A tale of two matches (part II)

roma-v-interAnd so to the Eternal City. Rome is a city of grandeur past. A similar claim can be made of Roma, currently making stuttering progress under Luciano Spalletti. The Juventus monopoly over Serie A will not be an eternal one, but their empire is utterly dominant for the moment.

Last month, as part of my Italian grand tour, I went to see Roma – Inter. Setting out from the apartment, I crossed Piazza del Popolo on my way to get a tram to the Olympico stadium. As I approached the tram, a young Chinese guy approached me. “Excuse me mate, is this the tram to get to the football stadium? Where do I buy a ticket?” he asked. In a thick cockney accent.

I was as impressed by his English as I was disoriented by it. I was able to confirm that this was indeed the tram but unable to enlighten him on buying a ticket as I had purchased one at a kiosk earlier. I advised him just to get on and see if he could get a ticket aboard.

Of course, as expected, the tram was so packed that any ticketing procedures were rendered redundant.

For the second week in a row the game I was going to kicked off at 8:45 pm on a Sunday evening and thus I was alone and not with my young son as I had hoped to be. Security at Italian games has been increased significantly and I would feel entirely comfortable taking a 6 year old to a Serie A game.

Having made it to the stadium and through the myriad security, I took my seat behind the goal in the Curva Nord. Having paid a premium the previous week for a covered seat at Fiorentina, this time I had one of the cheapest tickets available for the game.

And it was a better seat than the one I had occupied in Florence.

Opposite me, behind the far goal, was the Curva Sud, home to Roma’s (in)famous ultras. Or at least some of them. One of the new security measures at the stadium is a barrier splitting the Curva in half and its installation has prompted mass protests and boycotts among the ultras. They had turned out in reasonable force for the visit of Inter but there were enough gaps to indicate that some ultra-boycotters are yet to be placated.

It was the week of Francesco Totti’s 40th birthday and the great and the good of the footballing world, and beyond, had been paying tribute to Il Capitano in the build-up to the game. Messi spoke of having “always admired” him while former teammate Cassano described him as “Italy’s greatest.”

Usain Bolt, with characteristic modesty, offered birthday wishes “from one legend to another.” Bolt is reportedly going to be training with Borussia Dortmund (most likely a sponsorship stunt since both he and the German club are sponsored by Puma) and has expressed a desire to play for Manchester United.

Mourinho’s side do currently lack pace at the moment.

Speed of foot has never been one of Totti’s greatest attributes, but his remains one of the quickest minds on the pitch. Sadly on this occasion, the Italian master only took to the pitch for the warm-up before remaining an unused substitute.

The crowd paid their own tribute with a prolonged chant of “uno capitano,” one of the few that I was able to follow and participate in with my limited grasp of Italian.

Five minutes in and it was uno – nil to Roma; Dzeko providing the fitting conclusion to a fast break down the right with a crisply clipped finish into the far corner.

The fact that this was a big game was reinforced by the sight of Spalletti in a suit. The Roma boss is more commonly attired more comfortably in a tracksuit but clearly felt that this was an occasion that warranted his Sunday best.

Also interestingly attired were the Argentinian couple sat next to me. One wore a Boca Juniors shirt while the other sported a River Plate top. This display of unity was in keeping with the overall atmosphere in the ground, which was passionate but mercifully lacking in much of the vitriolic excess I’ve witnessed at Serie A games in the past.

One observation that I noted down during the game was that Inter looked a lot better than their Milanese neighbours had the previous week in Florence. Milan were dull and utterly lacking in inspiration against Fiorentina. Inter were behind against Roma but playing with patient fluidity.

Subsequent results – and the sacking of Inter coach Frank de Boer – indicate the challenge of making judgements based on a single performance. Inter were impressive that night though and contributed significantly to a very fine game of football.

Roma were content to concede possession and ground to the visitors while focusing on breaking at great pace when they won the ball back. Salah was central to this tactic and several times found himself in excellent positions to increase his side’s lead but succeeded only in producing a series of erratic finishes.

With half time approaching it struck me that I hadn’t heard a single flare be let off. The last time I visited the Olympico (for Roma – Juventus in 2010) a flare exploded roughly every ten minutes, provoking a half jumping, half cowering motion from me on each occasion. Those around me at that game, much more used to the pyrotechnics than I, watched with some amusement.

