06/29/15

Verona – Vicenza: One of Italy’s Forgotten Rivalries.

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On a Friday night back in April, Davide Di Gennaro calmly dispatched a 92nd minute penalty to earn Vicenza a 1-0 victory away to Cittadella. The travelling Vicentini erupted. It was another invaluable victory in their quest for promotion to Serie A and one made all the sweeter by the fact that Cittadella are local rivals.

The two cities are separated by just 25-kilometres and Vicenza fans undoubtedly enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude as their victory ensured Cittadella slipped further into the Serie B relegation mire. However as the away contingent burst into song, their vocals were directed at one local rival in particular – Hellas Verona.

“Chi non salta è veronese, ooooo, ooooo, ooooo, o, o, o.”

‘Who doesn’t jump is a Verona fan’ bellowed the chant as a morass of red and white bounced to the tune of the famous partisan anthem ‘Bella Ciao’. For while every derby game matters, in the Veneto region there is none more fervent than that between Vicenza and Verona.

 The two rivals were formed just one-year apart, Vicenza in 1902 and Hellas Verona in 1903. Since then, they have played the role of provincial upstarts, both experiencing spells of transient success in which they challenged Italian football’s elite.

 In 1953, after Vicenza were saved from their economic woes by woollen firm Lanerossi, under the guise of their new proprietors, they became a Serie A regular throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s. This period culminated in the Biancorossi’s most successful season to date after the goals of legendary Italian forward Paolo Rossi steered them to second place in the 1977-78 Serie A season.

 Verona would go one better just seven years later when, under the tenure of Coach Osvaldo Bagnoli, they won the Scudetto in 1985. Inspired by the attacking prowess of Preben Elkjær, Pietro Fanna, Antonio Di Gennaro and Giuseppe Galderisi, the triumph remains Hellas’s only Serie A title.

 However more often than not, Vicenza and Verona have been perennial strugglers, something which has only helped strengthen their rivalry. Separated by no more than an hour’s car journey, it was a rivalry that started in 1906 after the pair met for the first time in a regional tournament. Vicenza won 2-1 and since that day the rivalry has only intensified. But there is much more to the Derby del Veneto than just football.

The Veneto boasts some of Northern Italy’s most idyllic locations, from the floating city of Venice to Verona’s Casa di Giulietta. It’s a region that takes pride in its culture and traditions, whose people are often keen to distinguish themselves not only from the rest of Italy, but from those living just down the road.

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Venice: The Floating City

The main avenue through which the Veneti express this local patriotism, or Campanilismo, is through their language. While often referred to as a vernacular, Venetian is actually a Western Romance Language. The accent is instantly recognisable by its guttural yet rhythmic sound, perhaps owing to the regions history, during which it experienced Spanish and Austro-Hungarian rule. As a result, the dialects and accents vary from town to town, each with their own intricacies and tweaks.  For example, Hellas fans refer to each other as butei, Veronese dialect for ragazzi (boys) while in Vicentino, ragazzi becomes tosi. Understanding the Vicenza –Verona rivalry, requires a certain grasp of Italian history.

There is an old Veneto saying:

Veneziani gran signori,

Padovani gran dottori,

Vicentini magnagati,

Veronesi tutti mati.

Venetians lords and earls,

Paduans learned doctors,

Vicentini cat eaters,

Veronesi are all mad.

The saying has its roots in the past. Venice was renowned for its commerce and merchant classes whilst Padua was – and is – famous for its university and medical school. The Vicentini’s rather more unflattering tag is thought to have originated from an era in which Vicenza – and the Veneto as a whole – suffered crippling poverty, leading to rumours that the people of Vicenza resorted to eating cats. The epithet has stuck. As for the Veronesi, the presence of two psychiatric hospitals in the city (San Giacomo and Marzana) combined with the fresh air of the Monte Baldo mountain range is alleged to have inspired their ‘mad’ moniker. Indeed, someone with an eccentric character is said to have ‘Spirito Montebaldino’ – the spirit of Monte Baldo.

