I caught the football virus early on in life. Growing up in Rome, some of my earliest memories of pure freedom and unadulterated joy had to do with playing football with my brothers, friends, and school mates in courtyards, playgrounds, streets and on the dirt and gravel pitches of Villa Ada and Villa Borghese. Eventually, I made it into the CONI Acqua Acetosa football academy, which in the 1970s was a bountiful feeder program for youth development programs across the city, including Roma and Lazio.
This was around the time of the Iranian Revolution and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis (go see Argo if you haven’t yet). When our creative writing teacher demanded an essay on a global topic, I cheekily produced a (handwritten) lengthy fiction piece about an Iran vs. U.S. “peace match” in Tehran. I coreographed it tightly. President Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini sat next to each other in the VIP seats (!) and at the end of the match the unifying power of sport resolved the diplomatic crisis. Nothing like a young boy’s idealism and imagination!
These childhood memories were suddenly stirred up when I learned about “Fútbologia 2012″ — a day-long gathering to be held in Bologna on Saturday, November 3. John Foot, lecturer in Italian history at the University of London and author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football will give a keynote address (follow him on Twitter @footymac) based on his book and the evolution of football writing in Italy and abroad.
I liked the emotional, unpretentious prose of the event’s official description, as well as its philosophical thrust. “We sniff football from when we are kids. The smell of mold in the dressing room, shoe polish, sweaty uniforms,” write the Fútbologia organizers. “Entire lineups memorized. We watch football since forever. We recognize stadiums from around the world. And yet the level of discourse on football in Italy is very modest. And its global business system is in deep shit. We’ve been having less fun for quite some time. But now we have a plan. A conversation about football from a historical perspective, comparative and contemporary. About power and popular culture. Social sciences and physical sciences, art and literature. High pressing and Tahrir Square.”
Now that’s what I call a Saturday well spent. Buon divertimento!
Dear friends, unfortunately last week I could not post my comment on the match in Turin, but I can confirm that there are still clouds over the capital. It looks like there are few players who cannot accept Zeman’s ideas and on Sunday the great majority of us at the Stadio Olimpico were speechless when De Rossi and Osvaldo were both left on the bench. We are talking about two Italian internationals, one the top goal scorer and the other “Capitan Futuro,” who will inherit the captaincy when Totti retires. If you need a comparison it is like leaving Pirlo and Vucinic out of Juve’s starting eleven.
The first 20 minutes of the match with Atalanta were horrible for the giallorossi with plenty of chances for the black and blue from Bergamo, one of the Northern cities where the hate against Rome is more visceral. We luckily survived, thanks to the crossbar and three great saves by Stekelenburg. AS Roma finally started playing better and by the end of the first half we were in front thanks to a great pass from Totti (a little spoon pass) to Erik Lamela, the Argentinian striker who softly pushed the ball into Atalanta’s goal. Destro nearly scored a second, but he smashed the cross bar. Then Lamela was fouled inside the box, but the referee had his eyes closed so the first half ended 1-0.
During the second half AS Roma played calmly and without giving space to the opponents. Michael Bradley, back from injury, grew in confidence until he scored the second on an easy ball after a shot from outside the penalty area. Atalanta then seemed to have drawn level, but the referee (wrongly) disallowed it for offside. I ran away from the Olimpico before the end of the match, fearful of watching another victory be senselessly squandered.
I am proud and happy for Bradley who celebrated his first league goal for the wolves right in front of our seats. He played poorly at the beginning of the match, losing possession several times in midfield, but the entire team started with fear in their hearts. Bradley’s performance improved dramatically over the course of the match and I hope he will be on the pitch in Genoa in two weeks time. I remember him from last season’s match in Verona against us; he was one of Chievo’s best players, always fighting and stealing dozens of balls from our midfielders. Now Bradley needs to develop the ability to make the vertical passes crucial for Zeman’s 4-3-3 system to work.
Of course, in Italy soccer is like a religion and so Bradley’s chances of replacing a healthy, in-form De Rossi are almost nil. But Zeman clearly thought Osvaldo and De Rossi were not working hard enough during training, while Bradley showed greater effort and convinced the Bohemian Master. After Sunday’s game, I am confident the American will be a regular choice as one of the three midfielders.