Always worth watching is Daniele De Rossi, and once again he did not disappoint. He finds pockets of space and is able to play passes at the subtlest of angles, both in ways reminiscent of the great Xavi. He makes Roma tick and was the one who provided the platform for the majority of their most enterprising moves.

One slightly unusual feature of the game was Inter’s insistence on taking every corner as a short corner. I’ve never been much convinced by the short corner except on those rare occasions when it’s taken very quickly before the defending team has had a chance to organise itself.

When that’s not the case, the short corner is designed to create a better angle for crossing the ball but how often does it result in possession being squandered or in a sequence of passes that mark a retreat back as far as the halfway line?

Inter’s succession of short corners didn’t produce a single noteworthy chance. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, this was a mad way to proceed.

At half time the score, incredibly given the opportunities created at either end, remained 1-0.

Both teams were acquitting themselves well, with clearly defined patterns of play, yet it was obvious that neither side had the confidence to go on the sort of run that would cause genuine alarm in Turin.

These were two sides in transition; works in progress. Whether either turns out to be a masterpiece remains to be seen.

Serie A as a whole is not in rude health but on the evidence that I saw in two games, it is still much better than its detractors would have you believe. The essence of the Italian game – technical ability, tactical sophistication, and a sense of theatre – remains intact.

The biggest global stars mostly play elsewhere these days: in Spain, England and Germany. But like empires, footballing powers rise, wane and fall. Italy’s time will come again.

Football culture varies from country to country (and that’s one of the reasons I love going to games when I travel) but some aspects of the beautiful game are universal. It’s remarkable the extent to which crowds applaud the same things everywhere – a committed tackle, an earnest attempt on goal however wayward, a defender obstructing a forward in letting the ball run out for a goal kick.

After 71 minutes, the Inter supporters were applauding an equaliser; Banega cutting through the Roma defence to drill a low shot in at the near post.

It was a fine and deserved leveller and it would have been easy for panic to set in among Roma’s players. But instead they found fortitude and resolve.

And just four minutes later they found themselves back ahead; Manolas stooping to steer home a header from a free kick. It was the cue for bedlam in both Curvas.

The rest of the story, as told from the Curva Nord, can only be described as tense. Both teams created further chances but the scoreboard was not further altered.

I spent the last minutes stood at the top of the stairs as Inter forced several late corners. Many Roman prayers were offered in search of the final whistle. The ref kept the whistle in his mouth but silent. Time ticked on at the cruel, excruciatingly slow pace that it reserves for such moments.

We waited. And waited.

And panicked a little. Breaths started to be held for periods that were damaging to health. “Kick it anywhere son.” I think that’s what they were saying. They spoke to me in Italian and I did not understand the words but I understood. Men gripped each other’s shoulders.

Then it was done; and the sweet, sublime relief. The puffing out of cheeks. Hands raised. Faces of joy, slightly dazed. Victory is appreciated when it’s hard earned.

I ran with the crowds for the tram. After a reasonable wait, one arrived. The scramble aboard began, the scary surge of a mass of bodies entering a confined space.

The surge continued after I made it through the door. You cannot plant your feet in such circumstances, only wait for the wave to subside. But on it went, relentless and dangerous. Breath was no longer held but it was restricted. Limbs contorted into shrinking spaces.

It felt like the world’s worst game of Twister; played upright.

We were packed like that for twenty minutes, all the way back to Piazza del Popolo where we emerged into the late night: relieved and victorious, taking deep breaths.

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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.

There are only four teams for me

Totti

Totti and I. Milan, December 2010. Doesn’t he look pleased to finally meet me?

I support 4 teams. That probably seems like a lot so let me explain. First, there is a hierarchy. In answer to the question, “who do you support?” my answer is Dundee United. It’s the team I grew up supporting – I was a season ticket holder in my teens – and they will always remain the teenage sweetheart of my footballing affections.

I also support Liverpool, as my English team. Most football supporters in Scotland have an English team that they follow. Liverpool are mine because my best friend at school had family in Liverpool and thus he supported them. We used to watch lots of Liverpool videos together. It is 25 years since Liverpool last won the league title so at least I’m not often accused of glory hunting.

