Impact of Foreign players in European leagues – Serie A

Football has truly become a global game. With its worldwide reach, which has never been as prominent as in this millennium,every major European league is able to attract hidden talents from every corner of the planet. This has to markedly changed player demographics in the best leagues. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings to you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. After Ligue 1 , the second instalment of this series features Serie A.

Prologue

Serie A, currently sponsored by Telecom Italia, is Italy’s top division professional football league. Founded in 1929–30, Serie A is one of the best football leagues in the world. It, in fact, ruled the charts till the ‘90s, and has produced the highest number of European Cup finalists. Italian clubs have participated at the final for a European honour on a record 26 different occasions, and have come home victorious 12 times.  However, in current years, Serie A has only gone downhill. Italian clubs have reached the finals of UEFA Champions league only five times since the turn of the millennium, winning it thrice in the process.  Performances are even worse in Europa League where no Serie A team have been a finalist since 1998–99. These poor results have been instrumental in Serie A currently occupying the fourth position among European leagues, behind La Liga, the English Premier League and the Bundesliga. Excessive emphasis on a defensive organization often makes the league games a crazy affair, resulting in poor global acceptance, and, subsequently, preventing Serie A from securing lucrative broadcasting deals. Quite sadly, a prestigious league like Serie A is nothing more than a stepping stone for young footballers or an indication of one’s career going southwards for players beyond a certain age.

Gonzalo_Higuain-1200

A reason for this drastic decline is financial instability. The revenue model of the Italian league of the 1990s was not a practical one, as has been proved in the long run. The Cirio group, a major stakeholder in Lazio, defaulted on its loans; Parma’s sponsors, Parmalat, collapsed soon after; Fiorentina went into administration, succumbing to non-payment of huge debts; and Napoli was declared bankrupt in 2004. It has been an uphill economic battle since then, and, even now, only six Serie A clubs are profitable. Handicapped by absurdly low match day revenues as well as the stigma of match fixing scandals, Serie A has been finding it difficult to attract quality players from across Europe or beyond.

However, let us try to see how the top teams have performed even with the dearth of exciting foreign imports in the Italian league. Our sample size is five—the top five clubs since the 2009–10 season.

SS Lazio

We start our Italian tour with Lazio, a club which has performed exceedingly well in the last five years. I Biancocelesti have come a long way since the days when they struggled to feature in the top half of the table. In the last five years, they have miss out on the podium finish twice and have won the Coppa Italia once. And this turn in fortune has been made possible mainly by the contribution of the foreign players. Successful spells by Mauro Zárate, Hernanes, Fernando Muslera, and others have firmly established the club’s stance on foreign import policy. A gradual decrease in the number of domestic players in the first team squad—46.88% in 2009–10 to 23.33% in 2013–14—has brought about this much-sought-after success. The quality at disposal, however, was tested to the fullest in Europe. In the last five years, Lazio have been able to progress to the last eight of the Europa League only once. This happened in 2012–13, the year when they were also crowned with the domestic cup. However, extra matches took a toll on their performance as Lazio finished in a disappointing seventh place in the league table. As soon as the players were free from the burden of midweek matches, the team was back in swing this season, doing full justice to their potential. Currently, they occupy the fourth position in the league table and have stormed into the semis of Coppa Italia.

Lazio

A.S. Roma

A team with an eye for the glare, A. S. Roma has had a very low percentage of Italian players under its wings. This is something that has remained more or less constant over the years. In fact, the share went as low as 28.57% in 2012–13. The results, however, have not been that good. The quality of Roma’s foreign players left the passionate supporters from the Italian capital asking for more. A vastly foreign consortium of players saw Roma struggle outside the Europa league spots for three consecutive seasons. However, the team rectified its strategy with an increase in the number of domestic players last season. The result was imminent. Roma finished runners-up in Serie A. However, with the quality of foreign players not something to boast about—and the good ones (Medhi Benatia, Marquinhos, Érik Lamela) frequently sold to encash and fund future transfers—Roma’s European ambitions had to take a back seat. The decline of Serie A and the subsequent loss of one spot from the top tier of the continental championship has been another major factor behind this. Consequently, in the last five years, Roma has been largely out of Europe. In 2009–10, the team crashed out in Round of 16 of UEFA Champions League, and things have gone steadily downhill since then. Roma could not even clear the qualifying rounds of Europa League in the next season. The team did return this year, but have been sent packing from the group stages of the Champions League.

Roma

AC Milan

AC Milan, the most successful Italian club in Europe, depicts a sorry state of affair for the Azzurris. Once a superpower in the continent, they have been relegated to mid-table mediocrity in the last two seasons. However, this decline in form has not been like a bolt from the blue. Selling off prized assets (Kaká, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva), excessive emphasis on local players (Mario Balotelli, Giampaolo Pazzini, Daniele Bonera) and thrusting relative youngsters (Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia de Sciglio) straight into the first team backfired for the Rossoneri. After winning the Scudetto in 2010–11, Milan’s league standings have been second, third, eighth, and 11th (till date, this season) in the subsequent years. The team have been in the Champions League four times in the last five years. Each time, they have crossed the group stages, only to crash out after the first knockout phase. Even then, in the 2011–12 season, they bowed out in the quarterfinals. The indications are crystal clear—the team have to cut down on its heavy dependence on the local players, who are yet to match world-class opponents. Disappointing results have also led to excessive tinkering with the squad and a steady increase in squad size. However, this has done nothing but unstabilized the team dynamics even more.

Milan

SSC Napoli

Napoli is definitely the most improved side in Italy’s top division in recent years. Gli Azzurri have shrugged off their mid table dwellers tag to cement themselves as a top contender for the podium finish. Not only on the league front, the team have dominated the cup competitions as well, having won it twice in quick succession (2011–12 and 2013–14). Sadly enough for Italian football, Napoli’s success has been purely due to foreign players. From being a club heavily reliant on local players—the side had more than 65% Italian players in the squad in 2009–10—it has completely revamped its team dynamics. Last season’s team had as few as nine Italians in a total squad of 32. Foreign imports like Gonzalo Higuain, José Callejón, Dries Mertens—unlike in so many other peer clubs—have increased the quality of football in Napoli, and the results are there for everyone to see.

Napoli

Juventus

Juventus can be seen as a model club for those who value every penny they are spending on the transfer market and still doing an astute business at that. Carlos Tevez was a bargain buy, and Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba were snapped up on free transfers.  Come to think of it, if one compares what a club like Manchester United has spent in the summer window with the Bianconeri,  one would still find the Italian champion  to have come out as a better team. Actually, Juventus had planned for five years in 2011 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. They spent big (as compared to their normal level of investment) to get some big names and, then, have looked to build on that since. The results have been imminent, with the side bagging three league titles in a row. Juventus, however, like most of the Serie A clubs, depends heavily on local players. Though they have a strong team in Italy, they fall quite short of the mark in Europe. Before this season, the only time they managed to go past the group stages in the Champions League was in 2012–13.

Juve

Conclusion

Serie A has long lost its shine, and the dearth of local talent is one major reason behind this. There are very few who can attract eyeballs or lucrative sponsor deals. The clubs are struggling to make ends meet, and want to encash if any of their players show a glimpse of spark. To go with that, match fixing scandals have also alienated big names coming in the Azzurriland. Both Roma and Juventus have demonstrated good form in recent times, but that is more of an exception than a rule.

Italy being in the middle of a deep recession for the last half a decade or so, has not made life easy for the Serie A clubs at all. With no money to spend, clubs had to depend on the Bosman ruling, i.e., sign players out of contract for free. Now, quality players will most definitely never be out of contract. You get what you pay for, after all!

These players are reaching the fag end of their (illustrious, sometimes) career and want to earn whatever they can out of their remaining time on the pitch. Naturally, these big team discards are not that influential in changing the fortunes of the clubs they join. In fact, in certain cases they disturb the team dynamics—e.g., when coaches are lured to field the ageing superstars owing to their past reputations (Nemanja Vidic in Inter Milan this season)—which are met by catastrophic results. A high negative correlation for Udinese in the following table indicates just that.

Clubs Correlation between % of Foreign Player and League Standing
Juventus 54.71 %
Napoli 37.55%
AC Milan 37.74%
AS Roma -0.84%
Udinese

-54.99%

Foreign Players’ quality is an area of concern

After the summer window this season, Serie A clubs cumulatively had more footballers under their tent than the other big four European leagues combined! This was mainly due to the lack of liquidity in the Italian market, which forced clubs to go for quantity over quality. Even then, most of these players were on loan.

All these ageing superstars might awe star-starved fans, which is, actually, the model followed successfully in Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States. This has given a boost to MLS, but is definitely a downgrade for Serie A. Once famous for putting up star-studded line ups, today the Italian clubs are forced to buy players who are close to, if not over, their shelf life.

That was it for the shambles that is the current Serie A. Watch this space for more in our next instalment.

FIFA World Cup With Bollywood Curry

With World Cup just around the corner we re-imagined few of the cult Bollywood movie posters and gave them a football twist in a a humorous, cryptic and minimalist way to wish luck few of the popular nations. This is nothing official but to spice up the month long journey coming ahead. Enjoy – Football in Filmy Attire (in short we call it FIFA).

Argentina – Will He or won’t He be a witness this time?

argentina

Brazil – The zeal for beauty

brazil

England – For the Lion hearted

england

France- Head vs heart. Can they overcome the battle within?

France

Germany – Can they steel a win?

germany

Italy – What’s cooking, Pastafarians?

italy

Netherlands – Thirsting for a win

netherland

Spain – Will the bull run continue for the reigning champions?

spain

D Stands for Death

Debopam Roy previews the teams from the group of death.

Seven World Cups and 19 continental trophies distinguish the four teams in the group which has rightly been called the group of death. Of the 4 teams, one is a reigning continental champion, the other runner up at the continental championships. One is a perennial underachiever while the other is the rank outsider who has always punched above their cumulative weight.

URU_SUmm

Awesome Twosome
Awesome Twosome

Many consider this to be the year of the Los Charruas and not without reason. Their team was a young team on the rise when they lost the semifinals of 2010 World Cup to a Dutch team that was at the peak of its powers. They then lost the third   place playoff to another powerhouse – Germany. Since then, Uruguay has only gone up achieving their highest FIFA ranking (#2) in 2012. They have won the Copa America and also boast the record of being the World Cup winner the last time it was held in Brazil.

However, their prospects would have to be tempered if their qualification campaign is to be considered. Till the  sixth round, La Celeste was unbeaten and on top of group but then a 4-0 loss to Colombia derailed them. Bolivia beat them 4-1 and Argentina beat them 3-1 and Chile got better of them 2-0 and even Ecuador beat them 1-0 and last gasp wins over Argentina and Colombia allowed Uruguay to finish on  fifth spot. That meant a playoff match against a team from Asian qualification campaign, and it was Jordan. Uruguay thumped them by 5 goals away and then played a goalless home leg to qualify through.

The team is built back to front so that  it has a solid defence and midfield and an explosive forward line. The likes of Jorge Fucile, Diego Godin, Diego Lugano, Martin Caceres batten down the hatch of Fernando Muslera’s goal. However, Godin and Lugano are now getting on. Their lack of pack has often been exploited – 25 goals conceded in the qualifiers, of which 16 were on the road, shows that. Uruguay desperately need Sebastian Coates to return from his anterior cruciate injury and recapture the tremendous form of title clinching 2011 Copa America. The midfield has the steel of Walter Gargano, Diego Perez as well as the guile of Nicolas Lodeiro and speed of Gaston Ramirez. But the lynchpin of the squad is easily the formidable twosome of Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s all time leading scorer with 38 goals in 77 matches and Edinson Cavani. Both had extraordinary seasons with Suarez netting 31 goals in Premier League and Cavani 25 in his first stint in  Ligue 1. It’s undoubtedly the deadliest strike duo in world football. Add in the wily Diego Forlan into the mix and the young turk Abel Hernandez and this is a forward line which has everything. Manager Oscar Tabarez has been at the helm since 2006 and has taken Uruguay to their best ever spell in world and continental football since the heydays. After Uruguay had missed out on three of the four preceding World Cups, , Tabarez almost by a wand, transformed their fortunes and Uruguay came  fourth in the continental championships in 2007. Three years later, they repeated that  fourth place in the biggest stage in South Africa and then won the Copa America in 2011. The progression thus says they would repeat that win now in the biggest stage in Brazil and Tabarez’s canonization would be complete. His tactical versatility even during away qualifiers and the Confederations Cup, where he shifted from his usual 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 to counteract the opponent  has been one of the chief weapons.  In 2010, Luis Suarez used his hands (with some thanks to Asamoah Gyan) to send Uruguay to their first ever semi finals since 1950. Can his goals give them their first World Cup since 1950?

Italy_Summ

One Last Hurrah
One Last Hurrah

They say that if the World Cup was held every 12 years then Italy would contest every final (1970, 1982, 1994, 2006). Going by that logic, 2014 is  four years too soon. 12 years is also the time that would take for a new generation to come in and settle down. So Italy has roughly managed to get to every World Cup final when it has had an overhaul of a generation. Cesare Prandelli was the man who was tasked with this. After the debacle of 2010 World Cup when Marcello Lippi overstayed his welcome and his band of merry men, Italy went for a generational change except for  two very distinctive figures – Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. Both are certainly going to their final World Cup,  and, along with Andrea Barzagli and Alberto Gilardino (if they are called up) they bear the only link to the team of 2006.

