08/31/15

Ben Tornato Siena: Has The Robur’s Revival Begun?

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We met in Piazza Tolomei, a quaint little square surveyed by a statue of the Capitoline Wolf. The symbol is ubiquitous in Siena, as is the Balzana, the white and black coat of arms adorning walls across the city. From Piazza Tolomei, we moseyed down towards Siena’s hub, Piazza del Campo.

It’s an impressive sight. Upon entering the square, one’s gaze is immediately drawn to the Palazzo Pubblico and its imposing tower, the Torre del Mangia. Viewed from the tower’s peak, the square’s architectural ingenuity is revealed. Its shell-shaped design is encircled by a number of trendy restaurants and bars, some of which boast balconies looking out on the square. One such bar is La Costarella.

“Shall we grab a coffee here?” Marco asked. Having come across my research on the Ultras of his club, he was keen to talk football. We were at the start of October, the late summer air was sultry and Robur Siena’s 2014-15 Serie D season was underway. Marco is a regular on the Curva at Siena’s Stadio Artemio Franchi, however watching his club compete in a non-professional category was a new experience.

Just a few months earlier, AC Siena went bankrupt. It was hardly surprising after the financial bailout of Monte dei Paschi in 2013. The oldest bank in the world is the beating heart of Siena’s economy and its patronage is crucial to the city’s prosperity. Bereft of their patron, the club was drowning. In July 2014, after president Massimo Mezzaroma resigned, nothing could keep them afloat.

But under the guise of Robur, translated as strength and used by supporters to distinguish the club from their basketball cousins, Siena were reborn. Their new title was apt, for while 110-years of history had been preserved, rebuilding from Serie D would require sheer strength of will.

The Toils of Serie D

“We can’t lose to a team like them,” Marco muttered, flicking through the pink pages of the Gazzetta dello Sport. “Playing against Siena at the Franchi is like playing in the Champions League final for their fans, it would be an embarrassment if we lost.”

That Saturday afternoon, the Bianconeri (White and blacks) were hosting Poggibonsi, a team from a small town located just 30 kilometres north of Siena. It was a derby, but of an unfamiliar kind. Just two years before, they had been living the visceral passion of games against virulent rivals Fiorentina in Serie A. But the Robur’s revival had to start somewhere.

As Marco predicted, for Poggibonsi fans the game held particular prestige. Huddled in the Curva Ospiti, a few hundred yellow and red bodies swayed, bounced and chanted during what was a humdrum 0-0 draw. On occasions, the Poggibonsesi attempted to rile their illustrious hosts with chants of ‘Siena Siena Vaffanculo’. But the Senesi in the Curva Robur didn’t deign to respond, instead choosing to insult their historic and ‘worthy’ rivals, Fiorentina.

In reality though, the upstarts from Poggibonsi proved difficult to shrug. They challenged Siena for the Group E, Serie D, title to the bitter end. However the Robur prevailed, securing promotion and the title with a final day victory at Massese. Speaking to Marco immediately afterwards, his relief was palpable. One year on from bankruptcy, Siena had returned to the football that counts.”

But Serie D had its perks. “In comparison to Serie B and Serie A, the division allowed supporters a lot more freedom. It was like getting to know a new world” Marco reflected.

“It was more spontaneous. There were huge away days with hundreds of supporters, sometimes thousands. Every Sunday was an invasion, a party for us and for the small towns that hosted La Robur as we packed their restaurants and bars. Amazing support, with drums and flairs. Tickets bought last minute outside the away section. It was a dive into football from the past.”

Yet as the Bianconeri prepare for life in Lega Pro, is it really a case of ben tornato (welcome back) Siena?

Siena, a World of its Own

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Piazza del Campo’s Palazzo Pubblico

The balconies of those trendy bars in Piazza del Campo offer the best view of the oldest horse race in the world, the Palio di Siena. Albeit it would likely cost you in excess of €350.

Palio è vita” (Palio is life) runs the local phrase. Held twice a year in July and August, this medieval tradition sees ten jockeys race bareback, completing three laps of the Piazza del Campo’s treacherous course. The competitors represent the various Contrade (City Disricts) and the event is both a celebration of the Siena’s rich culture and history, as well as its abiding intra-civic rivalry.

The Senesi live and breathe this event. The passion is raw, as exhibited during the most recent Palio in which a fist fight broke out in the square between two rival Contrade, Torre and Onda.

Unfortunately for Marco, his Contrada La Chiocciola (The Snail) – did not win the city’s bragging rights. “La Chiocciola had a weak horse and never stood a chance” he lamented, “Selva won. There was a lot of tension in the square which resulted in the fights, but the race itself was a little uneventful.”

Football has hardly been given a moment’s thought. But once the dust on the track has settled, and the drama has subsided, rival Contrade put their differences to one side. Observing Siena’s relationship with the Palio, renowned Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, concluded: “You people of Siena have a precious thing, and its unique how in the conflict between your districts lies your union.” And what better place to express this unity than the football stadium?