My third team is Roma. Ever since I saw my first Serie A game on Channel 4’s Football Italia in 1992 (a 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio) it has been my favourite league. Back then, it was the best league in the world. That is no longer the case but I love it still. That love used to have a universal purity about it. I just loved Italian football in general and didn’t mind too much who won particular games. It was 2009 until I went to my first Seria A game – Roma v Juventus at the Stadio Olympico. I’ve been a Roma fan ever since.

Last, and in all honestly least (but do not mistake that for a lack of passion, I speak here in very much a relative sense) there’s Rijeka. My wife is Croatian and Rijeka, the third largest city in the country, is her hometown. It is thus my adopted hometown and that comes with a duty of care toward the football team.

As summer turns to autumn across Europe (or as one slightly less rainy season turns into a slightly more rainy season in Scotland) it feels like a reasonable time to assess the start that each of my teams have made to the new season.

Dundee United

2015 started very well for Dundee United but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to end that way. I was there on New Year’s Day to see us beat Dundee 6-2 in an extraordinary derby. A month later, the transfer window closed with two of our best players – Armstrong and Mackay-Steven – having escaped through it to Celtic. It’s been downhill faster than a bobsleigh race ever since.

After it emerged that boss Jackie McNamara receives bonuses related to transfer fees (but is not involved in transfer negotiations), his stock has fallen quite significantly among some sections of the support. A fairly miserable run of form hasn’t helped. We currently sit second bottom of the table with just a single win from eight league matches this season.

Only two players who started the derby on January 1st were in the starting line-up for last weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The current squad is barely recognisable to me. I’ll be in Scotland next month and am intending to take my son to his first ever football game. We’ll be going to Tannadice to watch Dundee United v Hearts. I rather fear that every time he asks me, “Dad, who’s that?” I will have to shrug my shoulders and say I don’t know.

He’s five years old and the only footballer he really knows and recognises is Messi. A few weeks ago he asked if Messi will be playing when we go to the stadium. Sadly not son, sadly not.

Dundee United: P8, W1, D2, L5, Pts5, League Position 11/12

Report Card: D

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Liverpool

Things are not much better for my team south of the border. In fact, it’s pretty much all gone south at Anfield since Suarez left for the more southerly charms of Barcelona. I was happy to see him go such was the shame that he’d brought upon the club but it’s now very obvious that he absolutely carried that side to within a whisker of winning the league in 2013/14.

At the time, Brendan Rodgers got, and seemingly deserved, a lot of credit. Managers take plenty of flak when their team is losing so they surely warrant some praise and a little singing when they’re winning. Whatever trust there was in Rodgers though is evaporating fast around Anfield and personally, I have lost all trust in him and his methods.

Remarkably, it’s unclear how much influence the manager has over the signings that Liverpool make these days but it’s already evident that another summer of big spending is not likely to stave off another winter of discontent. Liverpool currently look miles away from being contenders for a Champions League place but rather less far away from League Two side Carlisle, who we scraped past in the Capital One Cup this week. On penalties.

I simply can’t see Rodgers turning things around sufficiently. Earlier in his reign, the possession philosophy that he espouses looked as though it could develop into something exciting. Indeed, it briefly did as Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling (ably supported by Gerrard) menaced defences with their skill, pace and speed of thought. Now though, it just appears ponderous and visiting defences can scarcely believe how easy an afternoon out they’ve been treated to at Anfield.

Talking of scarcely believable: Mark Lawrenson. On the 20th of September, Lawro wrote a column on the BBC website declaring that the 1-1 home draw with Norwich represented ‘fresh hope for new-look Reds.’ Really? Where he saw freshness, hope and something a bit different, I saw a stale, hopelessly inadequate performance that was eerily similar to many such performances in recent times.

Much of Lawrenson’s analysis seemed to be based on the fact that Liverpool had far more touches in the final third in their game against Norwich than they managed the previous week. That game was away at Manchester United. Thanks for picking up on such a subtle and unexpected phenomenon there Mark. He also provided a couple of diagrams to illustrate the point for anyone who’s a little bit slower than one of our centre halves.

