Thursday, May 22, 2008

in the wilderness with lovely hair

Rose is a student of art history and a football enthusiast based in London. While persuading her to explain why Da Vinci saw fit to paint his frescoes on dry plaster, we got to talking about one of our favourite players, Filippo Inzaghi, who was left out of the Italy Euro '08 squad earlier this week by Roberto Donadoni.

There is a film of Milan’s triumphant bus ride through their city after the Champions League victory last year. In it, if you look, you can see Marco Borriello, busily taking pictures of himself with the other players. He must have known by then that he was being sent out on loan after a season in which he was suspended for failing a drugs test for the most idiotic of reasons, having never really been a serious player at Milan.

A year later, things are very different. After a successful year at Genoa - well, until a couple of months ago - Borriello is going to Austria as part of the Italian squad. Pippo Inzaghi, scorer of the two goals that won Milan the Champions League final, is not. Despite a run of form at the end of the season in which he scored 11 goals in twenty one games, Donadoni felt that he could do without Inzaghi on this occasion. “It’s not his age,” he said, vaguely “it’s for technical reasons.”

I’ve watched a lot of Inzaghi’s interviews, struggling with my not even basic Italian and his extremely fast delivery, I’ve read a lot about him as well, and I may be wrong, but his statement when he found out that he wasn’t included, apparently the same way as every one else, is one of the few times that I’ve ever seen him express a negative feeling in the press. The Channel 4 website said that Inzaghi was bitter about his omission: a quick way of dismissing him, because fans aren’t interested in players who aren’t in the squad, but in players who are. It’s going to be del Piero, di Natale and Borriello celebrating in Vienna on the 29th of June, after all.

Inzaghi knows as much about the vagaries of football as anyone else, it’s not the first time he’s been left out of the Italy team for a major tournament. He wasn’t picked in 2004, and at that time he was suffering from injuries that looked likely to mean that he would retire at 31. In the event he did return to playing, and has had the most successful three years of his career. There have been disappointments for him in club football. In the 1999 semi final of the Champions League, he scored two goals for Juventus, only to see Manchester United score three. Inzaghi was inconsolable, on his knees, weeping with his face in the ground like a child.

But there have been triumphs as well, of course. Although he played only briefly in the 2006 World Cup, he did score a goal, out-thinking Peter Cech, which is an achievement in itself. Most of the successes have come with Milan; not only in terms of medals but by scoring the goals that make the boys in the curva love him. John Dahl Tomasson may have got the last touch on the ball for the goal against Ajax in the Champions League in 2003, but everyone knew that it was really Inzaghi’s.

Goals like that one, and a similarly late, ugly and overwhelmingly important one against Lyon in the 88th minute of another Champions League game in 2006 are what Inzaghi does best of all. It’s one of his most admirable qualities as a footballer. “He keeps believing to the end,” Kaka says about him “and never gives up”. Inzaghi plays the game in his mind as much as on the pitch, and although this can infuriate his team mates, as he sometimes appears to forget they are there, it also means that he never stops seeing possibilities, until the final whistle, he thinks that he can score.

There’s another film of him from a few months ago, jumping on a less than enchanted Ronaldo after scoring a goal in training. Ronaldo has appeared sick of football for the last few years, never regretting the loss of that genius he had in his youth, once it had bought him what he wanted. Inzaghi is the opposite. He’s never had that effortless ease. He has to work and think for every goal. He does it, it seems, because he loves football. After the Champions League final, he stayed on the pitch for as long as possible, kicking a ball around with his brother, not wanting the game to end.

It’s been a difficult week for Inzaghi; his 100th goal for Milan, scored against Udinese on Sunday was essentially meaningless, as Milan failed to reach the fourth Champions League spot. He seems to be a man of habitual optimism, however; remembering that when he came to Milan in 2001 they were in the UEFA Cup, and that the following season they won the Champions League. According to the Gazetta dello Sport, he kept hoping for a place in the Italy squad until it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. Inzaghi would have liked a telephone call to tell him, perhaps even a thank you, since it is possibly the end of his international career, but Donadoni doesn’t work like that.

No doubt he’ll recover. “I’m going on holiday,” he said in an interview on Sunday, ”to get ready for another season.” During the break he will celebrate his 35th birthday, a formidable age for a striker at his level of the game, and it looks as if it is going to be a long summer, unless he goes to the Olympics as an over-age player, which is a possibility.