South Africa’s Premier Soccer League is back in action. For the next nine months, we are assured of the thrills, spills, and glossy mediocrity of Africa’s richest domestic championship. Things are already getting interesting. Newly promoted Chippa United fired their coach just two games into their maiden PSL campaign and Mamelodi Sundowns walloped crowd favourites Kaizer Chiefs 4-1 in the MTN 8 quarter-finals before crashing to a 2-1 home defeat against lowly Maritzburg United.
Off the pitch, the heir-apparent to the Chiefs’ throne and incumbent team manager, Bobby Motaung (whose father, Kaizer Motaung, is the founder-owner of the club) was arrested and then released on bail in relation to allegations of fraud and corruption around the construction of the Mbombela Stadium used in the 2010 World Cup. It says a lot about the state of South Africa that the son of a multi-millionaire — and a wealthy man in his own right — is one of the people under scrutiny for illegal self-enrichment from an expensive tournament that was punted to economically uplift so-called ordinary men and women on the street.
The prelude to any forthcoming football season is typified by the movement of players, coaches and even administrators to new teams. While the top clubs made the obligatory headline-grabbing plunges into the transfer market, Bidvest Wits made the boldest acquisitions. (Formerly known as Wits University, “The Clever Boys” were bought by one of the country’s biggest financial companies a few years back.) Their long-serving coach departed, a new CEO was appointed, and a number of high-profile players signed. Could these moves mark the dawn of a new era for the Johannesburg club? Or will they remain little more than a mid-table team capable of an upset or two and an occasional run in a knockout tournament?
Probably the most notable new Wits recruit is former Bafana Bafana captain, Aaron “Mbazo” (“The Axe”) Mokoena. The player most likely to partner Mbazo in the centre of the defence is the man he replaced as national captain: Mbulelo “OJ” Mabizela. The progression of the two centre-backs’ careers could not be more divergent. Yet they seem to capture the different experiences and trajectories of players who emerged in the PSL, made it the Promised Land of the English Premier League, and then returned home to play out their days.
Both men were born in 1980. Mbazo was the first to make it to the professional ranks. After being discovered by the iconic manager Jomo Sono at the age of 15, he made his professional debut two years later, and soon he was in the national team. His ascension to Bafana Bafana, however, was shrouded in controversy. Caretaker coach Jomo Sono selected the unknown and unproven Mokoena for the 1998 African Nations Cup in Burkina Faso where Bafana Bafana were to defend their continental title. Jomo Sono is not only a club owner and manager, but also a player agent of note, and there were rumblings that his selection of Mbazo was largely influenced by his personal interests in the young defender. The rumblings proved to be accurate.
AS Roma was magnificent in Milan: glory, glory AS Roma!
Italian football’s Jedi, the holy man Zdenek Zeman, is now recognized as The Master not only in Rome, but in all of Italy. La Gazzetta dello Sport, the pink sports newspaper printed in Milan, which is, sadly, the most important Italian daily in terms of sales, is asking Andrea Stramaccioni, the youngest Italian coach now sitting on the Inter Milan bench, to learn the lessons imparted by Zeman’s AS Roma 3-1 thrashing of the nerazzurri on Sunday night.
The match wasn’t the typical Zemanian all-out assault I was used to watching 13 years ago during the Bohemian’s last stint as AS Roma manager. Sure, Inter’s Europa League qualifier on Thursday, which they played with only ten men for most of the game, partly explains their loss of pace in the second half. But the most important revelation of the game came from AS Roma’s new players, some of them very young and playing for the first time at the San Siro/Meazza, also known as “La Scala” of Italian soccer.
With AS Roma depleted in midfield — De Rossi came off after half an hour, Michael Bradley is out for a month, and Pijanic watched from the bench — the Greek Panagiotis Tachtsidis and the Rome-born wonder Alessandro Florenzi (both age 21) turned in amazing performances. They are two hugely promising young midfielders I was really curious to watch. Remarkably, instead of being intimidated by the grand San Siro stage, they played without any hint of fear. Both of them ran from the first minute to the last second of injury time. Florenzi, Tatchidis and Marquinho were more than mere replacements: incredibly efficient, they covered the entire pitch, giving space and opportunities for Totti to unleash the great Osvaldo and wreak havoc on the Inter defense.
