Mario Balotelli overcame many battles and reached a position from where he could have become a legend. Yet, he is struggling today to find his true place. Debopam Roy wonders if this is another case of talent gone wrong.
The origin of a superhero sets the parameters for his/her success. Inevitably, it involves challenges that makes the protagonist gain new strength to win over the world. From that perspective, Mario Balotelli’s story has no equal. Given up to be brought up by foster parents Silvia and Francesco when he was two, Mario has overcome personal loss, racial abuse, and some of the most scything defenders to rise to stardom. Three-time Serie A winner, Coppa Italia and Super cups, a Premier League medal, and even a Champions League winner medal while still being a teenager—not many can match that. In 2010, he was voted the Golden Boy in European football—an acknowledgement of his potential. Internationally, a meteoric rise saw him as the primary striker in Italy’s unexpected march into the finals of the 2012 European Championship. That, however, was the last of it. In the last three years, he has played for three clubs, shuttling between Italy and England, lost his mojo of scoring from penalties (after scoring the first 21 penalties of his professional life), and , has been irregular with the Italian national team. A third transfer may be on the cards, but at 25, Mario is suddenly at the crossroads where no top club is willing to bet on him.
Beginning of the end: second half of 2012
It was the summer of 2012, when, against all odds, Mario Balotelli took Italy to the finals of the European Championship. He was joint top scorer of the tournament. He scored probably the goal of the tournament in the semi-final against Germany, and gave another of his iconic poses.
He was subjected to racial abuse yet, managed to be selected for the Team of the Tournament. A very typical Mario tournament. However, he is now in the third season of his big money move to Manchester City. His club won the league on the last day (where he has provided the assist in the 94th minute). It was the team’s first title since 1967–68. Mario on theis also baiting tabloids by doing things like setting up fireworks at his house and fighting with his teammates, Jerome Boateng and Micah Richards. Club manager Roberto Mancini is infuriated with his behaviour.
A better and brighter season awaits him.
And then, Mario has a shocking half season. 20 appearances across competitions and all of three goals and an equal number of yellow cards. That is pittance when compared to his 17 goals in 32 appearances in the previous season. This is also coupled with run-ins with the media or the manager, leading to the club being taken to a tribunal and missing 11 games in the half season.
It seems that everyone is relieved when a move to Milan (he was a fan of Milan as a child) materializes.
Reboot #1: The Milan experiment—2013–14
Mario’s arrival at Milan was revolutionary. The club had sold off its most prized assets. One-time fan favourite and Barbara Berlusconi’s arm candy, Alexandre Pato, had been sold off to get the money for Mario’s arrival. It was thought that he, along with Stephan el Shaarawy (who had already scored 18 goals in the season) would be the forerunner of new Milan. Mario was the new Ibra for the Milanisti—top forward who had switched over from hated rivals Inter. On top of that, he was young, Italian, and a fan of the club.
Mario lived up to all of that in his first six months—banging in 12 goals in 13 appearances. Milan managed to scrape through into the Champions League places thanks to his goals. However, ironically the partnership with Shaarawy never materialized, with the Pharaoh adding only one more goal for the season.
The second season was, once again, supposed to be where Mario would become the messiah of Milan and take the team to new glory. However, disciplinary issues and injuries meant that he managed only 18 goals in 41 matches. That’s a respectable figure for a mid-table club, but woefully inadequate for a club fighting on three fronts (including Europe). It is also a far cry from the dizzying figure of his spell in his initial six months.
Eventually, the Milan hierarchy realized what Mario really was. A spoilt brat who could not be trusted to lead the club. Someone like Matt de Sciglio was a far better role model than Mario. Trusting the rejuvenation of a club like Milan with Mario was not sound. The top brass, who were so enamoured with the previous poster boy—Alex Pato (so much so that they had once stopped his sale after agreeing terms with PSG), had decidedly a swift fallout with his antics and disciplinary issues. Mario was unceremoniously dumped for barely a profit. The vision of a revival at a club Mario had supported as a boy was over. A return to Premier League was thought to be the best way forward.
Reboot #2: The Liverpool misadventure—2014–2015
Liverpool was theoretically the best club in the Premier League for Mario to get into. They had punched above their weight to return to the Champions League, having missed out winning narrowly. There was definite space for a striker in a club competing on multiple fronts. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho were the starters, but Mario was an excellent addition to augment the focal point. Liverpool had made a solid gain in Coutinho, who was a reject from Inter and became a world class player at Anfield. They thought Mario would be a similar player.
It was a disaster for both parties in 2014. After a promising start, Liverpool fell away to finish sixth. Mario had his worst season ever. He managed just a goal in four different competitions—which included one goal in 16 league matches. Unlike his starts in the previous two clubs, he didn’t have a honeymoon period. It was an overall catastrophe. In all, he scored four goals and saw seven yellow cards in 28 matches. Add to that his antics, which included an Instagram post that cost him £25,000 in fine and a match ban.
The season was riddled with such injuries and suspensions. By the end of it, Liverpool were sure that they wanted to get rid of Mario at any cost. The problem was finding a buyer.
National Team agony—since Euro 2012
Euro 2012 was supposed to make Mario the predominant striker of new age Italy. The Azzurri depended on him for world cup qualification. He didn’t disappoint. He scored five goals, was the top scorer for Italy, and led it to the World Cup. He also scored and assisted his way to take Italy to the semifinals in the Confederations Cup. However, his absence in the next two matches saw Italy finish third in the tournament. He even scored the winner in his first Word Cup match against England. And that was that for Mario and for Azzurri. Italy lost the next two matches, and was bumped out at the group stages for the second consecutive time. Mario never got to play for Italy again. Manager Antonio Conte has trusted next-generation strikers (Ciro Immobile and Manolo Gabbiadini), late bloomers (Graziano Pelle), and even old timers (Alessandro Matri). But Mario has been conspicuous by his absence. A poor season with Liverpool hasn’t helped, and Mario desperately needs a solid season to get back in shape for a year that will lead up to the Euro Cup in France.
So, where does Mario go from here? Two stints at the Premier League have shown how they foster his spirit of childish pranks. Two stints at Milanese clubs have shown how deeply they distrust him. Add on the factors of race and his usual disciplinary issues. Clubs in Italy, who once would have queued up to get his signature, have outright refused to take him on from Liverpool. Even so-called mid-tier clubs like Fiorentina and Lazio have expressed their inability to invest in him. The Viola fans went so far as to say that Mario is a man without honour. His stints across the Milan divide has actually seen the clubs unite in their hurry to dispose of him. Mario has scored goals, but has also been a poster boy for chaos. His relation with his club mates has hardly been one of great bonding. It’s only natural that fans of clubs would be wary of him.
At 25, Mario Balotelli is an unwanted man—cast aside from national team and getting pushed around clubs with no fixed destination. In a way, he embodies another enfant terrible of Italian football—Antonio Cassano. But Cassano has had two great clubs where he has flourished—Sampdoria and Parma. Mario needs that. He needs a club where he can be the main man. As he enters his peak footballing years, it would be foolhardy not to try him out as a bargain buy. But will Mario go to a club that has no realistic chance of finishing at the top? I believe that it would actually be a good career move. It’s probably time for him to have one more move and then see if he can perform consistently.
Mario is a showman—a modern day rockstar. But he would do far better to also be remembered for his footballing achievements along with the non-footballing ones. With that in mind, one hopes that Mario decides to move to an Italian club, plays a full season, and ensures we get back the Super Mario that we all have seen. The talent is all there. All it needs is encouragement and nourishment. The razzmatazz of fast lane would never leave Mario. But the performances he can produce, the sheer brilliance of his skills can match his onetime mentor Zlatan.
…. And the Last Last Words
We all know by now that Mario has gone back to where it all started… to go wrong. Milan holds its breath for the return of his mercurial son. Only good thing about the move is that there is no expectation at all. It won’t make the headlines if Balotelli fails to deliver there. It will still make one every time he loses his mind but that is also somewhat expected, if not acceptable, by now. Will Super Mario finally become the superstar he always wanted to be? Or will he create some new lows for himself, the club and the country? Only time will tell. Till then, Go Mario!!!
Serie A returns with new drama and Debopam Roy brings you up-to-date on each of the 20 teams
There are times when the big movie franchises feel that they are not progressing with existing storylines and decide to reboot the franchise. Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is probably the most relevant one in mind. Many a time, such a reboot is required for the franchise to remain relevant and introduce fresh ideas into the system. If one were to look at the boot of Europe, then the overwhelming theme seems to be ‘Reboot’. Starting from champions Juventus, to the newly promoted teams – Pescara, Torino and Sampdoria, each of them are undergoing changes significant enough to alter their immediate and long-term future. It is a sign of times. The league has lost its position of European pre-eminence, given how 2012-13 marks the first ever season that Serie A will send only three teams to the Champions League, with the third of them, only eligible for the qualification rounds. There are signs that a revolution has been set in. For a league which has been rocked and shocked by too many scandals, high-profile transfers out and random stunts by presidents and managers, it is but inevitable. Whether the season of change will ultimately lead to a new launching pad is of course a story we will keep evaluating throughout the year at Goalden Times.
(in alphabetical order)
2011-12 performance: Performed very creditably to finish on 46 points and 12th in the table. But for a six-point penalty imposed before the season, they could have even vied for European spots.
Transfer Market: Acquiring German Denis, who scored 16 goals last season on loan, was a no brainer. But it is the transfer of the talented Luca Cigarini, who is yet to live up to his evident potential that makes it a promising transfer window . Cigarini is one of those failed starlets of Italian football and a stint outside Serie A hasn’t helped either. Maybe Atalanta will provide that platform and with Denis upfront, will work in tandem to light up the Nerazzurri.
Average Age: 27.6 years
Manager: Stefano Colantuono is in his third season with Atalanta, having secured their promotion from Serie B and then a splendid finish last year. The 49-year-old, who favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, has a 43.75% win record and has managed his team to score over 100 league goals in the last two seasons.
Star: German Denis. With 16 goals last term, he was in the race for the capocannoniere. With Cigarini to pull the strings and provide assists, Denis can potentially reach or improve on that figure.
Watch Out For: Andrea Consigli has been a youth product of Atalanta and at 25, had earned his maiden Azzurri call-up against England in a friendly. With search for “Who Next” after Gianluigi Buffon, Consigli, who had twelve clean sheets in 35 matches last season, is a creditable contender.
Expectation: Like last year, Atalanta would again start off with points penalty. But only two this time round. They would expect a safe middle of the table position. But it all will depend if Denis can reprise his form of last year. With several mid-table teams weakening, it may not be such a bold statement to say that Atalanta will improve on their 12th position.