I hope he has a good time. Next season there are goalkeepers to vex, defenders to beat and officials with whom to debate the niceties of the offside law. He needs to get his rest while he can, after all, who knows what can happen, and it’s only two years to the next World Cup.


[Ros: Like Pippo, I am in the wilderness myself, although he is on some fabulous beach vacation somewhere, and I am visiting temples in Kerala. A week or so before I'm home. ]

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

staggering genius staggering stupidity

I don't like being the person who says, "This is racist, but..." but there is a difference between coming down hard on stadium racism and chivvying, and the Independent today has crossed the line. Their headline of the roundup of all the hectoring and shouting about Warnings and Consequences should any discrimination against players of colour occur in tonight's Zenit St Petersburg-Rangers final in Manchester is the mellow EUROPE'S MOST RACIST FANS COME TO BRITAIN.

If there was something in the article to back this up, anything along the lines of a study or official statement, it might be condoned as accurate, if still sensationalist. Football journalism thrives on the misleading headline more than ever, though, and at this stage, this is just them making things up early and often [Andy Bull has a frustrated but rational essay on the Guardian blogs right now on the decay of sports news culture, which ties in nicely with some of the things Brian o' The Run Of Play has been talking about recently]. The substance of the report itself is annoying.

Uefa's chief spokesman, William Gaillard, also intervened as the prospect of racist clashes threatened to return to England's terraces. "There will be zero tolerance," he said. "The referee is perfectly in his rights to interrupt the game and not start again until the problem resolves."

No mention of talks with Zenit's authorities, no sign of an official conversation, no -- what's that word? -- respect. It stands to reason that if you want an effective solution to the problem of racism among Zenit's supporters, you would go to negotiate with the Zenit officials and talk over the repercussions of continued bad behaviour, and get them to bear full responsibility for potential incidents. Instead, Gaillard does the same thing he did earlier this year before the Roma leg of the United-Roma CL quarter-final [of which Martha wrote a fine analysis], when he threatened to take next year's final away from the Olimpico if there was violence. A strange way of creating anything like a helpful or productive atmosphere.

From here, all this just looks like bullying. Some of Zenit's supporters are apparently guilty of egregious acts of hate - the Independent carries the details, as well as the low-down on what Dick Advocaat says he didn't say when he implied that Zenit could not hire black players because of fan opposition. It is right to hope that the referee will take the strongest possible action if they are repeated at tonight's game, in my opinion, but the power to take that decision depends on the referee and the situation. To be the second-in-command of UEFA and put out a statement that, if anything, seems designed to get people's backs up and increase hostility and defiance, makes no sense to me. Either I have an disproportionate perception of Gaillard's responsibility, or he does. And this is not even going into the rumblings of the police chief of the city of Manchester, and Britain's Sports Minister [Sports Minister!] all taking their turns at starting a conversation over a press conference.


If anyone has a different view of the matter I'd love to hear it.


I keep promising myself that I will pull and blog quotes by the bundle out of the book I am currently reading, which is Marcela Mora y Araujo's translation of El Diego: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Footballer, but every time I try to put the book down and start typing, something happens to take my breath away. In one of my favourite novels, Helen De Witt's The Last Samurai, the protagonist Sibylla gives up her graduate studies in German literature out of frustration with a book she is supposed to read for her thesis, A Roemer's Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik. Roemer's mode of operation is this, according to Sibylla:

Some of the third-hand notes struck Roemer as brilliant: they were clearly by Aristarchus, who was clearly a genius. Other extracts were too stupid for a genius: clearly by someone else. Whenever someone else was said to have said something brilliant he saw instantly that it was really by Aristarchus, and if any brilliant comments happened to be lying around unclaimed he instantly spotted the unnamed mastermind behind them.

Now it is patently, blatantly obvious that this is insane.

As I read El Diego Sibylla's words keep coming back to haunt me. Roemer's critical method is the way some people live their entire lives. It's a staggering work of imaginative genius. Staggering.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

guest blog: the city that doesn't care. much.

Sofie is a semiotician from Denmark currently working with Rouleur, the cycling magazine of note. She spent the year following Italy's World Cup victory in Bologna, as part of her graduate study. The culture and intellectual traditions of that great city have nothing to do with the fact that, in her own words: "I see small children in Meeelahn shirts at the enormous Tesco down the street occasionally. I am nearly overcome with this urge to hug them. Their parents probably wouldn't approve."