Indeed Prandelli has had quite the turnaround in fortune. After leading Azzurri, quite unexpectedly, to the finals of the Euros, it was a bit disappointing that Italy only finished third in the Confederations Cup. However, in the later tournament, Prandelli showed that the lessons from the 4-0 Euro final defeat at the hands of the Spaniards were well and truly taken. Italy only lost to eventual champions Brazil and held Spain goalless, losing in the tiebreaker  in  the semifinal. The experience of playing in the heat of Brazil would definitely help Lo Azzurri cope better than the other teams in the main tournament.

Looking at the World Cup qualifying stage, one would have to say Prandelli has broken new ground. Italy has been perennial slow starters as well as tense finishers. The 2014 campaign has been as smooth as one of Pirlo’s long range passes. Going unbeaten and  qualifying with two games to spare, was quite an achievement. Second-placed Denmark was  so poor that they were adjudged the worst runner up in European qualifying campaign and so failed to advance to the second round. But it has a different edge too. Once qualification was sealed, Prandelli experimented with the last two matches and rotated his squad. Italy failed to win either of them, lost vital ranking points, dropped out of the seeded places and now find themselves in the group of Death.

The new Azzurri have new heroes waiting to be unleashed. Ciro Immobile may have quite some puns on his surname but being the leading scorer in the Serie A at 24 is no mean feat. Just to put that into perspective, the last Italian striker to be capocannoniere in Serie A before his 24th year was one Filippo Inzaghi and the one before that was Beppe Signori. Both of them were part of the Italian  squad that reached the World Cup final and had the tiebreaker settling the fate – once with heartbreak and other with joy. Immobile, though, would have to thank Torino teammate Alessio Cerci, who is having the season of his lifetime. At 26, he is a rare Italian forward who can burn the wings while still being creative ( nine assists this season) and prolific in front of the goal (13 goals).  Then plying his trade for Napoli, Insigne is probably the closest Italy has to a true fantasista. Stephan El Shaarawy of Milan is returning after almost a season long injury layoff, and the Pharaoh would do well to get into the team. His teammate, Mario Balotelli though is sure to lead the charge of this young brigade. With Juventus winning a treble of scudetti, Italy is assured of a solid defence  and midfield which have played together for long.

Overall, Italy will provide a vibrant new team that still has the engine room run by Pirlo and a solid defensive backbone. But are they equipped enough to break the 12-year cycle? Probably not. The key personnel in this team are either going for their first World Cup or their last. Most world cups are won when the majority of the team  is in their peak between 25-32 years. So this maybe one World Cup too soon. But still this team has performed admirably and would definitely be there towards  the business end of the tournament.

EngSumm

Captain Fantastic
Captain Fantastic

England’s participation in a global event has two characteristics  – media hype and penalty anguish (England has only won one knockout match in a top tournament when it has gone to penalties) . Their press makes sure that the optimism is high for each “golden generation” and then when the team doesn’t come good, the recrimination is equally scathing. This time though there has not been too much hype. Part of it is to do with the understanding that success of English clubs in Europe doesn’t equate to success of the English national team in the World Cup. A chastening Euro where England  neither disgraced themselves (unlike the 4-0 thrashing in 2010 World Cup) nor lit up the ambitions showed that the team is still quite far off the continental front runners – Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy. In the 48 years since their lone triumph, England has  managed to reach the semi finals only once.

The qualification campaign was more proof that England still aren’t what their scribes would like them to be. Despite going unbeaten, England failed to beat closest competitor, Ukraine across both the legs. And they were chased right till the last minute of their last match. Only a 2-0 win against Poland at home ensured England finished one point above Ukraine. The other jarring thing was that England couldn’t beat any of the other top  three nations on the road. Roy Hodgson’s team at times played listless football and managed to get the result by luck or great goalkeeping exploits. Indeed one of the bright features was the defensive display and England conceded   four goals – only Spain conceded lesser. They also scored 31 goals which would rank them third most prolific behind the Germans and the Dutch. But this fact should be tempered with the knowledge that 22 of those goals came in four matches against San Marino and Moldova. Indeed, if we take out the results of those two teams from group H, it is Ukraine who finishes above England both in points (11 to 10) and goal difference (+6 to +5).

In a twisted way though, this patchy qualification has for once ensured that the expectations are more tempered thus ensuring the squad goes to the finals in a better frame of mind. No more is it deemed that all English superstar players have to do is turn up at the biggest stage and the prize is theirs. They have to toil and graft, which they have shown they can do in this campaign and it will hold them in good stead in this group of death. Exiting at the group stage would probably be disastrous for the millions of fans and they would bank on the fact that the Italians are notorious slow starters and try to bag one of the top two spots.

One thing is for certain, if the team is to do well, Wayne Rooney would have to have an outstanding World Cup. The qualification campaign saw the Manchester United forward bag  seven goals which were still  four less than his Mancunian teammate Robin van Persie, the leading scorer in European qualifying campaign. Indeed if the support cast of Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge can support Rooney for the goals, then England probably has the defence in Leighton Baines , Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and Glen Johnson to hold on to those leads. Steven Gerrard is probably finally having the season he has always dreamt of. A Liverpool legend who just missed out in completing his trophy cabinet at club level as Man City won the league, he would elevate himself to an English legend if he can lead this English team to the Holy Grail.

CRSumm

Captain Bryan Ruiz
Captain Bryan Ruiz

When the other  three teams in your group are former World Cup winners, all you can hope for is, you exit with some dignity. Costa Rica would expect nothing different and they might decide which of the  three heavy weights go out at group stage by managing to sneak a draw or even a win against any of the three. But their qualifying campaign has been a fairy-tale and the confidence that they would gain from that may propel them to upset one of the group’s big shots.

Costa Rica has qualified for the World Cup  three times before this and twice they had topped from the CONCACAF region. This included their maiden venture at Italia 90 when they beat Scotland and Sweden in the tournament proper to actually advance to the second round. Their performance in their next World Cup appearance was equally commendable. The Ticos lost 5-2 to eventual champion Brazil, drew 1-1 with eventual    third place finishers Turkey and beat China 2-0. Still they finished third in the group and were eliminated only on goal difference as that 5-2 loss meant they would finish with an inferior goal difference to Turkey.  Four years later they qualified as  third team from CONCACAF and   suffered a rambunctious 4-2 loss in the opening match to Germany but proved insipid in the other two matches against Poland and Ecuador. In 2010, Costa Rica finished 4th in CONCACAF and went into a  two-legged play-off against Uruguay. The Ticos lost at home by a solitary goal and despite threatening a second goal which would have taken them through to the world cup, could only settle for 1-1 in the away match.

The 2014 qualifying campaign had the Ticos almost eliminated after  two losses to Mexico in the 3rd round of CONCACAF qualifying campaign. A 1-0 win over El Salvador and 7-0 thrashing of Guyana pushed them to the fourth round. There they were a different force altogether and qualified with a couple of matches to spare. But goal scoring remains a problem – captain Bryan Ruiz scored only three goals during the whole qualifying campaign (10 matches) but that was enough to make him the top goal scorer for the team.

The team has its blend of experience and youth. Many of the first team play in top leagues of Europe and have honed their skill well in the best leagues. In defence, there is goalkeeper Keylor Navas from Levante who kept  seven clean sheets from 14 qualifying matches, defenders Junior Diaz of Mainz 05, Christian Gamboa of Rosenborg and Oscar Duarte of Club Brugge. The best of the midfield play their trade in Scandinavia – Celso Borges at AIK and Cristian Bolanos at Copenhagen. But it is the forward line which has grabbed all the attention. 21-year-old Joel Campbell was signed by Arsenal and sent to Olympiacos. He showed his talent  by scoring against Manchester United in the Champions League second round . Captain Bryan Ruiz has been a star for PSV after joining them on loan from Fulham. Alvaro Saborio Chacon is the most experienced and has scored 32 goals for his national team placing him   third behind Rolando Fonseca and Paulo Wanchope in the all-time lists.

Costa Rica is managed by Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto who has experience of managing all over Latin and Central America, which included  three titles in Costa Rica. He has been managing Costa Rica since 2011. He has made them defensively compact and pressing the opponents when not in possession of the ball. Since qualification, Costa Rica has been less than auspicious. Losses to Australia and South Korea sandwiched between a 4-0 thrashing from Chile. But they managed a 2-1 win over Paraguay in their last friendly. It would be a miracle if Costa Rica can manage to open their account in the group. Their best chance would be to catch either of the two European teams unaware, who are not used to the heat of Brazil. Even then, it would be a brave man who would bet Costa Rica getting to the next round.

Football Italia – Why they are where they are

 Calcio is not ready for a change, yet! Gino de Blasio analyses what ails Italian football in the first of his three part series   

 Match fixing. Mercurial mad men of football. Zemanlandia.

It reads richer than a Federico Fellini script, where the main protagonists find themselves wondering “where’s the bit where I get to kiss Britt Ekland again?” But this is calcio, in its current incarnation. A diaspora of talent, a quagmire of old ideologies coming to terms with a new football reality.

Why they are where they are

 It’s too contrived to think that I have the answer to this particular dilemma, but I have some thoughts on the matter. For me, I see three things that have curtailed Italian football development and things that have got them into this mess to start with.

 Culture. Systems. Lack of investment.

All three are related, two are easier to change, but it comes down to the powers of calcio. The movers and the shakers are such that, they need to ask the question, “Do we really want it to change?

Culture

Let’s take culture. When Spain play, they are credited with their national culture for the way that tiki taka has enabled them to win so much; they have, however, had to work on this. They have had to take an introspective look and ask themselves, “What’s going to work for us?” Their style of play is to be admired; no one can deny that some of the football seen in the national game is breathtaking. However, their business side, much like their economy is in a mess. Once again, culture strikes at the heart of their problem, this is no different to the Italian game, in my opinion.

In Italy, it’s easier to get things moving, done, completed, if you know the right people, in the right places. The system of getting planning permission for stadiums isn’t a public tender issue, but a private one. Take for example, football ground ownership. It’s all public, aside from two clubs – Udinese and Juventus. Ironically, look whose books are in better order!

Once the culture of the national landscape waddles its way into the nooks and crannies of the national game, then you have to accept that, it is ultimately one of the greatest barriers to the game from ever developing into a new “super power of football”.

Take calcioscomesse, a problem that has affected the Italian game more than any other league. Is it true that all Italians are corrupt? No, they aren’t. But do Italians believe that they can get away without paying taxes, jumping queues, getting their things seen to first? Unfortunately, most do believe that, that is the way. It’s taken years to get there, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t disappear overnight.

System

Systematic changes are a different kettle of fish, but they are affected by the culture indefinitely. Ok, put it this way: FIGC, the Italian football commission is so archaic that whilst the board has changed several times over the last 20 years, the people that were there 20 years ago hold massive veto powers. That’s basically like saying, “Hold on guys, what does Mussolini think?” Granted Mussolini is dead, but if he were alive and still in parliament, his decisions would continue to sway the system.

The recent calcioscomesse issues have brought up the problem for everyone to see.

Antonio Conte was found guilty of not reporting match fixing. He has claimed since the start that he was innocent. 23 witnesses have claimed that he was innocent. One man has claimed he was guilty. Who wins? The one man, and the system goes completely against the sense of logic and fairness in the whole case.

Juventus coach Conte is escorted to Italian football federation disciplinary committee for his appeal in Rome

The reason why the system is the way it is, is actually simple. The culture hasn’t allowed for the change to occur. In a nation where people are judged upon title of study rather than what they can contribute to society, there is always going to be an endemic problem of changing something that embodies that whole spirit. Put another way, if someone likes being called doctor and enjoys the benefits of being labelled so, why would he or she change it? Simple, they most certainly wouldn’t.

Investment

And then we come to investment, or rather lack of it.

All but one club in Italy is wholly owned by a single foreign investor, AS Roma. And yet that investor has Italian heritage – Thomas DiBenedetto. When foreign leagues such as that of the Premiership have multiple foreign owners, you notice a massive difference in how the club is run.

Thomas DiBenedetto

I’m not saying that it is indeed a perfect system in the EPL. Actually, I think it’s far from perfect, you only have to look at the number of clubs which have financially failed because of such ownership, and when you compare that to the Italian league, it is a different story.

But opening the doors to foreign investment has allowed the EPL to develop grounds, to get the ball rolling, into making it a more open, friendlier and most importantly, more commercially viable option as a league. The expansion of the Premiership over the last 20 years has come about because not only are the investors interested in seeing their new ’toy’ in action, but they also see a business future somewhere down the line.

More and more pre-season tournaments happening in foreign countries are only the start; who is to say we won’t get some sort of NFLesque model where a game a season is played in America or China to help expand the reach of the Premiership? This could only happen because foreign owners see the value in it, perhaps not the fans.

What about other leagues? The German Bundesliga has the highest ownership of clubs by fans. Bayern Munich is 70% owned by the fans; they have such a rewarding system, that club ownership is seen not only as a duty to keep the books in order but to ensure stadia are looked after and fans are at the heart of key decisions.