Prediction: Safe middle of the table
2011-12 performance: Performed incredibly to finish in the top 10 teams. But for a stalling in form once they had reached the magical 40-point mark, historically a sign of top level safety, Bologna could well have finished with a European place. The architect of that performance was club captain and legend, Marco di Vaio with 10 goals and seven assists. They conceded only 43 goals which is the least conceded outside the top three.
Transfer Market: Di Vaio didn’t renew his contract and left for the MLS. His departure at 36 years of age was expected. What was unexpected was Bologna selling off Jean-François Gillet, the very dependable Belgian goalkeeper, to newly promoted Torino. The 33-year old custodian made his second move in as many years after being with Bari for over 11 years. And quotes like “I have no reason to find a new club, I’m very happy at Bologna and I do not see really why I should leave this city“, days before his transfer meant that Bologna really didn’t try hard enough to retain his services. Securing services of Gianluca Curci from Roma and Robert Acquafresca from Genoa will help somewhat in replacing Gillet and di Vaio, but the gulf in quality will tell.
Average Age: 25.6 years
Manager: Stefano Pioli was at the helm last year when Bologna went on that stupendous run. He remains in charge for another year. His preferred formation is 3-1-4-2. His Bologna side had a solid look with 39 goals scored and 33 conceded over the season.
Star: Alessandro Diamanti is the creative lynchpin of Bologna. Left-footed and mercurial, he has recently been regularly called up for the national team. He was influential last season with seven goals and assists apiece.
Watch Out For: Federico Rodriquez. He joined Bologna from Penarol via Genoa and a member of Uruguay’s team in the 2011 U20 World Cup, Rodriquez has the quality to shine through.
Expectation: Matching the previous season would be a humongous task. A more realistic option would be to secure mid-table safety.
Prediction: Safe middle of the table
2011-12 performance: They started the season well and were in the top 10 till the 23rd round but losses in the last rounds ended up being 15th with just goal difference to put them over Palermo.
Transfer Market: Cagliari’s biggest transfer move was the players that they managed to retain – Davide Astori, Radja Nainggolan and Andrea Cossu. Capture of Chilean forward Mauricio Pinilla from Palermo is the only high profile capture.
Average Age: 25.8 years
Manager: Massimo Ficcadenti was appointed as the Cagliari manager last season and then sacked within three months of the season only to be reappointed in March 2012. It is to be seen if the manager who prefers 4-3-1-2, can stay all season.
Star: Davide Astori. Growing up in the Milan youth system, he would have studied some of the best defenders of all time. At 25, and with Azzurri colours a reality, he was expected to move on but he himself rejected a €15m move to Russian side Zenit. Whether he can continue his impressive displays to convince Cesare Prandelli to make him a permanent fixture in the national team is to be seen.
Watch Out For: Vincenzo Camilleri is a 20-year old highly-rated defender. Having played in Serie B for a season, Camilleri has shown promise that he might be the next big Azzurri hope. Strong in the air and firm on the tackle, he still lacks a bit of composure, and exposure at Serie A will help him fulfil his promise.
Expectation: With a largely unchanged squad, the expectation is that Ficcadenti would be able to mould them in a way that they can go for mid-table safety. Last season’s experience shows that they tend to fall off the perch quite easily and if things start going pear-shaped then there is noone who could stop the rot.
Prediction: Barely escape relegation
2011-12 performance: Catania were one of the stories of the season especially under the managerial command of Vincenzo Montella. They finished 11th overall but were within European spots till the 30th round.
Transfer Market: They sold off Maxi Lopez, who was already on loan at Milan for the last six months of the season. They managed to retain the rest of the team, including deep-lying midfielder Francesco Lodi, who Milan had wanted as a possible return to (Andrea) Pirlo-like formation.
Average Age: 26.2 years
Manager: Catania wanted to retain the services of the hugely impressive Montella but saw him joining Sampdoria. So they punted for Rolando Maran – a 49-year old journeyman manager who has never managed in Serie A and whose only claim to fame has been taking Varese to the Serie B play-off last season. With his first time in Serie A, he would remain a prime candidate to be the first managerial casualty of the season.
Star: Francesco Lodi was one of the big success stories of the season, so much so that there was a real push for him to be included in the Euro squad of Prandelli as a vice-Pirlo. He scored nine goals and created seven in the league. Left-footed and brilliant in free kicks, he is a rare commodity in the Italian football. When Milan came calling in summer, he rejected showing rare loyalty – “Catania had given me a chance from obscurity and I am grateful to them. I would not leave them for any club.”
Watch Out For: Growing up in the famed Cantera of Atletico Madrid and debuting for them at 17 years 8 months, Sergio Gontán Gallardo or Keko, was thought to be a prodigy. But the potential has not been fulfilled and he has joined Catania as a free transfer. In a league not known to blood youngsters, Keko would have to work hard to gain favour.
Expectation: Gain mid-table safety and push for a top ten finish. But if things go pear shaped, don’t expect the club to be patient. Maran would be the odds-on manager to be sacked.
Prediction: Middle of the table safety
2011-12 performance: The Flying Donkeys have defied many conventions over the season. In 2011-12, they provided a solid defence and enough attacking acumen to finish 10th. It was a remarkable position for a club with meagre budget. Credit for that would go to a mean defence that conceded only 45 goals – the seventh best in the league.
Transfer Market: They lost two of their best performers in Francesco Acerbi to Milan and Michael Bradley to Roma. Both made richly deserved jumps, but their replacements are not quite their level. Dario Dainelli is a 33-year-old who was a backup defender at Fiorentina while Paul Papp is an untried 22-year-old from Romanian side FC Vaslui. Getting Marco Rigoni from relegated Novara was a smart piece of business. Rigoni scored 11 goals with eight assists for the relegated team last season.
Average Age: 28.8 years
Manager: Dominico di Carlo continues from his previous year and hopes to repeat the performance of last year. In charge of Chievo for the second time (he earlier had coached them for two seasons from August 2010), di Carlo favours a tight defence with swift counters. His favourite formation is 4-3-1-2.
Star: It’s very hard to identify a star when a team collectively punches way above its weight but keeper Stefano Sorrentino is probably the closest you will get to one. Playing for Chievo, his last three seasons, has had 10, 12 and 13 clean sheets in the league. As that number is increasing over the seasons, one can expect another solid shot-stopping season under the bar. At 33, he may have passed the age for playing for Italy, but he remains one of the most consistent performers in the league.
Watch Out For: Alberto Paloschi. A dream debut for Milan and subsequent growth at Parma meant a lot was expected of him when he joined Chievo on loan. However, injuries have curtailed his performances. At 22, he should still count age on his side and with parent club Milan undergoing a revolution, a bright season at Chievo should see him called back pronto to lead the Rossoneri.
Expectation: As always, you expect Chievo to punch above their weight and avoid relegation. Their team ethic is superb and that is what has allowed them to do it year after year.
Prediction: Escape relegation and mid-table
2011-12 performance: Fiorentina had a wretched season marred by the sacking of two managers – Sinisa Mihajlovic, midway through and his replacement Delio Rossi later in the season. The lead striker, Alberto Gilardino was sold off and the team finished a lowly 13th. This from a team that was playing Champions League regularly and beating the likes of Liverpool home and away to qualify for the knockout rounds – last season was a huge letdown. Though they did manage to keep their influence in the deciding title by beating Milan 2-1 at home – their first loss of the season at home, which ultimately put Juventus ahead of Milan for the last decisive phase of the league.
Transfer Market: Director of Sport Daniele Prade and the owners Della Valle family have ensured that Fiorentina buy reinforcements throughout the squad. Prominent buys include Juan Cuadrado from Udinese, Mounir El Hamdaoui from Ajax, Gonzalo Rodriguez from Villareal and a trio of playmakers – Alberto Aquilani from Liverpool, Borja Valero from Villareal and Matias Fernandez from Sporting. It is a makeover that was long needed. Add in the fact that they have retained some of the best young talents like Stevan Jovetic, Adem Ljajic and Michele Camporese and you see that this team is ready to challenge for European spots again.
Average Age: 25.3 years
Manager: Vincenzo Montella was one of the managers last season – winning hearts with his attacking displays with Catania and taking them to a strong finish. Prade managed to lure him from Catania and give him a project. If Montella manages to do justice to this project, he would surely install himself as one of the favourites for the national team job once Prandelli’s tenure is up.
Star: Stevan Jovetic, at 22 has already been a subject of €50m bid from Manchester City. Bought for €8m in 2008, he has suffered cruciate ligament rupture in 2010 which set him back a long way. In 2011-12, in 27 matches he scored 14 times with six assists. At 22 years, his stock can only rise and this may be a season where he takes Fiorentina back to European spots.
Watch Out For: Matija Nastasic was the other Fiorentina player whom Man City wanted as part of that €50m bid. At 19, he is already a full Serbian national and a centre-back with immense promise. He played 24 matches last season and scored twice. For an 18-year old defender to break into a Serie A team and have his own spot is no mean feat.
Expectation: With influential signings all around the park, and the managerial acumen of Montella, Fiorentina would hope for a European spot finish. Some of the outstation talents like Valero and Fernandez may take time to settle in Serie A but if the strong youth can rally along with old pros like Juan Manuel Vargas, Fiorentina can even go into the top three and a Champions League spot.
Prediction: Finish in Europa League spots
2011-12 performance: Genoa had a horrible 2011-12. From the 31st round onwards, they were 17th in the league and stayed in that position (by a gap of six points) till the end. For a club with high investment in terms of players, it was a catastrophic season. And even that last spot of the league survival wouldn’t have been possible if not for the 19 goals from Rodrigo Palacio. That they conceded a league high of 69 goals was much responsible for the plight.
Transfer Market: Genoa is a study on its own. The number of players that pass through the oldest football club in Italy is quite amazing. It’s as if every transfer season they change their entire team. With a disastrous season, Genoa, quite justifiably could plan for a reboot. So out went Palacio, the top-scorer, Miguel Veloso was shipped to Kiev and keeper Eduardo dumped in the Turkish league. A lot of Genoa-owned players were sold off too – Mattia Destro being the most prominent name. Destro, co-owned by Siena and Genoa was sold to Roma for €11.5m. None of the incoming players are prominent names – promising midfielders Alex Merkel and Andrea Bertolacci were brought from Milan and Roma in exchange of Stephan el Shaarawy and Destro, respectively. Julian Velazquez is the big defensive signing from Independiente, Argentina.
Average Age: 25.5 years
Manager: The story of Genoa’s managerial merry-go-round can best be described thus: Davide Ballardini (pre-season) -> Alberto Malesani (December 2011) -> Pasquale Marino (April 2) -> Alberto Malesani (April 22). Luigi De Canio was given the reins on April 22 and so far, he still has a hold on that position. But with as fickle a President as Enrico Preziosi, De Canio would do very well to cover a year in that position. De Canio is an experienced manager who has even managed QPR for a year. Playing an aggressive 4-3-3, De Canio has managed Udinese, Reggina, Siena and Lecce in Serie A.