In an email conversation, I asked her to tell me about Bologna and her experience with football among the students of the Universita; this is what she said.


Bologna is a place that prides itself on being different from all the rest of Italy. Perhaps not less corrupt, but definitely cleaner and smarter and generally nicer. This is, I expect, what you get when half of a city's population are students, and the other half is somehow engaged in the tough business of catering to the manifold needs of said students. Although it is the site of the most recent political murder in Italy – Marco Biagi, a Bolognese professor of economics, was shot and killed in 2002 – and, lest we forget, the Strage di Bologna, crimes committed by the extreme right and the extreme left respectively, Bologna has maintained a self-image of being the friendliest shade of red you'll ever meet. This image may or may not be entirely accurate, but it certainly has its place: in the years since the downfall of fascism and the end of World War II, Bologna has indeed been a bastion for the more left-thinking folk in a country otherwise heavily dominated by Christian Democrats. These left-thinking folk have not always been equally friendly to dissenters, it is true, and the atmosphere in the politically tense 1970's was, I hear tell from those who would know, bordering on what might be called 'slightly explosive'.

And Bologna is different. The Nettuno fountain to be found in the main piazza of the city is positively pornographic, but as the Pope said, "For Bologna, it's ok." The clergy might still make the occasional extremely ill-advised comment about homosexuality, but most of the city's other dignitaries [that is to say, the whole army of highly illustrious professors and lecturers on subjects wide and fascinating] will be rushing to denounce the bishop's foolishness. It can't be helped, I suppose, what with Emilia-Romagna being the most "godless region in all of Italy" and all – a quote which supposedly can be attributed to the late John Paul II. And being different, it can come as no surprise that the sporting obsessions of the Bolognese are just a little bit off as well. They like basketball, you see.

That's not to say that Bologna doesn't have a football team. It does; Bologna Football Club 1909, the rossoblù. It's just that Bologna also has two basketball teams, and they tend to get most of the attention, if not exactly all of it. This is strange, is it not, in a country otherwise so reliably obsessed with calcio? Why should Bologna, of all places, like its football but love its basketball? One tentative guess might be Bologna's recent history in Serie B [at the time of writing, they are placed fourth in Serie B and are heading into the play-offs], but this would seem uncharacteristic of tifosi behaviour: the chants might not necessarily be kind, but a stint in Serie B does not mean that you abandon your club in favour of basketball, delightful game that it is. And things have certainly improved since the 1980's and early 1990's where the team was relegated as far down as Serie C1. Granted, things are not likely to be returning to the stellar heights of 2004 any time soon – but seeing as Hidetoshi Nakata has retired from international football, his return would possibly be too much to hope for [the same, incidentally, could be said of Baggio and the even more stellar heights of the 1997-8 season]. All things considered, they're doing all right. Fans should be rallying under their banners instead of going to see basketball.

Having spent a year looking at Italians with big, blue eyes and making remarks like, "... Going to a football game might also be nice?" you'd think that I'd had some success in that department. I confess that I haven't. And being a coward, I took their advice when they told me that, "And you're not going on your own either, bionda!" [In my defence, only three Italians can get away with calling me "bionda" without having their heads unceremoniously bitten off.] I tried this strategy on many Italians, all of whom were unfortunately very nice young men who were far too nice [and well-educated, if you ask them at the wrong time] to get down and dirty with the unwashed masses at a football match. Football is an activity for those who have already been brainwashed into mindless obedience by Zio Silvio [I use the term with no love whatsoever] and his minions, and they were having none of it. Without having done the empirical, quantitive research I'm sure is necessary to make sweeping statements like this, it seemed that Bologna, the students' city, was taking a stance against the rest of post-war Italy and their silly football obsession.

Football is a good place to start if you want to take a stance against something. It spells things out in very small, but conveniently capitalised words, if you want it to. And Bologna's seeming rejection of football in general and their club in particular does go against the tide in Italy, just as much as Bologna would want to go against the tide in a country that just reelected Zio Silvio. I doubt that this is all there is to it, however, because like all football clubs Bologna F.C. has a history, and it is not entirely pleasant.

