Tuesday, December 4, 2007

revolutions and repressions on football sundays

I was going to write about something else, but instead I will link you to Hoops fan Kevin McCarra's assessment of the faded glory of Milan, who play Celtic tonight in the San Siro. As an aggregator of every existing argument attacking the power and prestige of Milan in particular and [inevitably] Italian football as a whole* the piece has few to no equals in recent memory.

What sent me off on the tangent you're about to read, though, was the piece's subtitle:

Despite winning the Champions League twice in four years Milan have still to rival the glamour of Barca and Real Madrid.

Which put me in mind of a conversation I had with brilliant blaugrana blogger and fan Linda on the differences between Barcelona and Milan, two clubs one might find cause to link because of their long and illustrious history of Dutch influence. Just as one mightn't, given their complete opposition to each other's values and systems in the appearance of things.

Each club has its own bĂȘte noire/better half in its own league, and to all intents and purposes are rather similar in the essentials of their footballing style, but the difference between two G-14 clubs known for being attacking teams could hardly be greater in the face they present to the world. The gulf between Barca's football and Milan's may hardly be as wide as it is between, say, Barca's and Juventus', but as a comparison between equals [disavowing the columnist McCarra's proposition for the moment] I hardly think you'd find a greater difference: each taken at their best, Barca's lush, spread-out, unpredictable spontaneity and pace contrasts markedly with Milan's engineered, stately, textbook precision. If you want a reductionist argument, look at their figurehead Brazilians: Ronaldinho is pretty much the Jimmy Page to Kaka's John Paul Jones in the flair stakes.

And then there's the image, which is, a sportsman of old once said, everything. Barca, as that other pillar of the Guardian's sport columns Sid Lowe said only yesterday, have never been keener to present themselves to the world as the repository of all things romantically socialist and lefty, "a standard-bearer for liberty and democracy."

Milan, on the other hand, have long since broken with their own working-class, populist past and embraced -- and committed their own crimes of perpetrating -- a neoconservatism that aligns very agreeably with the consolidation of the Berlusconi era. When Milan market themselves, they don't fly the flags of revolution and visit [or not] Nelson Mandela. They dress in Dolce & Gabbana, speak in soft, measured tones of 'history,' and 'respect,' and insistently emphasize their notions of traditions and continuity [two words: Maldini. Dynasty.]. They keep players on their roster until retirement and speak of never showing any of 'their own' the door, even if their treatment of the Inzaghis and the Cafus of the world is more pertinent proof of this than their handling of the Gourcuffs and the Simics.

The grand gesture becomes force of habit. Their response to a grieving Sevilla, whom they played at the European Supercup in the wake of the death of Antonio Puerta, for example, was all grave stateliness. No hand-wringing or hysterics, but no stiff-upper-lip awkwardness or copperplate condolences either: the soundbytes, the flowers, the banners, the jerseys and the gestures all led to one Serie A director [whose name escapes me at the moment - might have been Zampa, though] to remark, a touch dryly, of calcio's need to 'direct' its image as well as Milan handled their response to the tragedy. When the Dida-diving incident at their game in Parkhead came up to embarrass both player and club immensely, Adriano Galliani's answer to questions about Milan taking action against the fan who ran at Dida was, "Of course not, we're European champions, we're representing this continent to the world, we don't want to create a fuss," -- an answer as disingenuous as it was sly, and one that pushed the image that the club has been working to create for the last few years; of Milan as the patricians of Europe, the old lions, the 'family.' Presumptuous, for a club that dared to be the Chelsea of the '80s to Juventus and Inter [who, I assume, must have cribbed as much as today's traditionalist Arsenals and Liverpools do].

Compare this with Barca, their almost exhibitionist lack of organisation and unshakeable contrarianism. Even at their most shamelessly capitalist, Barca will insist on marketing themselves as the heart and soul of their left-wing national ideal. There are some things money can't buy, but Barca's globalised peddling of Catalan pride isn't one of them, as Espanyol will testify. But whether or not it takes away the edge that 'more than a club' would imply in such a case, sometimes, marketing things just doesn't make them any less real. In the money-grubbing, amoral cartel that makes up the G-14, Barca's constant pushing of the symbolic values of freedom, their practically peerless contribution to developing local football with local youth, and their unquestioning shelter of the likes of Oleguer Presas in the same orbit as their galactic, global icons, is a beautiful thing to see, even when it slides into illusion.

I enjoy both. I try hard not to believe either, but I enjoy both.

What? Oh, right. McCarra's opinion piece. Well, yeah. Milan are particularly uninspiring these days, but I don't see a connection with either their dodgy history or their uncertain future to their current form. As for their lacking 'glamour,' uh. Okay?

Two things, though:

Milan have been champions of Serie A just twice in the past 11 seasons.

... and the fact that they lost most of those scudetti to a team that was convicted of fixing those championships doesn't occur to you because...?

and this:

Milan can revert to being an exceedingly fine team and the rout of Manchester United in the spring was magisterial, though the opposition were not at full strength.