Star: Alberto Gilardino has been the ‘nearly’ man of Italian football. His rise at Parma and then move to Milan and a Champions League win with Milan along with the World Cup win with the Azzurri couldn’t mask the fact that he is not cut out for the constant pressure from the fans in a big team. A move to Fiorentina and he seemed to thrive again, till the Viola fell on hard times themselves and then sold him to Genoa. The misfortunes though went with him. Now a senior, he has to find it in himself if he can lead a new look Genoa to redemption.
Watch Out For: Ciro Immobile is the next big hope of Juventus fans. On loan at Genoa, he might find his first season at Serie A a daunting one. The 22-year old €1.85m striker though has been banging goals in Serie B for fun. Last season at Pescara, he scored 28 goals and created 7 in only thirty-seven matches. If he can score half that amount, he would be playing in front of his beloved Juventini fans the next season.
Expectation: Every year, Genoa promise much while delivering little. The 17th spot was the nadir of the lot. Anything worse would mean relegation. With the quality at his disposal, Genoa should be comfortably finishing in the top three. But a slip like last season is quite possible again.
Prediction: Middle of the table safety
2011-12 performance: Inter self-destructed in spectacular manner all season. First they hired a manager (Gian Piero Gasperini) who only plays with three at the back. Then when he asked for specific players, they were not given to him and he was the first manager sacked in the season after only five games. In came the Roman – Claudio Ranieri and in his own way he had taken Inter to the top four but then from January end to March in 10 matches, they won one, managed to score in three and lost six matches. That they finished in European spots was made possible by a topsy-turvy win in the derby which ensured Juventus would be the champions. Missing out on the Champions League was a huge setback.
Transfer Market: For much of the season, Inter’s mercato was dominated by how they were unsuccessful in offloading some of the high-earning old players – like Julio Ceser, Maicon, Dejan Stankovic, etc. But the reinforcements have been shrewd and throughout the ranks. Samir Handanovic has been the best shot-stopper in Serie A for quite some time. Rodrigo Palacio scored 19 goals last season for Genoa. Matias Silvestre is an improvement on the 35-year old Lucio who was offloaded to Juventus for free. Fredy Guarin of Porto and Gaby Mudingayi of Bologna provide some midfield steel. The last minute exchange of Cassano for Pazzini also favours the Serpenti. With a little bit of luck they would really push Juventus for the Serie A title.
Average Age: 26.8 years
Manager: Ranieri had gone when that severe drought streak had hit and in came Andrea Stramaccioni, the U19 manager. President Massimo Moratti has kept faith in the 36-year old manager whose biggest claim to fame is winning the 2011–12 NextGen series with Inter Primavera team. But the young manager did win five of the nine matches he was in charge of Inter after Ranieri’s sacking and that included the most important derby win. Stramaccioni favours a 4-3-3 offensive formation and it is to be seen if he can be the first manager to succeed in dismantling the strong Mourinho hangover that Inter still suffer from.
Star: Despite differences in opinion which once had almost led to him being sold to Manchester United, Wesley Sneijder remains the heart and soul of Inter. If he is on song, then Inter will soar. Plagued by injuries throughout last season, he only managed 4 goals and five assists. No wonder that Inter had such a misfiring season. With reinforcements of calibre around him, Sneijder could reclaim the title of being the best trequartista in the peninsula.
Watch Out For: Coutinho was bought as a 17-year-old and left at his club Vasco da Gama to mature. When he finally arrived at Inter, he couldn’t really enthral the audience who expected him to be Inter’s answer to Milan’s Pato. After a season long loan at Espanyol, who at least guaranteed him a starting spot, Coutinho is back at Inter for a second stint. And at 20, this might be his last chance yet to impress or else be shipped out again.
Expectation: After a season spent outside Champions League football, Inter are focussed on an assault at the scudetto. The team has been rebuilt with care and the personnel are probably just right to achieve that goal.
Prediction: Finish within top three
2011-12 performance: Juventus last lost a Serie A match back on May 15, 2011 to Parma. They again face Parma in the league opener of 2012-13. In between, they have not lost a single game. The feat of winning a scudetto without losing has only been achieved once – by Milan in 91-92 but then the league wasn’t 20-team strong. Hence the Bianconeri can be rightfully proud of their achievement. That they managed it with their top-scorer not even hitting 10 goals is a testament of the spirit with which the whole team combined. Heroes came up when they were required. The defence had superheroes though – conceding only 20 goals, an all-time low in a 20 team Serie A competition.
Transfer Market: Juventus have bought their players early and have bought well. Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla of Udinese are two priceless signings for the midfield while bringing back Sebastian Giovinco can be seen as a return of the prodigal son. Martin Caceres was bought after his loan spell of last season and Paul Pogba and Lucio came on free transfers to show that the club was aware of players on either end of the age spectrum, who were having problems in their existing clubs. They have also managed to offload the unwanted extra players like Elijero Elia, Milos Krasic and Felipe Melo. Returning to Champions League after a hiatus of two seasons, Juventus have bought well and sold off to free wages and look primed for another scudetto.
Average Age: 27.1 years
Manager: Antonio Conte won the scudetto in his first time at Juventus but he has been involved in the calcioscommesse scandal for some of his games in charge of Siena. He has been handed a 10-month touchline ban, which would not debar him from coaching the squad in general. Juventus have stood behind Conte in his appeal to the court and have promoted Conte’s assistant, Massimo Carrera as the caretaker manager. Pending the court’s appeal process, Conte would only remain a figure in the background but Carrera, who has won the Italian Super Cup and the Trofeo Berlusconi (the winners of which have never gone on to win the scudetto) can legitimately claim that Juventus won’t miss Conte much.
Star: Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo remain the lynchpins of this Juventus. While Buffon led the moststingy defence of the season, Pirlo revived his career to notch up a league-high 13 assists. Both had a wonderful Euro 2012 where Italy reached the finals. But with Juventus returning to Champions League, they would require to be at the top of their game for the season, if Juventus are to fight on equal footing in three different trophies.
Watch Out For: Paul Pogba. He is a highly-rated youngster who Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t really want to release. But promise of more first-team, brought him to Juventus and in his first outing in the Trofeo Berlusconi, he looked quite assured and comfortable. His technique is well suited for Serie A but it is going to be a test of his temperament, if he can withstand the sharp examination of the Italian league.
Expectation: A repeat scudetto and at least a quarter-final in the Champions League. But they could be found out in the Champions League especially as they will not be seeded there and hence will face a tough group.
Prediction: Would finish in the top three
2011-12 performance: Lazio was one of the over-performing sides of the league last year. Their incredible run had ensured that they were in top three for most of the season but in the end finished fourth, pipped to the final Champions League spot by Udinese. It was a revival for the Biancocelesti after a long time. Their revival was marked as much by the performances of free signing Miroslav Klose and Brazilian Hernanes, as it was by the wily tactician Edy Reja. But sections of the fans were unhappy with some of the displays and Reja threatened to quit in March, only to stay along till the end of the season before leaving.
Transfer Market: Till date, Lazio has not spent a penny in the transfer market officially. Players have come on or returned from loan, or have been captured for free. Similarly they haven’t sold anyone. It’s a neat equation altogether. President Claudio Lotito believes in the squad and has added only zero cost players. Prominent among those returning include Mauro Zarate (on loan at Inter from Lazio), Ederson Campos(on a free transfer from Lyon), Antonio Candreva (on loan from Udinese) and Argentine goalkeeper, Juan Carizzo (onloan from Lazio at Catania).
Average Age: 28.7 years
Manager: Vladimir Petkovic is one of only two foreigners managing in Serie A this season (incidentally the other foreign-born manager is his Roma rival Zdenak Zeman). Petkovic is a Croatian who took Swiss nationality and managed exclusively in the Swiss league with a solitary abortive stint in Turkey. At 49, he is a big gamble by Lotito and Petkovic is another manager who could well be the first to be sacked in the season, given the expectations.
Star: Hernanes is in the third season at Lazio and has been the biggest influence in the recent upsurge of Lazio fortunes. With eight goals he was the second highest goal scorer behind Miroslav Klose who hit thirteen. He is the biggest draw in a side which looks underwhelming but has been producing results in the last couple of years domestically.
Watch Out For: Since his transfer to Lyon in 2008 as a 22-year-old, Ederson has flattered to deceive. Four years and many injuries later, he has finally sought a new destination. At Lazio, he will not be under much scrutiny that was present at Lyon because Lazio captured him for free. That, coupled with the presence of Hernanes, might give him the confidence to shine in Europe.
Expectation: Lazio are expected to break into the Champions League spots that they missed so narrowly (and also because Italy lost the fourth spot in Champions League). However, with no significant reinforcement and a new manager, it may actually turn out very differently.
Prediction: Finish just outside European spots
2011-12 performance: It was a season of so near yet so far. The injuries piled up one after another and at one time there were 13 players (all of whom would have featured if fit) who were out and despite the team rallying long and hard on three different fronts (rivals Juventus only were fighting domestically), they ended up short on each of those fronts. Still a runner-up by four points after the closest scudetto run in years, a semi-final loss in extra time in Coppa Italia and a quarter-final exit to Barcelona did not mean the end of the world. That happened at the end of the season. With a generation of players leaving simultaneously, it was suddenly a Milan that fans couldn’t recognize anymore. But worse was to follow in the summer.
Transfer Market: The transfer market of Milan has been so skewed that they are the team with the biggest transfer surplus in Europe this season – close to €60m. The sale of top-scorer of the league, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (28 goals), and probably the best defender in the world, Thiago Silva meant that suddenly the team had lost its backbone as well as its true superstars upfront. Both the sales were due to economic consideration. In the last season before FFP came in, Milan wanted to balance the books. The tax laws in Italy had meant Zlatan’s €12m annual wages to be a herculean amount. PSG, while negotiating Ibra, put in a value of Thiago Silva which was a world record for a defender and Milan simply couldn’t say no in its economic condition. Worse was to follow when Antonio Cassano was sold to Inter in exchange with Gianpaolo Pazzini and Milan also agreed to pay Inter €7.5m over three years. It was a transfer that defied logic for the reason that Milan was paying the money to get a bench player while handing over a starter who had easily topped the assists charts of the Rossoneri last season despite being away for over six months due to an ischemic heart condition. The defence has been bolstered by Francesco Acerbi, whose total Serie A experience is of six months and Cristian Zapata, who has spent a miserable year at Villareal, who were relegated. There is a clear need for a left-back, an anchor in the midfield and a creative midfielder. It is to be seen if the Milan Director of Sport Adriano Galliani can unearth a few gems in the last few days of the transfer season.
