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/

Advertisements

Welcome to the European Super League

Champions League Ball

Champions League ball. Photo by Prakash, http://www.flickr.com

The new European Super League will kick-off in the 2018-19 season. It won’t be called the European Super League of course but that’s essentially what it will be. Yes, the latest Champions League revamp takes us even closer to the long-cherished dream of many of the Continent’s biggest teams and their sponsors.

The so-called ‘Big Four’ leagues (Spain, England, Germany, and Italy) will each get four guaranteed spots in the Champions League group stage. The big winner in this set-up (stitch-up) is Italy’s Serie A, which currently struggles to get a third side in via the play-offs. No such problems shortly.

The big losers? Well, just about everybody else; the smaller nations and those teams that can actually call themselves champions in their domestic leagues, their path to the group stage just became a little more arduous again.

UEFA’s website lists the 11 values that the organisation ‘works and acts in accordance with.’ The first of these is referred to as ‘Football First’ and states: ‘in everything that we do, football must always be the first and most important element that we take into consideration. Football is a game before being a product, a sport before being a market, a show before being a business.’

Excellent, very worthy stuff. So presumably, this latest decision was made entirely in accordance with the football first value that UEFA holds so dear. It was a decision made in order to promote football as a game, sport and show rather than as a product, market and business.

It’s probably just a by-product of the decision that the product will be more valuable, the market will be expanded, and the business deals will be bigger. That will make for happy chairman at big clubs and happy executives at sponsors and broadcasters paying the big money to keep the whole bloated circus on the road.

In a previous post on the Champions League I said the tournament was reaching a cross-road whereby it would have to decide if it was going to be a competition or a cartel. The Cambridge English dictionary defines a cartel as ‘a group of similar independent companies who join together to control prices and limit competition.’

Football first in the sense of big guys first (as well as second, third and fourth). Some of the big clubs had made even loftier demands: that access be given to historically successful clubs for instance. The Milan teams were particularly keen on that idea. Mind you, as a Liverpool fan …

While the big cheese’s carve up the pie in ever-more self-serving ways, the small fries are left to scoop up whatever crumbs fall from the top table.

But unity at least is preserved among the footballing family, and talk of the big clubs breaking away on their own dies down for a year or two until the next round of negotiations begin. UEFA itself clings on to its seat at the table. But for how long?

It’s interesting that all of this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit. The wider European integration project has never looked less certain but football, as always, is different. Ever closer union, at least among those already united, is the UEFA mantra.

Domestic football must seem so parochial to some of these clubs, a rather unfortunate distraction, much like international football. Nationalism was not left behind somewhere towards the end of the last century though; in Britain, its component parts, and throughout Europe as a whole, it is once again on the march.

Understandably, that causes a degree of alarm but it is a perfectly natural response to an alienating globalisation and an elite, particularly in Europe, who have been blindly dismissive of common concerns. Those who walk the corridors of power find themselves confused.

UEFA thinks football is different. Fans must want the big teams playing each other all the time. Manchester United fans want to face Barcelona, not Bournemouth. Maybe, maybe not.

Right now Old Trafford sells out for both so it’s hard to say. Local rivalries remain fiercest though as we’ll no doubt see this weekend in Manchester – even if Jose and Pep provide a sprinkling of continental intrigue.

I was interested to read a piece by Paul Scholes today in which he says: ‘I don’t find elite football as interesting to watch any more, especially in England.’ He goes on to suggest that ‘it’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment.’(https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/05/paul-scholes-non-league-football-premier-league)

He prefers watching Salford, the non-league club he part-owns, to Manchester United. He wasn’t alone last season; Salford probably gained a few more fans during the Van Gaal era at Old Trafford.

Those fans have a choice as to how they want their football, just as the citizens of democracies retain some say over the type of communities they want to be a part of.

Brexit was the bursting of the European political bubble. The European football bubble continues to inflate but one day, it too will experience a sharp and spectacular puncture.

Long ball Louis

Louis van Gaal - Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey www.flickr.com

Louis van Gaal – Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey
http://www.flickr.com

Paul Scholes said this week that watching Manchester United has been “miserable” at times this season, and he gets paid to do it as a pundit. Pity the poor punters who are paying for the privilege.