 The adage also reflects the regions civic rivalries. During the middle ages the Scaligeri (Scala) family made Verona one of the most powerful city’s in northern Italy, bringing the territories of Padua, Treviso and Vicenza under their dominion. Vicenza remained under Scaligeri rule until the Doge’s republic of Venice eventually broke Verona’s autonomy in 1405. But the antipathy between the cities has endured.

 In the absence of warring lords and despotic families, sport, namely Calcio, has in the words of eminent psychologist William James, offered the cities a “moral equivalent of war.” In his book ‘A Season with Verona’, Hellas fan and author Tim Parks offered the quintessential summary when recalling the clubs first ever victory against Vicenza.

 “That day in 1912 the Veronese crowd, unarmed, discovered a new way of expressing their antique rivalry with their neighbours. For the first time they could take pleasure, unarmed, in their neighbours discomfort… You beat the neighbouring town at football and a collective dream is born.”

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 “The derby with Vicenza is probably more than a game of football.” Charles Ducksbury tells me, “Even Veronesi with no interest in the game hate Vicenza.” Charles should know. He has been following Hellas since he was 9-years-old and his passion for the club and the city is undiminished.

Charles has lived the derby, both home and away. He has had objects hurled at him, inhaled the smoke of the flares and sung his vocal chords dry. “The hostility can be intense. When they [Vicenza] beat us in our promotion season [from Serie B], the Vicentini were kept inside the Stadio Bentegodi for almost three hours because of the Butei outside waiting for them.”

His last Derby del Veneto involved a trip to Vicenza’s Stadio Romeo Menti back in September 2012. Verona won 3-2 thanks to a Domenico Maietta goal, something of a collector’s item given the defender has only scored three times throughout his 15-year career. Not that Charles had the pleasure of seeing this rare strike.

 “My impression of that game is that I hardly saw any of it. Behind the goal is some huge netting to stop people throwing things on the pitch. So the Butei hung their flags on it, and from where I was stood, most of the pitch was covered up.”

 Back then the sides met in Serie B, a season in which Hellas won promotion while their red and white counterparts slipped down to Lega Pro. But in truth, the last decade has seen both clubs struggle, on and off the field. At the Scaligeri’s nadir in 2009, the club flirted with relegation to the bottom tier of Calcio’s professional pyramid. Even more recently, the future of Vicenza was in doubt after their financial malaise triggered talks of a merger with their city bedfellows, Real Vicenza V.S.

Back in 2012, Charles observed that the hostilities between the two sets of fans might be easing, which he attributes to more stringent policing.

 “To be honest, I think that particular derby I attended was tame compared to others I’ve read about. Inside (the stadium), we sang all game of course, and the Vicenza ultras had a couple of good choreo’s, but I wouldn’t say it was as hostile as normal. It was too hot. There have been many violent incidents in the past, but recent years it has seen less violence around the stadium, though this is more to do with police presence than the will of the fans.”

But other factors may have also contributed. Both clubs travails mean it has been 14-years since the Gialloblu met the Biancorossi in Serie A. Furthermore, the rise in prominence of Chievo Verona, haughtily dismissed by Hellas fans for their miniscule fan base, has seen the intra-city rivalry intensify.

 “It is a complex relationship. For years they [Chievo] were a second team of many Hellas fans, but now of course they’re not. It’s an important game now, because of the history of them using our colours, symbol, stadium etc. But to consider this rivalry above all others is laughable.” Charles retorted.

It is Verona against Vicenza that really makes the blood boil and for Tim Parks no game compares. “…in the end it always comes back to this old game with the magnagati, our cuginastri (nasty cousins). The one no one wants to lose, the one that will attract the most away supporters. No distinction is more urgent or more arduous than that between ourselves and those who most resemble us, the guys down the road.”

Were Vicenza to make a return to Serie A, the flame would undoubtedly be reignited. After losing out to Pescara in the 2014-15 Serie B semi-final play-offs, the Vicentini will hope that they can use this experience as a platform from which to propel themselves into Serie A next season. The Veronesi undoubtedly revelled in their rivals failure, however they would have equally relished the chance to relive this historic rivalry on Italy’s grandest stage.