The point to all of this is, the Italian system is not willing to open itself up to such changes, yet. But when it does, how will the Italian game cope? I think culturally, not well.

Look at Olivetti computers. In the late 80’s they were Italy’s IBM, then Hewlett Packard launched an attack for ownership, it took eight years to see them change hands, eight years! I’m pretty sure I finished high school in eight years and started college when it did eventually happen.

The Italian game needs to identify its own problems, but surely this is a good starting point for them.

In my second part, I will be looking at what the Italian game can change and how they should go about doing it, in my eyes.

Tactical Evolution at Euro 2012

With the UEFA Euro 2012 having drawn to a close, pundits decipher the new trends in football. While some tactical displays have caught the eyes and might just pave the way for future of football, some strategies simply did not work and will pass on like a fad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings it all under one roof here

Azzurri turn the clock with a three-man backline

The Azzurri started the tournament with an abandoned 3-5-2 formation. Their three-central-defender ploy worked to an extent as they were able to hold on to a hard-fought draw against the mighty Spanish team. They must have been influenced by Juventas and Napoli, who deployed a pure three-back system successfully last season in Serie A. Such was their influence, 16 other teams had experimented with this strategy sometime or other in the last season.  Elsewhere, Barcelona also plays with a lop-sided 4-3-3 where Dani Alvez pushes further up the flank to make it similar to 3-4-3. Major criticism of this system has been its tactical deficiency especially playing against a solo forward. One of the central defenders marks the lone striker when another one covers him. The third member of the back trio now becomes redundant and hence the opponent gets a man advantage. This is exactly what happened when Spain had a focal point in attack in the form of Fernando Torres as he exploited the high line of Italy. Yet Cesare Prandelli used the system well as a shock element and bamboozled his opponents. It allowed the strikers to play further up the pitch and their interlinking with the advanced central midfielder duo became more dangerous. As the tournament went on, Prandelli reverted to a traditional back four but the opposition teams were always guessing which strategy they will be up against in the next match.

 Three Lions deploy two banks of four

Roy Hodgson, the newly appointed England coach admitted before the tournament started that they do not quite belong to the group of big boys at this moment. Also, he made no secret of the fact that England lack a midfield maestro who can influence the game like an Andres Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo.  So he thought, “If I cannot play a free flowing attacking game, let me stop the opponent from doing so.” In came the (in)famous Chelsea model – implement two rows of four men to counter the attacking threat of the opponent. To start with, it was a 4-4-1-1 but the midfielders dropped back without fail when England lost possession. The graphic blow was a regular occurrence for the Three Lions when the midfielders provided an extra shield to their defenders. The front men also tucked in as Hodgson was keen to keep the shape. No English player was caught offside in the group stages – a statistic which shows their lack of desire and ambition. This is a model which is used for smaller teams playing against more accomplished opponents, but they invariably get broken down due to superior skill of the stronger team or as the fatigue creeps in due to humongous work rate during the closing stages of the match. Once in a while, this defensive strategy might just work, but do not expect this system to appeal much to the football lovers.

German counter punch to the flavour of the season

With the beginning of this century, holding midfielders have grown in importance in world football. With the commencement of this decade, teams have started using two of them to counter attack threat of opposition and thus 4-2-3-1 seems to be a favoured option for most of the teams. Having two men anchoring the midfield in the form of destroyers frees up the full-backs to venture forward. It also allows the coaches having to find only one decent striker in the starting line-up as they have been an endangered species of late. Some teams look to play a midfield diamond but very rarely have we seen any team starting without a defensive midfielder. Joachim Löw figured out if he starts with two proper box-to-box midfielders, then it will be very difficult for the opponent to mark them. Thus if Samir Khedira lunges forward to join the likes of Mesut Ozil, Mario Gomez, Lucas Podolski et al, Bastian Schweinsteiger will stay back. If the opportunity comes, he can join the attack and Khedira will automatically drift back. This kind of strategy works brilliantly as the midfielders will have a roaming role and neither of them is being restricted to merely hold the fort.

Khedira with Schweinsteiger

I’ll have them all – La Espanyol style

Spain is undoubtedly the team of this generation, if not the greatest national team ever to have embraced the game. So powerful is their current squad that Vicente Del Bosque can easily field two teams against each other and it will be very difficult to say which team will emerge victorious. Well, Spain did use their squad depth to some extent when they had as many as six midfielders in their starting line-up. Playing Cesc Fabregas in a ‘false nine’ role was a decision tempted by the injury of David Villa, indifferent form of Fernando Torres and inexperience at the highest stage for others around. This was the toast of the season with all the teams baffled by this striker-less formation. It will be interesting to see if teams worldwide can reproduce this system – having a strong team where each player can play different roles will be a must – but Spain did come up with a master class as they went on to lift another major trophy with some ease.

Spanish Armada in Euro 2012

Passing Thought

Teams have become more fluid now. Micro Tactics, as they call it, defines the minutes of movements of a player during the course of any particular match. This may sound like making the game more mechanical which prevents the creative players from showcasing a moment of magic. Of course not! Top class players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will roam around the pitch to influence the game as much as possible. But it will then be the responsibility of others around to fill in different roles to augment their main playmaker’s movement. This allows coaches to change shape during a match without bringing in any substitute. Sometimes this can be done to create an impact in the match – as Real Madrid tinkers around from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 – or to exploit any susceptible weakness of the opposition – as Joachim Löw assesses the match to shift from one formation to another. This is exactly how a football manager game is played – players will have a starting position but their role will keep on changing continuously.

Azzurri Surpasses Expectation

Euro 2012 once again showed how Italy can rise from the darkest depths of controversy. Rossella Marrai traces that journey for the Azzurri

Prandelli Pride in Azzurri  Voyage of Discovery

In the words of Vincent del Bosque, ‘everyone loses sometimes’ and it was Italy’s time to lose on Sunday July 1, against the mighty, and quite possibly the greatest teams of all time, Spain. Having gone through the Euro 2012 campaign undefeated up until the final game, Azzurri coach, Cesare Prandelli bowed out in a dignified manner.

It has been an extraordinary championship. Now we have to grow over the next two years. We went through some hard times by staying united. We also showed that we can lose with dignity. I’ve complimented the players.”

Prandelli: It has been an extraordinary championship

A highly impressive qualification campaign instilled some hope in the hearts of the nation of a possible semi-final berth. However, the final weeks of build-up was far from fruitful than that of the yellow brick road they would surprisingly discover.

Calcioscommesse, Earthquakes and Potholed Build-up

In 1982, a betting scandal shook Italy, but astoundingly the Azzurri managed to keep their wits about them to be crowned FIFA World Champions for the third time. Similarly, in 2006, a match-fixing scandal erupted across The Boot, which involved big teams like Milan and Juventus, and this time it was Marcello Lippi who instilled serenity inside the squad while everything crumbled in league football.

That year Fabio Cannavaro hoisted the highly sought-after prize and six years later it was no different. Another betting scandal broke out and it left a tremor of fear when fellow Italian defender Domenico Criscito was hauled up for questioning.

Police raided the camp at dawn

Once all the players were at the disposition of the coach at the famous training camp of Coverciano, the squad was assigned two official friendlies, against Luxembourg and Russia. Undeniably not enough time to iron out any possible formation and tactical doubts that hung over Prandelli.

The first pothole they encountered was on May 29, 2012.  Not only did it affect the former Fiorentina tactician’s preparation but it was a nationwide tragedy, in the shape of a 5.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Emilia-Romagna — the region in which Italy were set to face Luxembourg.

The earthquake hit northern Italy

With the death toll rising, there was no option but to cancel the game; leaving just one friendly match against Russia to get things right. Worlds away from the impressive form of the qualifiers, the Azzurri stooped to a 3-0 loss to Group A contenders. It was a loss which immediately resulted in numerous pundits writing off La Nazionale.

Voyage of Discovery and Avoiding the Biscotto

Little did they know that a sweet and sour voyage of discovery would lie ahead for Captain Gigi Buffon and his boys! Alla stile Italiano (in Italian style) the Azzurri would get off to a slow start in their Group C matches.

As the football gods of fate would have it, Italy’s opening and closing game would be against Spain. Andrea Pirlo and company managed to hold their own against Andres Iniesta and his colleagues in the opener, where they grabbed the breakthrough in the game.

Fortune always favours the brave and it did so, although for all of three minutes, for Italy and Antonio Di Natale. The Udinese front-man boldly replaced an anonymous Mario Balotelli, and rightly so, as he pitched in the first goal of Group C with his first touch.

Since he wasn’t part of the Euro qualifiers, it would be a memorable first touch in 2012 for him after having not featured in a competitive game for Italy since their 3-2 loss to Slovakia, in South Africa in 2010. A bitter memory of thus having hit the final missed penalty in 2008 quarter-finals against the same adversary was also laid to rest.

Antonio di Natale exorcised a demon from 2008 scoring with his first touch

That impressive 1-1 draw with Spain was followed by a barrage of wasted chances against Croatia. Failure to make the most of opportunities created, Italy’s only incision was Andrea Pirlo’s stunner of a free-kick and that was cancelled out by the newly- anointed household name of Mario Mandzukic.

Back-to-back 1-1 draws were far from what Prandelli had in mind, as nothing but maximum points would be accepted in the final match against the already eliminated Republic of Ireland, all while hoping Croatia wouldn’t hand them the famous biscotto which so famously haunted Italy in their 2004 elimination in the Euro against Sweden.

No, I’m not angry,” the 54-year-old tactician said after the match against the Croats. “Of course we are a bit annoyed because a side that plays football and creates chances needs to kill off the game.

Football is rather unique in that way, because just one cross can ruin everything you have built up over the course of a game, so we have a lot of regrets.”

Nevertheless, the best way to get over regret is to eclipse it with the better part of what it could have been and that is exactly what they did against their ally-turned-enemy, Giovanni Trapattoni. Capitalizing on two openings directed at goal, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli gave Italy their first win of the tournament, marking a turning point in their attitude. With Croatia having lost 1-0 to Spain, the Azzurri had managed to dodge the potholes and reach the yellow brick road.

Progress continued by eliminating England in a 4-2 penalty shoot-out, which saw Pirlo, or rather ‘Twinkle Toes’, effortlessly graze the ball past Joe Hart to perform the famous cucchiaio or Panenka penalty.

Pirlo’s perfect Panenka

Whilst fortune, or perhaps destiny, may have played a hand in Italy’s rise, few would have favoured the chances against Joachim Löw’s men; few, except the highly criticized Mario Balotelli.

More often than not it is dangerous to make a bad boy angry and even more so when he is in the public eye. Ballotelli let his feet silence the critics who were all but crucifying him for not living up to expectations. That ‘Balotelli moment’ came with a header and an unstoppable diagonal shot clocked in at 128km per hour which sent Italy through to the final of the European Championship. And ‘Balo’ lived up to the tag of ‘Super Mario’.

Balotelli’s Bulldozer

It was indeed a special moment for him and the Azzuri, one they would cherish as: “The most beautiful day of my life. I have waited for this moment for so long, especially with my mum here, I wanted to make her happy.” It was like this one act had united the squad, Prandelli was getting the recognition he deserved, and an air of belief had restored itself in the training camp.

We came here with lots of non-football related problems, and also the friendlies we played during our preparation went pretty badly,” Gigi Buffon told UEFA.com before the climatic event. “So that’s why we were a bit afraid of playing a bad tournament. But along with the coach we managed to find the right atmosphere within the team, so we could make it here.”

Italy feel La Furia Roja

Spain, the defending European Champions and World Cup winners, were up next and they were on a daunting unbeaten run, of competitive matches, stretching back to their 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening match of the 2010 World Cup. Since they had already played Vincent Del Bosque’s ‘false nine’ side to a draw in the opening Group C encounter, the Italians had the confidence but lacked fitness.

The Italians had already played thirty minutes longer than the Spanish, excluding the penalties taken, and were subjected to less rest than their counterparts. Fatigue and injuries were so rife that Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi could not train the day before the final, Claudio Marchisio was struggling to get into full fitness. Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta were both not 100% fit from their injuries picked up in the course of the tournament and it evidently took its toll.

Chiellini was replaced in the opening 21 minutes due to injury, while Thiago Motta reduced the side to 10 men, due to injury, after just three minutes of coming on. There was little the game changers such as Pirlo and Balotelli could have done during the 4-0 drubbing which left Prandelli awestruck.

When we fly over Kyiv and see the stadium lights I will have pangs of disappointment but I leave proud,” Prandelli said after the game.

Testa Alta, Heroes and Cassano’s Victory

Despite the monstrous defeat, the Azzurri returned winners, for having restored faith in their fans and above all, themselves. Like the papers printed: Testa Alta– Heads held high.

With a shining squad comes a group of star players and Buffon, Pirlo and De Rossi were undoubtedly Italy’s best trio. Having only conceded three goals up until the final, the skipper proved once more why he became one of the highest-priced goalkeepers on the transfer market. Not only did he control his Juve-inspired backline, but his passion and belief in the squad carried Prandelli’s men through the nerviest of moments.

Pirlo’s poise, elegance and grace were stupendous to watch. With each touch of the ball the former Milan man proved he was a dictator of play, from the backline right to the front. The midfielder’s vision was in a class of its own and his goal against Croatia remained the only goal scored directly off a free kick in the tournament. It was a strike which embodied everything that is Andrea Pirlo.