Manchester United’s style of play has come under increased scrutiny since Sam Allardyce labelled them a “long-ball” side after their late equaliser against West Ham. Louis van Gaal’s reaction was as surprising as it was revealing: he turned up at a press conference clutching a dossier of stats from the game in a bid to prove big Sam mistaken. The Louis doth protest too much, methinks.

For a man who always appears so supremely self-confident it was a gesture of remarkable insecurity and weakness. Could you ever imagine Sir Alex responding in such a way? He never did because he never felt the need to publicly justify himself.

Manchester United’s players still don’t seem very comfortable with the manager’s tactics. For the first three months or so that could be understood and forgiven, not least because the Dutchman was implementing quite significant changes in playing style, including moving away from the reliance on 4-4-2. By now, with the quality of players he has at his disposal, there should be much more fluency and coherence in his side’s play.

I wonder if Van Gaal’s slightly hysterical reaction to Allardyce’s claims is a sign that he has begun to doubt himself just a little. There’s no doubt that he’s frustrated with the way his side is performing. The midweek win over Burnley didn’t provide much comfort.

Chris Smalling revealed that Van Gaal had been “shocked” at half-time by how poor the first half display was. I’m not sure that too many others were though, including the Old Trafford faithful who have got used to generous helpings of mediocrity to accompany their prawn sandwiches this season.

The Van Gaal stat attack had a touch of the Rafa Benitez ‘facts’ fiasco about it. It is not a flattering comparison for the Dutchman. Instead of handing out tactical diagrams to the media, the Manchester United boss would find his time better served going over them for longer with his players. His players frequently look as bemused as the journalists that attended the educational press conference.

Despite United’s dodgy defence most of the recent questions have focused on the misfiring strike force. Falcao’s loan is looking decidedly subprime while Van Persie’s prime looks to be some way behind him. Rooney has been shunted to midfield in order for Falcao and Van Persie to be paired together up front but it doesn’t seem to be working.

The Colombian and the Dutchman are too similar. Either would benefit from playing alongside Rooney but neither appears to enjoy the current set-up. Both are penalty box predators; they don’t get too involved in build up play. In the absence of Rooney dropping off the front to link with the midfield it is inevitable that the ball will hit the strikers from deeper. Whether most of those constitute long balls or long passes (the statisticians make a clear distinction) is not really the point.

Is Rooney wasted in midfield? By and large I think he is although it’s certainly not his fault. He’s shown himself to be willing to play there and has more than enough quality to do so. Some of Rooney’s natural dynamism is curtailed in midfield though and he’s not experienced enough in the position to control games in the way that you would expect a player of his quality to.

Every time that Rooney lines up in midfield it’s a reminder that Manchester United have never replaced Scholes. They should have signed someone such as Modric when he left Spurs. Fabregas would also have fitted the bill perfectly. Fellaini, alas, does not.

The summer spending spree did bring the creativity of Di Maria to Manchester and after a spectacular start his recent struggles have been a bit of a surprise. He was one of the best players at the World Cup in Brazil and he’s most suited to roaming quite freely in a role similar to the one that Bale plays now at Real Madrid and used to play at Tottenham. Di Maria’s stuttering form seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the side.

For all the dark clouds supposedly gathering over Old Trafford, Van Gaal can still point to the fact that his team are in third place in the table and on course for a return to the Champions League. The fact that they are tells you a lot about inadequacies elsewhere.

West Ham probably won’t be playing in Europe next season but that hasn’t stopped Allardyce claiming that there is no coach in the Premier League as sophisticated as him these days. It’s a bold claim but it’s perhaps not as outlandish as it first sounds. He has been around at the top level for a long time and has always been known as a keen student of the game not least on the sports science side of it.

With his tie loosened, his extensive frame, and his furious gum chewing, Big Sam doesn’t look quite as sophisticated as Mourinho, Wenger or even Van Gaal and that may be one reason he’s not credited with the level of sophistication that he feels he’s due.

When Van Gaal used more direct tactics at certain stages of games at the World Cup, he was hailed for his tactical flexibility. When Big Sam does the same, it tends to be dismissed as unreconstructed directness of the old school. Let’s not forget that Manchester United’s directness at Upton Park brought an equaliser.

Van Gaal’s team remains a work in progress with more emphasis so far on work than progress. Under Moyes, Old Trafford lost its fear factor for visiting sides; Van Gaal’s tactical tinkering hasn’t yet brought it back. That’s the long and the short of it.