Outside the Veneto region, the Verona-Vicenza derby has been somewhat forgotten. But for the aficionados, it is one of the peninsula’s most fascinating rivalries. It’s a matter of history and pride. It’s the butei against the tosi, the mati against the magnagati. It’s an antique clash and one to decide the rulers of the Veneto. For those involved, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

With thanks to Veronese, Charles Ducksbury, and Vicentino, Marcello Casarotti, for their help and insight. Images courtesy of Marcello.

Originally published on The Gentleman Ultra

@LH_Ramon25.

06/2/15

“They Always Say Time Changes Things…?” Is It Really Goodbye To Blatter’s FIFA?

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“Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.”

They say a lot can change in just 10 minutes of football, well try 24-hours. Sepp Blatter saved his greatest act of chicanery till last. Having duped us into believing he would unabashedly continue his 17-year reign as Fifa president, at an official Fifa press conference on Tuesday, Blatter announced he would resign. Jaws dropped unanimously. Not many could have predicted this latest twist in the Fifa saga.

Last week, the arrest of seven Fifa officials on bribery and corruption charges plunged Fifa into crisis. Calls for Blatter to resign were vociferous. Yet, he was his usual ebullient and obstinate self, vowing to restore trust and “find a way to fix things.” But as new evidence placed Blatter’s top deputy, Jérôme Valcke, at the centre of this storm, the 79-year-old’s position became increasingly  precarious. Then came his shock press conference.

“It is my deep care for Fifa and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision” a weary looking Blatter told the world.

There has been much speculation surrounding Blatter’s sudden U-turn. The pressure heaped upon Fifa by its sponsors may well have been a factor, with Visa, Coke and MCDonald’s all welcoming Blatter’s decision to resign. But perhaps more significantly, reports in the US media just hours after Blatter’s announcement alleged that he was also the subject of a corruption inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The news of his departure has been greeted with rapture, at least within the West. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, triumphed that Blatter’s decision is “brilliant for world football” while potential Fifa president candidate, Luis Figo, said “Change is finally coming. Let’s find a solution to start a new era of transparency and democracy in Fifa.”

In reality however, the fight to clean up Fifa has just begun. First of all, Blatter hasn’t actually officially resigned yet.

“While I have a mandate from the membership of Fifa, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football” Blatter continued, “Therefore, I have decided to lay down my mandate at an extraordinary elective Congress. I will continue to exercise my functions as Fifa President until that election.”

While the Swiss football administrator has been duplicitous before, it’s unthinkable that he would renege on this pledge. That is not to say that Blatter won’t go without resistance and exerting influence. The very fact he has resigned, rather than allowing himself to be ignominiously toppled, demonstrates his desire to cling to power for as long as humanly possible. The next Fifa congress at which a new president will be elected is expected to take place between December 2015 and March 2016. Blatter will still posses considerable clout, particularly when it comes to influencing the next Fifa election. His support in continents such as Africa and Asia will not dissipate and as such, one begins to realise just how long and arduous the road to reforming Fifa could prove.

Blatter was the face of Fifa’s corruption but he wasn’t the body and soul. Deceit and avarice have been engrained in Fifa over years, cementing a culture of corruption and patronage in which Fifa’s hegemony stand to profit. Fifa is a Machiavellian type organisation, one built upon the premise that deviance is the most effective means through which to cling onto power. Sociologist, Ellis Cashmore, explained this phenomenon by citing a fellow academic, an Italian scholar named Vilfredo Pareto. Responding to the question of whether a change in Fifa leadership would make a difference, Cashmore replied:

“There are always cliques that rise to the top and engineer ways of staying there. He [Pareto] called it the Circulation of Elites. If he were around today, he’d probably conclude that, in a largscale organization like Fifa, which has reserves of about $15 billion, it really doesn’t matter who’s in charge: the people in positions of power will try to feather their own nest — make money for themselves.”