De Rossi proved to all why he hails from the Eternal City. With one hand in bandage and a sciatic nerve problem, De Rossi fought like a true gladiator through the pain barrier. Breaking up play and clearing balls, the Roma player was a class act from the boy which famously elbowed Brian McBride during the 2006 World Cup. His selflessness to help the team even saw him step into the centre of defence, where he intercepted play as if he had played there his whole life.

A story of triumph of human spirit

And although Italy may have left Ukraine with the silver medals, one person walked away with much more than the medal and a runners-up tag. That man was Antonio Cassano. Having suffered a stroke last November, it was initially feared that the Milan striker would never get on to the field again. But not only did the braveheart overcome a heart operation, he even made it to Prandelli’s hand-picked team for the Euros. His eagerness to return paid off and he managed to score a goal and bag two assists, a stellar victory in itself.

While the players may have been fighting off their tears of disappointment after the final whistle, Cassano had one thing to celebrate and that was the most important thing of all: life.

Prandelli Project

The Orzinuovi-born tactician can exude so much humility and joy for he has had his baptism by fire and come out a proud man. Just two years after taking charge from some great predecessors, Cesare Claudio Prandelli took the brave step to change an ultimately successful set-up. The dynamics and outlook of the game were changed. The Italians were playing with passion and hunger once more; they were managing to control the majority of the game and poked around the goal post a lot more. Formation adaptations from a back-three and back-four were done with ease and the stereotype of the famous catenaccio play was dropped. All this was done with success, while keeping the identity of Italian football intact. They turned out to be the most alarming, yet highly positive dimensions in the Italian squad.

Light criticism may have been thrown in the direction of the coach for the underuse of youngsters such as Angelo Ogbonna, Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Borini. But with a long future ahead under the eye of the youth development king, Prandelli has provided them with an experience like no other and one they can only build upon.

The ‘Prandelli Project’ will continue to grow during next year’s Confederation Cup tournament, a prelude to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and if this year’s tournament is anything to go by, I Tre Colori (The Three Colours) will be favouring their chances of success.

 “As long as we play football we are a good side. So long as we try to take supremacy in midfield we are a good side, but if we try to protect a result we become a side with a thousand fears. I have to compliment my team because they really played an excellent tournament,”  said the master tactician, appreciating his team.

Roberto Baggio and the Essence of Buddhism

There are a few footballers who transcend the boundaries of victory and defeat with the sheer joy of their skill. Il Divin Codino was one of them. Deepanjan Deb pays his homage

Date: July 17, 1994

Place: Rosebowl Stadium, Pasadena, California, USA

Occasion: World Cup Final

Competing Teams: Brazil vs Italy

At Stake: Being the first team to win the most coveted trophy in World football four times

At the heart of two of the world’s finest teams were two players who had almost single-handedly been responsible for both their teams reaching the final; Romario for Brazil and Roberto Baggio for Italy. In Romario’s case he was blessed with a magical Brazilian team that had flair and effectiveness spread all over their squad, not pretty much different from the Brazilian teams of the past. Contrariwise, without Baggio, Italy pretty much would have been knocked out early in the tournament. An inspirational performance from their talismanic striker, the then incumbent World Player of the Year was the reason Italy progressed to the finals beating some magnificent teams on the way. And as fate would have promised, the world’s biggest tournament was rather harshly to be decided by a penalty shootout – for the first time in the history of the tournament – as 120 minutes of football could not separate the two best teams on the planet. With Brazil leading 3-2 after four shots each, it was left to Baggio to force a Brazilian player to take the fifth shot and win the World Cup for Brazil. And then came the moment: the world’s most celebrated footballer shot the ball into the sky which handed Brazil the coveted World Cup for the fourth time in their glorious history. The man who was the reason for Italy playing the World Cup final suddenly became “the player who cost Italy the World Cup final”. It just took a kick to change a life…..the life of Roberto Baggio was never the same after that eternal shot at the Rosebowl.

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The story of Roberto Baggio is not the story of a failed penalty kick but is the story of perhaps Italy’s most celebrated footballer, a global superstar whose rise and fall from grace can echo the behavioural pattern of a sinusoidal curve. He was one of the finest attacking players to have come out of Italy and remains the only Italian player ever to score in three different World Cups. Yet amidst all the hoopla surrounding his increasing fan base, Baggio managed to retain a halo of calmness which was attributed to his Buddhist background. The only Buddhist in a team of Catholics, Baggio practised Buddhism with so much devotion that it earned him his nickname The Divine Ponytail.

Born to a family of eight brothers, Baggio showed passion for the beautiful game very early in his childhood. Having progressed through the Italian junior national team, Baggio was developing into a world class talent at Fiorentina. However, hit by injury in 1987, his outlook towards life changed when a touch of fate introduced him to the world of Buddhism. One fine morning, he went to his friend Morrichio and told him of his intentions to turn a Buddhist. Against vehement protests from his religiously catholic family, Baggio became a practising Buddhist and was never the same person again. As Buddhism entails calmness into his life, Baggio became involved in the deeper inner meanings of life which his family members slowly started to understand and more importantly, accept. Meditation became a part and parcel of his life and despite his hectic playing schedules, Baggio never forgot to meditate.

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The lives of many great men and women like Steven Seagal, Richard Gere, Tiger Woods and Tina Turner among many other global celebrities have been influenced by the Buddhist philosophy which is why we see an increasing number of people turning to meditation to seek divine peace – something that always seems to be missing from the perils of a fast-paced modern life. The essence of Buddhism is a path that alters an individual’s thinking process to experience reality silently: deep into the subconscious mind one becomes aware of the inner meaning of life, the ground reality of life where experience and the experienced share the same sound of music – that of harmony and peace.  Roberto Baggio’s love and devotion towards Buddhism became stronger with time. Buddhism taught him life and its inner meaning: “Life is a struggle and its truths are not always pleasant”. His attitude towards pain and struggle changed. Buddhism increased his level of tolerance and he began to take up challenges rather than run away from them. At one point of time, injuries became a synchronized series of progression in his life and he contemplated giving up football, but his Buddhist inner-self told him to not accept failure, rather realise that life is a challenge. This gave him the strength to face sterner challenges as he became the star of Juventus and the future of Italian football.

Since his high profile transfer to Juventus from Fiorentina post the 1990 World Cup , Baggio went on to become the toast of world football winning the Scudettoand the UEFA Cup and being named the World Player of the Year in 1993. But the world turned upside down for the mercurial genius with one penalty kick that virtually transformed him to an anti-hero from a superhero. There were even talks that if he would have been a Christian he would not have missed that penalty. Baggio took all that in his stride silently and he later said that his Buddhist values had made him handle his toughest days with serenity. He was saddened by the fact that before him two of his other team-mates had also missed penalties in the shoot-out and even if he had scored, an Italian victory was not assured as a Brazilian was supposed to take the next kick. Yet he was tagged as “The Man who cost Italy the World Cup”. Sadly, very few failed to even think for a minute that without Baggio, Italy would not have ever reached the finals. Such is life: it takes a second to wipe out years of earned respect, pride and prestige.

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Roberto Baggio

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As a young 9-year-old watching his favourite footballer miss a penalty, I remember crying alone at 3 a.m. in the night India time, and my parents getting up to console me, assuring me that Baggio will score again in the next World Cup. I asked them, “But that is four years later. Will he play? Will Italy win?” He played, he scored a penalty but Italy did not win the World Cup. Cesare Maldini preferred Alessandro Del Piero over Baggio in most of the matches which led to severe criticism. That was virtually the last act the world would witness of the most gifted Italian footballer of our generation in a national t-shirt. He played for Brescia till 2004 before fading gloriously into a retired life where his wife and his two children form the fulcrum of his daily existence. And of course, what has remained with him is his tryst with Buddhism – the reason he cites for his faithfulness to his wife Andreina and his non-involvement in any kind of scandal.

What also remains with him is the memory of a shot which is probably the reason he named his autobiography “Una Porta Nel Cielo” (A Goal in the Sky). No one can take away the pain of that moment from him but his Buddhist self will help him maintain his composure and regain poise whenever the pain haunts him.

 
Image Rights: © ARMANDO ROTOLETTI / GRAZIA NERI
 

Step On To Greatness: Euro Final Preview

Match Facts

Final: Italy vs Spain

Sunday, 01 July 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy, Kiev

There are quite a few self-help books which preach how one can achieve success in life or attain greatness. Most of them have a particular tenet in them – Belief in your own ability. Euro 2012 has thrown two teams in the final, who have had to pass through the extreme test of not just overpowering the opposition, but also those that concern your inner demons. Sometimes those demons are situational – like what Spain are enduring. Once hailed as the ultimate footballing spectacle – the tiki taka brand of passing is now derided by most of the footballing fraternity as a defensive and boring tactics. It doesn’t inspire the joie-de-vivre of 2008 or 2010. The fact that Spain has not conceded a goal in a knockout round of games, stretching back to 2008 Euros is what is often forgotten, highlighting the million passes that they have played in those games. But really, is it so dramatic a shift on Spain’s part? They have probably the best set of passers in any European midfield banded together, who can protect the ball as well as do damage to the opposition. It’s a different thing, and protecting the ball has been more important to Spain in 2012 Euros than doing damage to the opposition. A stat which illustrates that is that in Euro 2008, Spain completed 33 passes per shot; in 2010 World Cup, it went up to 44 and in Euro 2012 they have completed 58 passes for each shot. That Spain have not started Pedro and Jesus Navas, shows they have abandoned their wing play. And then couple that with the situation of not starting a forward and you get a team that is clinging to its strength to the extreme that they are only concerned about the result and not about the manner in which it is obtained. There are many amongst us, who swear by the quality of the game and not the result. If we call them Purists, then Spain definitely needs an exorcism or two. It’s been a strange journey, where a style of play, so much applauded and appreciated for its invigorating nature, has become an object of negativity – tiki taka being represented as tikitakanechio because it has embraced a functionality to itself that was once purely creative.

Italy score through Di Natale in the group opener…
…but Fabregas equalises via a Silva assist

It’s been exactly an opposite ride for Italy under Cesare Prandelli. A man who was entrusted with the job of pulling the Azzurri out from the ashes of Marcello Lippi’s egoistic bonfire of 2010 world cup campaign, Prandelli has already done the unthinkable. His Italy has carved an identity which is unique in the Azzurri history. Here comes a team that has become likable, exciting, attacking, and creative and the neutral’s favourite. This is a far cry from all the great Italy teams of yore (and there are quite many of them). Gone are the adjectives – boring, defensive, cynical and most importantly the C word (you can now find it attached to Spain). The great Italian teams were defined by one word – functional. They just knew how to win, even if it came via less than spectacular means. Prandelli, has changed that. His Italy side are arguably the most attacking unit in the Euros, having created more chances and more shots on target than any other team.  The defense is still strong (though Spain has conceded 2 less goals), the midfield is creative and the attack line actually playes 2 strikers, without lumping-it-forward-to-the-big-man style that most teams playing 2 forwards (like England) did. Prandelli has a vision and this Italy has shown it is capable of winning, while still sticking to that vision. The nature of difficulties that this team has faced are not minor: top striker breaking his leg and not coming to the euro; top striker with a heart disease that almost finished his career; top defender ruled out at last moment due to a attention-seeking dawn raid by the police; country prime minister calling for the team to withdraw from Euro 2012 only days before it was to start and many more. Let’s just say, that no Italian fan would have been disappointed if Italy had exited at its first hurdle. The team was not thought to be ready. The players were not thought to be fit. The group was thought to be really tricky. And yet three weeks down the line, there is only one team that has never fallen behind in any match and that team is not the reigning world and European champions. It has been a story of far greater magnitude than the tournament itself. Win or lose the final, Prandelli and Italy has already assured they are winners in their own rights. Whether this relaxes them to a victory or makes them complacent and leads to a defeat is the point to see.

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The battle that would define the Europe Crown

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Both teams are on the cusp of greatness. One team can cement its name as the finest of all time by winning three major championships that no European team has ever done. It may only be a statistical greatness but one that history would always cite. The other team can redefine the entire nature of how the whole world sees them – by doing what no other Italian team has done – win while entertaining. It is a battle for immortality. And the team that trusts its strength more will prevail in the end.

Form Guide

Spain and Italy are rightly the only teams which are undefeated in the tournament (though England too, technically, can claim a pie off that moniker). Both teams have been extremely successful in their defense – conceding 1 and 3 goals respectively. Attack wise too, Spain have scored more goals Italy, have played more passes than Italy. Deservedly, they will start as favourites for the match. What the Italians can look back though is that, the only time Spain looked shaky and actually fell behind, was when they played the Italians in the group opener. Italy largely bossed Spain in that match and can claim the moral victory. A similar performance is not beyond them, especially with many of the misfiring elements – Cassano and Balotelli getting into form. The central defense is stronger by the return of Andrea Barzagli, whose absence, had in effect forced Prandelli to start Daniele de Rossi as a central defender in that match. De Rossi, Marchisio and Montolivo have been outstanding in the semi final victory and can match anything the much vaunted Spanish midfield can throw.

Does the Postman Ring Twice?

