Sub-zero at San Siro

San Siro pictureI’ve watched football matches at some of the greatest stadiums in the world: the Nou Camp in Barcelona, the Olimpico in Rome, Wembley in London, and of course Glebe Park in Brechin. But the best stadium I’ve ever seen a game in is the San Siro in Milan.

This was brought to mind today by an article in the Daily Mail (with one of their typically brief headlines):                                                                      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3606437/The-San-Siro-football-s-Scala-Opera-House-prepares-host-Real-Madrid-Atletico-Madrid-Champions-League-final-history-car-park-spaceship-lookalike.html

I visited La Scala del Calcio in December 2010 on the occasion of my 30th birthday. My wife and I were celebrating the milestone event with a romantic weekend in Milan – it wasn’t entirely coincidental that the Milan – Roma game happened to be on while we were there. Regular readers of this blog (you know who you are) will be aware that football matches often feature in romantic weekends enjoyed by my wife and I. Yes, I know, I spoil her.

And so it was that the Saturday night found me stepping out of a Milan metro station alone, making my way up the stairs and out into a freezing cold evening. There was a light dusting of snow on the pavement.

There weren’t too many other supporters around because it was early (around 7pm and the game kicked off at 8:45) but I still had to collect my ticket and besides, I was going to the San Siro. I was a tiny little bit excited, for not only was I going to the San Siro, I was going to watch my beloved Roma for just the second time. And something remarkable had already happened to me earlier in the evening.

My wife and I were staying at a nice hotel. When we arrived on the Friday night I noticed a discreet sign in the lobby that read: ‘Welcome AS Roma.’ Well, this was an interesting development. There was no sign of any players or club staff but I was very pleased (my wife was also pleased as she regarded this as a good indication of the quality of the hotel).

On the Saturday morning we were up early and off out sightseeing (including La Scala opera house). Milan is a wonderful city and we passed a very pleasant day wandering in the sunshine, marvelling at the architecture, and making regular stops at those funny little cafe/bars in Italy where everyone stands to eat and drink.

It was about 5:30pm when we returned to the hotel. We walked into the lobby, turned left to go down the corridor to the lifts, and as we did so, Francesco Totti came strolling round the corner towards us.

Someone (presumably a fellow guest) jumped out from behind a pillar and asked Totti for a photograph. He smilingly obliged. “Quick, get the camera out” I urged my wife (neither of us owned a smartphone in 2010).

Not knowing the Italian for ‘photograph’ (or very much else), I stood in front of il capitano and made a photograph gesture with my hands. He put his arm round me, smiled, I smiled (a ridiculously cheesy grin), and my wife got the picture.

Totti

“Good luck tonight” I said, “I’m going to the game.” Totti put his thumb up; the famous thumb upon which he sucks in celebration of scoring a goal. What a birthday weekend it was turning out to be.

The walk from the metro station to the stadium was long, cold, and uphill. The first sight of the stadium is incredible, especially at night. It sits glittering atop the hill, shimmering like Anita Ekberg emerging from the Trevi fountain.

The car park is big and it was already full of expensive (mostly German) cars. I collected my ticket at the perimeter of the stadium, received a cursory frisk, and I was inside. Sort of. There was still quite a long way to go to get to the stand.

Finally, up some steps, and there she was: bold, beautiful, and utterly breathtaking. The steepness of the stands creates an extraordinary intimacy in a huge steel and concrete structure that seats 80,000 people. I stood still and looked. Up and up, all the way round.

The San Siro was redesigned and remodelled for the 1990 World Cup; it hosted the iconic opening game between Cameroon and Argentina. The Mail article describes the tournament as ‘defining an era of football for many supporters.’ I am among that many.

As a 9 year old watching in Scotland, I was amazed and it was the stadiums that were the most amazing – this despite the fact I’d already been to Glebe Park. It felt surreal to be standing there at San Siro thinking about how many times I’d seen it on TV.