Average Age: 27 years
Manager: With Conte getting banned for 10 months, Massimiliano Allegri starts the second consecutive season as the only manager to have won the scudetto among his peers in Serie A. It is his third year at the helm of the club and is probably his hardest. At Cagliari, where he made his name before switching to the San Siro, the manager thrived with a team that punched above its weight. He may have to go back to those lessons, given how lightweight the team has become after the mercato. If he manages to drag Milan into a title fight and finish within at least the top three, then it will be a huge achievement for his managerial career.
Star: Alex Pato is 22 and is only the second player ever to have scored over fifty goals in under 100 Serie A matches. Yet he has been bugged by injuries throughout the season and barely featured in Allegri’s plans. His tactical immaturity and passing incompetence has led to many fans asking him to be sold. Indeed in January 2012, PSG came up with a €36m bid for Pato and despite the club agreeing to the deal, Pato himself put the brakes on it and chose to stay back. It was a rare show of loyalty and now with the sale of Ibra, with whom it was felt Pato was being stunted, the only way is up. The club and Pato both need each other in this most difficult of seasons.
Watch Out For: Mattia de Sciglio is 19, has come up through the ranks of Milan youth and is probably the best defensive full-back Milan has produced from its youth sector since the times of Francesco Coco and Cristian Panucci. He is the designated understudy at right-back to Ignazio Abate (now an Azzurri regular) but can also fit in at left-back despite being a right-footed player. It reminds most Milanisti of another legendary and much more illustrious left-back, probably the best left-back of all time, who was also a right-footed player and came through the youth ranks of Milanello – Paolo Maldini. If de Sciglio has even half that impact, in his Milan career, then he would become the face of Milan for the rest of the decade.
Expectation: The expectations are pretty low among the fans and many have asked for a refund of the season tickets. For a club as illustrious and well decorated as Milan, those that have asked for such refunds may as well look elsewhere to get their calcio fill. The big names have left and so have the creative ones. But the ones who are staying are a hardworking bunch. Allegri knows how to make a team punch above its weight.
Prediction: Finish outside top three
2011-12 performance: Napoli underwent a reality check this season. Qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history, they had a run which they can be justly proud of. But for some spirited Chelsea at home, they would have easily qualified for a richly deserved quarter-final against Benfica. Who knows what they could have achieved there. But the strain of that success had its effect on the Serie A performance. The team which ran Milan close in 2010-11, never came within the top two teams after the third round. Their eventual fifth position denied them Champions League football but the quality of the side came through when they beat Juventus (their only defeat of the season) in the Coppa Italia final.
Transfer Market: The sale of Ezequiel Lavezzi was a big blow. But PSG offered €26m for him and that was that. The good thing was that Napoli managed to reinvest that money into the transfer kitty by buying Eduardo Vargas from Chile (already on loan last season), Goran Pandev (already on loan from Inter), Valon Behrami and Alessandro Gamberini from Fiorentina.
Average Age: 29 years
Manager: Walter Mazzarri is the oldest serving manager in Serie A, having been in charge of Napoli since 2009-10. The manager who employs the 3-1-4-2 formation has slowly but steadily made the Partenopei a force to reckon with again since the heady days of Diego. With the loss of Lavezzi, one of the three tenors, Mazzarri has to either reinvent the tactical structure or find a player who can fill in for him. Some would say that Napoli under him has probably had their moments and there can’t be any higher peaks to climb. However, a scudetto push is not beyond this bunch and Mazzarri will have to reignite those desires among new players.
Star: There has never been a striker at Napoli since Careca (if you don’t call Diego a striker, that is), who could strike fear into the hearts of defenders, like Edinson Cavani does. Strong, lithe, tactically superb, hardworking, good with head and long rangers, Cavani is probably the strongest striker in the league. In two seasons at Napoli, he has hit 67 goals and eighteen assists in his 96 games. That included 5 goals and two assists in 8 Champions League games. At only 25, his best days are ahead and Napoli’s ambitions of a scudetto are oriented around his form.
Watch Out For: Lorenzo Insigne is probably the best young thing to come up through Napoli youth ranks. Last season at Pescara in Serie B (on loan), he scored 18 goals and fourteen assists in 37 matches. It is not since Gianfranco Zola, that Napoli have a homegrown boy who can lead the line. Insigne is short, speedy and plays on the left wing – provoking further memories and comparisons. But he is not Gianfranco Zola – at least not yet. And at 21, with the sale of Lavezzi, it is a big chance for him to seize this moment and establish himself in the eyes of the fans.
Expectation: A strong scudetto finish and a finish within the top three. The quality is evident right through the side but last season showed that Cavani’s brilliance alone is not enough to pull Napoli into Champions League. With Lavezzi leaving, there will be even more a need for quality. And even though there isn’t the strain of a Champions League, Napoli would like to defend their Coppa Italia and also have a decent run in the Europa League.
Prediction: Just finish outside top three
2011-12 performance: Palermo is a team where the President is renowned for hiring and firing managers and for the team to defy convention and perform despite selling out of stars. Last season Palermo sacked three managers and two of them were even before the season had started. Bertolo Mutti, who finished the season, was sacked soon after. The team too struggled and barely avoided relegation, finishing 16th even though they were 10th in the league as late as the 32nd round. That run was possible because of Fabrizio Miccoli having a season to remember – 16 goals and twelve assists. But he fought a lonely battle – being responsible for 28 of the 52 goals that Palermo scored. They also conceded 62 goals – the second highest in the league and with such a porous defence, it was lucky that they managed to stay alive.
Transfer Market: Like last two seasons, they have sold off a long time first-team regular this season. After Cavani and Nocerino, it is Federico Balzaretti to Roma. They have also sold Matias Silvestre to Inter and Mauricio Pinilla to Cagliari. The reinforcements are all unknowns – 18-year old Uruguayan forward Sebastian Sosa, 18-year old Argentine forward Paulo Dybala and 30-year old Uruguayan Egidio Arevalo playing in the Mexican league. Goalkeeper Samir Ujkani is a good capture from relegated Novara.
Average Age: 25.9 years
Manager: Managing Palermo means keeping your biodata on the ready because you never know when you will be sacked and you need to find a new job. 55-year old Giuseppe Sannino is in his first stint at Palermo and having led a Siena side, which many thought would get relegated to a mid-table safety last season, is thought to be ideal for this Palermo side. The decline in the quality is very apparent and it will take all of Sannino’s managerial guile (provided he stays on the right side of President Maurizio Zamparini) to keep Palermo above relegation.
Star: At 33, his best days are thought to be behind him. But pint-sized Fabrizio Miccoli had a stellar season responsible for 28 goals of the 52 that Palermo scored last season. Such a performance may not be repeatable again but it is on his shoulder that Palermo’s hopes of remaining in Serie A depend.
Watch Out For: Josip Ilicic sparkled in his debut season in Serie A two seasons back scoring eight and creating eight more. Last season was the inevitable second season blip – only two goals and six assists. Now having spent two seasons, he has grown as an attacking midfielder and a lot will depend on his creative prowess on how potent the Palermo attack is.
Expectation: Finish middle of the table with comfort. Though Zamparini’s mood and Miccoli’s fitness will play major roles. The team is light on quality and a defence that leaks goals (with no major reinforcements) should be cannon fodder for the more proficient attacks.
2011-12 performance: Parma provided an astonishing late surge in the table last season. From being 17th and just above the relegation zone after the 29th round, they improved to eighth (Roma finished seventh on goal difference) and just two points behind sixth placed Inter. Such a meteoric rise was as much due to Roberto Donadoni’s managerial acumen as it was due to the performance of Sebastian Giovinco; 15 goals and eleven assists – responsible for 26 goals out of the 54 Parma scored. Parma also had a solid defence and finished with a positive goal difference, something that no other team below them managed.
Transfer Market: Parma thrives on developing low cost players on loan and co-ownership and then selling big once those players have risen in value. Giovinco is the latest such name, with Parma cashing in on 50% of the players for €11m. Low cost acquisitions include Marco Parolo and Sotiris Ninis on a free transfer and the costliest acquisition is €4m spent on Colombian forward Dorlan Pabon. With very few days of the transfer season remaining, Parma will probably loan in more promising players and get their team to a position of strength.
Average Age: 26.6 years
Manager: Roberto Donadoni is a Milan and Azzurri legend and a former Azzurri manager. But his worth as a manager has always been questioned with the idea that he became the Azzurri top spot more by default (with other contenders like Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello unavailable when Marcello Lippi resigned). He had been sacked at Napoli and Cagliari after his Italy adventure and the Parma stint was as much a challenge on his managerial acumen as anything. He struggled throughout the season but then that fantastic sprint for European spots at the fag end showed his capability. The new season should see him in the same role of trying to lift a bunch of talented youngsters to a respectable league position.
Star: Antonio Mirante has long been on the cusp of national selection without ever breaking into the fold. But he is a solid if unspectacular keeper and managed to keep seven clean sheets in the previous league season.
Watch Out For: Sotiris Ninis has long been called a wonder kid and his FIFA profile claims he “possesses a dizzying range of skills to go with sublime vision, an electrifying change of pace and fearsome long-range shooting skills“. So far though, that has not earned him a move out of his first senior club, Panathinaikos. Now at Parma, he has the perfect opportunity to hone the tactical and mental side of his game to go along with the skills that he possesses.
Expectation: Fight bravely and finish middle of the table. They have lost their brightest jewel in Giovinco but make no mistake, Parma will make a lot of bigger teams pay through their nose.
Prediction: Fight bravely and avoid relegation
2011-12 performance: Pescara gained promotion as the champions of Serie B. It was only the sixth time that they would play in Serie A. Of the five previous seasons, only once have they been able to avoid immediate relegation back to Serie B. Pescara though absolutely rampaged Serie B last season scoring 90 goals in forty-two matches. They also conceded 55 goals (only two other teams in the top 10 of Serie B conceded more) showing that they believed in attacking and letting the rest to chance. This is the typical essence of the man who managed them – Zdenak Zeman, whose legendary attacking intent has often led to spectacular wins and defeats. This time though he had Ciro Immobile scoring 28 goals, Lorenzo Insigne scoring 18 and Marco Sansovini scoring 16. From the midfield, Marco Verratti orchestrated games providing nine assists.
Transfer Market: Pescara lost their top three goalscorers, top assist man as well as their iconic manager in the summer. The most high-profile signing has been Vladimir Weiss from Man City for €1.8m. All the other signings are not at all known even in the leagues from which they have come.
Average Age: 24.2 years
Manager: Giovanni Stroppa was once in charge of the Milan Primavera team – till 2010-11 season. Last season he managed Sudtirol in the lower divisions of Italy. After losing Zeman, Pescara have turned to him as manager. The 44-year old Stroppa’s net experience of managing a senior team is exactly one year and it would be a tall task for him to make sure Pescara avoid the immediate drop-back to Serie B.