Totti was incredible, heroic. He served a terrific cross that Florenzi (in photo above) headed in for the first goal and then midway through the second half dished a wonderful assist to Osvaldo, who spooned it over the keeper to score the second. Marquinho, De Rossi’s substitute, finished Inter off with a great goal nine minutes from time. Meanwhile, Inter had equalized without merit through a deflected shot by Cassano right before the halftime break. The only negative news came from Mattia Destro, the 21-year-old striker making his debut with the giallorossi. The tenacious marking of Nagatomo stifled him, the Japanese being one of the few Inter players able to do something against the mighty AS Roma.
In the end, the match stood out as a lesson in tactics from the oldest serie A coach to the youngest. As I look forward to the match against Bologna at the Olimpico this weekend, my ears are still ringing with the chant of AS Roma supporters on the San Siro terraces: “Corete, scappate, ariva lo squadrone gialllorosso, giallorosso” (run, flee, the great yellow-and-red team is coming; video sample here).
ROME–This past Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico I screamed in honor of Michael Bradley’s first serie A match with “La Magica Roma.” I howled so much during the 2-2 draw with Catania that I’m still hoarse three days later.
I am proud to say that I yelled only encouraging, positive things because I had my two boys, Alberto (age 9) and Luca (age 6), with me in the “Family” section of the Distinti Nord. (Long gone are my days with the Commando Ultrà Curva Sud.) In truth, I was also heeding my wife’s warning that if the kids returned home swearing she’d kick me out of the house.
It was so beautiful to see Luca absolutely mesmerized by the stadium atmosphere and the chaos; Alberto got into it too, especially after we drew level and he started believing in a miraculous victory even more than me.
There are at least two ways to comment on what happened in this strange opening game of the 2012-13 season. The first draws on the “dietrologia” (“behindology”) typical of the frustrated Romanista of the post-Capello era: “there you go, Zeman speaks the truth [about corruption and other ills affecting calcio] and those goddamn refs nail us immediately: Catania’s two goals were ludicrously offsides; we were denied a clear penalty; and Osvaldo was, absurdly, deemed offside on a breakaway that would have, surely, resulted in a goal. Two stolen points to keep those Juve bastards calm and content.”
Somehow I managed not to insult the referee for the entire ninety minutes, despite the time-tested knowledge that when in doubt referees always make important calls against us. It may sound like bullshit, but accepting this disgusting (“schifoso”) state of affairs is a big step forward for us as we move towards a different future, one defined by clean, clear, decisive victories achieved in spite of crooked referees.
The second way to reflect on the game is calmer, the kind possible only after the game; it is more focused on the sporting side of things. In the first half, La Roma played like utter shite. The team seemed confused and also intimidated by Catania’s toughness and fitness (a team with nine Argentineans!). Totti and Lamela were almost invisible; Bradley tactically too horizontal; De Rossi couldn’t deliver a vertical pass; and Piris shanked every cross. In the second half, La Roma started playing more seriously, but only through Florenzi and the 19-year-old Uruguayan Nico Lopez did it become truly dangerous. Shortcomings aside, we deserved to win handily. And we would have had it not been for the five officials: five pairs of eyes that managed to miss amazing offsides on Catania’s goals and an incredible handball in their box.
At halftime a child in our section asked his father why we were losing. The man replied with extraordinary wisdom: “because we were born to suffer” (“perchè semo nati pè soffrì”). That was a damn good answer, but the best line may still be the graffiti etched on a wall in our Eternal City: “VIVA LA PAZZA GIOIA D’ESSE ROMANISTIII” (“Long live the crazy joy of being Romanisti”).
Guest Post by Chris Bolsmann (c.h.bolsmann [at] aston [dot] ac [dot] uk)
COVENTRY–In a week when South African cricketers and golfers recorded convincing victories, a hat trick of results would have seen South Africa’s women’s national team celebrate their first appearance at the Olympic Games by beating Sweden. But facing a team ranked 4th in the world, Banyana Banyana (Zulu for “the ladies”) could not pull off the miracle win.
The South Africans met their Swedish counterparts in Coventry, 100 miles north of London, in the second match of a double header. Japan beat Canada 2-1 in the early game in front of 18,000 spectators, while the 2011 World Cup third-place finishers defeated South Africa 4-1.