Another interesting facet of Blatter’s resignation is the significant pressure it will heap on Qatar’s highly scrutinised 2022 World Cup bid. While it has been mooted that the Russian World Cup could also be moved, these calls often carry more than a whiff of political posturing, especially in the UK and the US. However, from an ethical standpoint, the humanitarian grounds for boycotting Qatar are well founded. Were the allegations of a corrupt bidding process to be corroborated, the case for a boycott would be compelling.

Undoubtedly, Blatter’s imminent resignation is a step in the right direction, however this is neither a time for triumphalism nor complacency. The first step will be ensuring that the candidates for the next Fifa election are batting on a level playing field.

As renowned and controversial artist, Andy Warhol, once said: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

06/1/15

World Cup Boycott: “It Doesn’t Smell Good”

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“I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” Sepp Blatter opined.

It was a particularly astute observation. Only, Blatter wasn’t referring to the skulduggery that has landed Fifa in the eye of its most turbulent storm during his 17-year tenure as president. Instead, he was questioning the timing of the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of the federations congress in Zurich. The arrests were part of an indictment led by the United States Department of Justice in which 14 individuals are under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m over a 24-year period. Swiss federal prosecutors have also launched a criminal investigation into the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

Blatter told Swiss television station, RTS, that he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress” at which he had been re-elected for a fifth term as Fifa president.

“No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa,”

The 79-year-old continued “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognise that I did wrong. I fought for the last three or four years against all the corruption.”

US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had said corruption in football was “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”, yet in spite of this damming assessment, and widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation, his chutzpah was unwavering. “I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa” he triumphed, as obdurate in victory as he was in the face of adversity.

It is worth remembering plenty were happy to see the Swiss football administrator return to office. Blatter holds a strong base of support within many Football Associations outside Europe and North America. As this Bloomberg report details, his work directing power and funds away from Europe to the smaller and poorer countries, has ensured that while Blatter is regarded by many in the West as a cartoon villain, to the rest of the footballing world he is a saint.

Nevertheless, to those calling for reform and hoping that the arrests in Zurich would pave the way for the dawn of a new Blatter-free era, the 79-year-old’s re-election was disheartening. Particularly for FIFA’s most vocal critic, UEFA. Before the election, UEFA president Michel Platini had urged Blatter to resign, refusing to rule out the possibility of European teams boycotting the World Cup.

UEFA’s pre-election gambit aimed at swaying votes in favour of Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, has led them into a cul de sac, and Platini has since made it clear that he does not want a World Cup Boycott. That said, he remains under pressure, with calls for such an action having strengthened since Blatter’s re-election. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, has been particularity vocal in pledging enthusiastic support, claiming that a boycott would need to involve “10 large countries” to have an impact.

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Dyke (left) said Platini (right) must unite Europe in a boycott 

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s sport week, Dyke said “There would certainly be us, there would certainly be the Dutch, there would certainly be the Germans who have been demanding change. The FA chairman also believes that most South American countries opposed Blatter in the election, but admitted “They [Fifa] would only take serious action if there’s enough [opposition willing to act].”

Danish Uefa ExCo member Allan Hansen is also said to be of a similar mindset and has proposed to stage a new competition featuring sides from Europe and South America. In reality however, there are no guarantees a boycott would achieve any tangible reform in a hurry.

Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.

In addition, Fifa’s World Cup qualifying draw is due to be held on July 25 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the fulminations of Dyke and British politicians, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which significant numbers agree to withdraw their participation from the qualifying draw, especially in a time-scale of just under two months. Then of course their is the risk of missing out on the financial windfall that competing in the World Cup and its associated sponsorship brings.

On Saturday June 6, UEFA will meet in Berlin to discuss their next step. Talks of a boycott will be high on the agenda however it will not be a united ship. Spain, France and of course Russia are three of the 18 European countries who were said to have opposed UEFA’s reform mandate, voting for Sepp Blatter.