Star: Jonathas is a 23-year old Brazilian forward. Tall at 1.90m, he scored 16 times with seven assists for Brescia in Serie B last season. He is expected to be the lynchpin of the attack in the coming season. With Weiss in the team, Jonathas can expect good service from the wings and if he manages even half those numbers, he would have gone a long way in saving Pescara.
Watch Out For: Mattia Perin is 19, and is owned by Genoa. But was loaned out to Padova in Serie B last year and performed commendably. It is expected that he would be the goalkeeper for Pescara this season, in which case he would be the youngest custodian of any teams starting this season.
Expectation: Fight bravely against relegation. But with en masse departures of the figures who led Pescara to their promotion departing in the summer, it seems a lost cause already. With an unproven manager at helm, it would be nigh impossible to avoid the last position.
2011-12 performance: Roma started last season in a new model – the Barcelona model. They bought young players from round the globe, including loaning Bojan from Barcelona. The manager was Barcelona youth team manager – Luis Enrique. The formation he played was the 4-3-3 of Barcelona. But the on-field results were not remotely Barcelona-like. Roma never reached higher than fifth (twice) and finished just outside the European spots – two points behind Inter. One of the new signings, Miralem Pjanic made seven assists. But no one else made any significant impression. But with virtually a new team under a new management and new manager, it was expected there will be growing up pains. The supporters have been mature enough to handle that. Enrique left after a season but Roma’s project has taken a turn for the extreme with maverick manager Zdenak Zeman in charge. One can only stay hopeful that the youthful Romans will get their due.
Transfer Market: Roma has had probably the most impressive mercato behind Juventus. They sold off the very impressive Fabio Borini to Liverpool but bought intelligently – young Italian striker Mattia Destro, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, who shone for Greece in the Euros, Brazilians Leandro Castan, Marquinho and Marquinhos. But the two transfers which really shone through were the acquisitions of Michael Bradley, after an exceptional season at Chievo and Federico Balzaretti, who is the starting Azzurri left-back.
Average Age: 25.6 years
Manager: Zdenak Zeman is the most controversial manager in Serie A – probably of all time. He has been managing in Italy since the start of the 80s and is in his second stint at Roma, the earlier one having ended after being in charge for two years. Whatever one may say about the man, he ensures goals for his team. His Pescara scored 90 goals last season in forty-two matches. His Foggia scored 67 in thirty-four matches. He is also a noted advocate of youth and Roma has probably found the perfect man to lead their still-born project in Zeman.
Star: A €30m bid is made by Man City, who promise to double your wages and your team is not one of the winningest clubs in Europe. You decide to reject the bid. That is Daniele de Rossi. The one-club men are few and far and when you play for a less fashionable club like Roma, it should be all the more creditable. With Francesco Totti entering the last part of his career, de Rossi would lead I Lupi soon enough. No other gesture could have proved his love for Roma than the one he took in rejecting the millions from Man City.
Watch Out For: When he was signed, Miralem Pjanic was already a familiar name in Europe, thanks to his exploits with Lyon and it was a surprise that he left Lyon for the Italian capital. In his first season, he showed his worth already topping the assist charts for Roma with nine and also scoring thrice. He is expected to flourish under Zeman more and would be entrusted with the primary creative role in the midfield.
Expectation: A scudetto would be a great result but otherwise finishing within the Champions League spots would suit Roma fine. It has to be remembered that they have completely turned around their team composition in just two years and finishing within the top three would be a vindication of the path the leadership has taken.
Prediction: Finish within top three
2011-12 performance: Sampdoria spent the last season in Serie B, managed to come up at first chance but it was a laboured promotion. Sampdoria finished sixth in Serie B to claim the final spot of promotional play off. The third placed team played against sixth, and fourth against fifth over two legs. The winners of those matches then played among themselves in a a two-leg match to obtain the right to be promoted to Serie A. Sampdoria beat Sassuolo (third) 3-2 over two legs and then Varese 4-2 over two legs, to qualify. Nicola Pozzi with 15 goals was the most memorable performer of the season.
Transfer Market: Sampdoria made a few major purchases including strikers Maxi Lopez from Catania and Eder from Cesena. They also bought Renan – a defensive midfielder from Romanian side CFR Cluj. A couple of full-backs have also arrived – Lorenzo de Silvestri from Fiorentina and Andrea Costa from Reggina. Utility man Marcelo Estigarribia will be returning after spending last season on loan at Juventus.
Average Age: 25.9 years
Manager: Ciro Ferrara is a Juventus legend and has been assistant manager to Roberto Donadoni for the national team. He has also managed the Italian U21 team for the last two years. But his only stint at Serie A managership – at his beloved Juventus ended in a sacking within six months. He is seen as a promising manager and Sampdoria have given him a second chance to show his worth.
Star: Maxi Lopez was on loan at Milan in January and had a deal with Milan to make the loan permanent. However, Milan didn’t take the offer, but that decision was questioned by fans once Ibra and later Cassano were sold off. He is a proven goal scorer in the domestic league and having played for Milan and Barcelona in his career already, he needs a place where the team would be built around him. Sampdoria might just give him that option.
Watch Out For: Andrea Poli was supposed to be the next Andrea Pirlo and much was expected when he was loaned to Inter. Inter though had a horrible season and didn’t take up the option on Poli. After a season, Poli has thus returned to Sampdoria and he has to show the same level of consistency which initially provided grounds for the comparisons with Pirlo.
Expectation: To finish mid-table. Sampdoria have a decent squad and a young and resourceful manager. Their acquisitions are solid and would help them achieve their dream. They though started off with a handicap of one point, having been found guilty in the calcioscommesse trials.
Prediction: Finish middle of the table
2011-12 performance: Siena was one of the odds on teams to be relegated last season after gaining promotion and even though they spent 10 rounds stuck at 17th position, they never went below that and ultimately rallied in the second half of the season to finish 14th. The most remarkable thing of this display was a stingy defence which only conceded 45 goals in thirty-eight matches, which is the sixth best in the league. So even though they scored only 45 goals, their defensive displays allowed them to survive the drop.
Transfer Market: Siena lost top-scorer Mattia Destro to Roma but have managed to keep most of the other players. There were few reinforcements, the most notable of them being Portuguese centre-back Neto. But they did lose Serbian goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic, who was on loan from Udinese. Brkic was one of the pillars of the stingy defence that enabled Siena to maintain their hold of Serie A.
Average Age: 27.9 years
Manager: Giuseppe Sannino had crafted Siena’s stay in Serie A last season but when he left for Palermo, Serse Cosmi, a man noted for taking clubs in similar positions was appointed. Cosmi, whose last four assignments were with Lecce, Palermo, Livorno and Brescia respectively, has a tough job if he has to emulate Sannino and keep Siena afloat.
Star: This is truly a team without stars but if anyone can claim to be the lynchpin of the team it has to be Emanuele Calaio. Strong and tall, the Palermo born hitman scored 11 times in twenty-five matches and assisted twice. It was his personal best return in a season and it was required to keep Siena afloat. The 30-year-old would do well to repeat that feat, if he is to ensure Siena’s survival.
Watch Out For: Francesco Bolzoni was once a promising Inter Primavera player. But loaned out with no chance offered, he has waded from Genoa to Frosinone to Siena. At 23, it is probably just right for this central midfielder to start imposing himself in the games. Last season he played 16 matches scoring once but was instrumental in closing the defensive hatches.
Expectation: Fight bravely against relegation and punch above their weight to finish mid-table. However, the defensive solidity which was responsible for their survival could prove elusive this time with key loan players moving out. And if that was not enough, they would start with a penalty of six points and while last season Atalanta started with a similar points penalty and yet comfortably finished mid-table, it may just be beyond Siena.
2011-12 performance: Torino are one of the giants of Italian football but have languished in Serie B for the last three years after being the third and final team to be relegated on the last day of the season when they lost 3-2 away to Roma. They qualified for Serie A by finishing second in Serie B behind Pescara. Both Pescara and Torino had 83 points and it was two away goals that Pescara had scored at the league match at Torino that decided who finished first. Torino conceded only 28 goals in the campaign which is bettered only by cross-town rivals Juventus’ 20 goals conceded across Serie A and B. Much of that credit goes to the young defender Angelo Ogbonna who is already a steady member of the Azzurri.
Transfer Market: Keeping hold of Ogbonna was a triumph in its own. Even though they sold off Mirko Antenucci – a man who scored 10 goals for them last season, reinforcements like Mario Santana from Napoli, Damiano Ferronetti from Udinese and Matteo Brighi from Roma have been useful. Signing the goalkeeper, Jean Francois Gillet from Bologna was another masterstroke. Belgian Gillet has been one of the most unsung goalkeepers in Serie A in last two seasons and he would add solidity to the already impressive defence of Torino.
Average Age: 25.9 years
Manager: Gianpiero Ventura was the man who was in charge of Torino last year, and he has been retained to give him a chance to continue his good work. Ventura prefers a 4-4-2 ‘double six’ formation (a formation with two holding midfielders) and his team would try and frustrate the big ones before snatching a goal here and there.
Star: Angelo Ogbonna is the one true world class player that Torino possess. Assured and calm in possession with brilliant anticipation, he has been marked out for greatness for a long time. Coming through the youth system, he has been a kind of prodigal son for Torino. So far Torino has managed to retain him despite interests from all the big clubs in the peninsula but if he manages to play to his potential in his first senior season in Serie A, then it would be tough for Torino to hold on to him.
Watch Out For: Gianluca Sansone is not a household name but it was this 25-year old diminutive left winger striker who singlehandedly accounted for 20 goals and nine assists for Sassuolo (total goals scored – 57) in Serie B last year. Sassuolo finished third, just three points off Torino and were later eliminated in the play offs by Sampdoria. Sansone will be making his Serie A debut this year and it is to be seen if he can reproduce the same form.
Expectation: Comfortably finish mid-table. With a team based on solid defence and a sound goalkeeper addition, Torino should be a mean and stingy defensive unit this season. The goal-scoring threats would be few but with the likes of Man City rejects Rolando Bianchi or Riccardo Meggiorini, Sansone can snatch vital goals here and there. They too would start with a one point penalty for calcioscommesse trials but they would be quietly confident of overcoming that deficit.