Lawrenson is nothing if not a man of firm and unwavering opinions. He wrote another column yesterday. Now, apparently, “Liverpool have gone back to being a bit rudderless, characterless and seem to have lost their way.” No freshness, no hope, Mark? Not much else either.

“No rhyme, no reason, no pattern of play. Liverpool had 40-odd shots and most of them were from outside the box. Carlisle, middle of League Two, kept them at arm’s length. It was very samey. You are looking and thinking ‘what the hell is happening here?”. From “new-look” to “very samey” in just four days.

Much more of the same and it will be the dug-out that has a new look. Klopp is available and rumour has it he’s interested. Things definitely wouldn’t be too samey under the German.

Liverpool:  P6, W2, D2, L2, Pts8, League Position 13/12

Report Card: C-

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Roma

And so to Rome. When in Rome … support Roma, as the saying goes. Or something like that. I visited the Italian capital in 2009 and I was delighted that my stay coincided with one of the biggest matches in Serie A – Roma v Juventus.

My ticket cost me €110 so it’s perhaps not surprising that I felt as though I was signing on for life as a Roma fan. At the club shop they assured me there was only one area of the ground that still had tickets available, and of course it was one of the most expensive areas. When the game kicked off with lots of empty seats in various other parts of the stadium, I had the feeling that I might have been taken for a bit of a Roman ride.

Roma lost 3-1 to Juventus that day and it seems as though they’ve been trying to catch up with the Old Lady of Italian football ever since (which turns out to be harder than that makes it sound).

Last season, Juventus did the league and cup double as well as reaching the final of the Champions League. Roma finished in second, 17 points behind the champions. Can they sustain a title challenge this time round?

The early signs are reasonably encouraging but that’s based more on the shaky start that Juve have made rather than anything particularly convincing from Roma. Last weekend summed up why Roma have come close but ultimately fallen short in recent years: too many draws, especially at home. Last weekend it was 2-2 against Sassuolo.

Totti scored one of the Roma goals; his 300th for the club. A week short of his 39th birthday, the Roma captain is a truly legendary figure. He only has one Serie A winner’s medal to his name (he’s finished runner up on eight occasions) and I hope that he claims a second one next May. That would possibly make him as happy as I was when I met him in Milan in 2010 when my wife and I ended up staying in the same hotel as the Roma squad (see picture above).

Roma:  P5, W2, D2, L1, Pts8, League Position 9/20

Report Card: B-

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Rijeka

Next week I will be in Rijeka, enjoying some rest and recovery after running my first ever marathon (here in KL on October 4th, and for a very good cause: https://www.justgiving.com/Craig-Wilkie/). Sadly there’s no domestic football on while I’m there but there is an international fixture – Croatia v Bulgaria in the European Championship Qualifiers – so I might make it to that.

Rijeka’s stadium, Kantrida, is the most beautiful location that I’ve ever watched football in. Cut into a cliff on one side, with the shimmering Adriatic Sea on the other, it’s a glorious setting for the beautiful game. The football of course is not always quite as spectacular as the surroundings but the last couple of seasons have brought much to cheer for Rijeka fans, including two excellent runs in the group stage of the Europa League.

Last season a title charge looked a real possibility but Rijeka fell away slightly in the second half of the season following the sale of star striker Kramaric to Leicester. I expected him to take the Premier League by storm but so far he’s been a whole lot less than prominent. In fact, I’m almost certain that there are streakers who have spent more time on the pitch than Kramaric this season.

Dinamo Zagreb went on to win the league and finished the season unbeaten, the first time that’s ever happened in the Croatian top flight. Few would bet against Dinamo retaining the title and their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League suggests they might even be a force in Europe as well this year.

Nevertheless, Rijeka are off to a reasonable start (despite exiting the Europa League in Aberdeen) and currently sit in second place, five points behind Dinamo but with a game in hand.

Rijeka:  P10, W4, D6, L0, Pts18, League Position 2/10

Report Card: B

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All four of my teams drew last weekend; I didn’t get to feel the exhilaration of victory but at least I avoided the despondency of defeat. They all have winnable matches this weekend so I’m expecting three points to be collected somewhere.

Those then, are my teams. I’ll support you ever four.