Teams & Formations

Both teams have tried novel tactical arrangements – Spain’s 4-6-0, which incidentally was popularised by Luciano Spalletti at Roma and hence quite well known among the Italian players and Prandelli and Italy’s 3-5-2 which is unique as not a single top level international team plays with 3 central defenders. It was a reactionary measure to Italy’s 3-0 thrashing by Russia in a pre-tournament friendly. Prandelli though started with 3-5-2 and then shifted to his better known 4-1-2-1-2 as the matches went on. But that first match between Italy & Spain hangs heavy on both managers. Spain were far more dangerous once Navas and Torres had come on in the second half. Should del Bosque start with them in the final? If anything, a 4-1-2-1-2 isolates the Italian sidebacks even more and Navas (and Pedro?) can haunt them even more. But it makes Spain weak in the centre of the field and Italy can hurt them there. Moreover which of the 6 midfielders (from the 4-6-0) does Del Bosque drop, if he is to play Navas (and/or Pedro) and Torres. Can Spain afford to put their faith in Torres? Can Prandelli double guess Del Bosque and start 3-5-2 anticipating another striker-less formation? Or should he trust his own team’s strength and play the 4-1-2-1-2. There are many questions and all of it makes it all the more fascinating tactical duel between two managers who have been known to be affable and polite gentlemen.

Will he start tonight?

Italy (4-1-2-1-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate, Leonardo Bonucci, , Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini; Andrea Pirlo;  Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi; Riccardo Montolivo; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Spain (4-6-0): Iker Casillas; Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta

Manager: Vincent Del Bosque

Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal)

Quotes

“It’s the greatest joy that we could have given to our people. It’s a joy that they also transmit to us because some pictures and images don’t leave you unmoved, of course, and they make you feel very proud inside.”

Gianluigi Buffon, Italy Goalkeeper and Captain.

“There are a lot of parallels between Italy and Spain: we were in the same group, in either the quarter-finals or semi-finals we went through on penalties, and Pirlo and [Sergio] Ramos scored Panenka-style penalties. You have to like both teams. We both deserve to be finalists.”

Vincent Del Bosque, Spanish Manager

Clash of Titans- Azzuri vs Die Mannschaft

Match Facts

Semi Final 2: Germany vs Italy

Thursday, 28 June 2012

21:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

National Stadium, Warsaw

In the second semi finals of Euro 2012 two of the traditional superpowers of the game will clash in a mouth-watering encounter. The two teams last played in Euro 1988 group stages when the match finished in a 1-1 draw.

Germany will go into the match confident being the only team to have won all their matches in the tournament. Although Germany is up against history never having beaten Italy in seven previous competitive matches, Spain overcame a similar record against France in the quarter-finals and they will be looking to do the same. This German team has a mixture of experience and youth and have options in all positions and will give their best.

Italy has looked solid in this tournament. They were very good against Spain in arguably the best match in the tour5nament so far with respect to quality of the football played. The Italians have been surprisingly attacking instead of their defensive style. The only time they went into their defensive shell was during the second half against Croatia. They were very impressive against England in the quarter-finals creating a lot of chances but not converting. The Azzuri will be up for this encounter as they inevitably are in crunch matches in the knock-out phases of major tournaments.

The smile of the wizard

Form Guide

Germany was impressive in their match against Greece playing attacking football trying to score at every opportunity. They conceded two goals, the second through a very debatable penalty. They controlled 70% of possession and showed their full attacking prowess after the Greek equaliser. The three new starters Klose, Schurrle and Reus impressed with their play. Gomez, Podolski and Muller will be fresh and rested and hungry to play in this game.

Italy looked very good against England in all areas of the game except finishing their chances. The Azzuri had a massive 35 shots on goal in 120 minutes and could not score. They outplayed their opponents with a fantastic performance by Andrea Pirlo who has been arguably the player of the tournament till now. The defence is typically solid and the fullbacks both joined up with the offensive line quite well. Italians had two days of rest less than the Germans which maybe a factor late in the game with a good change of the game going beyond 90 minutes.

Germany: WWWWW

Italy: LDDWW(p)

Teams & Formations

Germany will go with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation which their manager Joachim Loew likes. The team has no suspensions to worry about. There have been questions on the condition of the ankle ligaments of Bastien Schweinsteiger but he should start. The German wide mid-fielders will look to press the Italian full-backs when they have possession preventing them from joining up in attack which will make the Italian mid-field very narrow. Podolski should come back in place of Schurrle who was a bit too predictable against Greece cutting inside from the left and shooting. Reus will probably retain his place ahead of Muller as he brought a lot of energy to the German mid-field. Sammy Khedira has been making very good runs from the deep in this tournament very similar to what Schweinsteiger usually does. The latter’s ankle ligaments maybe are the reason for his not producing such runs. Mesut Ozil was very impressive against Greece with his movement and passing and he created two goals in the process. The big choice Loew has to make is Gomez or Klose who to start? He may opt for Gomez as he will be rested and raring to go.

Germany(4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; Jerome Boateng; Mats Hummels; Philipp Lahm; Sammy Khedira; Bastien Schweinsteiger; Marco Reus ; Mesul Ozil; Lukas Podolski; Mario Gomez

Manager: Joachim Loew

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The Italian Mastermind

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Italy (4-1-3-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate; Andrea Barzagli; Leonardo Bonucci; Federico Balzaretti; Andrea Pirlo; Claudio Marchisio; Thiago Motta; Daniele De Rossi; Mario Balotelli; Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Referee: Stephane Lannoy (France)

Italy has played good football in this tournament. They are surprisingly the team with most attempts on goal with 87. The manager Cesare Prandelli started the first two matches of the tournament with a 3-5-2 formation. After two identical 1-1 score-lines he went back to his favoured 4-1-3-2 formation. Andrea Pirlo is the lynchpin of this team and he has been sensational. Maggio is suspended for this game but it does not affect the starting eleven too much. Thiago Motta who was injured for the last match may play in place of Montolivo to contain the attacking threat of the German mid-field. Daniele de Rossi has been affected by sciatica but should start. The Italian forwards have not scored enough and that is the reason they have won only one match in regular time in the tournament. Balotelli is an enigma who gets into great position and then gets cold feet. Cassano has been very impressive working hard and creating a lot of chances. The Italians will have to score goals otherwise their dream for a second Euro title will be over.

Quotes

“We did well against Greece but Italy are a different proposition,” –Joachim Loew German Manager

“We are quite a bit short because we only have very few days of recovery time. We need to put out a side that’s athletically fit, because we will have to fight against Germany. If we play well, though, we have a chance. There is no such thing as an invincible side. Spain and Germany are truly very good, but we just need to stick to our task, and we must be meticulously prepared.” –Cesare Prandelli Italian Manager

England try to do an Italian job with ‘Catenaccio’

Match Facts

Quarter Final: Italy vs Ireland

Friday, 24 June 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy, Kiev

The final quarter final of the Euro is on us and it is probably the only quarterfinal with no clear favourite. In a way both the teams are on their own way trying to come out of a rut.  On one side, Italy, under Cesare Prandelli, is trying to rebuild from the shambles of 2010 world cup and Prandelli is building in essence for the 2014 world cup and 2012 Euros is probably a milestone in how much progress he has made with this team.  Holding Spain to a 1-1 draw was probably as good as any team has played against Spain in any of the matches Spain has played in major tournaments since 2008. England on the other hand have been forced to rebuild with a new manager and new personnel due to events that were least expected 6 months back.

Pirlo and Cassano – holds Italy’s hope

Roy Hodgson has taken a team that is unspectacular and workmanlike. Roy has shaped his team’s mentality, from the maxim that he must have learnt while managing in Italy – You don’t lose if you don’t concede. England has all been about not conceding, sitting deep and defending with 8 men at times. Their defensive cohesiveness was praiseworthy but they conceded twice from set pieces to Sweden and that remains a big weakness. For their goals too England has depended on set pieces so this will be one of the key match-up points for the tie.  The Italians though have, arguably, more quality in the midfield and has also been more hardworking – England covered 152km in their group matches (3rd best in the group), Italy did 208 km in their group matches (2nd best in the group).

The English are hoping on Rooney & Gerrard to deliver

But Italy has shown their Achilles heel in each of the 3 matches – getting tired and worn out after 60 minutes and while this may or may not be linked to the fitness of Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s metronome, it is something that the English would like to utilise. But England themselves have been poor in large tracts of their matches and possibly wouldn’t even have qualified if not for a glaring refereeing error. In the end, England would probably be playing the more waiting game, trying to wear Italy out while Italy will try to finish the matches in scheduled time. But given how no match has finished goalless in this glorious tournament and no tiebreaker has happened; expect a tiebreaker after a goalless 120 minutes.

Form Guide

Roy’s strategy could well be keep it tight at the back, playing on the counter and then unleash Theo Walcott’s pace at the tiring Italian backline. Italy would instead hope to score at least twice in those first 60 minutes. They have managed to score once in each of their matches in those 60 minutes. The trick will be holding on. Italy didn’t hold on to their leads beyond 60th minute in 2 of their matches.

Teams & Formations

Pirlo and Gerrard are probably playing their last major tournament and both have been magnificent for their teams, scoring goals and assisting them. Both these iconic players have one mercurial forward – Rooney and Cassano, who can score goals out of nowhere. The big talking point though is how Mario Balotelli will do. We all know the talent he possesses. We are also know how big a problem he can be. The Mario that turns up tomorrow will determine which team progresses on to face Germany.

The other point is if Italy will go with a 3 man defence or with a conventional 4 men one. This is key as Chiellini is going to miss this match with injury. Similarly England face the dilemma of if to play Welbeck with Rooney or pump for Carroll in attack. Carroll gives a different dimension to the English, especially in the light of Chiellini’s absence. But Welbeck has been probably the best England attacker in the tournament and would sneak ahead of Carroll.

Italy (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli; Christian Maggio, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Federico Balzaretti; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

England (4-4-2): Joe Hart, Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Cole; James Milner, Steven Gerrard, Scott Parker, Ashley Young; Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck

Manager: Roy Hodgson

Quotes

“It will certainly be close because the sides have very similar qualities, and also because Italy have a habit, which is both a pro and a con, that whoever we play – whether our opponents are strong or weak – it’s always an even contest. If we play against the best, we match them, but if we play against weak sides we never manage to win with ease. We always have to struggle a bit, so I think the difference between the two sides will be very, very, very, subtle indeed.”

Gianluigi Buffon,  Italy Goalkeeper and Captain.

“The closer you get, obviously you start realising that maybe there’s a chance we can go and do something really special. In saying that, football has a tendency to sting you when you start getting carried away, so we need to realise our main focus and that’s Sunday.”

Scott Parker, England midfielder and 2011 Player of the Year

The Blues fail to conquer their blues

Italy 1 – 1 Croatia

39″ Andrea Pirlo (1-0), Mario Mandzukic 72″ (1-1)

Traditional giants Italy was left in danger of catching an early flight home as Croatia (who has never lost to Italy after gaining independence from Yugoslavia) held on for a gritty 1-1 draw in a Group-C encounter at Poznan. In the process, Croatian scorer of the day Mario Mandzukic equaled the national record for highest number of goals, hitherto held by Davor Suker. But before that, Italy looked all set for a comfortable victory after having being given the lead via a moment of brilliance by Andrea Pirlo

The match didn’t begin at the blistering pace as expected from the pre-match hype. After all, in only their last match, both the teams had played a super-attacking brand of soccer. And contrary to what many experts said, Mario Balotelli did find a place in the starting line up ahead of De Natale. Balotelli started off with a 3rd minute shot at the goal. On the other hand, Croatia hoping for a quick start saw Mandzukic concedes a free kick for a foul on Chiellini

Croatia’s most capped player and captain Srna made a few set piece attacks, one of which ended with a good Buffon save, and the subsequent counter-attack by Italy saw Cassano race into the Croatia box and nearly score, but for a timely tackle by Gordon Schildenfeld. Balotelli’s effort paid off when he earned a free kick in the 39th minute, and then there was that moment of magic as Pirlo’s free kick swerved over the defense into the goal. Italy 1-0 Croatia, and that’s how the first half ended

Pirlo: The Magic Moment

The second half began with a flurry of passes, attacks and shots on goal. Within the first 10 minutes, Thiego Motta received the first yellow card and was promptly substituted. De Natale, as expected, replaced Balotelli, and immediately the results showed, but for Croatia as Mandžukic equalized!! Strangely, after that, neither side seemed to push on for a result nor the game never rose to great heights after that, barring a thunderous volley by Kranjcar who replaced Super Mario deep into injury time which was well saved by Buffon

Mandzukic after the equaliser

The result leaves the group interestingly poised, with Spain carving out a victory vs Ireland, any of the three – Croatia, Italy and Spain can make the cut. But Italy will have to hope for a result in the Croatia vs Spain game and win vs. Ireland to progress. Or else, win really big vs the Irish and proceed on goal difference

Tactical Highlights

Cesare Prandelli stuck with the 3-5-2 and for the first 45 minutes it worked without too many hitches. Balotelli and Cassini ran hard and split the defense well -Balotteli earned the free kick that saw Italy take the lead. On the other hand, Bilic’s men lined up almost as a 4-1-3-2. It was expected Croatia would use the flanks to attack, and though in the first half they didn’t do so freely, in the second half with Modric, Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic pressed higher up the pitch. Srna gave Giaccherini a tough time on the right and it was Ivan Strinic’s cross from the left that led to the goal. Thus Croatia had the better of the exchanges in the second half


Line-Ups

Italy: Buffon, Chiellini, De Rossi, Bonucci, Giaccherini, Marchisio, Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Maggio, Cassano, Balotelli. Substitutes: De Sanctis, Sirigu, Ogbonna, Balzaretti, Abate, Di Natale, Barzagli, Borini, Montolivo, Giovinco, Diamanti, Nocerino.

