Sunday, December 16, 2007

the morning after: the tokyo drift

That Grand Slam Sunday was possibly the most awful sustained massacre of football I have yet seen on a single weekend. No doubt it was as much of a lark for most of England as the now bi-annual Chelsea-Liverpool CL fixtures are, with all the passion and glory at stake, but for me it was as dire as your average Juve-Inter game, just without the broken bones and the nice hairstyles.

Admittedly I was spoiled by what my Times of India touted as "'the continental appetiser' to this fantastic weekend!". When I turned the TV off after the CWC final I have to admit it was in mild disapproval of what turned out to be the most pathetic defensive display on a football field in quite a while, but hindsight and the pain of what was to follow force me to admit that I was unduly censorious. It isn't often that I watch a match for which half-time feels like it's come way too soon. No doubt the Boca guys felt the same, since they appeared to send out the zombie equivalents of the men who'd challenged and confronted Milan with such intelligence and guile in the first forty-five.

The second half wasn't particularly hard on the eye, either. The fault is entirely Boca's, of course, for not having learnt what Cagliari and Torino have woken up to and letting Milan have pretty much the run of the midfield, thus not only letting them win, but win in style. No other European team would have done it quite this way. As Milan's exhibition game ['let us show you what we used to do before Italy and the rest of Europe woke up to our gameplan'] this was hilarious. The Seedorf-Kaka-Inzaghi nexus could not have been cooler had they been cryogenically preserved for a couple of those goals. [Yes, that WAS a 'they are so old!' joke.] Credit to Kaka, in spite of his giallo-incurring tee-shirt-exposive-compulsive-disorder: he is gifted with the sort of balance and precision that has been the rarely-attainable Tao of Milan for the last few years. His flair is in his economy and judgment; which is to say, he has precious little flair that hasn't been broken down and honed into a craft that is as mechanical as it is intuitive. Fond as I am of my classic rock analogies, I have to say it. The man is the Paul McCartney of the footballing world.

Boca blew it, I'm afraid. The trophy was never theirs to lose once Inzaghi whipped the first goal in. They're not a defence-minded side, but neither, necessarily, are Manchester United, who came up against a similarly cool and collected Milan at Old Trafford in April this year, and sneaked out as winners. Keeping a high line and pressing forward always wears the rossoneri out, especially in the last half-hour of the game, when they tend to panic. It takes only a moment to break Milan down; apart from the 22nd minute, when they were wandering around singing PIPPO PIPPO PIPPO GOL while Palacio scored, Boca just never took that chance.

A special moment of virulent hatred for the announcers on my telly channel, who persisted in referring to Boca's absent number ten as 'Juan Pablo Riquelme' and insisted, among other things, on this emphasising Europe's superiority over South America. I'm sorry, but no. Milan won over Boca, something they weren't able to do three years ago, and something Liverpool and Barcelona haven't been able to do against their own Brazilian opponents in the years since. And that's all there is to it unless you want to open the debate up beyond an arbitrary point-scoring exercise.

I really do think this victory meant a lot to Milan, for a number of reasons. Their ties with the bureaucratic footballing establishment - be it UEFA or FIFA - have always been close, and they approached this tournament with a seriousness that would no doubt have seemed excessive to teams that don't look beyond where the next TV rights deal is coming from. They are also a team who last won in Tokyo seventeen years ago - which is when Liverpool were still winning league titles - and are, unbelievably, captained by a man who was part of that 1990 side. The standards Milan have set themselves in terms of myth-making, and the sacrifices they've made to ensure its sustenance, will earn them a bit of ridicule in any justly-written history, but their Maldini story is going to stand the test of time.

Sometimes, I worry about these children.

[Obliged to Ruby for the picture.]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

urawa reds 0-1 meelahn

The Milan Tragicomedy In Three Acts:

One. In their own box they defend sufficiently well and turf the ball out to midfield as expected [with some nice passing - these guys are good as long as they don't have to cross].

Two. The midfield is all older, more languid, more elegant Arsenal; they stroke the ball around, play it in triangles, take it to lalaland and back in an approximation of gentle lovemaking or whatever inappropriate metaphor you want to use.


Then, in the attacking third, something happens. It's like they lose all sense of actually being in the game. It's like -- like they go from being Milan's current forward line to the Class Of '07 future top-drawer international coaches. They have the ball, they see a young perky defender approach, and they go all misty-eyed and smiley-faced. "Here, little one," they seem to say, "you can have the ball."

