Offside, 29 May
Italian football is back, but nobody outside Italy is cheering (except me).
So, Milan are champions of Europe, beating Juventus on penalties after 120 goalless minutes. Having endured several years in the wilderness Italian football is back, but nobody outside Italy is cheering. Nobody except me that is. As a longstanding admirer of il calcio, I was loving it, loving it, loving it.
When Juventus toppled Real Madrid to set up an all-Italian Champions League final against Milan, a collective groan of dismay swept across Europe. The beautiful attacking football of Spain had succumbed to the dull defensive pragmatism of Italy. The Spanish press were particularly incensed that their three quarter-finalists – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia – all went out to Italian opposition. One Spanish newspaper described Italy as ‘the homeland of the troglodytes of football’.
Internazionale, it must be said, were extremely fortuitous to have scraped through against Valencia on away-goals after surviving a fearsome battering from the Spanish side. Valencia coach Rafael Benitez must be a strong candidate for the Neil Warnock telling-it-like-it-is award after his scathing assessment of the Italians. ‘We were better than Inter in both games’, seethed Benitez. ‘If all teams played like that, football could disappear altogether. The stadiums would be empty because no one would come and pay to see this kind of thing. They are the death of football.’ Ouch!
Admittedly, of the three Serie A teams to reach the Champions League semi-finals, Inter conform most closely to the negative stereotype. They defend in numbers and are almost completely reliant on striker Christian Vieri snatching goals on the break.
As Times columnist Simon Kuper put it: ‘Inter have devised a revolutionary system never seen before in top-class football: a shaky defence, terrible passing and a Hegelian world-historical individual at centre forward.’ (1) Ironically, the man responsible for Inter’s dismal football is Hector Cuper, formerly coach at Valencia, who also play a counter-attacking game, albeit an infinitely more watchable version.
So yes, by all means, hurl rotten tomatoes at Inter. They deserve it. But please don’t tar Milan and Juventus with the same ‘boring’ brush. Juve, it is true, did not go in for Madrid-style party tricks against Barcelona in the quarter-final second leg. But their backs-to-the-wall victory over Barca in the hostile cauldron of the Nou Camp, despite playing with only 10 men for 40 minutes, was nothing short of heroic. Yet, still the Spanish newspaper Marca ungraciously complained that ‘Juve played like bloodsuckers and they again sucked the life out of Barcelona’. A case of sour tempranillos I think.
However, calciophobia is not just a uniquely Spanish phenomenon. The British also tend to regard Italian football as an interminable snore-fest. The Italians see defending as an art form and we can’t our heads around that idea (and nor can our defenders). Throw in our sanctimonious indignation at the shirt-tugging, injury-feigning gamesmanship of your continentals and it adds up to a dim view of the Italian game. ‘One of life’s puzzles is why in a country as stylish as Italy, where people’s abiding preoccupation is to cut a bella figura, they should play such flat, joyless football’, pondered John Carlin in the Observer (2).
But those who believe that all Italian teams are the slavish disciples of Helenio Herrera, the Argentine coach who pioneered catenaccio (literally ‘door bolt’) at Inter in the 1960s, simply don’t know their proverbial arses from their elbows. Personally, I blame Channel 4 for dropping its coverage of Serie A (and thereby depriving presenter James Richardson of what the Observer‘s Amy Lawrence described as ‘the best job in the world’). Until Eurosport starting broadcasting live Italian games this year there had been a calcio blackout on British TV.
But as anyone who actually follows Italian football will tell you, Serie A teams are not all identikit catenaccio merchants. Milan, for example, have adopted a much less cautious style this season. When the rossoneri beat Real Madrid 1-0 at the San Siro last November, even the Spanish sports paper AS remarked: ‘They were winning 1-0 with five minutes to go and attacking with seven men – something never before seen in Italian football.’ Similarly, Juve defeated Real Madrid in Turin, not by spoiling tactics, but by taking the game to Madrid’s galacticos and outplaying them. ‘It didn’t seem like an Italian side’, spluttered an incredulous AS.
Italians are capable of turning on the style when they want, but sometimes they turn it off again and this is what really infuriates their critics. I’ve got a soft spot for this kind of punk rock ‘fuck you’ attitude.
As Italian national coach Giovanni Trapattoni recently said: ‘We are not clowns sent out to entertain, we are there to do our jobs as professionals and that means doing everything we can to win.’ Machiavelli himself couldn’t have put it any better.
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