Croatia: Pletikosa, Srna, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic, Rakitic, Vukojevic, Modric, Perisic, Mandzukic, Jelavic. Substitutes: Kelava, Subasic, Simunic, Buljat, Pranjic, Badelj, Versaljko, Dujmovic, Kalinic, Kranjcar, Vida, Eduardo.

Referee: H. Webb (England).  Assitant Referees: M. Mullarkey (England), P. Kirkup (UK). Fourth Official: P. Kralovec (Czech Republic)

Quotes

“Of course you are a bit bitter because when a side plays football, creates a lot of goalscoring chances, they need to put a game to bed, to kill off the game”. – Prandelli denied being angry with the result

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“All I will say is that I’m very optimistic for the next match. I’m really satisfied we’ve four points from the two games. It could be even better but four points is optimal, realistic and now we have a real chance to go through” – Bilic declined to look ahead to the next game with Spain

A Sneak Peek: Stars of UEFA Euro 2012 Group C

We continue our build-up to the Euro 2012 with the rising stars of Group C. Debopam Roy profiles them

 

Goalden Times has started the countdown to Euro 2012 with the reviews of Groups (A, B, C, D). In this feature we bring you some of the players who have the potential to become stars in Poland & Ukraine. Here we focus on Group C.

   Spain

Name: Iker Muniain

Age: 19

Club: Athletic Bilbao

Position: Winger/Forward

National Caps: 1

Current Market value: €20m

Iker Muniain has been labelled a prodigy since he joined the cantera of Athletic Bilbao in 2005 as a 12-year-old. His diminutive stature alongwith his pace and dribbling skills had marked him out as a special talent. He has a host of youngest player ever awards – youngest player ever to wear Athletic’s shirt in an official game, at 16 years 7 months 11 days; youngest ever player to score a goal (16 years 7 months and 18 days) in an official match; youngest player to have donned the club’s shirt in La Liga and youngest player to score in a first division match for Bilbao. Having rushed through the Spanish age group squads in three years, Muniain finally got his senior debut in February this year. His goals and assists have propelled the club to their first ever European final in over 35 years. The virtuoso performance against the two finalists of last season’s Champions League viz. ManchesterUnited and Barcelona, has shown how he can fight with the big boys. He may not be a starter for Spain but on the back of his stupendous season, would definitely merit a call-up and play the role of an impact sub. Don’t count out some dazzling play from the “SpanishMessi”.

Italy

Name: Angelo Ogbonna

Age: 23

Club: Torino

Position:  Defender

National Caps: 2

Current Market value: €6m

The story of Angelo Ogbonna is not probably as colourful as other African origin players of Italy like Mario Balotelli, but it is a story played out of the prying eyes and in Torino’s youth academy, which he joined as a wide-eyed teenager in 2002. Apart from a loan spell at Crotone in 2007-08, his entire career has been with La Granata. In his first full season with il Toro in 2008-09, his club got relegated and has been in Serie B ever since. His progress has thus been not as documented as say some of the other defenders like Leo Bonucci of Juventus or Andrea Ranocchia of Inter Milan, but Ogbonna with his powerful displays and the technique and tactical acumen is probably the true heir to the generation of Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro. Ogbonna is comfortable in the centre of the defence but can also play on the left.. Torino is on the verge of returning to Serie A. But Ogbonna who has already been part of the Azzurri senior side quite a number of times can actually set a unique distinction of representing the Azzurri in a major competition while playing in the second division. And it will be a much deserved distinction too.

Republic of Ireland

Name: James McClean

Age: 23

Club: Sunderland

Position: Winger

National Caps: 1

Current Market value: €1.5m

Imagine being born in a country which has a furious political divide with a neighbour and then choosing to play for that neighbouring country when you come of age. James McClean was born in Northern Ireland and rose through the ranks, and was ultimately called up by the Northern Ireland manager for the senior team. But he rejected that and waited for the call-up from Republic of Ireland manager. He faced abuses for this decision from several Northern Irish tweeters. Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic of Ireland manager, did ultimately call him up but hasnotsinceplayedhimfrequently. If Ireland are to cause an upset or two in this group of death, then Trap would have to change his opinion about this 23-year-old winger because he has been explosive for his new club Sunderland. McClean made his Sunderland debut in a 1-0 win over Manchester City on January 1, 2012. And since then, he has not been dropped for a single match – playing 20 matches to score 4 goals and provide three assists. That puts him on fourth for the club in terms of goals scored and third in terms of assists, though those in front of him have been playing for the whole season. Already he has been put on a new contract for three years which is triple of what he initially signed for, when he joined Sunderland in the summer. But if Il Trap does give McClean a chance, expect a display which would attract the top clubs and test Sunderland’s resolve to hold onto their starlet.

Croatia

Name: Ivan Perišić

Age: 23

Club: Borussia Dortmund

Position: Attacking Midfielder

National Caps: 7

Current Market value: €6m

Of all the other players profiled in this group, Perišić is the one with the best chances of being a regular protagonist for his country in the Euros. He comes in as the latest in line of Croatian midfield playmakers. While two of them play for Tottenham and are well established, Perišić has made rapid strides to be counted as equivalent to both Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric. Coming from the famous academy of Hadjuk Split, Perišić was courted by some of the biggest talent spotters (including PSV Eindhoven and Ajax) but ultimately signed for French club Sochaux. After a couple of seasons, he was on a move to Club Brugge where he was voted Player of the Year in Belgium by his fellow footballers on the back of his 22 league goals. German champions Borussia Dortmund, who had lost Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid, came calling and signed him for €5.5m. In 38 matches for the club, he scored 8 times with four assists but spectacular goals like the one againstArsenal in Champions League brought him to worldwide notice. He has been a key player for Dortmund retaining the title they had won last year. Such progress was noted by the national team boss Slaven Bilić. So even though Perišić played for Croatia U21 team in 2011 European U21 championships, he was promptly called up to be part of the senior team and has been a regular feature ever since. If Croatia is to get out of this group of death, then Perišić will have his role to play alongside the other established tenors of Croatian midfield.

UEFA Euro 2012 Preview: Group C

The Euro 2012 Group preview continues with Group C. This Group has two very strong contenders in Spain and Italy. Kinshuk Biswas discusses their chances and probable team line-ups along with those of Croatia and Republic of Ireland

Goalden Times continues its Group previews of Euro 2012 following Groups A and B, with Group C. This Group has two traditional superpowers of European football with two other teams who have done well in international tournaments whenever they have qualified for the finals. At first glance, it seems that the two big teams Spain and Italy will qualify easily at the expense of Croatia and Republic of Ireland. Although both the so-called weaker teams are no pushovers and have caused upsets before. Spain and Italy played out a goalless draw in the quarter-finals in 2008 before Spain went on to win in the penalty shoot-out. Incidentally this was the only match the Spanish team did not win outright in the last tournament.

  Spain

Resume: Champions 1964 and 2008. Runners up-1984. Quarter Finals-1996 and 2000

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Winner. P-8 W-8 D-0 L-0 GF-26 GA-6 GD-+20

Spain became only the third nation to be World and European champions simultaneously in 2010 after Germany (1972-1974) and France (1998-2000). This team is considered by many as one of the greatest ever. They will start as strong favourites to retain their crown as they qualified with an all win record. No team has successfully defended the Euro trophy and Spain may be the best bet to reverse this trend. In Vicente del Bosque they have a shrewd manager who has continued the good work of Luis Aragones. Del Bosque has successfully managed Real Madrid and knows how to handle a locker room full of superstars. Spain plays with a 4-3-3 formation which enables them to play their tiki-taka style evolved from the very successful Barcelona team. In Iker Casillas, their goalkeeper captain from Real Madrid they have one of the best in the world. Victor Valdes of Barcelona is an able replacement. In the centre of defence they have the pairing of Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid and Gerard Pique of Barcelona as first choice. The experienced Carlos Puyol of Barcelona and Carlos Marchena of Villareal are able replacements. In the right-back position, Alvaro Arbeloa of Real Madrid is likely to start. Sergio Ramos and Carlos Puyol have also played in the right-back positions when required. The left-back position is the only one in this team which is yet to have an automatic choice. Jordi Alba of Valencia has been used in recent times by Del-Bosque. Joan Capdevila of Benfica was recalled in the last friendly against Venezuela as cover. The team may play Puyol and Pique in the centre of defence and use Ramos on the right and Arbeloa on the left as well.

Their mid-field is possibly the strongest in the world – Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets of Barcelona with Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid as the first choice starters. There is ample cover in Cesc Fabregas of Barcelona and Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao. The manager is spoilt for choices in the forward line. Andres Iniesta and Pedro Rodriguez of Barcelona on the left and right are the likely starters. There are many options in these positions with David Silva of Manchester City and Juan Mata of Chelsea, both having great seasons for their clubs. The beauty is that all these players can play in the mid-field and the forward line which gives the manager great flexibility in his tactics. The centre-forward position is up for grabs as David Villa of Barcelona is unlikely to recover from a broken leg and Fernando Torres has been in poor goal-scoring form for his club Chelsea. Roberto Soldado of Valencia has made a strong claim by scoring a hat-trick in a friendly. Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao is the other player vying for this position.

Spain looks a very strong team and should easily qualify from the group stages. The only problem for Spain is the lack of a goal-scoring striker in good form. The quality of the other attacking players has managed to overcome this problem admirably till now. However, the team which keeps so much of possession and control of the match are prone to be wasteful in front of goal and sometimes, it hurts them, like against Switzerland in the World Cup 2010 opening match and against England in a friendly recently. They will definitely qualify and should easily reach the later stages of the tournament. However, with the expectant fans who have become used to success, nothing less than the trophy will count. The first match against the resurgent Italian team will possibly be the toughest test in the group stages.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Italy 25 7 10 8 25 29 -4
Croatia 4 2 1 1 5 4 +1
Ireland 24 13 7 4 48 18 +30

  Italy

Resume: Champions 1968. Runners up-2000. Semi- Finals-1980 and 1988

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Winner. P-10 W-8 D-2 L-0 GF-20 GA-2 GD-+18

The Azzuri have traditionally not performed well in the Euro championships compared to their World Cup exploits. Their current manager, Cesare Prandelli had been appointed before World Cup 2010 as a successor to Marcello Lippi. The disastrous performance in the tournament meant that Prandelli inherited a team with very low morale and was subjected to widespread criticism from the media and fans. However, one must remember that after the ignominious exit at the 1966 World Cup, Italy managed to bounce back and win the Euro Championships in 1968. If the current Italian team manages to repeat that feat, it will not be a major surprise at least to us at Goalden Times. Qualification was relatively easy, helped by rioting opposition fans at Genoa who disrupted the match against Serbia after six minutes. Italy was awarded the match 3-0. Prandelli favours a 4-3-1-2 formation. In goal they have the team captain and one of the all time greats, Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus. Morgan De Sanctis of Napoli is an experienced substitute for Buffon. The centre of defence will be marshalled by the Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. Domenico Criscito of Zenit FC and Andrea Ranocchia of Inter are the substitute players in these positions. In the right-back position, Christian Maggio of Napoli is the first choice. Ignazio Abate of Milan and Mattia Cassani of Fiorentina are able replacements. The first choice left-back is Federico Balzaretti of Palermo. Angelo Ogbonna of Torino has been used in left-back along with Chiellini and Criscito. Ogbonna can play in the centre of defence as well.

In the mid-field, Andrea Pirlo of Juventus will play as the regista. Claudio Marchisio of Juventus or Antonio Nocerino of AC Milan will play on the left and Daniele De Rossi or Thiago Motta of Paris Saint-Germain on the right. Alberto Aquilani of AC Milan and Riccardo Montolivo of Fiorentina will be vying to play in the hole behind the strikers. Prandelli has rotated players in this position by using all three and sometimes Montolivo as a substitute on the right. The unfortunate illness of Antonio Cassano of Milan has possibly robbed the team of its best forward. There are reports which suggest that he may be getting back to full fitness. Giampaolo Pazzini of Inter, Alessandro Matri of Juventus, Sebastian Giovinco of Parma and Fabio Borini of Roma have all been tried. Giovinco, who is in terrific form, is perhaps the favourite to start in the absence of Cassano. Mario Balotelli of Manchester City is the favourite to partner Cassano or Giovinco. Although Prandelli has mentioned in recent interviews that Balotelli’s off-field antics weigh heavily against his selection.