Prediction: Comfortably avoid relegation and finish middle of the table
2011-12 performance: No praise would be enough in talking about Udinese’s campaign last season. The owners, Pozzo family have built a wonderful football franchise which is successful, plays entertaining calcio and yet remains profitable. Their scouting network is second to none and the same family owns Granada in Spanish Primera Division and Watford in English Championship. Thus with three clubs in three leagues, they are able to provide playing and developing time to a vast number of players. Like most years, they sold off some of their best players – Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler, Cristian Zapata, Simone Pepe and yet improved on their fourth place finish a year earlier to finish third and thus maintain their hold on the final Champions League spot from Serie A. Captain Antonio di Natale led the chase with 23 goals and seven assists. Pablo Armero provided a further 10 more assists and Udinese pipped Lazio to the third spot by two points.
Transfer Market: Following their tradition, Udinese sold off some of their crown jewels in Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah to Juventus, Samir Handanovic to Inter while 16-goal hitman German Denis’ loan move to Atalanta was made permanent. They brought in the hugely impressive Luis Muriel from Lecce and Zeljko Brkic from Siena – both of whom were on a loan there. Maicosuel, a 26-year old midfielder was their highest transfer in at €5.3m. Two more Brazilian midfield imports were Allan from Maldonaldo and Willians Fernandes from Flamengo. Closer home, they got Davide Faraoni from Inter and Cristian Pasquato from Juventus – two highly-rated youngsters. It was a very typical Udinese transfer window and despite selling some of their first team regulars, Udinese have the belief that they can yet again provide a strong Serie A season.
Average Age: 25 years
Manager: Francesco Guidolin has been in charge of Udinese since 2010-11 season, and in two seasons have taken Udinese to fourth and third on the league table. Natural progression would mean that they break into the top two but for that he has to ensure that his captain extraordinary – di Natale keeps producing a 20+ goal performance again. His Udinese is flexible enough to adjust to 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 as required and counter-attack at breathtaking speed is what marks his style of play.
Star: Antonio di Natale is a club icon and his records are quite incredible. In 2009-10 season he scored 29 goals and created 7 more. In 2010-11 season he had a dip and so scored 28 and created 6 more. Just to show he is mortal, in 2011-12, he only scored 23 and created 10 goals. It is a phenomenal run in any European league in the last three seasons. If he produces another 20+ goals this year, Udinese would be assured of another top three finish.
Watch Out For: Luis Muriel is a 21-year old Colombian striker who has been burning the pace charts in Serie A. His pacy runs and finishes at such a young age have drawn comparisons with Alex Pato, and Milan were at one time interested in him. But Udinese saw him as a player who could take the role Alexis Sanchez did in his final year. They let him develop at Lecce where he scored seven goals, assisting in eight more last season and brought him back this season to be paired with Di Natale. Muriel is good with both feet and has a mean long distance shot as well. He just might be the next jewel in Udinese’ crown.
Expectation: To finish in the top three. Unlike last year, Udinese would most probably qualify for the Champions League proper, having drawn Braga of Portugal in the qualification match. Fighting on three fronts would then make it difficult for the team to attain the kind of performance required to make the top three in Serie A – like how Napoli found out last season.
Prediction: Finish in the Europa League spots
Scouting Network – Stephan El Shaarawy
Scouting Network identifies young players under the age of 21 who have exceptional talent and could be one of the leading players of the future. This month GoaldenTimes profiles Stephan El Shaarawy
Date of Birth: 27.10.1992
Place of Birth: Savona, Italy
Club: AC Milan
Height: 1.78 m
Nationality: Italy, Egypt
Market Value: €7m
There is a sense of destiny about Stephan El Shaarawy.
A particular numerologysite actually lists him with having #9 associated to him and says “He is the righter of wrongs“. For those who do not believe in the occult and would like to have much more concrete proof, check out these facts.El Shaarawy, nicknamed Il Faraone (The Pharaoh), given his Egyptian heritage (his father is Egyptian while his mother is Italian), is the fourth youngest player ever to play in Serie A. Starting in the Genoa youth system, he led the Primavera team to Primavera Cup, Primavera Super Cup in 2008-09 season and Primavera Scudetto in 2009-10. Realizing that he is destined for bigger things, Enrico Preziosi, the Genoa president loaned him out to Padova in Serie B. As an 18-year-old, he led Padova to the Serie A promotion play-offs against Novara. In that match, an unfortunate red card to Padova defender Cesar, led to El Shaarawy being sacrificed as the substitute for a new defender. Ultimately Padova would lose that play-off but El Shaarawy’s performance over the 2010-11 season with Padova (9 goals and 2 assists in 30 matches) won him the year-end best player in Serie B award in the annual CalcioOscars. At the age of 19, he has played for every Italian team he has been eligible for – U16, U17, U18, U19, and now has debuted for the U-21. At every stage, he has scored at least one goal barring the U-21.
Tales of his talent were well known in the peninsula and Milan was especially aware of it, being the team that Genoa Primavera beat in the Super Coppa. Adriano Galliani, Milan’s #2 man after President Silvio Berlusconi, had already made an attempt to sign him in 2010 but Preziosi rebuffed him. Finally in 2011, on the back of his show for Padova, Milan coerced Preziosi to co-own Shaarawy. It was expected that he would be loaned out to gain first team experience. But somehow it didn’t materialise. Milan had a debilitating injury crisis at the start of the season and The Pharaoh made his debut as a substitute, in a losing cause at Napoli. He would come on as a substitute 3 days later when Alex Pato was injured in the 29th minute against Udinese at home and Milan losing 1-0. That day, El Shaarawy would save the Milan blushes with his firsteverSerieAgoal. However, with the stars returning for Milan, the opportunities would dry up and further talks of move away from Milan in January transfer window would arise. But opportunity in a friendly match against Paris Saint-Germain in January showed once again what he offers. Further injuries to strikers would force Massimiliano Allegri to start El Shaarawi against his old nemesis Novara. Twice in a week, in a cup pre-quarter final and Serie A he would be instrumental in Milan’s win against Novara. The defeat with Padova would be avenged. There would be further evidence of his growing reputation in the Cup quarter final win from behind against Lazio, especially his assist to Clarence Seedorf. Each subsequent match that he would play for Milan would only reinforce that reputation.
Padova’s director of sport Rino Foschi is not surprised. “El Shaarawy is a phenomenon, a special player. When Galliani called me before taking him, I said he is the strongest in his age group in all European leagues. He could be much more important in a few years than what Carlos Tevez (Milan’s #1 transfer target in January) is“.
Given how the Pharaoh is progressing, it wouldn’t be long before Foschi’s forecast turns out to be true.
Taking Stock – The Serie A Mid-Season Review
A seminal year for Serie A with corruption raising its head, European adventures and the return of a giant – Debopam Roy reviews the season so far in Italy
Prior to the start of the 2011-2012 Serie A season, Goalden Times had done a preview where we had looked at the prospects of each of the 20 participating teams and touched upon some of the most discussed issues of the league. With almost half the season gone (16 of the 38 rounds) and the teams in a richly deserved winter break, it is the perfect opportunity to look back at the past 5 months, and take stock.
The European Coefficient
In our preview, we had discussed how the Italian teams needed to spruce up their act in the continental competitions. We had seen how Serie A had been overtaken by the Bundesliga after consistent performances in both the European competitions and had consigned Serie A to only three Champions League slots. The 2011-12 season is the final season of Serie A, hopefully for a short duration only, with 4 Champions League teams as next season onwards, that privilege would be taken over by Bundesliga. Indeed the total points earned in the half season too show Serie A to be off its rivals.
07-08 coefficients earned
08-09 coefficients earned
09-10 coefficients earned
10-11 coefficients earned
11-12 coefficients earned
Total coefficients earned
Teams that earned it/Total teams in Europe
Table 1: Year wise European Country Coefficients
So we see that only five (Milan, Inter, Napoli, Udinese, Lazio) of the seven teams that were in Europe actually contributed. (Palermo & Roma were ousted in the first qualification match in Europa League). The net points earned for 2011-12 (9.5) is also well below the other 4 nations in the top 5. This is because either more teams earned the points (as in England’s case) or the teams that entered, finished top of their group (Spain) thus accumulating more points.
In several previous seasons, individual Serie A teams have performed brilliantly in Europe, even winning the Champions League but there has been a collective effort lacking in both the tournaments. It was thus heartening to see the 5 Italian teams that qualified for group level in both the tournaments, actually making the knockout rounds. This 100% record is unmatched across Europe.
No. of Teams in Europe
No. of Teams in Group Stages of European Competition
No. of teams in knockout rounds of European Competitions
Table 2: Performance of Teams Entering European Competitions in 2011-12
So one can say it was only Serie A which had a 100% record of the teams that actually qualified for the group stages of the European competitions. This is a surprisingly welcome cumulative effort from the peninsular teams and they now have an opportunity to earn more coefficient points in the knockout rounds, which are much higher than the group stage. Another point worth noting is that of all the leagues, Serie A has the maximum teams (three) in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. It is a credible achievement and needs to be lauded. But as we saw in table 1, the gap between Serie A and Bundesliga is more than twice the gap between Serie A and French Ligue 1 (which is below Serie A). Hence such consistent cumulative performances have to be continued for some years as well as get more teams to earn points in the knockout rounds to make an impact.
The season had started with a massive shock of the Calcioscomesse where police had charged and arrested 16 people including Lazio and Italy striker Giuseppe Signori but of the active players, the most high-profile capture was Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni. On 9th August, Cristiano Doni was sentenced to three years and six months ban from Italian football though he was released on bail. That effectively ended the career of this 38-year-old. Signori was also banned for five years from calcio. Doni was re-arrested in December and even spent five days in solitary confinement before being released on house arrest. In his interrogations, Doni accepted that he had influenced matches unjustly, though he was adamant in confirming that all his efforts were directed towards the improvement of Atalanta and never had he conspired against his team. Further questioning awaits Doni on 18th January when the Italian National Arbitration Court for Sport will quiz him in Rome. One can rest assured that there may be more skeletons waiting to come out of the closet, in this matter.
The Season So Far
In many ways this was a throwback to the past for the behemoth that is Juventus finally found its range under a former iconic player who was managing on the big stage for the first time – Antonio Conte. Conte had led two teams from Serie B to promotion but this was the first time he was appointed for a big Serie A team (his other Serie A experience was with Atalanta). Tempering the 4-2-4 that he used in most of his earlier teams, and with the need to include Andrea Pirlo in the midfield, Conte tried 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 and managed to end the half-season as the only team unbeaten, not just in Italy but in all the big leagues of Europe. The strikers were not too prolific though, with the exception of Alessandro Matri, but Claudio Marchisio was having the season of his life, already scoring six goals from the midfield.