A Long Road Back for La Robur

“The final whistle at Massa [Massese] was a huge relief” Marco confessed. “Promotion [from Serie D] was not easy, but in the end, the joy of winning a championship is always enormous.”

As the squad’s coach pulled into the city, hundreds of exultant Senesi were present to greet them. As is tradition, the team then joined supporters for their triumphant procession through the city centre, the capi ultrá orchestrating proceedings and leading the chants.

“Of course none of this [success] would have been possible without a group of great players and a great Mister [coach] like Massimo Morgia” Marco admitted, “This man, frank and genuine, was able to create a feel good factor within the city and the supporters.”

Having arrived at the Bianconeri a year ago, Morgia engineered their promotion from Serie D. His passion, old-school philosophy and grounded personality immediately struck a chord with the fans, with whom he conversed on a regular basis. Yet having seemingly put Siena on the road to recovery, Morgia’s contract has not been renewed. This has been exacerbated by the departure of key players, including top scorers Lorenzo Crocetti and Simone Minincleri. The situation left Marco and many Senesi questioning president Antonio Ponte. “The failure to renew Morgia’s contract and that of key players was a move I didn’t like in the slightest. It seems like Antonio Ponte takes things day by day.”

Siena fans have reason to be sceptical, especially when it comes to trusting their owners. The wounds of bankruptcy are yet to fully heal and they cannot forget the guilty parties involved in their demise. At games, insulting chants are still directed at former president Massimo Mezzaroma and Alessandro Profumo, one-time CEO of bank Monte dei Paschi who is now on trial for a tax evasion scheme. It’s a subject on which Marco speaks passionately.

“For outsiders, it’s difficult to understand how things work in Siena. The vast sums of money injected into the city by the bank were never used to build a solid sport infrastructure. Just think that Siena have never had a proper training ground, forcing them to use alternative facilities. Instead a ludicrous amount of money (around €10m a year) was channelled into backhanded payments and personal favours within the system. Over the years, Siena’s supporters have been a prominent voice of opposition and denunciation. Following bankruptcy, some hoped this voice would disappear however this hasn’t been the case.”

Lega Pro: Back To The Present While Reliving The Past

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While Serie D may have been a dive into the past, Lega Pro will certainly haul the Senesi back to the present. The controversial supporter’s ID card (La Tessera del Tifoso) will once again be required if the fans wish to travel to away games. Furthermore, regulations regarding the use of paraphernalia for choreographies are far more stringent.

“The Tessera is a measure that serves only to distance people from Calcio.” Marco’s view is one mirrored by many supporters across Italy, and the Tessera is often maligned for reducing ticket sales while failing to tackle football-related disorder. “The absence of drums, flares and other materials detracts from the atmosphere however the numbers we take to away games will also depend on the team’s results.”

Enthusiasm will certainly not be lacking when Siena meet the likes of Pisa and Arezzo. These games transcend the average local rivalry, largely due to their historical back-drop. “In Italy, Campanilismo is fierce, perhaps more so in Tuscany than any other region” Marco opined. He is part of Siena’s younger generation and thus has become accustomed to the rivalry with Fiorentina, also known as the Guelph-Ghibelline derby.

“In Siena we have a strong link with our past, which is still very much alive today. The rivalry with Florence dates back centuries, to the battles and wars fought between the cities from 1200 to the mid-1500s for the supremacy of Tuscany.” This Campanilismo or local pride endures and often reaches its peak within the stadium. “A football match, in this case, represents the means by which you relive the conflicts of the past within the present” Marco poetically affirmed. And he is expecting equally volatile affairs in Lega Pro. “For me, the most fascinating match will be against Pisa, a team with a great history and large fan base. Let’s just hope we have a team worthy of the occasion.”

Hope of a Robur Renaissance Springs Eternal

Recent developments and transfer activity at Siena has fuelled more optimism among the supporters. Fresh faces have arrived while the team has performed well in a number of pre-season friendlies. Fresh off the back of two uninspiring seasons at Reggina, new coach Gianluca Atzori has a point to prove. The tactician is assembling a competitive squad, including a blend of experienced Serie A veterans such as former Reggina forward Emiliano Bonazzoli and Siena stalwart Daniele Portanova, as well as a number of young loanees.

“In terms of talents to watch out for, 17-year-old defender Daniele Guglielmi has a bright future while in attack we have loaned 18-year-old Kevin Arthur Yamga from Chievo and tre-quartista Marco Piredda from Cagliari.” Marco believes these are all players who could help Siena make the jump in quality. Young goalkeeper Tommaso Biagiotti also has the Senesi excited. Hailing from Siena, the 17-year-old is a boyhood fan of the club and towards the end of last season he saved a crucial penalty, further endearing him to the Artemio Franchi faithful.

During that season, the same faithful would often chant “I dilettanti non ci fa paura, ritorneremo presto in Serie A” (Playing in non-league football doesn’t faze us, we’ll soon return to Serie A). Of course that is La Robur’s long term goal however Marco is not getting ahead of himself.

