Archive | April, 2011

AS Roma

25 Apr

19 March 2011

TIM Coppa Italia Semi Final First Leg

AS Roma 0  v  Internazionale 1 (att 23979)

Stadio Olimpico, Rome

Team talk. OK, one last blast  from Italy. This time from one of the grand old sides of the Serie A: AS Roma.

Like most of the big Italian sides, Roma started off this year with the intriguing prospect being a genuine title contender. Not through any great expertise but because no  single team was considered to be the dominant force in Serie A. Arguably, Inter still had the best squad although without the genius of Jose Mourinho, they were no sure thing. Milan looked old at the back and crowded upfront and Juve remain an anomaly ever since the authorities had decided that bribing referees was something to be frowned upon.

This would mean that the original Tinkerman himself, Claudio Ranieri would have a real shot at guiding Roma out of the pack and towards their first Scudetto since 2001.

As things turned out, it was Napoli who would take on the challenge and they look on course to play Champions League football for the first time, probably as Serie A runners up to an again united and disciplined AC Milan who have (quite surprisingly) landed a talent in manager Massimiliano Allegri.

As for poor old Ranieri, Roma relieved him from his post in February after a disappointing run of results. His replacement, by popular demand, was Roma icon Vincenzo Montella, who played 194 time for the Giallorossi. If he hadn’t been faced with the indignity of being loaned to Fulham in 2007, he may have broken the 200 game mark for Roma. As it is, he doesn’t seem to care (or hasn’t realised) and certainly didn’t hold a grudge when Roma asked him to step up and take become manager until at least the end of the season.

Vincenzo Montella arrives at Fulham (please note: this is not a statue)

After nearly 2 months at the helm, he’s steadied the ship and has given Roma an outside chance of a Champions League berth as well guiding them to the cup semi final. However, the less we talk about his recent exploits in this season’s Champions League, the better.

The cup semi marked the start of an interesting chapter in Roma’s history, if not of the entire Italian game. As of last weekend, Roma became the first team in Serie A to fall into foreign ownership after Thomas DiBenedetto (or Tommaso DiBenedetto as his publicists etc are avidly promoting) took control of the club. DiBenedetto is a partner in John Henry’s NESV group who currently boast oft-bridesmaids Boston Red Sox and Liverpool in their portfolio so it’s no wonder he’s looking the part, saying all the right things and adding yet another of sport’s nearly men to the collection. Certainly from what I saw, he was being welcomed with open (yet understandably cautious) arms by most of the supports, with a few Star-spangled banners making an appearance in the terraces.

Roma’s opponents on this night were current league, cup and European champions, Inter. Like Roma, Inter’s season hinged on a managerial switch, after the walking car-crash Rafa Benitez was sacked in December. After inheriting greatness in Valencia (let’s just pause for a moment to think about Hector Cuper’s pant-wettingly good, yet desperately unlucky Valencia side….), the Spaniard thought he’d try and do the same with Mourinho’s Inter. Sadly for him, lightening doesn’t strike twice and Inter moved swiftly to appoint Leonardo, a man previously considered to be AC Milan to his core, representing them both as player and more recently as manager.

A warm welcome for the visiting support

Park the bus. Getting to the Olimpico is a piece of cake. Take the number 2 tram from Flaminio metro station and you’re there in 15 minutes. Tickets can be bought in advance from one of Roma’s numerous city centre club shops. Interestingly, girls get a 20% discount. Whether this is to encourage them to attend or because of some outmoded sexism, it’s hard to tell, but Mrs M (reluctantly attending her first game as a Pigeon Stander) seemed happy enough.

Home advantage.  First thing to consider when visiting the Olimpico is that the stadium was built on the orders of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and remains one of very few reminders of his grim part in Italy’s history. It’s not subtle either: Upon crossing the Tiber from the tram station, you’re instantly greeted by a 10 metre obelisk inscribed with the words “Mussolini Dux”.