Soon I was watching the Roma players warm up. I was cooling down rather alarmingly as all feeling in my feet gradually disappeared. My new friend Totti glanced over in my direction but I’m not sure he recognised me. Sadly, he started on the bench and there he remained.

I was not in the part of the ground reserved for the away fans so I had to conceal my loyalties, always an awkward situation for a football fan. The first half made it relatively easy however since excitement was not exactly abundant.

The second half was better, much better. In the 70th minute Borriello scored for Roma. The Roma fans (with the exception of my good self) erupted jubilantly. I feigned a scowl though I suspect not altogether convincingly. The Roma fans let off some flares, presumably for warmth.

Milan wasted several good chances to equalise and Roma held on for a hard fought victory. Totti and I left the stadium very happy. I hadn’t thought to ask for a lift back on the team bus so instead I skipped through the snow back to the metro.

I’d been to the San Siro, my team had won. Happy birthday! No Totti, some party.

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The Unlikely Lads – Season 2015/16 Review

Leicester champions parade

Leicester champions parade. Photo by: JPAG http://www.flickr.com

Well, that was quite a Premier League season that just finished. Here’s my short verdict on each team:

  1. Leicester – a little bit of Thai money, Italian tactics, and an English core produced a fairy tale; Champions League and Hollywood now beckon
  2. Arsenal – the jubilation at finishing above Spurs risks masking the shame of finishing ten points behind Leicester. Wenger won’t win another league title at Arsenal but he’s probably safe in his job for another season
  3. Tottenham – a subdued and flat end to an otherwise thrilling season. If Pochettino stays, the future looks bright at Spurs
  4. Manchester City – “when is Pep coming?” “Is he here yet?” A season of waiting, every bit as tragi-comic as Waiting for Godot
  5. Manchester United – “probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in” said Paul Scholes. Nobody looked like they enjoyed playing in it and the supporters don’t seem to much enjoy watching it. Van Gaal should be evacuated, permanently
  6. Southampton – maintaining standards is harder than setting them but Koeman has managed it; a well-run club making sustainable progress
  7. West Ham – bye, bye Upton Park and a final season there with plenty of highlights (and the sad lowlight of the incident with Manchester United’s bus). Bilic is an excellent and underrated manager
  8. Liverpool – Klopp has been good but not as magnificent as his cheerleaders in the press would have us believe. Liverpool were 10th when he took over and they finished 8th. Progress, but only a little. A major summer overhaul is required.
  9. Stoke City – actually scored surprisingly few goals (41) considering the attacking talent they have. Much easier on the eye than before but sometimes easier to play against too
  10. Chelsea – oh dear, a season that those of us who are not Chelsea fans might describe as a special one
  11. Everton – underwhelming, with the whole appearing lesser than the sum of its parts
  12. Swansea – up and down but never remotely in danger of actually going down so a steady enough season, but difficult to see them improving much upon next season
  13. Watford – a sartorially elegant manager aiming at an elegant style of play. Like fashion, it looks great when it works but the occasional disaster is always lurking
  14. West Brom – too good to go down, not good enough to go much further up
  15. Crystal Palace – much Pardew about nothing (unless they win the FA Cup at the weekend)
  16. Bournemouth – survived relatively comfortably but can’t afford to get too comfortable (or, I suspect, to be able to strengthen much)
  17. Sunderland – Big Sam got some big results when it really mattered. Jermain Defoe remains an excellent Premier League striker and at 33 still plays with the energy of an 18 year old
  18. Newcastle – a decline that’s been long in the making. Benitez staying gives them a reasonable chance of bouncing straight back but if they don’t then they could yet fall a lot further
  19. Norwich City – “where are you?” Delia Smith once famously asked the fans. Back in the Championship is now the answer. They will be competitive though and I expect to see them back in the big time before too long
  20. Aston Villa – they scored only 27 goals and conceded 76. They amassed just 17 points all season; a hapless effort from start to finish (every Fantasy League manager kept an eye on who Villa were playing each weekend and made sure at least one opposition striker was in the team).