“That [Serie A] is what we must be aiming for. Our support is as passionate as any. However to return to Serie B or Serie A, and even better, remain there, we need capable owners and investment.” For Marco, the priority lies with creating a sound infrastructure and investing in the future. Siena need to establish a stable base from which to continue their ascent, however there remain doubts as to whether these goals are achievable under the aegis of the current president.

“The priorities have to be a state of the art training ground, a strong youth section and a new stadium, preferably one that we own. At the moment these are all dreams” Marco sighed. “We must take inspiration from clubs like Udinese, Atalanta, Empoli and Carpi. It doesn’t matter how many years it takes, if there was a serious project at work, I’d be happy to accept fewer victories.”

With the Lega Pro season due to kick-off on September 6, anticipation is building around the city. The Robur’s revival has got off to the perfect start yet Marco’s expectations remain modest. “I hope we survive comfortably and perhaps win against the likes of Arezzo, Ascoli, Pisa, Ancona, Lucchese and Reggiana. These will be passionate affairs and I hope our team is up to the task.”

Robur Siena are awakening as they prepare to confront historic foes. But they have plenty of battles ahead if they wish to re-establish dominance within Tuscany. For at this present time, returning to Serie A appears anything but black and white.

Grazie Mille to Marco for all his expertise and help during my time in Siena, he is a true Senese! 

@LH_Ramon25

06/29/15

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

Vicenza CUrva

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.”

Verona curva

 “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.

01/22/14

Can Seedorf Prove the Doubters Wrong in More Ways Than One?

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It was a striking image. A pointed finger and a clenched fist, Clarence Seedorf and Mario Balotelli kindling a spark that AC Milan fans will hope is just the beginning of an enduring flame.

It was not the effusive eruption of relief one might have expected following Balotelli’s 82nd minute winner against Hellas Verona but then again that wouldn’t be Seedorf’s style, nor the volatile Italian’s. It was a gesture of solidarity. A moment of mutual appreciation that portrayed respect between two men who might just hold the key to each others success. Yet with all the recent speculation surrounding the Dutchman’s lack of coaching experience and his suitability for the job, his appointment arguably raises a more pertinent issue. Seedorf is the first black coach to take the helm at AC Milan. But does this appointment signify a step forward for Italian football?

Seedorf is nicknamed Il Professore (The Professor) and it is an epithet he thoroughly deserves. In addition to a decorated playing career (which includes three Champion’s League winners medals with three different teams), he is fluent in five languages and has proved himself to be an accomplished pundit and entrepreneur. As Gabriele Marcotti points out, he is simply not like other footballers and to repeat his words verbatim “you’re left with one of the cleverest men in the game right now.” In a recent press conference the former Champions League winner alluded to the connotations of his appointment beyond football.

“Of course racism still exists in the World but once again AC Milan has shown itself to be an innovative, brave and forward-looking club.”

Seedorf will be battling on many fronts. He has to negotiate an intransigent hierarchy who continue to pull in competing directions, appease a combustible set of Ultras who are currently staging their own coup and mold a group of players who collectively are a shadow of the Milan Seedorf used to know. This would be enough to unsettle the most phlegmatic of personalities but more importantly, the Professor will have to carve his own path and identity. For he confronts a history which offers little in the way of reassurance.

Photo from telegraphRacism has often reared its ugly head in Italian football, Mario BalotelliKevin Prince BoatengSamuel Eto’o are a few of the star names who have had to endure such taunts. But what Seedorf confronts is something completely different. Not overt racism but the unspoken, possibly unconscious attitudes some still hold in positions of power.

In 1991, the Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades said:
“The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some commonsense”

This quote epitomises attitudes of yesteryear, ones which are no longer held by the majority. But this does not mean their vestiges have simply disappeared.

While the number of black players have steadily risen in Italy’s top flight, their presence in head coaching roles is virtually non-existent. The numbers speak for themselves. Many articles suggest Seedorf is the second black coach in Serie A history, citing Brazilian born Jarbas Faustinho Cané as the first after he took the reins at Napoli from 1994-1995. However some (myself included) would perceive Seedorf as the third.

Born in Rome after his mother had moved to Italy from Somalia, Fabio Liverani was the first black player to represent Italy during a friendly against South Africa in 2001. Having played for a number of Serie A clubs including Perugia, Lazio, Fiorentina and Palermo he experienced racial discrimination first hand. This did not stymie his ambition.

Liverani was once quoted as saying “I want to be the Carlton Myers of football.” Myers was an Italian basketball player of Afro-British descent and a symbol of ethnic diversity in Italy after he became the country’s first black Olympic flag bearer in 2000. It is safe to say Liverani became an equally iconic figure and 12-years after becoming the first black player to represent Italy, he took charge of the head coaching role at Genoa. Thus without getting embroiled in classifications of race, not acknowledging him as one of the only three black coaches in Serie A history would be doing him a grave disservice.

Liverani genoa www.republica.it

Liverani was sacked by Genoa after amassing 4 points in 6 league games.