Which annoys me whenever it comes up. You can plead any excuse you like to explain why England's most aggressively successful team looked like schoolboys in the San Siro this April, but you don't get to use the injury card against a team that played a fair few of last season's matches with a fully fit bench of eleven.

* - not to question the validity of some.


Anonymous said...

excellent essay!

roswitha said...

Thank you very much!

Linda said...

I agree, this is brilliant.

The thing is, I do like Kevin McCarra's writing a lot of the time, and so I had high hopes when I saw the topic of his piece. Sadly, it's a bit of a missed opportunity. Yours, on the other hand, actually gets to the heart of the issue.

(To be honest, although I suffer through and love Barca's choatic romanticism, I spend a lot of time envying Milan's peace and especially that sense of tradition which allows them to keep players until they're 40 years old.

Brian said...

Roswitha, this is brilliant. It's precisely why I can't help but look on Barca with one skeptical eye no matter how much I want to love them: the fact that they're precisely and consciously selling an ideal of populism and freedom seems to mean in some ways that the more uncritically you embrace them the further you get from the ideal you mean to embrace. You're buying something that's essentially opposed to buying. With Milan, on the other hand, there's less to love, but at least their means of promoting themselves are compatible with our means of admiring them.

That said, I can't help but notice that my pulse goes faster when Barcelona are playing, even if I roll my eyes. With Milan I always feel like I'm looking at the insides of a well-made watch: it's beautiful clockwork, but what time is it?

roswitha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
roswitha said...

Linda: Thank you - you were inspirational in the blogging of this blog! As I read McCarra's piece I felt uncomfortably familiar with some of the symptoms of decay he described, but he kind of wrecked his argument with the silly 'oh, they lack glamour, no one gossips about them' opening. [Obviously hasn't had his press pass for Milanello approved yet, has he.]

And yeah - I realise I didn't write in the closure for Milan that exists in my mind and that, to me, justifies my fandom. At the risk of sounding like the neocons who say that sane people are always Democrats when they're young and Republicans when they're old, I do think Barca is a fantastic place to be young and explosive, but that Milan is a club a player would want to age with [and I mean that in the nicest possible way *g*]. The dividends of their nurturing experience and technical know-how are cropping up all over Europe, given how many ex-Milanese are currently managing top sides. Or did Sacchi put something in the water?


Brian: Thank you! Perhaps this deserves a post of its own, but I think football, both in its essentials and its current marketabilities, is a very conservative sport, in a way that the originally high-class cricket and rugby are proving not to be. Barca will keep failing to separate the medium from the message as the sport grows more and more globalised, and maybe it won't be a bad thing for them to eventually abandon their annoying and self-contradictory position as the sole keepers of Catalonia's pride. But they're so pragmatic about what they *can* do, cf. Oleguer, La Masia etc., they're partially justified.

it's beautiful clockwork, but what time is it?

No use asking me, they put the boom boom into my heart. :D The way they've developed over the last twenty years means that the all-European Dutch-Italian quality is going to take a while to uproot from their system, so its all very order-over-chaos. I think all the attacking sides in Italy have that quality in some measure, except maybe Roma in recent years. Stay tuned for updates in the next few seasons?

ursus arctos said...

As a Barca socio who happens to live in Milano (but has a season ticket to Inter), let me add to the praise for this post.

Very nicely done, especially in seeing through the (oftimes self-generated) hype that surrounds both clubs.

I got here via Brian's blog, and will definitely be coming back.

roswitha said...

Ursus: thank you! [And I'm envious. You have a season ticket to go see Zlatan play every other week! I would -- well, I don't know what I would do for that, but I'm damned sure it'd be very traitorous to Milan.]

ursus arctos said...

My pleasure, really.

And should you ever come to Milano, we would be happy to host you at an Inter match, and even facilitate the purchase of a ticket for the other lot.

roswitha said...

That's incredibly kind! Thank you. :) For my part I'd be quite willing to jettison my partialities to linger awhile in the northern half. When it comes to Zlatan, we're all just one big 80000-seater stadium -- or we should be. I'm really hoping Inter don't get themselves knocked out of Europe too early this time around: he's doing far too well at the moment.

Spangly Princess said...

Hi Roswitha, just wanted to add to the chorus of praise!

One of the things about Milan's gracious and/or smug old money classiness is that they can do this precisely because that throne has never been taken: for all the "vecchia signora" rhetoric, the Italian club who perhaps has most right to that role has never assumed it. And as for players embodying that style, Pirlo surely has to be that milanista par excellence.

As for Barca, they are a bit like one of those Che Guevara posters. All their sincerity can't remove the essential commoditisation. Their romantic appeal is undeniable, mind.

roswitha said...

SP: I'm overwhelmed, and so glad you enjoyed this! Thanks, and super-thanks for bringing up Juve, too. Their understatement and genteel lack of ostentation have always struck me as the real deal, kind of like English royalty dressing in shabby smocks and mucking about in the stables just because they can. [No wonder they think they're too good for football, mutter mutter.] Milan, on the other hand, seem like a bourgeoisie dream of silks and received pronounciation. I find that oddly sweet. :)

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