Normally called the Ricoh Arena and home to Coventry City FC, the City of Coventry Stadium looked quite different from its normal appearance full of advertising hoardings. The Olympic organisers were not quite able to cover up all of Coventry City’s history though, as a photo of the 1987 FA Cup winning team adorned one of the stadium walls.
While Banyana Banyana have always worn the yellow and green colours of the South African Football Association, this time the squad entered the pitch in a horrible-looking green and white vertically striped kit, courtesy of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s official kit supplier: Erke, from China. The crowd had dwindled to a few thousand for the second match and the majority of photo press had left the stadium. A small contingent of South African fans remained who were vocal throughout but were outnumbered by Swedish fans and locals who supported their European neighbours.
Sweden kicked off and, ominously, twice hit the cross bar in the opening six minutes. The Scandinavians went ahead in the 7th minute thanks to a Nilla Fischer shot from outside the box that was cruelly deflected past United States-based Roxanne Barker in the South African goal. Then the Swedes again hit the cross bar and doubled their lead in the 20th minute when Lisa Dahlkvist poked home a ball from the flanks. A minute later Sweden scored a third goal when South African stalwart Janine van Wyk was beaten for pace on a through ball and Lotta Schelin slotted past the on rushing South African keeper. After 21 minutes Banyana’s debut had turned into a nightmare and a real humiliation was on the cards.
The South African midfield were constantly over run by the more forceful and creative Swedes and the defence were outpaced on numerous occasions, allowing for the Swedes to cross balls into the box at leisure. To her credit, Barker dealt well with crosses and high balls and remained calm under constant Swedish pressure.
The second half saw Banyana kick off with far more purpose and creative intent. In the 60th minute, Portia Modise, a former World Player of the Year nominee, dispossessed a Swedish midfielder well within the South African half and from inside the centre circle unleashed a wonderful strike to beat Hedvig Lindahl. Modise’s goal restored South African spirits and momentarily gave South African supporters some hope. But three minutes later Schelin got her second goal of the match and restored the three-goal margin.
The final quarter of the game saw South Africa struggle with fitness and the match ended with a resounding victory for the Swedes. Sweden had over 57% possession and outshot South Africa 21 to 7. Banyana Banyana were outclassed by a technically superior and fitter Swedish side. After the shock of allowing three goals within 25 minutes, Banyana settled and showed a few individual moments of skill but were unable to retain possession for any length of time. It won’t get any easier in this tournament for South Africa: they face Canada on Saturday and World Champions Japan the following week.
On Friday, Howard Riddle, Senior District Judge in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, found Chelsea captain John Terry not guilty of racially abusing Queen’s Park Rangers Anton Ferdinand. Here are eight things I learned by reading Judge Riddle’s decision:
1. “There is no doubt that John Terry uttered the words ‘fucking black cunt’ at Anton Ferdinand” (p.13).
2. TV footage unequivocally demonstrates that “Terry directed the words ‘black cunt’ in the direction of Anton Ferdinand” (p.3).
3. In a statement to the English FA Terry 5 days after the incident, remembered saying to Ferdinand “I think it was something along the lines of, ‘You black cunt, you’re a fucking knobhead’” (p.10).
4. Lip reading experts are amazing people who do important work, but this doesn’t mean much in the big picture.
5. Terry said what he said in the heat of the game and was angry, physically and mentally tired (pp.13-14). Seriously.
6. Give money to a charity in Africa: it’s a great alibi (as Elliot Ross explains here).
7. That nobody on the pitch claims to have heard Terry calling Ferdinand a “fucking black cunt” at the time and that “there are limitations to lip reading” [p. 14]) was used to obfuscate the undisputed factual evidence of the video footage.
8. The “not guilty” verdict reflects tortuously twisted logic. The decision seems to hinge on the possibility that Terry hurled the insult at Ferdinand only after the latter had “accused Mr Terry on the pitch of calling him a black cunt” (p. 14). “It is therefore possible,” Judge Riddle concludes, “that what he said was not intended as an insult, but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him” (p. 15). So let me see if I understand this legal reasoning correctly: it is not racially abusive speech to call a black person a “fucking black cunt” if it’s in response to an accusation of calling you a fucking black cunt. Huh?
As @NutmegRadio eloquently tweeted: “The John Terry verdict now stands as a how-to-guide for how to escape a racially aggravated public order offense in the UK.”