Italians are notoriously slow starters in major international tournaments. They come into their own in the knock-out rounds and latter stages of the tournaments. This time they have to be careful as the first match is against Spain and is going to be possibly their toughest test. Croatia is one of the few national teams to have a positive record against Italy and have beaten them in the finals of the World Cup in 2002. The Irish are no pushovers either and in their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni they have someone who possibly knows more about the Italian players and tactics than anybody. Ireland recently defeated Italy 2-0 under the guidance of Trapattoni in a neutral venue. Italians generally have a very good defence. The nucleus of the defence is from Juventus, who are still unbeaten in Serie A this season.  The problem is Italian teams tend to get defensive after taking the lead, which has hurt them in the past. All said, the Italians are the masters of gaining positive results and should qualify for the knock-out stages. They are a good bet to go all the way if they make it to the latter stages of the tournament.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 25 8 10 7 29 25 +4
Croatia 5 1 1 3 7 7 0
Ireland 11 7 2 2 18 9 +9

 Croatia

Resume: Quarter- Finals-1996 and 2008

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group F Runners up. P-10 W-7 D-1 L-2 GF-18 GA-7 GD-+11

Playoff vs Turkey 3-0 aggregate (3-0,0-0)

Croatia is a relatively new team which was formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia. With Serbia, the Croatians have the best record after the break-up of the country. The Croatian team is managed by Slaven Bilić, one of the members of the golden generation of players which took the country to a third position in the World Cup in 1998. Bilić, who has been in charge since 2006, prefers using the 4-4-2 formation.  Stipe Pletikosa of Rostov FC is a very experienced goalkeeper. Danijel Subašić of Monaco is the second choice. The central defence has the experienced Josip Šimunić of Dinamo Zagreb and Gordon Schildenfeld of Eintracht Frankfurt. Vedran Ćorluka of Bayer Leverkusen is the first choice left-back. Danijel Pranjić of Bayern Munich is an able replacement and can play in the midfield as well. Domagoj Vida of Dinamo is likely to be the right-back. Vida has looked solid in his eight appearances for the national side. He has also allowed the national captain, Darijo Srna of Shakter Donetsk to play in the right wing where he has been a revelation in place of his normal right-back position. Ćorluka can also fill in at the right-back position, if required.

Bilić has a lot of choices in the midfield.  Ivan Rakitić of Sevilla and the highly rated Luka Modrić of Tottenham Hotspur will play on the left side. Both the players can play wide and in the left-central midfield position, if required.  Pranjić will be the substitute, if necessary.  The national captain Srna will start as right winger based on his recent exploits. Niko Kranjčar of Tottenham Hotspur and Ognjen Vukojević of Dynamo Kyiv will compete for the right-central mid-fielder position.  Mario Mandžukić of VfL Wolfsburg is the main striker. Ivica Olić of Bayern Munich, Eduardo of Shakter Donetsk and Nikica Jelavić of Everton will all be vying to start with him.

Croatia is a team which plays with a lot of pressing and counter-attacking style of play. They accede possession to the opponents and try to press them with the mid-fielders and forwards working very hard. The problem is this may not work with teams like Spain and Italy who are very comfortable in possession. Croatians are lucky that they are facing the Irish in the first match. If they manage to qualify from this group, it will be a huge success.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 4 1 1 2 4 5 -1
Italy 5 3 1 1 7 7 0
Ireland 6 1 3 2 5 7 -2

  Republic of Ireland (Ireland)

Resume: Group Stage 1988.

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group B Runners up. P-10 W-6 D-3 L-1 GF-15 GA-7 GD-+8

Playoff vs Estonia 5-1 aggregate (4-0,1-1)

The Republic of Ireland or Ireland team was unlucky to miss out on qualification to the World Cup in 2010 eliminated by France in the play-off due to an impromptu game of handball by Thierry Henry which resulted in a goal. Ireland is managed by Giovanni Trapattoni (Il Trap), one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the game. Trapattoni has generally used the 4-4-1-1 formation for the Irish team. However recently he has been favouring the 4-4-2 formation. In goal, Ireland has one of the most experienced players of the English Premiership in Shay Given of Aston Villa.  Kieran Westwood of Sunderland is the second choice. Richard Dunne of Aston Villa was outstanding for the Irish in their Euro qualification match against Russia and is the first choice centre-back with Sean St-Ledger of Leicester City. Darren O’Dea of Leeds United and Shane Duffy of Everton are the main replacements. Stephen Ward of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stephen Kelly of Fulham are both vying for the right-back position. John O’Shea of Sunderland is the first choice left-back. Kelly has played at left-back too.

The mid-field has a lot of experience with Keith Andrews of West Bromwich Albion and Glen Whelan of Stoke City in the central positions. Damien Duff of Fulham is the left winger and Aiden McGeady of Spartak Moscow is the first choice right winger. Stephen Hunt of Wolverhampton is an able substitute and can play in both wings. Seamus Coleman of Everton, the Irish Messi has been in good form and should push for a starting berth.  There are some good youngsters like James McCarthy of Wigan and James McClean of Sunderland in the reserves. The forward line is marshalled by the experienced Robbie Keane of Los Angeles Galaxy who plays in the hole behind the striker in case of a 4-4-1-1 formation. The lone striker is usually Kevin Doyle of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Doyle and Keane play as two strikers in the 4-4-2 formation. The team has the West Brom duo of Shane Long and Simon Cox in reserve. Jonathan Walters of Stoke City and Anthony Stokes of Celtic have also been used by Trapattoni.

The Irish will give a good and robust account of themselves in all matches. They have a disadvantage in that they lack quality players to really trouble the better teams. The problems with Trapattoni’s tactics and team selections are manifold. Their first match against Croatia will be crucial as it will set the tone for the tougher tests against Spain and Italy to follow.  It will be a very difficult task for them to qualify out of this group. However, one can never discount ‘the luck of the Irish’.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 24 4 7 13 18 48 -30
Italy 11 2 2 7 9 18 -9
Croatia 6 2 3 2 7 5 +2

Final Verdict:

The final verdict has four categories of teams: 1) Sure-shot, which means that the team is the favourite to progress from the group. 2) Likely is the team that is not the total favourite but is the second favourite to qualify. 3) Dark Horse is a team which can reach the quarter-finals but has to overcome similar teams or favourites to do so. 4) Upset means that the team reaching the quarter-finals will be a major surprise. In groups there maybe more than a single team in each category.

Sure-shot: Spain

Likely:  Italy

Dark Horse: Croatia

Upset: Republic of Ireland


 

What’s the Goalden Word?

We football fanatics often come across terms and phrases that we start using without knowing its meaning. We hear them on television or read them in magazines wondering what the word is all about. WTGW will endeavour to focus on such terms and their usages helping us create our very own footballpedia. If you would like to know about any such word associated with the football world, do toss in a mail at editor@goaldentimes.org

 

 

STAFFETTA: (staf-fét-ta): [Feminine – Noun – Singular]

Staffetta is an Italian word denoting relay or relay race. The relay is a unique variant of competition where each team competes with a single athlete at a time and in sequence. The switchover between successive athletes is via the baton and the cumulative performance of the team depends on both athletes switching in a perfect way. In the world of calcio, this term has made an indelible mark. It is probably in Italy, that when two brilliant players of similar characteristics come along, then instead of playing together (as is done in most countries), they play alternately. This alternation in play is referred to as ‘staffetta’. Many Italian managers have tried this over the years and we will see some examples here.

The earliest possible staffetta was during the 1934 World Cup and it was a short-lived one. Felice Borel was one of the Juventus greats and his 157 goals place him sixth in the all time list for the club. He had debuted in 1933 scoring in his second match. In the 1934 World Cup, he was though up against national favourite Giuseppe Meazza. After Meazza played the first match, Borel was tried in the second encounter against Spain when he got injured. Meazza would play all the matches leading Azzurri to the World Cup, and Borel never played another international match.

Another staffetta involved two players equally famous – Valentino Mazzola and Giampiero Boniperti. Mazzola, the captain of the Il Grande Torino, was the more rounded talent and even though Boniperti scored more in the league for Juventus, his place in the Azzurri was blocked. They did play one match together, but more often it would be Mazzola starting and Boniperti coming on as a substitute. All that would tragically change when the whole Torino side, including Mazzola, was killed in the Superga air disaster in 1949.

The most (in)famous staffetta was in the 1970 World Cup when Gianni Rivera, “golden boy of Italian football” and a lifelong Milan boy was pitted against Alessandro ‘Sandro’  Mazzola, son of Valentino and a lifelong Inter player. It was testy in every way. Even though they managed to play together under Edmondo Fabbri (manager from ’62-’66), Italy did not shine in the international stage although both Milan and Inter won European crowns. The next manager, Ferruccio Valcareggi led Italy to victory in the ’68 European Championship and when he arrived at the ’70 World Cup, decided that Mazzola and Rivera cannot play together as it would be too risky. His solution was quite simple – play them each for a half. This was the true staffetta. The invisible baton of a relay race was passed as every half time, one of the legends from the city of Milan would replace the other. Somehow, this strategy took Italy to the ’70 finals but on the final day, Valcareggi abandoned the staffetta, keeping Mazzola on for the entire match and bringing on Rivera for the last eight minutes. Italy lost the final 4-1 to Brazil. Maybe if these two Milan and Inter legends had played together for the entire match, the result would have been different.

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                                      Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera – Then and Now

 

Subsequently, there would be a few more instances of the staffetta – Paulo Pulici(Torino) and Roberto Bettega(Juventus) would provide another city rivalry coming into the national team. The 1982 World Cup winning manager, Enzo Bearzot didn’t play Franco Baresi that much while Juventus defender Gaetano Scirea was playing. Roberto Baggio – Alessandro del Piero (’98 World Cup) and del Piero – Francesco Totti (’02 World Cup) were probably some more examples. But the 1970 World Cup is still the one where the baton passed smoothly enough for a series of matches only to falter at the final hurdle.

Last rays of sunshine before the clouds of war

The winning Italian team with their coach Vittorio Pozzo holding aloft the trophy

The times were dark and difficult in Europe when the World Cup was awarded to the land of its founders – France, by FIFA. The second tournament had given the people a glimpse of ‘Fascism’. By 1938, the entire continent was reeling under the spectre of fascism and its leaders, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.  The outlook in the continent was bleak and depressing as the people could feel that they were hurtling towards a war which none of them wanted but had to endure due to the whims of their leaders.

Italians came into the tournament as overwhelming favourites to retain their trophy. The charismatic Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo had retained only three players from the 1934 World Cup winning team – Guiseppe Meazza, Eraldo Monzeglio and Giovanni Ferrari. To this were added three good players from the Olympics team- Alfredo Foni, Pietro Rava and Ugo Locatelli. This time there was only one South American – the Uruguayan, Michele Andreolo who was playing in the same position as the great Luis Monti. Above all, the Italians had the best forward in Europe- Silvio Piola.   The team whom the Italians had defeated in the Olympics final, Austria, were still a very strong side despite their ageing forward line of Matthias Sindelar and Josef Bican.  Hungary had developed into a side with very fluid ball playing skills and a lot of goal scoring ability with Gyorgy Sarosi and Gyula Zsengeller. Czechoslovakia, the last runners up were back with Frantisek Plánička, Oldrich Nejedlý and Antonin Puč, the heroes of the 1934 tournament. Brazil had not played an international in a year but they had in their ranks a then unknown genius by the name of Leonidas who had not played for the national team for four years. Spain was embroiled in a bitter civil war and did not participate. There were a lot of debutantes amongst the nations with Cuba and Dutch East Indies, the first Asian country to play in the finals.  The first match was scheduled on 4th June in Paris, and the rest of the seven matches in seven different cities the following day.

Leonidas the top scorer in 1938 Silvio Piola player of the tournament

On March 12, the Third Reich under Hitler invaded Austria under their policy of Anschluss, which aimed at integrating all German speaking countries. The Austrian FA subsequently informed FIFA that they had ceased to exist as a national federation and team. This was later dubbed as ‘Shame of 1938’ in the football world. The Germans immediately drafted seven Austrian players into their national team. It was very unfortunate that one of the best teams was out of the tournament even before the matches had started. England was offered Austria’s place in the tournament, which they refused. Had England played, with players like Sir Stanley The Magician Matthews, Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake and Eddie Hapgood, they might have made an impact. Mexicans also pulled out allowing Cuba to make their debut in the tournament. Uruguay refused to participate as their bid to host the tournament had been rejected by FIFA. Argentina, the Copa America champions also refused to participate protesting against the FIFA decision to hold the tournament in Europe. Finally fifteen teams played in the tournament, with Austria being the only casualty from the confirmed list.

The format of this tournament was the same as the last edition with all matches being knock-outs and subsequent replays in case of a draw. The replays were luckily not on the very next day, allowing the teams some recovery time.  The previous World Cup had only a single match which was drawn; in contrast this edition had a spate of draws and replays. The opening match pitted the German team, complete with five Austrians in their starting line-up, against the industrious Swiss who were a good team in their own right. The Germans dominated the match and took the lead in the 29th minute. The Swiss equalised through a defensive error in the 43rd minute and held on till the end of extra time due to the heroics of their goalkeeper, Willy Huber who pulled off a string of spectacular saves. The replay was held five days later and this time it was the Swiss who prevailed in a 4-2 victory. The media proclaimed that the brave little Swiss had humbled the mighty Nazis, but in reality the German team with its mix of Austrians did not gel well enough to be a good team.  Cubans, who were making their debut, surprised the Romanians holding them to a 3-3 draw. The replay was possibly the first big upset of the World Cup as the Cubans defeated their more fancied European opponents 2-1, mainly due to the acrobatic saves by their keeper, Juan Ayra. In the first real World Cup mismatch, Hungary played the Dutch East Indies. The French press had dubbed the Asians as diminutive dynamos and terrific dribblers. The captain of their team played in glasses and their goal keeper brought a man-sized doll which he placed behind his goal for good luck. The Asians though very good dribblers were very poor passers and even worse in defensive acumen. The Hungarians scored four goals in the first half and then availed themselves of passing practice and still managed to score two further goals for a 6-0 win. The hosts, France defeated Belgium easily using a crisp passing and attack oriented game, 3-1. The last three matches of the 1st round were all classics.