But their impressive showing was not enough to go to the top alone, as defending champions Milan themselves bounced back from a start of 5 points in 5 matches (the 5th of which was a 2-0 loss to Juventus) to go on an unbeaten streak of their own which included 29 points in 11 matches with 30 goals scored and 8 conceded and 7 clean sheets. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in six consecutive matches, tying the club record of Andrei Shevchenko and at the winter break, Milan were tied for the top spot with Juventus but ahead on goal difference. A welcome feature of the season was the goals that Milan midfielders managed: Kevin-Prince Boateng had a hat-trick in a memorable 4-3 comebackwinawayatLecce while Antonio Nocerino is having his best season, scoring six goals including a hat-trick in a 4-1 winagainstParma.
The challenge for the top two came from the unlikely source of Udinese, who had sold their most promising striker (Alexis Sanchez), their best midfielder (Gokhan Inler) and their best defender (Cristian Zapata) and still had ended with an almost 100% win record at home (only broken by the 0-0 Juventus managed on the last round of matches before the break). Lazio too had bought well in the summer and Miroslav Klose was a revelation scoring goals and leading the line.
All these 4 teams should provide the backdrop for the scudetto fight though Juventus have a definite advantage with no European distractions and a fit team. Milan has probably the best squad of them and Ibrahimovic who has not lost a league title in the last eight years, but Champions League foray might eat into their title challenge. Udinese are the surprise and the neutral’s favourite for scudetto. They too are in Europe though as are Lazio and with thinner squads than either Milan or Juventus, they might drop off from the top four.
The three big teams that struggled to establish a consistent set of performances were Napoli, Inter and Roma and each had their own reason. All of them should qualify for Europe, though it is to be seen whether Champions League or Europa League beckons them. The identity of the top seven teams as of now should remain same at the end of May; the only thing to note is whether any of them can challenge Milan, Juventus and Udinese for the title.
Napoli had qualified for the Champions League and making a good fist of that chance but the strain of fighting on multiple fronts was taking its toll on the team. Coach Walter Mazzarri tried rotating his team, something that the fans had long clamoured for, but even then they were inconsistent in the league. There were brilliant wins against both Milan giants, a 6-1 thumpingofGenoa and a 3-3 tiewithJuventus in a match they led 3-1 with 18 minutes to go. But they also lost to Catania, Parma and Chievo, and drew with Cagliari and Fiorentina among others. The names show a pattern – wins against the big guns but loss of focus against the lesser lights.
Roma had spent big on promising youth players like Eric Lamela, Miralem Pjanic, Bojan and Fabio Borini but with an inexperienced manager and too many new players playing to a new system would have inevitably required time to gel. Seventh spot at the winter break is the best that they could manage. But with the team gelling better with time, this team can actually improve.
Inter Milan had a horror start to the season where after 9 matches they were in the relegation zone with five losses (including losses to Novara, Palermo and Catania). The team had not scored in their home ground till the seventh match and had their manager Gian Piero Gasperini sacked after five matches. The old hand, Claudio Ranieri was brought in to stabilise the ship and there was improvement as Inter picked up 18 points in the next 7 matches. Considering only top three teams will qualify for the Champions League, there is still some way off for the nerazzurri to work.
The most interesting and surprising team has been Atalanta. Hit with a six point penalty due to the Calcioscomesse, they knuckled down to win key games and remained unbeaten at home throughout. But for the points penalty, they would have been in the sixth position. German Denis led the surge with 12 goals in 16 matches and the top scorer award at the winter break. Memorable performances also came from Maxi Moralez, the diminutive Argentine bought from Velez Sarsfield as he contributed 4 goals and 3 assists.
Each of Catania, Fiorentina and Cagliari had their moments but largely struggled to get out of the mid table ruts. Palermo, who had a rollicking start and had a 100% record at home (including an opening day win versus Inter) were totally derailed from the 13th round onward. In their last four matches they picked only two points scoring in only one of those matches.
Down the table, the three teams who risk relegation the most are Cesena, Lecce and Novara. Lecce were exceptionally poor managing only a single point from all of their home matches – a draw with Novara. They lie bottom with nine points. Novara, who returned after 55 years to Serie A managed a fine win against Inter but managed only one other win to have 12 points, a tally that was matched by Cesena. Both Cesena and Novara were also matched in that they both had the only two artificial pitches in Serie A. Along with these three, both Siena and Bologna too may get embroiled if they do not improve in the second half of the season. The relegation dogfight should be confined between these five teams.
The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football
As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on
Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.
Return of the Prodigal Son
Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.
Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.
And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.
Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.
The Oil League
Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn. Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.
Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.
But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.
Underdog Story of the Year
Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.
Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.
The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.
Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.
Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshikowent on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.
Year of the Minnows
Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA. Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.
Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.
They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.
The Thing About 18
Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.
The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale. Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.
At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.
Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.
The Era Continues
While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.
1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.
Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986 under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.
Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.
Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.
Transfer Deal of the Year
Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.
Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.
Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunninghat trickagainstParma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.
But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.
Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)
Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.
Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.
Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.
That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.
Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.
Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.
Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.
The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.
I Can’t Believe This Happened
Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.
Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.
The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detailbut one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.
Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.
Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.
The most whacky celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympicrun. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrateit.
Best Football Performances
Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.
Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.
However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.
Best Performance by a Footballer
This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by withthisperformanceby Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, dothisand thisand thisand of coursethismakes him a complete entertainer.
Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!
Scouting Network – Emmanuel Mbola
Scouting Network identifies young players under the age of 21 who have exceptional talent and could be one of the leading players of the future. This month GoaldenTimes profiles Emmanuel Mbola
Frankly, only a few who venture outside European football would have heard this fellow’s name but at Goalden Times, we envisage to bring you the names before they become stars. Emmanuel Mbola is set to rule the left side of a top European club for a long time to come.
Born in Kabwe, which is an important transportation and mining centre in Zambia, Mbola began his career as a 14 year old for the Zambian club, Mining Rangers. At an age when the European prodigies would probably be only playing age-group football and at best the reserve leagues, Mbola would go on to make his national debut for Zambia at the tender age of 15. In that match, Zambia would hold Egypt away at Egypt to a 1-1 draw in a qualification match for World Cup 2010. Mbola would go on to play each of the group league matches in the qualification campaign and even though Zambia would miss out qualifying from the group to Algeria and Egypt, Mbola’s marauding runs on the left and his assured tackling would be noticed.
He was snapped up by top Zambian club, Zanaco in 2008 and soon he was onto even bigger things when Armenian club, FC Pyunik came calling. He joined Pyunic in 2009, aged just 16, a fact that would become important later, and later that season became the first Zambian to play in the UEFA Champions League in 2009. Again his team was eliminated but he was noticed and scouts in England took note. A story of Tottenham having signed him emerged, but that turned out to be a media fiction. His stint with Pyunik saw him winning the double of Armenian Premier League and Armenian Cup in 2009. Meanwhile FIFA took action against Pyunik, saying Mbola was underage and could not have signed the professional contract. Mbola moved back to the reigning African Champions – TP Mazembe of Congo in 2010. With Mazembe, he would win his first African Champions Cup in 2010.
At just over 18 years old, Mbola is already a veteran of 23 first team appearances for the Zambian national team. That implies he has become the second youngest to appear in the African Cup of Nations in 2010. Hisgameplay is based on a robust physique and pace with or off the ball, which allows him to get those runs down the left. Unlike others though, he can defend and tackle but like all defenders, can only improve with age. The one area he does need to work upon is his distribution and passing but at 18, there is still time for a top European club to put their faith in him and see him develop.
His future is obviously in Europe and unlike the last time, he is over 18 and now eligible to sign a professional contract as per FIFA guidelines. A left back, who has won a domestic double in a European league, has been an African club champion, has put in 23 appearances for his nation and thus qualifies for a European work permit and is only 18 – the ingredients for an impending move to Europe, are all there. The coveted transfer though would have to be postponed at least till the next summer, as FIFA has banned Mbola from playing till February 2012, and one will have to wait a bit more to see him in full flight in Europe.
Triviela – Beyond Trivia
The Trivela is a Portuguese term to denote the art of kicking the football with the outside of one’s foot. It is used to hide one’s weaker foot and also to suddenly fool the opposition with a wickedly swerving ball from a difficult angle. In Triviela, we will attempt to find some football feats/facts which would make you sit up and take note, like it happens when you see Ricardo Quaresma try these.
The 1st Bishop of Pavia
The 1st bishop of Pavia has an unwitting history with a game, which was discovered at least 14 centuries after his death.
Pavia is an ancient town in northern Italy about 35 km from Milan. It is the capital of the provinceofPavia. The city achieved its greatest political importance between 568 and 774 A.D., as the capital of the KingdomoftheLombards. Syrus (Sirus) was the 1st bishop of Pavia back in the 1st century. His legend, according to the 14th century source known as the De laudibus Papiæ (In the Praise of Pavia), states that Syrus was the boy with the five loaves who appears in the Gospels.
This Saint Syrus would have stayed off limits, till you hear the Italian way of writing his name – Syrus is written as Siro and being a saint, he was called San Siro!
Even though San Siro di Pavia did not have any direct relation to football or football clubs, it was in his memory, that a vast district of Milan was named San Siro. So when the stadium was opened in 1926, it was named “Nuovo Stadio Calcistico San Siro” (San Siro New Football Stadium). Later it was renamed as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, but owing to Meazza’s Inter history (though he played for both Milan clubs), the Rossoneri half of Milan still call the stadium San Siro.
Parting Shot: San Siro di Pavia had a compatriot, a bishop in Pavia back in the 1st century, and his name was Juventius of Pavia. No link has been found between him and the third famous Italian club from Turin though.
Larger than Life
Let’s start with a question: What is common between Jomo Sono of South Africa, Abedi Pele of Ghana and Mohammed Kallon of Sierra Leone. Well for one, they are all African. While Jomo and Abedi Pele are absolute legends of the African game and in their country, Kallon is only a national legend. 56 year old Jomo and 46 year old Pele are into managing clubs while 31 year old Kallon’s wandering career has taken him to a struggling I-Leage (Indian national league) club Viva Kerala.
But the thread that connects all three is that all of them have clubs named after them.
After his soccer career ended, Sono returned to South Africa, where he purchased the Highlands Park club in Johannesburg in 1982, renaming it Jomo Cosmos in honour of his old team, the NY Cosmos. Under his ownership, the club went on to achieve several successes: it won the National Soccer League in 1987, the Bobsave Super Bowl in 1990, the Cola Cola Cup in 2002 and the Super Eight in 2003. Jomo Cosmos has also consistently finished among the top teams in the South African Premier Soccer League.
European Champions League winner, 2 times African Player of the Year, winner of the African Cup of Nations and former Ghanaian Captain Abedi Pele founded FC Nania (often called as Abedi Pele’s Nania Accra F.C.) in the Legon suburb of Accra in 2004. Nania never reached the successes of Jomo Cosmos and instead was embroiled in a match fixing scandal. In 2008, Abedi Pele was banned from participation in active football for one year by the Disciplinary Committee of the Ghana Football Association after the controversial Division One Middle League results in which Abedi’s Nania FC beat Okwahu United 31-0.