Perky Defender: So -- I just take it from you?
Future Coach: Yes, exactly.
Future Coach: And then you play it out of your box -- that's right, turn around, find your teammate, pass--
Perky Defender: Like this, mister?
Future Coach: No no no, you must pass it along the ground, pass it along the ground, Santa Maria, who will hire you if you play ugly football like that?
Perky Defender: Oi! Pass it further upfield! ... along the ground!
Future Coach: I don't think he heard you. *avuncular grin*
Future Coach: Now bring it back and let's do it again, yeah?
Future Coach: I said bring it back.
Future Coach: Why are you all the way at the other end of the pitch all of a sudden? That's my side's six-yard box.

We all like to bring our grandmothers up to compare them favourably to a team that's playing with less-than-expected pace or cohesion, but I think 'AC Creepy Uncles' is a bit more appropriate than 'Grandma FC.' Knowing more football than their opponents saved them this time. Let's see what they'll do against Boca. Who look -- young.

[Martha has a proper match report up at the Italy Offside. It is good.]

Friday, December 7, 2007

'coach' is not just a designer handbag

The five names in the frame are Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello, Martin O'Neill, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klinsmann. Feelers are understood to have already gone out. [...] It is clear that Barwick, who also talked to Steven Gerrard in the last 24 hours, is moving fast.


Come now, Mr Barwick, I understand he doesn't do much for England these days, but surely he has a couple of seasons left in him before he takes up his place on the bench?


One of the things I find hard to adjust to in football is how fine the line between idle gossip and institutional wisdom is. In cricket it is generally observed that the opinion of the punter on the street stands at a respectful[-lish] distance from the prohibitively arcane, complex systems of knowledge that govern the game and the machinations of those who manage it [and, I'm always happy to note, several of those who write about it]. One does not simply walk around saying, "Oh, let's get that top bloke Dav Whatmore in to manage this team," and then have the BCCI turn around and actually offer the job to Mr Whatmore; one walks around saying "Oh, let's get Dav Whatmore in to manage this team" knowing full well that, when the time is right, the sahibs at the BCCI will pull out of their hat a name with which one's limited cognitive abilities have dreamed up no prior associations. There's always someone up there who knows better than you, the average cricket fan [which is what I am] is reassured in feeling.

This sense of comfort is entirely absent when our attention turns to English football. When the post of manager fell vacant and the names began to ring in, one of the earliest we heard of was Fabio Capello. "Wow," the murmur arose. "Capello?" "Yeah?" "Yeah." "Well, too bad they couldn't get Lippi." "Oh, honestly, Lippi is way better suited to managing a national team than Capello." "Also, wouldn't it be fun if Mourinho came back to England?" "Mourinho! Would he -- but. Nah." "He just might." "It's probably going to be Martin O'Neill." "There's always Klinsmann." "Oh, Klinsmann." "Yeah, Klinsi." "Klinsi." "Klinsi."

Late night musings over Google Talk? FA meeting? One simply can't tell. Of course, football being the democratic, populist, WYSIWIG sport it is, it's no surprise that it operates differently [and in England, at that] from the way cricket does in India. People like to be in on these things. We all like to feel like our wishes are being taken into consideration, even if we are only modestly-paid midfield lynchpins of humble stature called Steven Gerrard. Perhaps it's only right that the views of the tabloid-reading taxpayer are represented in full and without qualification in the views of the FA.

With democracy comes meritocracy, after all. Certainly the FA's pursuit of names like Lippi [who constantly leads us to believe that he is completely uninterested in coaching in England, or anywhere that isn't his big sexy yacht off Sardinia] shows a committment to bring in the most famous best man for the job unseen in the workings of other football organisations. Brian Barwick's behaviour, as such, is a lesson that comes too late to the likes of the Italian football association's Demetrio Albertini, who didn't think twice before operating in Italian football's tried-and-tested, it's-who-you-know-not-what way* and appointing Roberto Donadoni to the post vacated by Papa Lippi.

O Demetrio, had you but called Francesco Totti before making your decision, Italian football might not have come to th--what? Oh.

+ item: Since the last post on this blog, a UEFA record has been broken by Pippo Inzaghi, a footballer so avant-garde that reasons to like him are still being invented. Ave, Pipterino.

-- * of course, the only word we have on this is Luciano Moggi's.

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.