Unfortunately for Liverani his tenure at Genoa was short-lived and after just six games in charge of the Rossoblu he was sacked in September 2013. Although the former Lazio midfielder only managed one league win at the Genovese club, six games is hardly enough time to judge a man’s credentials. Genoa president Enrico Preziosi is not renowned for his patient demeanor however some might question whether another man would have been jettisoned after such a brief spell.

Former England international John Barnes has suggested that black managers are given less slack and a shorter time period in which to succeed as a head coach.

In Clarke Carlisle’s BBC documentary ‘Is Football Racist?’ Barnes is asked ‘Do you believe that a white manager would have to wait so long for his next appointment? (a question in relation to Barnes’s eight year wait for another managerial job after he was sacked by Celtic back in 2000).’ This was his response.

“Well first of all I think that white managers are given longer when you get a job, longer to fail…Its almost as if they don’t really believe in you in the first place…and then when you’re not successful straight away its like, well that’s what we thought anyway.”

Indeed the landscape for black coaches looks no greener in England, nor in any of Europe’s top leagues for that matter. Just recently Paul Ince was sacked after less than a year in charge of Blackpool leaving only two black managers across the English football leagues.

It would be banal to attribute this to simple racism and as the issue is of such complexity, it goes well beyond the remit of this article. Listening to Radio 4 just this morning a similar question was broached when Gary Beadle (an English black actor) was asked if racism is holding back black, Asian and other minorities from a career in the arts?

His response articulates the issues as well as any explanation I could give.

“I wouldn’t call it racism… I’d say its institutionalised attitudes that just hold people back , whether its their gender or cultural background, it’s a problem that we seem to suffer from.”

Seedorf in the spotlight during his first game against Verona. (Photo from the Telegraph)

Seedorf in the spotlight during his first game against Verona. (Photo from the Telegraph)

So returning to football, it’s not that Seedorf is confronting direct racism, although it will be interesting to observe whether he suffers racial abuse from the stands even as a coach. He is confronting a range of expectations, whether they be the white hegemony expecting him to fail, or quite possibly produce a miracle, or black people hoping he can become a successful trailblazer for those aspiring to coach in the future. Quite simply he is not just managing a European giant he is managing millions of projections across the world.

Having addressed the question of whether Seedorf was ready to take charge at AC Milan, Gabriele Marcotti concluded his ESPN piece perfectly

“Is he ready? Heck, like he says, he was born ready. If he fails, it won’t be because he’s not ready. It will be because he’s not a good coach”

He is spot on, Seedorf should be judged solely on his performance at AC Milan, not on his suitability, not on his previous and/or lack of experience and certainly not because he is black. And that’s when it dawned on me. Seedorf’s race should at no point come into the equation. It shouldn’t be comment worthy. So am I contradicting my argument by writing this very article? Perhaps, however the day we feel no need to say “he is only the ‘second’ or ‘third’ black coach in Serie A history” and I feel no need to share my musings, will be the day real progress has been made.

Take Paul Ince for example. His record suggests he was dismissed simply because he is not quite good enough however the fact there remains a shortage of black coaches leads people to suggest otherwise.

So to answer the original question of whether Seedorf’s appointment constitutes a step forward for Italian football? Yes, its a step forward for football in general. Because when the next black manager is appointed perhaps we won’t feel the need to point out that he is the umpteenth black coach in that league.

We can only hope that Seedorf exceeds all expectations as he will not only restore AC Milan’s fortunes, but like all great professors he will also re-write history.

12/14/13

An Anglo-Italian Perspective

 England v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final

It has been a week since the World Cup draw and the dust has settled on what was a fascinating event. Last week I discussed the social and political implications of the World Cup in Brazil however the prospect of Italy – England has forced my hand to write something a little more light hearted and certainly closer to home.

When Sir Geoff Hurst picked up that little plastic ball on Friday the 6th of December at Costa do Sauipe a wry smile came to my face. It just had to be, Italy versus England.

It is a tie which should provide me with the ultimate internal conflict, something akin to your alter egos, sitting on each shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “Italia, tifa Italia – Italy support Italy, no its got to be England you should support England” (the conversation would go something like that). Hailing from England with an Italian father who like many on the peninsula has a vehement passion for football I should be experiencing an International schism. Not the case. For reasons little known to my self, apart from the fact my mother isn’t the biggest of football fans, I have always had a stalwart attachment to the Azzurri. Call me unpatriotic, question my ‘love for my country’, apparently something politicians do these days to besmirch a journalists reputation, however it does not make an iota of difference to me.

That said the point of this article is not to discuss the mundane topic of my own allegiances but to compare and contrast two nations whose footballing history makes them behemoths of the World Cup arena.

Whether its Forza Italia or Come on England I will be juxtaposing the media reaction surrounding these two European heavyweights of Brazil’s World Cup Group D.

Press Reaction 

England

It is safe to say the English media quaked at what was undoubtedly a cruel draw. Not only were England condemned to face  Italy and Uruguay (two nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings) but they would also have to play their opener in the sweltering heat of the Brazilian Jungle.