Bologna F.C. have won lo Scudetto seven times, by no means bad going for a plucky Serie B side. The last time they won it was in 1964, and this was after a drought that lasted 23 years. Most likely, it'll be another 23 years before Bologna win the Italian league again, if ever, but that's beside the point. The point is that once upon a time, Bologna were a big team. Between 1925 and 1941, Bologna won the league six times. They were one of the richest, most successful clubs in Italy. And they owed much of that success to one man: Leandro Arpinati. A Fascist leader with strong ties to Mussolini, Arpinati was a big fan of football and he wanted his team, Bologna F.C., to do well. His methods relied heavily on simply pouring money into the business of Bolognese football, though he would occasionally try other means if that was not enough to ensure victory – means which even the recently less than Lucky Luciano would probably shy away from. And lo, Bologna won. Bologna even dominated for a while there. And it was all thanks to fascism. [Arpinati was also President of FIGC, the Italian football federation, and among the forces who moved for the creation of the league system still in place today.]

Like most European countries, Italy has its own more or less effective strategies for dealing with the less than nice aspects of its past, and when it comes to fascism one strategy that has gained a lot of popularity over the years is the charmingly simple one of just ignoring it. An understandable strategy [and one that I find more sympathetic that my own country's longstanding tradition of making ourselves out to be nicer than we were], if not a particularly good one in many ways. And Red Bologna which was so heavily under fascist influence and administration – which actually flourished during these years – would hardly want to be reminded of their past by celebrating the fading glory of a football team who were only really awesome when Leandro Arpinati made sure that they were. So Bologna turned to basketball, a game that seems safely unpolitical by comparision, though even such a choice is highly politicised when seen in the right light. In such a context, then, the comfortably centre-left leanings of current Bologna do occasionally look a little bit more like a bad case of denial. Though it could just be that the good people of Bologna just don't like football all that much – so unlikely an explanation that it must be rejected out of hand, of course. Right?


[Ros: I find this fascinating. I first thought that it has some parallels with the way India's communist states, Kerala and West Bengal, are known for their comparative interest in football, but it actually really only means that they spend a little less time obsessing over cricket than everybody else. I assume they sleep less to accommodate both passions. We have no figure of the stature of Umberto Eco to spearhead an intellectual opposition to either sport.]

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

the failures of civilisation


But, to take a more libertarian tack than you generally do, don't you think inequalities contribute positively to a league in the short run? You can step out on the street where you live, wherever it is, and notice how the modern Manchester United have done wonders for the global profile of English football. Of course, an ideal competition would be balanced out by different kinds of teams, each of them a unique and beautiful snowflake that competes in a balanced, fair league and brings out the best in each other.

...I know.

Anyway, the idea that the IPL is a fair and equal league is holding up for now thanks to two things: the Mumbai Indians discovering some of the form you would expect as a matter of course from the league's most expensive franchise, which allowed them to pull a couple back over the other metros; and the genius of Shane Warne.

As followers of Rajasthan Royals will testify, he has been little short of a revelation in the IPL. Not only has he led the cheapest franchise to the top of the table on the back of five straight wins, he has cajoled his team's unheralded youngsters and - even more difficult, this - almost convinced everyone that he is now best mates with Graeme Smith.

But the pièce de résistance was surely his performance at Thursday evening's post-match press conference, when his verbal destruction of Sourav Ganguly, his opposing captain that night, made grown men wonder how much more entertaining Test cricket would have been if Warne had kept his nose clean and ascended to the captaincy of Australia. Steve Waugh once called Ganguly a "pr!ck" because, among other things, he made Waugh wait at the toss, but Warne was not troubled by such succinctness.

--from The Spin's 'Extras' section.

I do not understand why this man didn't come in to the circus for a lot more cash. It escapes me entirely. I can't emphasise this enough. Either the moneybags running the teams in the metros had a tin ear for how popular he is in India, or they were swayed by the fact that the man buggered off contract to play in a poker tournament when he should have been captaining Hants. The miracle of Warne and his little team from Jaipur, perched at the top of the IPL table as I write this, is proof of how financial swagger is not the ultimate answer to financial swagger, even at the most businesslike end of sport. Money makes a debilitating difference to the teams who don't have it, but it is irrelevant to the qualities that build teams and sustenable systems, instead of mercenary collectives.