The only silverware that FC Nania managed to win was the E.K. Nayanar Memorial Football Gold Cup, a tournament in Southern India beating Viva Kerala and that is where our 3rd figure, Mohd. Kallon comes in. Sierra Fisheries, a club based out of Freetown, Sierra Leone, was acquired by Kallon in 2002 for $30,000. Kallon FC won the Sierra Leonean FA Cup and the Sierra Leone League title in 2006. Kallon himself played for the club in the 2009-10 season. Just like it’s a sharp drop for a man who has played 42 times for Inter Milan – with 14 goals, between (2001-04), and 48 times for AS Monaco – between (2004-07), scoring 14 goals again, to ply his trade in the Indian League, Kallon FC too have not set any pulse racing since their last title in 2006.
Parting Shot:Clarence Seedorf is the co–owner of AC Monza, a club in Italian lower division, one he bought in 2009. Though he hasn’t renamed it after himself, you may keep an eye out on this.
Millionaires Turned Paupers
You may blame the Mayans. They had predicted something similar. The fifth of the seven key Mayan prophecies talks about how the established world order will change. It also gives a time frame of when the change will be manifested – sometime in 1999 things will start deteriorating. 1999 is also the year, when a special edition of the Argentine sports magazine “El Gráfico” named River Plate as “Champions of the Century”, noting the club’s achievements, especially their (then) 28 Argentine championships against Boca Juniors’ 19 and Independiente’s 13. If one were to plot the course of achievements for the club based in the Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, then that would very much be it. Whatever ensued, culminating in relegation in June 2011, looks like a swift and steep curve down.
One can’t stress enough on the significance of River Plate in the history of Argentine and South American football and the society in general. Founded on May 25, 1901, in what is today the neighbourhood of its fiercest rival – Boca Juniors, the club moved to Palermo and then on to Belgrano in the northern part of Buenos Aires in 1923. They earned their nickname of Los Millionarios when in the early 1930s, they paid £23,000 for Bernabé Ferreyra, a quite unheard of sum and a record transfer fee for over 20 years, and most of it was paid in gold. Ferreyra repaid the amount with a scarcely believable 187 goals in 185 matches for River.
A new impetus also came from the social movement whereby, the military rulers as well as the civilian reformers of Argentina focused on the development of character through sports in the 1920-40s. It was seen as a step towards the building of a modern nation. River became the symbol of that with an all conquering team that swept everyone before them. Three league titles in the 1930s were followed by four in the 1940s and five in the 1950s. The 1940s team earned its nickname, La Maquina (the machine), based on their ruthless efficiency in the domestic and international scene. The team even bears comparison to and is seen as one of the earliest precursor to ‘total football’ as propounded by the Ajax and Dutch of 1970s vintage.
River Plate in its 110 years of history has been the most decorated club in the Argentinian domestic front. Much like other fierce rivalries in Europe, where one of the rivals would collect more international trophies only to be outdone in the domestic scene by its fiercest rival (think Liverpool – Manchester United or AC Milan – Juventus), River swept through the domestic scene collecting 33 league titles in its 110 year history. Even though bitter rival, Boca Juniors have the record (jointly owned with Milan) for the maximum international club tournaments. River can point towards their Annus Mirabilis of 1986-87 when they won the domestic title, the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Interamericana and the Copa Intercontinental. Such a clean sweep was quite unprecedented. They almost repeated the same after a decade in 1996, when they once again won the domestic title and the Copa Libertadores. This 1996-97 display by the team led the club to first place in the IFFHS ranking for six consecutive months, the first Argentine club to do so. They are also the only Argentine club ranked as the best World team in a full season (1997–1998). At the turn of the century, the ultimate accolade of “Champions of the Century” was thus conferred on the club. The following year, in a FIFA sponsored vote, River was voted the best Argentine team of the 20th century. Indeed the club has been a conglomerate of champions over its 100 years and one would not attempt to capture the stars that have passed through the El Monumental but fair to say that, in every decade, the best of Argentina have always come from either River or Boca, who together commandeer over 70% of the Argentine public support.
The Decline Years
The last decade has not been kind to River Plate, especially in the latter half. A brief note about the Argentine domestic tournament details may be relevant. Like many Latin American leagues, the Argentina league is divided into 2 halves, the Apertura and the Clausura (literally, the opening and the closure). The winners of each of those halves can claim to have won a league. This departure from a unified single home and away league was undertaken from the 1990-91 season and incidentally River Plate was the last club to win the unified league championship in 1989-90.
With this truncated 2 mini leagues (one home and one away) put into a season, River were doing fine as can be seen from the 12 league titles (Apertura or Clausura) in the next 14 years i.e. till 2004. Since then, only once have they managed to win – the 2008 Clausura. But there has been no shortage of managerial merry-go-rounds. To illustrate the point, Ramon Diaz was the last manager to preside over consecutive seasons, from 1995-1999, arguably the time when River were the team to beat and had won their title as Champion of the Century. Since then there have been 15 (yes 15!) managerial appointments in 12 seasons. None of those managers could string 2 seasons consecutively but there were many re-appointments, and each ended with further misery than the previous one.
Financially too, the fortunes took a nosedive as the club is estimated to have run up a debt of 280 million Argentine pesos ($67.76 million). Part of the reason is how the club let the ultras (Los Borrachos del Tablón – literally “the Drunks in the Stands”) take care of certain financial transactions of the club. A lot of ultras and miscreants took charge of merchandising, and even had a pie from player transfer earnings. They enjoyed huge perks like all expenses paid for away matches and even free tickets. All this was done with José María Aguilar as the club president (2001-09). For these 8 long years, many of the top talents from River were sold off to Europe while filling the gap with players who were owned by 3rd party or by agents. Hence when they moved on, the club didn’t earn much out of it. Some of the money is still unaccounted for and may have been siphoned off. The total mismanagement of funds coupled with power given to the ultras and lack of motivation for players led to a huge decline in the performance. Refer to the table for decline.
Taking 2007 Clausura, which they won; if we consider the mean of the gap that existed between the winner and River over the last 6 tournaments (2008-9 – 2010-11) was close to 18 points, implying a gap of 6 defeats. For a team that had won the 2007 Clausura, that is a steep, sharp and ignominious decline. The most appalling fact being, the team managed to finish last in the league in the 2008 Apertura, right after winning the 2007 Clausura. Once a domestic behemoth, River Plate now stood merely as a middling team, for whom finishing in the top 5 could prove beyond their means in 8 out of 14 attempts since 2004. Certainly this is not the stuff of “Campeon de Campeones”. The Millionaires were on the precipice of bankruptcy. The push would come soon.
The rules of relegation in the Argentine League, needs a bit of discussion before we delve into River’s final ignominy. Back in the 80s when the league was concerned with sudden departure of top talents from the big teams to Europe, they wanted to put in place a system which would help these teams recuperate from sudden loss of form owing to such transfers. So they installed a system of “promedios” (points averaging), whereby a team’s relegation status is determined by working out their points per game average over the last three seasons instead of the overall performance in that particular season. Although this implies that one poorly played season by a newly promoted team could spell doom, on the flip side, it was quite unthinkable that a big team would have 3 consecutive bad seasons spread over 6 league phases.
There is but one more chance provided to teams following the average of 3 seasons. Based on them, the bottom two teams (19th and 20th) are demoted directly to Primera B Nacional. However the 18th and 17th teams go into a 2-legged playoff with the 3rd and 4th placed teams from the Primera B Nacional. With the away goals rule present, the 17th and 18th teams can thus win these matches and remain in the Primera Division.
For the year 2010-11, it came down to these 4 teams – River Plate (17th) with a points average of 1.237, Gimnasia La Plata (18th) with a points average of 1.096, Huracan (19th) with a points average of 1.096 and Quilmes (20th) with a points average of 1.096. Quilmes was relegated directly and Huracan lost in a relegation play-off with Gimnasia as they both had the same average, and thus relegated directly. River and Gimnasia went into a 2-legged play-off with Belgrano and San Martín de San Juan respectively.
River lost the 1st leg 0-2 away and hence needed to win by 3 goals to stay in Primera Division or to win 2-0 and force a tie breaker. When the return leg arrived, River were desperate to win it. Around 60,000 had packed into the El Monumental (government safety limit being 40,000) to watch their favourite team battle for their lives. The match itself started very promisingly as River took the lead in the 6th minute with Mariano Pavone scoring a fine goal. An uneventful 1st half followed by a calamitous 2nd half that sealed their fate. First Belgrano equalized from a defensive shamble by the River defenders and goalkeeper and then Pavone missed a penalty that would have given them a glimmer of hope. The referee, pressed by the rioting of fans, didn’t bother with extra added time for stoppages and finished the match in 90 minutes sharp.
If the match itself was insulting what with such a proud club going into uncharted ignominy, more disgrace was added with the rioting and violence that followed. Violence broke a minute before the match got over. Annoyed fans pelted players with a variety of objects from the stands, and police replied with high-powered fire hoses while some fans climbed fences topped with razor wire.
The clashes left 89 people injured, while over 50 were arrested, according to Argentina’s Federal Police. Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses – inside and outside the stadium – with police using teargas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting. As they scattered, rioting fans set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.
The future ahead doesn’t look too rosy. There lies the debt factor, which cannot be helped by the reduced revenues that will be a feature of life in 2nd division. For example, the TV revenue of around $7.5 mn per year would take a nosedive to $855,000 per year as is the standard for Primera B. The sponsorship deals would also be markedly reduced since they hinged on River being a Premier Division team.
The advertising deals, which include sponsors like Adidas, Petrobras and others wouldn’t help much as the money has already been used to pay the debt that had been built up since 2001 under President José María Aguilar. Club legend and World Cup winning captain, Daniel Pasarella became the President in 2009 and it was expected that after 8 years of misdirection, he would lead the club to its former glories. Instead the results have only deteriorated. The steady flux of managers and invasion of the ultras remain.
Post the recent relegation, the reins of the club have been handed over to Mattias Almeyda, who retired this season as a player at River. It is for him to chart a path to the top division at the earliest. President Pasarella has been quoted as saying, “I would be dragged out feet first”, which shows a resolve to restore the team to its rightful position. The manager has been given some new players, all on a free transfer. Some of those names have a River history and are good bargain buys (Christian Nasuti, Alejandro Dominguez, Fernando Cavenaghi), however, some of the talents have left too, notedly Erik Lamela, the crown jewel of the River team, who was sold for about half of what he would have been sold had River not been relegated.
One cannot imagine the South American football scene without a club like River Plate in its midst, as much as one cannot imagine a year without Superclásico in Argentina. A new chapter has been added to Argentine and South American football. One hopes that River would bounce back soon enough to give a happy ending to this chapter.