Czechoslovakia was held to a goalless draw in normal time by a plucky Dutch side playing with ten men due to an injury to a player in the second half as there were no substitutions allowed then. Eventually, the finalists of the last tournament began to have some cohesion in the play of their forwards in extra time. Nejedlý and Josef Zeman scored after Josef Košťálek had put them ahead with a long range shot. The Czechoslovakians won with a 3-0 score line which did not reflect how closely contested the match had been. The Italians had won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics where they met stiff resistance from two sides – Austria, in the final and Norway, in the semi-finals. The former was no longer a threat due to Italy’s ally, Germany and their military forces, the latter was the opponent of the defending champions in the first match. Italy took an early lead when the Norwegian goalkeeper could not keep control of Ferrari’s shot. After that, Italy were on the mat for the rest of the ninety minutes. Piola was marked and the wingers made ineffective by the Scandinavians. The Norwegians were also a constant threat in the front. Eventually they equalised through Arne Brustad in the 83rd minute skipping past Eraldo Monzeglio, his designated marker. Pozzo dropped Monzeglio for the rest of the tournament. Italy’s chances were kept alive in the game by two players – Pietro Rava, the left back who kept the speedy opposition winger Knut Brynildson at bay and the other saviour being Aldo Olivieri, the goalkeeper who was so outstanding that even the opposition forwards shook hands with him after a few of his phenomenal saves. The Italians managed to find the winner in extra time due to the error of the opposition goalkeeper, Henry Jacobsen who dropped a weak shot by Piero Pasinati and Piola pounced to send the ball in the back of the net. The referee, Alois Beranek was another Austrian making a guest appearance for Nazi Germany. The best match of this round was the clash between Brazil and Poland, a genuine contender for the ‘greatest match of football’.  Brazil took the lead through Leonidas, only to see the bizarre sight of his defender, Domigos bringing down Ernest Wilmowski with a perfect Rugby tackle to concede a penalty which was converted by Fryderyk Scherfke. The Brazilian forwards were luckily much better than their defenders and Romeu and Jose Perácio put them 3-1 ahead at half time. The pitch was muddy and Leonidas had torn the sole of his boot in the 10th minute. He took the shoes off and tried to play bare-feet, but was promptly ordered by Eklind, the referee not to do so. He just ripped off his sole and played the rest of the match wearing his boot minus the sole. The second half belonged to the 21 year old young Polish striker, Ernst Wilmowski. He scored a hat-trick to take the match into extra time. His third goal came in the 89th minute to equalise a Perácio goal which had put Brazil up 4-3 in the 71st minute. In extra time, Leonidas took over and scored two goals in the first half of added time. Wilmowski scored in the 118th minute and also hit the post a minute later to end up with four goals and on the losing side. Wilomowski was made to play in friendlies representing Germany, after Poland was invaded from 1939 to 1944 albeit having to change his first name Earnst to please his Nazi rulers. Sweden did not have to play in the first round due to the absence of Austria and qualified directly to the quarter finals.

The quarterfinals had Italy against France, Sweden playing the giant killers Cuba, Hungary taking on Switzerland and an intriguing clash between Brazil and Czechoslovakia.  The Swedish team routed the Cubans, who looked out of their depth. Two Swedes scored hat-tricks in an 8-0 trouncing.  The Swiss were without two of the heroes from the match against Germany, Minelli and Aeby, who had not recovered from the replay. The Hungarians bossed the match with goals by Sarosi and Zsengeller in each half. The Swiss just couldn’t get past the excellent defensive pair of Lajos Koranyi and Sandor Biro, the match finished 2-0 in favour of Hungary. The last two editions of the tournament had been won by the hosts. The French supporters were expectant of a repeat of the same. The Italian coach, Pozzo after the tribulations of the Norway match rung in the changes. Monzeglio, a hero of 1934, made way for Alfredo Foni, and two new wingers,  Amadeo Biaveti and Gino Colaussi were included. Italy scored early through Colaussi, and France equalised two minutes later when Oscar Heisserer rifled in his shot. The best French player, Guisti Jordan suggested during halftime that Piola be man marked by Etienne Mattler. Mattler, the French captain also vetoed the idea, stating that it was not the right moment to initiate his career as a man marker. The manager did not seem to have supported the idea as well. This decided the match as Piola scored a brace in the second half to end the participation of the hosts, with the Italians winning 3-1.

The last quarterfinal was dubbed as the battle of Bordeaux, the first match in the tournament to gain such a sobriquet. Paul Von Hertzka, the Hungarian referee, just could not take control of a match where both sides were prone to clumsy defending. The Brazilians took the lead through Leonidas, the film shows him to be in a possible offside position. After the goal, the Brazilians used some physical tactics. Zeze was sent off after a wild tackle on Nejedlý, who later converted a penalty. The match then degenerated into a fighting competition which resulted in Plánička with a broken arm and Nejedlý with a broken leg. Machado had earlier stamped on Puč which left him with torn ligaments. Riha retaliated with a punch and both were duly sent off. The game ended as a 1-1 draw with bodies strewn all around the ground. The replay was just a day later and both teams were forced to make a number of changes due to the bruising match played earlier. The important Czech players could not play while Leonidas could, that was the difference between the two teams.  Leonidas scored the equaliser and set up the winner by Romero to cancel Kopecky’s opening goal enabling Brazil to win 2-1. The semi-final line-ups were complete with Hungary playing Sweden and Italy clashing against Brazil. The first semi-final started like a dream for Sweden, with Nyberg scoring what was then the fastest goal in any edition of the tournament in 35 seconds. After the dreamy start, the Scandinavians came crashing back to the ground as the Hungarians equalised due to a Swedish own goal and their forwards ripped their defence to shreds. Playing their only match against the Cubans was not ideal practice for the Swedes as they were being hammered with Pal Titkos and Zsengeller adding further goals to put Hungary 3-1 at the break. The situation did not improve after the break as Sarosi and Zsengeller scored again. The final score was 5-1 in the favour of the Hungarians. The only flip side was that the Hungarian defender Koranyi was injured and missed the final. One half of the best defensive pairing who had only conceded a single goal in the tournament till then, did not play in the final and it hurt their chances a lot.

The Italians were slowly getting into their stride and improving with every game. Their coach, Pozzo was not afraid to make necessary changes to his side. Brazil was still a dangerous opponent. However, the danger was much reduced when Leonidas did not start. There have been many conspiracy theories behind this omission, the main being the overconfident coach Adhemar Pimenta saving him for the finals. In an interview many years later, the coach revealed that Leonidas had not recovered after playing the two brutal encounters against the Czechoslovakians with a single day of rest. The match was controlled by Italy on a bald pitch, with their mid-fielders and defenders keeping possession. The forwards created quite a few chances with the Brazilian goalkeeper Walter making some good saves to keep the game goalless at halftime. The Italians started imposing their physical superiority on the tiring Brazilians in the second half. Colaussi scored, banging in a shot off a cross from the right wing. Then Piola was brought down by Domingos in the penalty area. To be fair to the Brazilian defender, the foul was that of exasperation as he was being battered by the forwards who liberally used their elbows. The penalty was a great talking point as just when he was placing the ball, the elastic of Meazza’s shorts snapped. The great man now visibly slower had the panache to hold his shorts up by his hand and score high to his left. Brazil pulled one goal back three minutes from the end through Romeu. The Italians then kept possession to round out the match. The defending champions were in their second consecutive final facing yet another fluid and free passing Carpathian nation of Eastern Europe.

As with the last edition, there was a match to determine third place between Brazil and Sweden. Leonidas was back and made captain. Sweden took a 2-0 lead totally against the run of play. Romeu reduced the margin a minute before the break. In the second half, Leonidas imposed himself and scored two goals to give the Brazilians a deserved lead. Peracio added a fourth Brazilian goal for a final score of 4-2. Leonidas finished the tournament as the highest scorer with seven goals; one is but left to wonder what could have been achieved had he played in the semi-final.

Paris was the city which hosted the final at the stadium built for the 1924 Olympics. Before the start of the final, a telegram was sent to the Italian team by their leader Mussolini. It was believed to have contained three ominous words: “Vincere o morire” – “Win or die.” Historians later have debated over the authenticity of the telegram with many dismissing it as a prank. For the Italian team under the iron fist of Fascist rule it must have been a terrifying experience. The French press had huge articles on each of the players of both teams. Sarosi’s running style was showcased in series of photographs.  Italian winger, Amedeo Biavati’s foot over the ball feint was a subject of many debates. On their way to the stadium, the Italian team’s motorcade was held up due to a large number of supporters. Pozzo ordered the driver to turn back to their hotel so his players wouldn’t have to wait in a bus before such an important game. He was possibly the earliest coach who understood that the game is played between the ears as well as on the ground. The Italians made it to the stadium at their second attempt. Both teams employed a 2-3-4-1 formation with Piola and Sarosi as the lone striker. The question was – whether the flowing style of the Danube valley could breach the Italian defensive walls?

Guiseppe Meazza(L), Georges Capdeville- referee(C) & Gyorgy Sarosi(R)

The third World Cup final started on the same ground where the legendary Uruguay side had won their first Olympic gold medal fourteen years ago. The Hungarians brought in Polgar to partner Biro in the defence in place of Koranyi, but the defence was unsettled and lacked the assurance of the previous matches. In the 6th minute, the Italian left half, Ugo Locatelli passed to Meazza in the right wing, who passed to Biavati to run ahead and cross the ball from the right. The Hungarian defence was totally absent and an unmarked Colaussi poked the ball home from close range (1-0). The goalkeepers did not come off their lines then as coming off the line would usually entail the attention of the elbows and fists of the opposing forwards. In the very next minute Hungary was level with Tiktos, the outside right, scoring with a crisp high shot to the near post (1-1). The Italians were not giving the Hungarians the opportunity to play their languid passing style by increasing the pace of the game, another stroke of brilliant strategy from their manager. Sarosi, the Hungarian captain was marked out of the game by Andreolo, the Uruguyan born successor of Luis Monti.

Titkos and Sas the Hungarian wingers were the only threat, and the Italian midfield of Serantoni and Locatelli made sure that they were starved of possession. In addition, the Italians had Silvio Piola the player of the tournament and possibly the best striker of those times. In the 11th minute, Giovanni Ferrari, the Italian inside left hit a twenty yard shot which was fumbled by the Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabo; Piola was first to the rebound and his shot came back off the post to maintain the status quo momentarily. In the 16th minute, Piola went through the middle unmarked and passed to Ferrari on his left. Ferrari, who had just the goalkeeper to beat instead of scoring passed it to the right to Meazza, who in turn laid it back to Piola who put an end to this passing around by hitting a right footed drive high into the net inside the near post (2-1). The Hungarian defence did not make a tackle in the midst of all this passing and committed the cardinal sin of not marking Piola. Szabo again stayed on the line. Colaussi scored his second goal of the match in 35th minute by walking in the ball from the same position as his first goal, this time he had Polgar for company with arms around his waist trying to prevent the his scoring (3-1). The defending champions looked in command during the break, two goals up with Hungarian defence in disarray.

Alfredo Foni (ITA)(L) &  Gyula Zsengeller(HUN)
Szabo(R) saves a Piola(L) shot with Biro in centre

The Italians shut up shop in the second half and relied on Biavati’s pace for counter attacks. The Hungarians with all their ball possession could not feed their wingers or penetrate the tight Italian defensive system.  In the 69th minute, Sarosi turned in a left wing cross initiated by Sas from close range to reduce the margin (3-2). All hopes of a Hungarian fight back were quashed when Biavati in a lightning counter attack from the right broke through and crossed for Piola to score his second of the match with a grounder, eight minutes from time (4-2). The rest of the match was a series of hopeful balls into the box by Hungary which were efficiently dealt with by the Italian defence. The final whistle was blown by the French official, Georges Capdeville and Italy became the first nation to successfully defend their trophy. Pozzo became the only coach to have won back to back World Cups. Meazza received the trophy with a fascist salute. The Hungarian goalkeeper later commented that he may have lost the match but saved eleven lives referring to the infamous Mussolini telegram. Mussolini met the winning team minus his sailor’s cap this time, but the entire team wore sailors cap to please their ruler.

The winning Italian team wearing sailing caps with Benito Mussolini (C)

FIFA had a moderately successful tournament where few spectators turned up as they had a lot more on their minds. Soon the conflict moved from the football fields to the battle fields of Europe and there was no World Cup for more than a decade and Italy was the defending world champion for a period of twelve years – the longest ever.

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Kinshuk Biswas is an architect by education, a consultant by profession, a quizzer, writer and an absolute football fanatic by choice. Follow him at http://confessionsofastonedmind.blogspot.com