Greg Dyke's reaction to the bad news (Photo from The Guardian)

Greg Dyke’s – Chairman of the FA reacts to the draw (Photo from The Guardian)

For much of the press, Greg Dyke’s reaction to the draw said it all. He was caught on Camera pulling his finger across his throat. In typically English fashion this already signaled doom. For Matt Dickinson of The Times the gesture “perfectly captured the story of England’s anguish” while The Guardian described the group as “probably as treacherous as anything Hodgson could have dared imagined”.

It was not just the quality of the group, which also included a potential banana skin in Costa Rica, but also the location of England’s first game – Manaus. The stadium lies in the heart of the Amazon Jungle where temperatures can soar above 30c and humidity can be as high as 80%. The Sun duly published a double spread headed “Amazon Pain Forrest”. The only consolation if you can call it that is that England will be playing Italy, another side who will be unaccustomed to the perilous conditions.

Generally the media reaction in England epitomised the country’s tendency to veer towards cynicism and pessimism regarding their prospects in major events. Events which are frequently anticipated with a catalogue of woe and a sheepish expectation of failure.  It is in stark contrast to the jingoistic, conquer all attitude of the English during the height of the British Empire, although that said there were some who tried their best to rally this type of sentiment. Steve McManaman appeared positively buoyant after the draw speaking on ESPN “I think we’ll be very happy with that. We know how the Italians play. I don’t think there is any problem there”.

No doubt as the World Cup draws closer and closer, whether it be the fans or the press, there will be some sort of wave of enthusiasm that sweeps England and suddenly you may start hearing “well why not, why can’t England go all the way, at least the Semi’s”.

Italy

In Italy the press reaction to the draw was at times just as sceptical but manifested in a totally different manner. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the head line “Italy Pays the Price” with the overview reading “After Blatter, Zidane gave us another ‘headbutt’ by picking us Uruguay, England and Costa Rica”.

Apart from the fact that the analogy in this headline could be construed as slightly inappropriate and disrespectful to one of the games biggest names, its real agenda lies in one of the Italian media’s favourite tough luck stories. Corruption and scandal. Anyone who knows Italy well will be familiar with the peninsula’s love for a conspiracy theory. So when it was announced that one of the European teams from pot 4 was going to be moved into pot 2 and face the possibility of being drawn with another of the strong European sides, everybody in Italy ‘knew’ the Azzurri were going to be that team.

Among the Italian media there was a continuation of this theme. The Corriere dello Sport  went with the headline “Scandolo”  – “Shameful World Cup draw gives us England and Uruguay, while France get an extremely easy group despite being a long way back in the FIFA rankings”. The headline tells you all you need to know. While it reveals a similar candid level of uncertainty among the press surrounding Italy’s chances of success, it is above all because the world and its wife are ‘against’ them.

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Totti given his second yellow vs South Korea by referee Byron Moreno in controversial circumstances (Photo from espnfc.com

This however should not come as shock. In 2002 after Italy were dumped out of the World Cup by hosts South Korea (in what must be said were controversial circumstances) Pietro Calabrese editor of La Gazzetta and a doyen of the Calcio journalist world wrote “We were knocked out in order to level out some problems between us and the bosses of FIFA and UEFA…Italy has no weight…Shame on them…Shame on the World Cup”. Having read this episode in John Foot’s book: Calcio the author goes onto describe other incidents in which the press became embroiled with such stories. So while the media focused on the cruel draw dealt to Italy, much of the comment was centred around conspiracy.

Tutto Sport opened with a rather less controversial headline – “Italy scare Cavani and Rooney”. This was one of the more positive press reactions to the draw yet the paper were quick to highlight Prandelli’s comments regarding Costa Rica. “Prandelli surprised everyone ‘I fear Costa Rica and the climate'”. This is the last team you might expect the Italian coach to highlight but given Italy’s past failure to get out of a group full of minnows (1966 & 2010 immediately spring to mind) the media were picking up on what  is sometimes Italy’s Achilles heel – complacency against the ‘smaller’ teams.

There is a saying the country gets the press it deserves and in this case the media speaks volumes for Italy and England. While the English press wallowed in the nation’s misfortune the Italian press were quick to apportion some of the blame on FIFA and the system. In one case its bad luck and in the other– its wilful conspiracy.

12/1/13

Abuse, Heysel, Hillsborough….Where do we draw the line?

The atmosphere will be one of juvenile enthusiasm in the Juventus Stadium on Sunday night with 12,100 children expected to attend the game against Udinese. They will fill the void left by the Ultras after the Italian football association (FIGC) closed both Curva to Juventus fans who were found guilty of discriminatory chanting in their 3-0 win against Napoli last month. This prompted the club to launch the initiative “Gioca Con Me…Tifa Con Me” – “Play with me…Support with me” which has seen the stands opened to children aged 6-13 across the Piedmont region.