Benito's big column...sorry

Walk a little further and you’ll find yourself staring at a walkway decorated in ornate faux-Roman mosaics with “Duce Duce Duce Duce” and a series of giant “M”s. Whilst a lot of this pleasing ode to early Modernist design (albeit with an odd nod towards Roman Classicism), it’s hard to forget why it’s there and what a hateful thing it represents.  Upon approaching the stadium, my eye was drawn to the training pitches next door, here stands the Stadio dei Marmi, the Stadium of Marble, where 50 faux-classical marble men surround a running track and pitch, all striking preposterous homo-erotic poses. It’s quite a sight when sat alongside the comparatively contemporary Stadio Olimpico of 2011 and is yet another enduring image of the original Faro Mussolini sports complex.

Prawn sandwiches. Not much to write home about at the shop. Although after Viareggio, I wasn’t expecting much. There was the offer of pizza or something which at some point in time may have resembled a burger, but I chose to pass on both. Interestingly, there was a flurry of vendors walking up and down the stands selling pop, beer and ice creams. I like the idea of in-terrace vendors, I’m sure some larger British clubs must be doing the same thing but I’ve never encountered it before. Surely it’s worth someone looking into it…that and the booze-laden espressos.

…and the game.  Being a cup game (albeit a semi final) the attendance was unsurprisingly small, only around a third of the seats in 70,000 capacity stadium were taken. Luckily for us, we were sat in the corner next to the ever-present and ever-vocal Curva Sud Ultras.

I was massively impressed by their enthusiasm and vim from beginning to end. It might have lacked spontaneity, with the crowd lead in song by conductors at the front of the stand but it certainly provided the quintessential Italian football atmosphere.

I’ve never really bought into the argument that stadia with running tracks make it hard to generate atmosphere. Most large grounds I’ve been to aren’t exactly brimming with energy anyway and unless you’re sitting in the first 10 rows or so, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll feel part of the action, so what does it matter if there’s a running track?? I’d agree that viewing angles aren’t nearly as good and it can be quite distant, but as someone who’s had the misfortune of sitting in the West End at Hampden Park, I can assure you, that running tracks are just one way to present supporters with distant views.

The Curva also made a suitable mockery of the pre-match decision to have a Police marching band play the national anthem pre-match (something to do with the 150 anniversary of the unification of Italy) by booing the boys in blue before launching into another chorus of the team’s anthem, a rather gushy number more suited to a Burlesconi’s cruise ship cabaret than the terraces but still better than any marching band in my opinion.

The game itself was pleasant enough. Italian football gets a lot of stick, particularly from UK media outlets but this was a reasonably good advert for the game. Whilst obviously slower in pace, two teams (both at virtually full strength) played the game with a definitive attacking spirit. Inter looked far superior throughout much of the first half and deserved their goal on the stroke of the interval. What a goal it was too: This tasty strike from aged bad guy, Dejan Stankovic.

Disappointingly Roma’s only line of attack in the second half came via the right channel with no less than 8 bungled crosses landing in front of Inter’s first man or way over in the near-empty Tribuna Tevere Stand. On the whole, it was the right result on the night and we may be edging closer to another Milan derby showdown in the final. I’m sure Leonardo will be looking forward to see what AC Milan’s support come up with this time.

Man of the match. Short, sweet and milk curdlingly soppy. My man of the match for this one was my good lady wife who not only let me slip off for the Viareggio match last week but put set aside her general contempt for the beautiful game to accompany me to the Olimpico on this night. I’m sure the 20% discount made it all the more enjoyable for her, even if there was a near death encounter with a scooter after the game. Nice one Mrs M.

Post game rub down. A trip to Olimpico should be on most football fans’ itineraries for a trip to Rome. It’s one of only 18 venues to host a World Cup Final (the 5th I’ve visited) and its place in history makes it unique if not slightly uncomfortable. Roma have recently announced their intentions to look for a move away and with the national side playing most of its games away from Rome, one has to question how much longer the stadium will be there.