Speaking of Fantasy League, I just won manager of the month for May after a season that admittedly has been more Newcastle than Leicester. Leicester’s late charge to avoid the drop in 2014/15 serves as an inspiration for my fantasy league efforts next season.

I bet Jamie Vardy will be more expensive though. I wish I’d put a bet on Leicester this season at 5000/1. Odds are they’ll be a shorter price in August but it will still be a long shot for them to retain the title.

We need to talk about Arsene

Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald http://www.flickr.com

Don’t we Arsenal fans? I suspect there’s talk of little else at the Emirates at the moment. Wenger has been talking about the fans recently. Actually, to be more precise, he’s been blaming them.

Apparently it’s the “difficult climate” created by Arsenal fans during home games that’s been causing his delicate stars to underperform. I can only imagine the Arsenal dressing room at half time:

Wenger: “lads you’ve been terrible out there today” (actually maybe more likely, “I sense an undercurrent of discontent and a lack of fluidity in your interpretation of my tactical arrangements.”)

The Lads: “but boss, those nasty fans are shouting nasty things at us again.”

Wenger: “yes, I also suffer in this climate of hostility. Let them suffer too, carry on as you were.”

Fans are entitled to their opinions, their expectations (so often unfulfilled), and indeed to their protestations. Fans, in short, pay their money (rather a lot of it for the privilege of watching Arsenal) and will understandably blame the manager if they think that results are poor. It’s a brave manager that feels entitled to blame the fans in return.

In doing so, Wenger may finally have reached a tipping point at Arsenal. At the home game against Norwich there was an organised protest calling on Wenger to go. It didn’t involve a majority of Gunners fans inside the ground but the sense of discontent is gathering momentum.

It was a very polite protest as these things go: ‘All Good Things Must Come to an End’ suggested one placard. And so invariably they must. Wenger admitted after the game that he had been surprised at how small and mild the protest was (rather undermining his claim about the difficult climate that he bemoans having to endure).

That Wenger has been a good thing for Arsenal is not in the slightest doubt. The question is whether he remains a good thing for the club. He’s not.

The outburst blaming the fans illustrates the level of the Frenchman’s frustration but also suggests a lack of willingness to face up honestly to his own shortcomings. Arsenal may have as many as 99 problems but the supporters aren’t one. Wenger has wasted money, neglected to fill obvious gaps (a truly world class centre forward being the most glaring), and failed to figure out a formula to break down lesser teams on a regular basis.

You can, it seems, have too much of a good thing. Wenger is methodical, astute, and an excellent developer of young players. But he is also stubborn, inflexible, and increasingly brittle. It’s very sad to observe that he’s become a liability to Arsenal but that is the logical conclusion to draw from this season.

His side will probably finish in third place on Sunday. It’s been a Premier League campaign of fairy tale drama but also a distinct lack of quality. When was the last time that so many big guns fired so many blanks? The Gunners own firepower was more cap gun than cannon.

Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 years, an incredible feat in modern football, but will he have a better chance to win the league in the next 20 years than this one? I doubt it.

There was no evidence of progress being made in the Champions League either. There isn’t a big team in Europe that fears Arsenal and the Emirates has not proved a difficult climate for very many visiting sides. Being eliminated by Barcelona is no disgrace in itself but Arsenal’s exit was meek, and like the protest, milder than expected.

That’s what really upsets the fans.

Next season? If Wenger remains in charge, they can expect more of the same. They do expect more of the same. Some Arsenal fans must be looking on enviously at the galvanising effect that Jurgen Klopp has had on Liverpool. Expectations have been raised for next season at Anfield. At the Emirates, expectations are about as low as UK interest rates.

And Arsenal fans are losing interest. Patches of red are starting to appear; emptied hope producing empty seats. It’s not a difficult climate that should concern Wenger but an apathetic one. Dynamism and energy are ebbing at the club.

The same is true of Manchester United and it began towards the end of Ferguson’s reign. He stayed on just a little too long, didn’t revitalise the squad as quickly and thoroughly as he should have done. Man U are still paying the price, and it’s an expensive one with the spending habits of Van GaaI.