Having already written about the issue of territorial discrimination I was interested in Juventus coach Antonio Conte’s comments in his press conference ahead of tonight’s clash.

“There are equally serious incidents that should bring to equally strong sanctions, for example when opposition fans insult the dead at Heysel or Superga,”  

While acknowledging discrimination must be dealt with Conte was keen to point out that other abusive chants often go unpunished.

“These chants (of discrimination) are ugly and should be condemned, but so should insults towards the dead or fans who demolish the inside of stadiums.”

superga air disaster (Photo from deicinginnovations.com)

Superga air disaster which wiped out the Torino team of 1949 (Photo from deicinginnovations.com)

Conte has a point. Where do we draw the line when it comes to the nuances of abusive and discriminatory chants? While the FIGC has become embroiled in their attempts to clamp down on territorial discrimination, chants that abuse or mock football related disasters have slipped under the radar. So if its not Napoli Cholera its Torino Superga. The two Turin clubs have often been on the wrong end of chants which mock both the Superga air crash and the Heysel disaster. In fact Juventus and Torino fans can sometimes be the prime culprits!

The same can be said in England. In recent months we have seen the FA try and clarify some of the ambiguity surrounding the use of the term ‘Yid’. This has seen Tottenham fans defy both the FA and the police. Similar to the stance taken by Italian Ultras on territorial discrimination, many Spurs fans feel it is their right to chant a word which they have coined as a form of identity and defiance against those who taunt them for the clubs links with the Jewish community. It is a complex and emotive issue. Yet this does not mean other abusive chants should be ‘swept under the carpet’.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United is one of England’s most celebrated rivalries. It is a volatile fixture which has at times brought out the demon in rival fans.

Who’s that lying on the ruuunway?Who’s that lying in the snow?It’s Matt Busby and the boys, making all the fucking noise,cause they couldn’t get the aeroplane to go! 

(Liverpool fans vs Manchester United, Munich air disaster)

Ohh, I wish it could be Hillsborough everydaaaaay, where the fans start swinging and the fence begins to swaaaaaay! 
Ohh, I wish it could be hillsborough everydaaaaay,where they rob dead bodies and the fans refuse to paaaaaaay!

(Manchester United fans vs Liverpool, Hillsborough disaster)

Liverpool fans display about Hillsborough (Photo from talkchill.blogspot.com

Liverpool fans choreograph display about Hillsborough (Photo from talkchill.blogspot.com

Two such examples have been chanted in the past by what must be said, is only a minority of Liverpool and Manchester United fans. Nevertheless these are  inhumane chants which, like discrimination, have no place in the game. While we are all in accordance that football’s governing bodies must do their utmost to eradicate racism and discrimination it is important for them not to become blinkered.

When looking at the definition of discrimination these chants do not strictly fall under the blanket of unjust prejudicial treatment of people based on their race, age, sex, gender or faith. However they border on inciting irrational hatred and show a worrying lack of empathy to both the victims and families involved.

This is what Antonio Conte was touching on. While chants in Italy such as “Vesuvio Facci Sognare” – “Vesuvio make us dream” (a reference to Vesuvio volcano erupting and destroying Naples) are labelled discrimination, abusive chants about Superga and Heysel go largely unpunished.

But is there really a difference between the two? If the FIGC are going to enforce draconian punishment on territorial discrimination then they should surely consider similar measures for abusive chants regarding football related disasters. In fact given that territorial discrimination is an issue rooted in Italian history and culture, I’d argue that the FIGC would find it easier to tackle the latter.

This begs a similar question in England. Why have the FA not done more to clamp down on chants regarding Hillsborough and Munich? It is not about prioritising one issue over another, it is about preserving the integrity of the game. There is a fine line when it comes to the raucous voice of the football stadium however taunts aimed at such tragedies overstep this line.

I am by no means suggesting punishment for all abusive chants. It would not only be absurd but it would also detract from the rivalries and sprezzatura which make football atmospheres unique. But is it so ludicrous to suggest that distasteful chants about Heysel, Munich and the like should be given equal scrutiny by footballs governing bodies?

11/11/13

Three Substitutions and Five ‘Injuries’ Later.

Given that a large proportion of my last post was centered on the influence of the Ultras and I tifosi within Il Calcio I felt compelled to discuss the events that occurred in Salerno this weekend.

The world of Il Calcio never ceases to amaze and if you thought you’d seen it all, this week may have just thrown you another curve ball. In Turin, Sunday night brought us two outcomes which were in all honesty entirely predictable. One, Juve blew their early season critics out of the water with a 3-0 win over Scudetto rivals Napoli and two, chants of territorial discrimination were there for all to hear – loud and clear. Over to you FIGC.

Yet it was events which transpired on Sunday afternoon which sent shock waves across the Calcio world, and I’m not talking about Domenico Berardi’s 94th minute equaliser which earned Sassuolo yet another unexpected point, this time at table toppers Roma. No the real drama unfolded 167 miles south of Rome in Salerno.