It was also nice to see two players I’ve grown up watching on TV, battle it out in the dugout. Both coaches still seem to be finding their feet at the moment but may well come out all guns blazing at the start of next season. I suspect that might be exactly what they’ll need to do if they’re to compete with this current Milan side who in my opinion are just 3 young(er) players away from once again becoming a major pan-European threat.

As for the team, Roma are an entertaining yet frustrating team to watch. My intolerance of misfit 5-4-1 formations was tested to its fullest thanks to their one-dimensional line of attack which was far better suited to a 4-4-2. Nevertheless, I was glad to get to watch some action in the Olimpico (the free matchday programme was also a nice touch) and the Curva Sud certainly gave the night a fun burst of sound and colour.

That’s about it from Italy. I hope the past couple of dispatches have kept you lot satisfied and I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that next time we’ll be back to blogging from our homelands of South London.

FC Esperia Viareggio

14 Apr

10 April 2011

Italian Lega Pro Prima

FC Esperia Viareggio 1 v 1 Cavese (att 1000 +/-)

Stadio dei Pini, Viareggio, Italy

Pre-match warm up. Following last month’s breaking of a Pigeon Stands’ golden rule, I thought I’d self indulgently break another: Thou shalt not blog about football north of the Thames and/or outside of the M25.

Today, I’m blogging from Viareggio in Tuscany. Well, if you’re going to break the rules, you might as well do it properly. Viareggio is a busy little seaside town, popular more so with locals visiting from the landlocked conurbations of Florence, Pisa and Lucca than with foreign tourists. It’s basically exactly what Saltcoats could be like if it wasn’t in Scotland and more people holidayed at home…and generally wasn’t shit. Much like Salty, Viareggio’s links to football are perhaps a little limited. It’s major footballing claim to fame is that it’s the hometown of football icon and general good egg(head) Pierluigi Collina. The man widely accepted as the best referee in the history of the modern game and one of very few top-class Italian referees to retain his reputation following Calciopoli.

Luckily for the big guy, ref chasing wasn’t on my Itinerary as my time would be taken up by the town’s sleepy little 3rd Division (Lega Pro Prima) side F.C. Esperia Viareggio. So having successfully deposited Mrs M at the beach with an ice-cream, I headed for the terraces.

Please have some sympathy with me as this post was written, photographed and uploaded via on my iPhone. Consequentially, the final product is somewhat rough around the edges.

Team Talk. Viareggio, known as the The Zebras (so called because of their black and white kits) have been competing in their current division for only 2 years. AS Viareggio Calcio, the town’s previous team had previously competed in the old Serie C and even played 4 seasons in the 30s in Serie B, however, the team fell on hard times during the 90s and folded in 1994. After a 9 year absence, Viareggio was reborn in 2003 under the name of the town’s first side: L’Esperia. A quick rise through the provincial divisions has seen them establish themselves in the Lega Pro Prima, although a tough start to 2011 has seen them take just 1 point in their last 6 games to leave them in 17th, one place off the bottom and automatic relegation. Their opponents on this fine day on the Tuscan coast was the only side more lowly than them, Cavese.

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Park the bus. Viareggio is a relatively compact city and Stadio Dei Pini is located just a 10 minute walk from either the middle of town or the beach. There appears to be several bus routes, however, the timetables looked harder to decipher than the Enigma Code. Walking is definitely the safe option.

Home Advantage. Stadio dei Pini is what most would assume is a classic Italian football ground: Massively utilitarian with no real sense of being designed for spectators, or even football. An 8 lane running track separates the supporters from the pitch, with the majority of fans located in the main stand. Another stand was located on the far touchline, though this was in the direct sunlight and too much of a risk for my fair hair and pasty complexion. Neither end was terraced. One seemed to lead off into some dark (and hopefully mystical) woods whilst the other served as the main entrance to the ground and was decorated in mock-renaissance statues. Around the whole perimeter was a mural depicting a number of sports…apart from football. Even skiing gets a mural. In a ground used primarily for the beautiful game, its absence was duly noted (by me at least). A not so fun fact worth noting is that it’s law for EVERY Italian league side to take down passport details of those attending. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t left mine in the trusty Mary Poppins handbag of my good lady wife. So after an unexpected visit to the beach to pick up my ID, I finally made it inside the ground.

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Prawn Sandwiches. As you might expect, the prospect of investigating a continental tea bar was far too great to resist. Alas, the faint hope of pizza and fine pastries was wiped out as the tea hut looked more like a bar-cum-newsagent with chocolate, nuts, chupa-chups and crisps all that i could see on offer in terms of food. Luckily there was one interesting offer on the menu, a ‘Corrected’ coffee. This was basically an espresso super-charged with a shot of sambuca (or local aniseed-based spirit alternative). To say to was a taste sensation would be an understatement. On a cold winter’s night, I could imagine these slipping down a treat at Champion Hill, however, on a 30+ degree afternoon in spring, it seemed slightly unnecessary.

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…and the game. I went not really knowing what sort of game to expect. In the end it turned out to be a classic, and very familiar looking, relegation tussle. Although instead of the atypical British long ball contest, it was played very much in the Italian style of percentage football. Easy on the eye, great fundamentals but little cutting edge. No surprise then that Cavese’s opener came from a misplaced clearance in midfield. Equally unsurprisingly, Viareggio equalised from a penalty, a weak decision but one Viareggio’s deserved after two blatant stonewallers were rejected, these refereeing blunders were highlighted by the home support, prompting cries of “Mafiosi Mafiosi” and “You’re more x than Burlesconi”. Now, my italian isn’t amazing and depending on circumstance the value of that x could represent “orange” or “horny” or a whole manner of other words, but in this instance, I dare say it was “Corrupt”. My favourite part of this ref bashing was the waving of Bank notes in a Real Madrid white-hanky style as the officials left the pitch at half time.

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If I’m honest, I was hoping to come away from the game with a ringing endorsement of Viareggio’s 20 year old goalkeeper, Carlo Pinsoglio. Currently registered to Juventus, he was expected to go out on loan to a side in Serie B at the start of this season, as it happened, he was allowed to drop to Viareggio. Already an Italian under 21 international (currently the only player from outside the top two divisions), he has been labelled by many as the new Gigi Buffon. No doubt a lazy comparison based solely on his parent club and nothing at all on his ability as a keeper. Whilst the lad did seem to have something about him, he fell short of looking unstoppable or even that he was playing below his station. With the average age of Viareggio being just over 20 (almost as young as Dulwich Hamlet), maybe the powers that be in Turin decided that he’d have a better time commanding a line defence of his peers as opposed to battle-weary veterans that very much rule the roost at a number of Serie B sides. However, at times he seemed more lost than any of his back 4 and some rogue punching left his side in a massive pickle on more than one occasion.

Man of the match. Well sadly it wasn’t Carlo Pinsoglio, who may  take a few more years to develop. Luckily for him Juve seem hell-bent on keeping Buffon in town for as long as possible so he may still yet get his chance to represent another side in black and white.

My man of the match was Burlamacco the Clown, Viareggio’s town mascot and terrifying icon of the Viareggio’s annual beach carnival. He was all over the place, statues, flags, masks, the lot. Whilst the nickname The Clowns probably isn’t sending out the right vibes for the football team, The Terrifying Beach Clowns might do the trick. It’d certainly keep me awake the night before the match.

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Post match rub down. I had a blast at Viareggio but suspect I would have had an equally fun time at any game at this level. There’s something (as the blogging community knows only too well) about opening you’re football horizons when abroad, and the lower the divisions you go (within reason) the more likely you’ll be to make a real find. I was welcomed with open arms by everyone I met, all delighted that their little team had attracted (albeit minor) foreign interest, frankly I’d be equally impressed if I saw some tourists down the Hamlet. Having enjoyed Viareggio so much, I’m left wondering if I’ll have nearly so much fun at the Olimpico in Rome next week.

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