Not to be rude or anything, but if there's any chance of the IPL's being an essentially fair and balanced league, you can be sure the people who pay to keep the machine going will do their best to change the situation as soon as possible. If it doesn't happen next year, it will the year after that. And when the situation changes, and when salary caps are blown and teams start looking to establish long-term dominance, the IPL will be lucky if they have teams that can use all that money and buy themselves a brain. Becoming a Manchester United or [even] a Mourinho-inspired Chelsea, and becoming a team of Galacticos, which is the likeliest and most fearful outcome in the IPL environment, are going to yield very different results.

Monday, May 5, 2008

that's not to say he's not a prat

Two days ago I watched Cristiano Ronaldo in an interview with FIFA Futbol Mundial. It was one of those where his face was put in extreme close-up and a translator's voice overlaid his vocals [CRon was speaking in Portuguese]. As I looked at him, my mind was drawn to the back page of a recent edition of the Bombay Times, in which readers are breathlessly told about the serious breach in the relationship of John Abraham and Bipasha Basu caused in July last year. Interested readers will, as a function of memory and desire, or Google, be obliged to recall that this was when Bipasha was in Lisbon for a presentation of the Seven Wonders Of The World list and ended up being photographed making out with Cristiano Ronaldo. The black humour at the heart of this is that Bipasha would probably have had difficulty recognising the man were it not for the fact that John, her boyfriend, is that rare specimen of Bombay manhood, a passionate football fan, thanks to whom Bipasha herself has cultivated a love and understanding of the EPL.

Cough. Anyway, John and Bipasha are back together and doing well [no doubt bound together by the thought that John, had he been in Lisbon that night, would probably have taken a chance on snogging CRon himself] and CRon was on my telly being interviewed about elements of his sporting career [on Sporting Lisbon: 'I think a lot of the young guys there look up to me now'; on Man United: 'The team has certainly changed. We're younger and faster now. This is important in football.']. He was smooth, confident and apparently articulate.

The one moment he truly stumbled was upon being asked, "Who are your sporting idols?" and he had a moment of utter blankness, before he recovered and you could see the brains working behind his shining black eyes. "I would say..." he said, and you could see the words Okay wait, there's that guy? The short dumpy one, the one that everyone likes? What's his name? hover about his head before he said, in quiet, satisfied triumph, "...Diego Maradona. I, er, watched a lot of his videos as a child."

He walks in no man's shadow. He can steal Bollywood beauties away from their devoted households, carry off tomato red boots, score rashes of goals, and keep the frosting on his hair intact all the while. There is no equivalent force to CRon in this world. You couldn't put him on a list of the world's 100 most influential people. Like Helen of Troy, he breeds worshipful despair, not inspiration.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

but wait, there's more

May 1, 2008.

As someone who has whinged and moaned all season about an impending Champions' League final exclusively made up of bits of the Premier League East India Company, I reserve my right to backtrack and admit to a change of opinion. Perhaps its only the money and power after all, and perhaps it has something to do with the way football itself is filmed and televised, but to all appearances, the English clubs were the ones who did not blink first, and if they did, they took care to make the other side pay for their own lapse. This seems to be the basis of progress in modern cup competitions. And after having seen the first hour of an excellent match between United and Chelsea last week, perhaps it would not be out of the question to imagine that the match in Moscow will have something of the piratical and fearless about it. I didn't whinge when Italy and France went to Berlin, and I'm not going to whinge now.

Football is composed of drama. Last night there were two stories at loggerheads with each other, and Chelsea won the right to see theirs to a finish. We are all captivated on a day-to-day basis by the banalities of the teams we love, but there is arguably nothing small or banal about what is going on at Chelsea and Liverpool at the moment. Perhaps, perhaps, there is something a little less romantic [or less sordid?] about Chelsea's postmodern crisis of identity and too much being worse than too little, but for better or worse [I no longer dare say] they represent the change in English football more than any other team in the EPL, and if they - the players, the shady young oligarch, the coach, all of them - are serious about making history, then there is no better time to provide some answers to the neutrals.

I haven't been impressed with the way United have shaped up over the last couple of games, but hey, it's not like they're playing for my benefit. I do think their capacity for magnificence [successful magnificence, that is] has been unmatched this year, and as the respectful whispers about walking in the shadow of Munich begin circulating in the media, I think it would be nice to see some of that commitment to bold, beautiful football back again.

So I'm also interested in the Premier League title race in spite of myself. It would be a sour victory for my East India Company prejudices if one of them blinked now.