Nocerina make 3 substitutions on the first 2 minutes. (Photo from forzanocerina.it)

Nocerina make 3 substitutions on the first 2 minutes. (Photo from forzanocerina.it)

The match was Salernitana vs. Nocerina, a local derby between two teams in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone B – the third tier of Italian football. With the game initially delayed by 40 minutes what followed was nothing short of bizarre. After just 20 minutes a mysterious string of events culminated in the referee being left with no choice but to suspend the game. It began with Nocerina using all 3 of their substitutes in the opening 2 minutes followed by 5 Nocerina players ‘limping’ off injured.

I doubt that even a local Sunday league team, who have conceded an average of 6 goals a game (yes there is always one),and who are playing a side they previously lost to 11-0 would go to these lengths to get a game cancelled. So whats the story?

For reasons of public order the local authorities had banned Nocerina fans from attending the game in Salerno. The antipathy between these two sets of fans is such that it was feared the game would become too hard to police. It was a decision that the Ultras of Nocerina could not take lying down. Prior to Sunday’s game approximately 200 Nocerina Ultras turned up at the team training ground  issuing them with death threats if they decided to go ahead and play. To reinforce this message the Nocerina players bus was reportedly attacked en route to the Stadio Arechi. Needless to say the Nocerina players were less than keen to step off the bus, and even less keen to play 90 minutes of football.

Following the game the entire board of Nocerina directors resigned and the players were ordered not to speak to the media. Salernitana coach Carlo Perrone later said “This is a terrible page in the history of football”. He is right, it is another black mark on an already blemished reputation. As scandalous as this episode is, it is not as extraordinary as one might think. Italian Ultras have never been shy of flexing their muscles and exerting their substantial influence, not just on Il Calcio but also on Italian society.

Roma captain Francesco Totti is surrounded by Ultras during the 2004 Rome  derby.

Roma captain Francesco Totti is surrounded by Ultras during the 2004 Rome derby. (Photo from www.postmatch.org)

In 2004 the Rome derby was called off after Roma Ultras entered the pitch and spoke to Roma captain Francesco Totti, demanding the game be abandoned due to rumours circulating that a child had been killed by the police outside the stadium. Three years later, the death of Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri led to widespread rioting by Ultras across the country, to the extent that eternal rivals Lazio and Roma united to attack a police barracks in Rome. Last year a small group of Genoa fans halted their home game against Siena for 45 minutes to voice their displeasure at their teams performance. Suffice it to say what happened in Salerno is not altogether an anomaly.

So without launching into a lengthy missive condemning the Nocerina Ultras (of which plenty has already been written) the point I want to make is this. I have spoken about Il Calcio’s power within Italian society, and its power to unite and divide and I believe Sunday’s incident is another facet of this.

Italian sociologist Franco Ferrarotti has claimed that Italy is a republic based on football. It is a crucial part of identity. Gli AzzurriCatenaccio, Quattro Stelle (four stars, four world cups) and so on. So while the exploits of Paolo Rossi and the images of Marco Tardelli and Fabio Grosso move mountains to unite a country fraught by internal divisions, incidents such as Sunday’s debacle stain the reputation of Il Calcio and in turn damage that sense of Italian identity.

La Gazzetta Dello Sport ran the headline “Una Domenica Bestiale” – A beastly Sunday – while another read Derby Della Vergogna – Derby of Shame. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record but  episodes such as Salerno-Nocerina reveal a dark under belly which further exposes divisions within society. For all that the media and commentators have been united in their condemnation, a small group of people were allowed to make a mockery of a professional football fixture. Its a form of subversion. Once again the phenomenon that is Il Calcio can prove to be as disruptive as it is cohesive!

Below you will find a link to the highlights of Salernitana vs Nocerina (predominantly 3 substitutions & players feigning injuries)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WD7_PZlPn_g#t=222

 

 

11/9/13

Il Calcio: Uniting and Dividing Italy

On Sunday evening 3rd place Juventus will host 2nd place Napoli in what is the most eye-catching game in this round of Serie A fixtures. With both sides tied on 28 points, sitting just three behind a rejuvenated Roma it is an opportunity for either to stake a claim for the Serie A title.

However the fixture is not solely a meeting of two title contenders. It is a meeting of the North and the South. Another illustration of the regional divide that exists in Italy. Just like the Renaissance era – when civic states battled for supremacy on the peninsula – these two bastions of Turin and Naples will renew a territorial rivalry which has its roots in Italian history.

Campanilismo is an Italian word perhaps best translated as fervent local patriotism. It symbolises a sense of identity, a sense of pride and belonging to your place of birth. A feeling which can often be much stronger than any sense of national identity. When introducing their place of origin I have often heard Italians say Sono Vicentino (I’m from Vicenza), Sono Napoletano (I am from Naples) before saying Sono Italiano (I am Italian).

Napoli fans expressing their loyalty to their city. Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan - Napulitan...a mistake the editor puts down to spelling. However it is perhaps a reference to the Italian word Pulire - To Clean. If so it is another example of Napoli fans subversively mocking the discriminatory chants used against them which describe Neapolitan's as people who are dirty and smell . (Photo from http://www.theguardian.com/ taken by Tom Jenkins).

Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan – Napulitan…a misspelling or subversive irony? Pulire is Italian – To Clean. Another example of Napoli fans mocking the discriminatory chants describing them as dirty?? (Photo from http://www.theguardian.com/ taken by Tom Jenkins).

Why?? Just under three years ago Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary of its Risorgimento and its birth as a nation. Compared to England  a unified nation for over a 1000 years  this is no time at all. Like a jigsaw puzzle where the remaining pieces do not quite fit, Italian national identity remains an enigma.

While King Henry VIII waged war on the continent under the English banner, the Italian peninsula was fragmented. Any sense of collective identity was defined by civic pride. Italy as a nation did not exist. Fast forward and some of these underlying divisions remain.

This is exemplified by the North-South divide. So much so that Nicholas Doumanis (author of Inventing the Nation: Italy) claimed that the northern and southern halves of the peninsula appear in social, cultural and economic terms to be two very different countries. To give this context  the regional stereotypes that exist in Italy are to a degree comparable to those in England, albeit in Italy the north is viewed as the ‘prosperous’ half. The comparison stops here, for in England, as far as I am aware, no political party has ever challenged the idea of  a collective English identity.

Lega Nord or Northern League is a regionalist political party which has often attacked the idea of Italian unity by claiming that the south is a burden on the nation. The party’s political programme advocates greater regional autonomy, especially for the North and at times secession of the North altogether.

A Lega Nord slogan: Yes to Polenta (a traditional cuisine from the Veneto area) No to cous cous (a staple food in North African cuisine)

A Lega Nord slogan: Yes to Polenta (a traditional cuisine from the Veneto area) No to cous cous (a staple food in North African cuisine)

Couple this with the view expressed by Gary Armstrong and Alberto Testa (Football Fascism and Fandom: The UltraS of Italian Football) that Il Calcio has constantly mirrored the socio-political environment in Italy and one can begin to grasp the power it possesses, both to unite and divide. It is an issue which has never been more contemporary.

This summer the Italian Football Association (FIGC) decided to apply UEFA’s stadium ban rule (aimed at tackling racist chanting) to what it calls “territorial discrimination”. Low and behold when the fans of AC Milan were found guilty of using derogatory chants, first against Napoli, which led to a closure of the Curva Sud (AC Milan Ultras stronghold), and then against Juventus, which led to the closure of the San Siro (a decision eventually suspended) it caused uproar among supporters across Italy.

Traditionally Napoli fans have been on the receiving end of chants referring to crime, poverty and cholera outbreaks in their city. The following link contains an example of a frequently used chant against Neapolitan’s – http://youtu.be/ZrowkCqT95w  

Translated the chant goes something like this:

Smell the stench, even the dogs are running
The Neapolitans are coming
Infected with cholera, earthquake victims
You have never washed yourselves with soap…
Napoli shit, Napoli cholera
You shame the whole of Italy
Work hard Neapolitan
As you have to bend over (politely put) for Maradona
Diego is shit Diego Diego is shit

However, instead of revelling in a touch of schadenfreude, some of AC Milan’s fiercest rivals, the Ultras of Inter Milan, Juventus and even Napoli voiced support for the Rossoneri’s plight.

With sardonic humor the Napoli fans unveiled a banner at their game against Livorno saying “[We are] Naples cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!” The Ultras of Juve and Inter then made statements imploring fans across the country to join them in singing those “famous chants of territorial discrimination.”

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(Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani later said strict rules aimed at tackling racism have been taken to an extreme by the Lega Serie A “I understand that racism is a big problem, a problem in the whole world, but territorial discrimination is something else.”

Long before the arrival of immigrants on Italian shores, regional slurs and stereotypes have been used as insults not just in the stadia but also in day to day Italian life.

So what does this all mean? Perhaps the irony lies in the fact that the Ultras have united in in their fight to discriminate against each other. And therein lies the power of Il Calcio, both to unite and divide elements of Italian society. Supporters across Italy are united in being opposed. Its an oxymoron but it makes perfect sense!

The FIGC introduce tougher sanctions but the supporters continue with their discriminatory chants. And they will go on chanting. For it is embedded in their history. Moreover the Ultras and many others feel it is their right to insult each other.

When another of these historic battles between North and South is enacted at the Juventus Stadium on Sunday night you will be sure to hear those ‘famous’ chants of discrimination. “Napoletani colerosi”, Neapolitan’s – cholera sufferers, Juventini “ladri” – Juventus – thieves in reference to the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.

It is all part of the rough and tumble of the football stadium and it can be viewed as good fun, part of tradition or further evidence for the existence of a fragile national identity. However from one issue arises a multitude of others.

Does the continued practice of territorial discrimination encourage the more extreme elements of Italian society to believe they have the right to actively discriminate. Does territorial discrimination constitute racism? And how is Italian national identity, or lack of, manifested within Il Calcio. These are all questions that warrant further exploration.