Minus the backing of UEFA president Michel Platini and with no guarantees that Europe’s pro-reformers can rely on the support of the South American contingent, the boycott campaign could be derailed before it’s even truly in motion. For example, could England rely on the backing of Argentina given the history of fraught diplomatic relations between the two? And that is where the real problem lies – in geo-politics.

With so many stakeholders involved, what is the true purpose of this boycott?

On face value, a UEFA-led protest against FIFA does not appear to be grounded in political pragmatism but rather moral objection. It would be propagated as a boycott against the unscrupulous and corruptive malpractices of Fifa. A means of enacting much needed change and jettisoning Sepp Blatter. However, would such a protest also be based upon the supposition that Russia are a guilty party in the chicanery of the bidding process. It could be a diplomatic minefield.

Some circles have described a World Cup boycott as “Soccer’s nuclear option”, a sure fire way to foment political tensions. Following the arrest of Fifa officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to wade into the debate, accusing the US of meddling outside its jurisdiction.

“It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.” 

Since his re-election, Sepp Blatter has also launched diatribes at his detractors. The Fifa president highlighted that both England and the US had lost their bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, claiming that, the attempt to unseat him was led by a spiteful media campaign in both countries.

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Both are examples of the shrewd defence adopted by Putin and Blatter. In effect they are playing the role of spin doctors. It is no secret that political relations between Russia and the West have reached their most fractious since the Cold War years. Blatter’s line portrays the US and England as vindictive and irrational, willing to use all manner of subterfuge to prevent Russia and Qatar from holding a World Cup, in turn wresting the event for themselves. Putin is beating a similar drum. Ratcheting up an anti-imperialist rhetoric, suggesting that these attempts to destabilise Fifa and the World Cup are political revanchism, hidden under the guise of anti-corruption.

To some, his line of arguement will resonate. Especially given that calls to boycott the 2018 Russian world cup — as a means of protest against their role in the Ukrainian conflict — have already circulated within Western media and politicians. Only recently, 13 bipartisan US senators wrote to Blatter encouraging him to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Last year, the former deputy Prime Minister of Britain, Nick Clegg, affirmed that a boycott would be a “very potent political and symbolic action”, words that undoubtedly contributed to his inclusion on Russia’s blacklist.

The dangers of a politically charged boycott against Russia are well documented and UEFA will be anxious to distance themselves from such allegations. Unfortunately for Dyke and UEFA however, any withdrawal from the 2018 Russian World Cup would invariably be framed as such. In fact, the significant contribution of British and American politicians in particular, might prove detrimental to the legitimacy of a ‘moral’ boycott or the creation of a ‘Clean Cup’ – a separate competition designed for boycotting nations.

Let us, just for a minute, remove ourselves from our Western bubble. Were the 2018 and 2022 World Cup due to be held in England and the US, would there be the same level of public outrage regarding Fifa’s latest shenanigans? Would we be calling for reform with the same rancour? It all appears a little disingenuous.

Of course, many will argue that the corruption and opacity that we seek to expunge are the only reason the World Cups went to Russia and Qatar. Indeed, a boycott of the Qatari World Cup on humanitarian grounds is well founded given the tragic death of around 1,200 migrant workers, and the continuation of the oppressive Khafala employment system.

There is no doubt Fifa has become a kleptocracy in desperate need of radical rehabilitation. But the problem is, until the Swiss and US prosecutors place key figures behind bars and provide concrete evidence of bribery and corruption, the ground upon which an ‘ethical’ boycott of Russia 2018 would stand, remains shaky.

Admittedly, the indictments and investigations will likely take years to bear fruit. And in this instance, the phrase innocent until proven guilty might be worth heeding. Without robust evidence of Russian wrongdoing in the bidding process, a World Cup boycott could have far-reaching, geo-political consequences. The move would certainly scupper any progress that has been made in reaching a détente with Russia. In terms of the footballing community, it would also create disillusion and frustration among the players and fans of boycotting countries.

Therefore, such talks are neither prudent nor timely. Fifa needs a makeover, but at this moment in time, a boycott would cause more problems than it would solve.

@LH_Ramon25