Wenger has claimed that he won’t go on as long as Ferguson and I believe him. I’m not sure that he’ll be given the luxury of choosing the timing of his departure as the Scot did though. The transition at Old Trafford was botched and Arsenal should learn from it. Replacing a legend is never easy.

Wenger’s legendary status at Arsenal is guaranteed, it’s in the bank. So apparently is a considerable amount of money that he’s left unspent. I suggest he gets the chequebook out this summer because if he doesn’t then the chants of Arsene out will only get louder.

His future is less certain than at any time in the past 20 years. Maybe soon the board will feel the need to talk about it.

Title winning tinkering

Claudio Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald http://www.flickr.com

I’m watching Manchester United v Leicester. It’s currently 1-1. A win for the Foxes and they are Premier League champions. Take a moment to let that sink in. It will take more than a moment for it to sink in for the Leicester players, supporters, and manager Claudio Ranieri.

5000/1 at the start of the season. Well done to anyone who took that bet. Tom Hanks claims that he did. Leicester were almost cast away from the Premier League last season, but now, catch me if you can, is the statement they are making. I don’t think Spurs can.

Ranieri’s men are no imposters either. They sit atop the league in May on merit: an effort made of discipline, determination, and daring. They will be worthy champions even if it cannot be denied that others have utterly and mystifyingly underperformed. Arsenal fans in particular must be shaking their heads in wonder.

When Arsenal beat Leicester 2-1 back in February I thought a genuine title challenge was emergent from Arsenal and that Leicester were set to falter. But the Foxes have proved to be wily and Arsenal are no blood thirsty hounds; they soon lost the title scent.

Wiliest of all has been Ranieri. Composed when he would have been forgiven getting carried away, he has somehow kept his players focused amid a global frenzy at one of the most incredible stories in the history of football.

It’s been a year of unlikely occurrences. Leicester’s fall has been predicted more often than that of Trump’s presidential bid but neither has stumbled more than briefly. In both cases the chasing pack have mostly been comically inept and succeeded only in wounding each other. Leicester’s defensive wall has proved more secure than anything Trump might hope to erect.

Trump has dismissed suggestions that he’s something of a tiny man, while Ranieri has been jettisoning his reputation as the tinkerman.

The Italian’s back to basics approach has been inspired in its simplicity. He kept faith with the side that performed heroically to stave off relegation at the end of last season while introducing a bit more tactical discipline and defensive solidity. His players have looked as confident this season as Manchester United’s have looked confused by Van Gaal’s enigmatic experimentation.

It was only very recently that Ranieri indulged the talk of Leicester being title contenders, and even then Clive Woodward claimed it was a ‘big error’ and suggested that a coach should never speak about anything but the next game. But you were wrong on this one Clive, Ranieri timed it absolutely perfectly.

He held off long enough (far longer than most would have managed) to keep everyone’s feet on the ground but not so long to have his players doubt him. Just as they were reckoning with the question of can we really do this? The boss said yes. He did it calmly. Yes, keep going, playing just as you’ve been doing, we can achieve something special here. Now they’re about to.

A win today and Ranieri will be given the freedom of the city; he’ll certainly never have to buy a drink in town again. The affable, amiable, and let us not forget ambitious and meticulous manager, deserves all the credit currently being bestowed upon him.

Leicester winning the league should embarrass the old order and it may also embarrass Gary Lineker who appears set to present an edition of Match of the Day in his underwear. The prospect is almost enough to make we neutrals hope for a spectacular late Leicester collapse but instead we should continue enjoying and celebrating this story of the century.

Because next season, who knows? Leicester are probably more likely to return to battling relegation to the Championship than winning the Champions League, especially if (as seems inevitable) their best players are attracted elsewhere. In that case, Ranieri may find himself having to tinker again.

Today’s game just finished: 1-1. Leicester’s title celebrations are still on hold. But not for much longer.