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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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.

A Tale of Two Cities

Champions League logo

Champions League logo. Photo by Ver en vivo En Directo  www.flickr.com

Manchester City have just qualified for the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Leicester City are on the brink of winning the Premier League for the first time in theirs.

The first of these history making feats is not exactly unexpected, and arguably overdue given the investment that has gone into it; the other one, should it come to pass, would qualify as a footballing ‘black swan’ and rank among the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football.

The city of Leicester will host Champions League football next season, the city of Manchester might not (although it probably will unless West Ham produce something exceptional).

Leicester are about to gatecrash a party at which many of the other guests will view them with a haughty disregard. Recently, European football’s biggest clubs have returned to banging one of their favourite old drums: Champions League reform.

For the big boys (and some of the old European aristocracy such as AC Milan, who can hardly be called a continental power at the moment), reform means even greater levels of protection for themselves and further movement along the road towards a European Super League.

‘Super’ in this context is used decidedly flexibly, and would include quite a few clubs such as the aforementioned AC, whose justification for a seat at the top table currently rests on a very flimsy stool. Manchetser United are another club whose stool appears to contain a wobbly leg or two.

But, they protest: “we are big clubs, with history, and pedigree.” True enough, yet size, history, and pedigree do not win football matches by themselves. Quality is a more likely guarantor of that and it is in scare supply at the San Siro and Old Trafford.

Wherever there are concentrations of power, you are likely to find significant levels of self-interested decision-making. In the upper echelons of European football, power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few clubs. Those who are not part of the elite group are expected to content themselves with crumbs that fall from the top table.

The big clubs would prefer to raise the table and put it further out of the reach of the little guys for whom they have increasingly little time. It has been reported that some of the big clubs (led by the faded pair of giants in Milan) are going so far as to push a proposal that they be given automatic entry into the Champions League without bothering with such inconveniences as actually qualifying for it.

Why should AC have to prove themselves over and over again when they’ve already shown that they used to be a good side. Once upon a time. Ok, it’s getting to be quite a long time ago now, but still. Why should upstarts like Leicester get to compete in the Champions League if all they’ve done is beat all the other teams in England to become champions?

Spare a thought for poor old Man U, they’ve won the league lots of times; it’s just that they’re not going to win it this time. It sounds laughable of course but these guys are serious and they always are when it comes to money.

Tennis has its wildcards they assert. Wimbledon can, and does, offer a few places in the main draw for those who haven’t fully earned it on merit. Usually it’s a couple of plucky local youngsters who don’t detain their opponents for very long and some spots are reserved for bigger names who might be returning from injury for example.

The wildcard system has plenty of critics in tennis (personally I’d get rid of it) but Europe’s big football clubs want to go much further than Wimbledon is permitted to: they want to control most, if not the entire draw of the tournament. Teams would no longer qualify for the Champions League, they would be invited.

No doubt letters of invitation (perfumed with the sweet smelling scent of money) would arrive at the great palaces of European football, the San Siro and Old Trafford among them. I’m not so sure about Leicester’s King Power stadium.

They may soon be champions but in Europe they are neither kings nor powerful.

The powers that be, and who have long been, are tightening their grip on that power. Even ‘new money’ big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG are seen as brash neighbours, tolerated perhaps but hardly welcomed.

Manchester City are likely to line up in this year’s Champions League semi finals alongside the old money glamour of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Next season, Leicester will be expected to take a brief look around before leaving quickly and quietly without causing much of a scene.

I’m a conservative sort of a guy but I’m not one to say that modern football is rubbish and wouldn’t it be great if we could just return to the good old days (whenever and wherever they happened to be). I’m a big fan of the Champions League – it often produces outstanding matches and entertainment. I’m less of a fan of the cartel that the big clubs are seeking to create.

Ultimately, we who pay the piper (by going to the games or subscribing to the sports channels) will at least be entitled to request a tune. We might have to wait behind the broadcasters and the sponsors though, whose requests come written on larger cheques.

The next time we hear that famous anthem of the Champions League, we should ask ourselves: do we want a cartel or do we want a competition?