A tale of two matches (part I)

fiorentina-fansThis is the first part of a tale of two matches. I was recently in Italy on holiday taking in the delights of Florence, Norcia, and Rome. The original intention had been to visit those places in reverse order but that was before the Serie A fixture list was published.

Had the original plan been adhered to then I would have been able to see Lazio v Empoli in Rome. Changing the plan (with the kind agreement of my ever wonderful wife) meant that I could see Fiorentina v AC Milan in Florence, followed a week later by Roma v Inter Milan in the capital.

I may have mentioned before that I have something of a soft spot for Italian football.

Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi offers covered seats along only one side of the ground. Thus a dilemma: pay more for a covered seat in the event of it raining or take my chances with a cheaper one that would leave me exposed to the elements?

Conditioned by living in the Tropics, I opted to guard against the elements and thus forked out €65 for a seat beneath the roof. Or at least I tried to.

My command of Italian is limited and yet it wasn’t this that prevented me from concluding an online purchase. The website wanted Italian ID details which, not being Italian, I didn’t have.

No problemo (as the Italians say), I sent an email to the ticket office. Impressively swiftly they responded with a form for me to fill out. I completed the form and returned it. About five times. Each time they sent it back with some new stipulation or request for information that was apparently vital to my obtaining a ticket.

After about 36 hours of back and forth, I had a ticket in my inbox. By contrast the purchase of a Roma ticket online was entirely straightforward.

Security appears to have been tightened at Italian football matches since I last attended one back in 2010. My ticket and ID were scanned and checked several times prior to actually going through the turnstile and entering the stadium.

It was an hour before kick-off. I generally like to get to games early and savour the build-up.

A few days earlier I’d read an article by Paul Scholes in which he said that he was becoming increasingly disillusioned by ‘big football’ (by which he was primarily referencing the English Premier League) and preferred watching Salford games, the semi-professional club that he part owns.

Italian football is no longer quite the glorious spectacle that I first fell in love with in the ‘90s but Fiorentina v AC Milan still qualifies as a pretty ‘big’ game. I support neither side but was still excited to be at a big game, more excitement than I would have felt at Lazio v Empoli for instance.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling of going to a big game, especially one under the lights. Floodlights do remarkable things to football grounds, they charge the whole atmosphere.

I know what Scholes means though, and a ‘big game’ can be defined as any game that really means something to those watching, and hopefully to those taking part. Thus there are big games at all levels of the footballing pyramid and I think the point that the ex-Manchester United star was making is that the experience should be an authentic one.

Before the big game kicked off I noticed several small boys playing with a ball at the edge of the vast stand behind the goal to my left. Theirs was the sheer exuberant joy of kicking a ball around, as multi-millionaire superstars warmed up on the pitch just a few metres away.

A few seats along from me were a couple of students (somehow, wherever you are in the world, it’s always easy to spot students) with ‘Forza Viola’ painted on their arms. It seemed a strange way to display your colours but perhaps purple isn’t the easiest for some to work with.

I had paid to be dry so of course it was a warm cloudless night with not so much as a hint of rain. I could’ve had a much better and cheaper seat on the opposite side of the ground but insurance comes at a price.

So does refreshment at football stadiums these days, but I was pleased to be able to refresh myself with some Peroni, served in a plastic cup at a cost of €4.50. It remains a great pity that the sale of alcohol continues to be banned in British football and I’m not convinced the restriction contributes much to orderliness since many people just increase their consumption prior to the game.

The guy sat in front of me appeared to be whiling away the time before kick-off on Tinder. At least I assume it was Tinder; as a happily married man I have never visited this online revolution in dating (if that’s not rather a quaint term for the object of Tinder) but from the procession of young ladies across the screen, this is what I took it to be.

He swiped in a rather disinterested fashion, in a similar way that people often peruse the matchday programme and its list of official sponsors.

Behind the goal, where the ultras were situated, more passion was being displayed alongside a flag that read: ‘Panico Totale.’ It wasn’t clear if this was an invitation to the away fans or an admission of suffering on the part of the home ones.

The game began with Fiorentina thoroughly dominant but unable to create anything that could be described as a clear-cut opportunity. Until the 22nd minute, when they were awarded a penalty.

There was a lengthy delay between the award of the spot-kick and Ilicic striking the ball. In the meantime, an older gentleman in the row in front of me held his head in his hands while repeatedly exclaiming “mama mia.”

Ilicic’s penalty struck the post. “Mama mia” indeed.

A despondent lull settled on the game for a while after that. Milan continued to offer next to nothing and Fiorentina probed rather half-heartedly save for the occasional incisive break.

Fiorentina v AC Milan.JPG

The fans did their best to rally greater industry but they too seemed to tire of the effort rather easily.

What you cannot fault Italian fans for is their sense of style. There are not so many replica tops on display in the crowds at Italian games. Supporters (both men and women) know how to dress and see no reason why fashion should be jettisoned at the football.

It helps of course that Italians are instinctively stylish people. For some British supporters, putting on the team strip is probably the closest they’ll come to making a fashion statement in any given week.

It was proving a relatively straightforward game for the officials; all five of them.

I simply do not understand the role or point of the fourth and fifth officials. They are clearly an invention of the referees’ union and serve no discernible purpose nor make any meaningful contribution to the game. They always seem slightly embarrassed of their position.

Imagine an employee in Starbucks whose only job is to write the names on the cups: that’s the fourth and fifth officials.

The second half had a higher tempo and Milan even ventured into the occasional attacking position. As the game progressed it opened up and was actually becoming a pretty decent 0-0. Both goalkeepers were called upon to exert themselves at regular intervals.

Into the final stages and Milan had clearly settled for what they had and they sought to disrupt the flow of the game as much as possible, including with substitutions. Each one brought about the always absurd spectacle of the ‘jog walk off’ whereby a player attempts to leave the pitch as slowly as possible whilst trying to convey a slight impression of running.

The effect is something like a reverse moonwalk, but lacking all grace and poise. I think all those who do the ‘jog walk off’ should be felled by the referee and placed on a stretcher. Maybe that’s a job for the helpful fourth and fifth assistants behind the goal.

Milan held on and the game finished 0-0, the only scoreless fixture in Serie A that weekend.

I wonder if the guy on Tinder’s night remained scoreless thereafter.

 

UPDATE

I mentioned in the above post that my trip to Italy included a visit to the beautiful town of Norcia in the Umbrian hills. Yesterday, Norcia was again devastated by a severe earthquake, the second in a matter of months in that part of Italy. Mercifully on this occasion it appears there were no fatalities. The historic Basilica of St. Benedict was flattened in the quake. To contribute to the rebuilding (in every sense of that term) consider a donation to these remarkable men who have made their home in Norcia: http://en.nursia.org/donations/

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Pink with embarrassment

russia-world-cup

World Cup Russia 2018, photo by Nazionale Calcio http://www.flickr.com

It was, I suppose, inevitable. Ever since the day that Scotland’s shocking pink away strip was unveiled, it was only a matter of time before they put in a performance wearing it that would leave their faces the same colour.

That performance came last night in Slovakia, which came on the back of a similarly dismal showing against Lithuania in Glasgow on Saturday.

I didn’t see either game; I was flying during the first one and the second was (mercifully perhaps) not shown here in Malaysia. But the results tell their own story and unfortunately it’s a familiar horror story for we Scotland fans.

The World Cup in Russia looks a long way away from here.

It’s never ever a pleasure to call for a manager’s sacking and on this occasion it is made all the harder by the fact that I am a big fan of Gordon Strachan. Upon taking the job he made some real progress of the sort that we have not seen with the national side since Craig Brown’s time in charge.

The problem now is that the progress has not simply stalled, it is being slowly but surely reversed.

Strachan’s decision making has become increasingly bizarre. Chris Martin, good honest pro that he is, cannot be considered an international class central forward. Leigh Griffiths almost certainly is yet the Scotland boss has shown an almost comic reluctance to play him.

As ever, we lack creativity. Young Burke looks like he possesses some but he was omitted from last night’s debacle altogether. Answers on a postcard please (or in the comments below).

In the post-match press conference, Strachan looked crestfallen and lost. His renowned wit was almost entirely absent. Reporters were still probably thinking “whit?” rather than wit following the analysis the manager produced in the aftermath of the Lithuania game.

He suggested his side had been “unlucky”, that the draw may come to be seen as “a good point in the end” and that “Chris Martin was outstanding upfront.” So outstanding that he was promptly dropped for the next game.

It’s understandable that managers defend and protect their players in public. But it’s insulting to supporters to do so in a way that completely mischaracterises the game that they have just watched. Most supporters are nowhere near as knowledgeable about the game as their confidently expressed opinions would suggest, but neither are they fools.

A manager that starts to treat them as such – however inadvertently or noble the intent – will soon lose their confidence. Strachan has now lost that confidence among large sections of the Scottish support and, more worryingly, perhaps also among sections of the squad.

There was the usual rousing talk from the players pre-match, followed by the customary damp squib during it. They have let down another manager and can probably already start making summer holiday plans for the summer of 2018.

I hope some of them choose Russia. They should go to watch, to learn, and to think what might have been.

Of course that assumes that we don’t qualify and the crazy thing is, despite all the doom and gloom of today, the campaign is not beyond salvaging. The only correct observation that Strachan made after the Lithuania game was that it’s a ‘strange group.’

England, lamentable again last night, remain every bit as much strangers to their potential as we are to major international tournaments. Next month at Wembley should be interesting.

Will Strachan still be in charge for that game? I suspect he probably will. Even though I think his time should be up, there’s not exactly a plethora of excellent candidates waiting in the wings.

Strachan has recovered from Slovakian humiliation before but Wembley, for all of England’s glaring deficiencies, is still not the ideal place to check in for rehab.

The clash of the auld enemies will no doubt reproduce all the old blood and thunder but both nations are in desperate search of new answers. After Big Sam’s little mishap and short reign, Gareth has stepped in and been unable to halt England’s southerly slide. He will likely welcome the visit of the northerly neighbours.

The Tartan Army will travel brave of heart and full of bladder. The pink strip can be left behind in Slovakia, but the fear is that those supporters will only leave Wembley feeling even more blue.