal trial started in January and has become known as il Processo di Napoli. Moggi, along with co-defendants, is facing a five-year jail term.

La Gazzetta’s article revolves around two statements from the testimony of Mandredi Martino, an ex-employee of the CAN, the national referee commission. Given the headline about how the selection of referees for games was fixed, most readers expected the statements to reveal the methods used, and to deliver indisputable proof of crimes. But proof has not been produced.

The statement reads; “It was my feeling during the draw of the referee for that match that something happened that was not right, because there was a strange cough by the designator Bergamo when the journalist chose the yellow referee ball”. It should be noted that all the balls were yellow and that a different journalist was sent each week at random to take part in the draw to demonstrate its fairness.

The statement above is unsubstantiated conjecture, something that carries little weight in the courtroom.

The second statement seems more compelling; “In the occasion of the first game of the 2004-2005 season I was asked by Pairetto and Bergamo [the referee designators] to insert ticket X [X being a certain match that he no longer remembered] inside a particularly dented ball”. But given that the process was for the match to be drawn first (by a referee designator), and only afterwards was the referee ball fished from the bowl (by the independent journalist), it is hard to see how placing a given match in a certain marked ball could have any outcome on the fairness of the draw. This obvious point was not noted in the paper.

Strangely, only one fragment of Martino’s cross-examination by the defence was reproduced by La Gazzetta. When asked why he had not revealed this earlier he replied, “Perhaps I did say it and the carabinieri [a branch of the police] did not include it in the statement”. The article then continues with more of Martino’s opinions. He focuses his attentions on Fiorentina, Lazio and Milan, but offers no factual evidence. These excerpts are hardly the damning testimony one would expect, having read the headline.

It is bad enough that La Gazzetta’s only reference to the cross-examination is the statement about the carabinieri. But what makes this omission even worse is that Martino, when questioned by the defence, promptly changed his story completely, and denied that it was a fix. A transcript of the cross-examination (available online) reveals the following exchange:

Prioreschi (for the defence): “Apart from your perception, we’ve understood that it was your feeling. Logically, the journalist picks and Bergamo coughs to send a message to the journalist?”

Martino: “No, no, no, nooo…”

This is shortly followed by:

Prioreschi: “But the cough, Bergamo does it when the journalist picks?”

Martino: “After the Milan-Juve match is drawn, yes, yes”.

Prioreschi: “So what is it then a message to the journalist?”

Martino: “No”

Prioreschi: “But the journalists were in collusion?”

Martino: “No! We didn’t know the journalist” [because they were sent at random].

It is worrying that a supposedly impartial newspaper like La Gazzetta dello Sport would publish a headline suggesting that a witness in the Processo di Napoli had given a damning testimony, revealing how the draws were fiddled, when in fact he had denied, under cross-examination, that it was a fix.

It becomes even more perplexing when one continues to read the transcript. During cross-examination there is a statement that reveals a flaw behind the entire match-fixing allegations. When the defence asked Martino, “Did it appear to you, that Bergamo and Pairetto ever gave indications to referees that they should favour one team instead of another?” his response was, “Never”. The follow-up question was, “Is that a categorical statement?” to which Martino replied, “Absolutely”.

What does all this mean for the trial? Who knows? There is still a long way to go. What is certain, however, is that Martino’s testimony was not the damning indictment that La Gazzetta’s headlines claimed. Their article was at best shoddy journalism and at worst biased. All football fans can do is to wait and see the outcome of the Processo di Napoli and hope that the trial proves to be more honest and impartial than the newspaper’s report on the case.

*The article refers to the 7/11/2009 edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport