Our European guru educates and enlightens
As another European football season kicks off, Italian football faces what F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as the ultimate test of human intelligence: knowing that things are hopeless but acting as if they aren’t.
At UEFA’s season kick-off in Monaco last month, calcio’s best and brightest were privately admitting that they could face an annus horribilis. Over a cup of café fredo in the Meridien Beach Plaza, one lamented: "Italian football is in its worst shape since the 1970s when we didn’t win the European Cup between 1969 and 1985. The difference is that at least then teams were investing in youth. Some do today, but too many are content to recruit all their players in the transfer market."
Eto’o’s departure or a lucrative exile in Dagestan, the lack of what marketers like to call a 'marquee signing' by the Milan giants, and the growing uncertainty over the Italian economy, have all contributed to the general depression.
Calcio’s greats have traditionally subscribed to the theory that football in general – and great teams in particular – works in cycles. If calcio was a superhero franchise it would seem to be currently stuck at the Batman And Robin stage. Sheer tact and the laws of libel prevent me, alas, from speculating as to who is the Chris O’Donnell of Italian football. The good news, of course, is that a Christopher Nolan-style rebirth lies ahead. But it took eight years from George Clooney’s bemused caped crusader to Christian Bale’s dark knight struck artistic and commercial gold. Will calcio have to wait that long?
Possibly not. In their desperate hours, Italians have looked to Michel Platini, the UEFA president, who, shortly before teeing off at a charity golf tournament in Turin, assured the media: "Is Italian football going through a crisis? In my four years in office, I have handed the Champions League trophy to two Italian teams – so I can’t see a crisis. I’m sure Italian teams will soon return to the top."
Michel's not wrong - AC Milan and Inter celebrate in 2007 and 2010
The bianconeri legend was especially optimistic about his old club: "Juve will rule again. It’s a great thing to have your own stadium: big clubs need that." It’s possible that the example of ‘NewVentus’ – and its £90m investment in its very own stadium – may be the catalyst that persuades other clubs to invest in the facilities today that will generate millions in revenue tomorrow. But so far there’s no great evidence of that. And even if there was, it would take a while to revolutionise calcio’s performance on and off the pitch.
So Italians have partly consoled themselves by constructing scenarios in which Barcelona’s domination of the European game collapses. Some put their faith in calcio’s prince-in-exile, Jose Mourinho who has made an already strong Real Madrid squad even more impressive over the summer and has what writer Phil Ball might call the 'morbo' to disturb Barcelona in the knockout stages.
Others cite the wise words of Sir Matt Busby and highlight what they claim is a change in Barcelona’s strategy. The first Scot to win the European Club with an English club famously remarked that: "Any team is apt to be over the top within five years of reaching it". Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are in their third year – surely, some pundits suggest, they must start to exhibit some frailties soon?
Barcelona’s activity in the transfer market suggests, some cynics claim, that the coaches have evaluated La Masia’s next generation and found them wanting. This would not be entirely surprising: how do you ensure that your youth stars are as good as Xavi, Iniesta and Messi?
The deals which have seen Bojan Krkic, Jeffren and Orio Romero leave Camp Nou – for good or for an indefinite period – do suggest the difficulty many young players face breaking through.
Bojan was forced to leave Camp Nou for Serie A this summer
"Barcelona have a golden generation that has not just played together but trained together for years," said my Italian companion as he sipped his fredo. "How easy will it be to replace that? Especially if they have to buy in players who haven’t been trained in the La Masia way."
You might think that that sound you can hear in the distance is that of a once great football nation collectively reaching for the nearest straw as it tries to avoid drowning in a sea of troubles but the question is not entirely stupid.
The patterns Barcelona weave on the pitch are so mesmerizingly effective because they have become almost instinctive, so instinctive that even world class players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Vila have not always been in tune with their teammates. And over the next few years, Barcelona will have to replace the likes of Puyol (34), Alves (28), Abidal (32), Keita (31), Villa (29) and Xavi (31) while Mascherano and Iniesta are both 27. How effectively they are replaced will determine how long this glorious cycle lasts.
The mere fact that such scenarios are being spun reveals calcio’s colossal lack of self-confidence. But it also reflects the fact that many Italians believe their chances of staving off another 15-year wait for the European Cup would be much improved if the greatest team since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan showed signs of wear and tear.
The truth is that many others across Europe will spin such scenarios about the European champions. This isn’t Barcelona’s fault – it is just that in an age where football has become ubiquitous such greatness can, all too quickly, become oppressive. Especially if you’re trying to win the trophy they seem set to monopolise.
Still on the subject of Barcelona, the new issue of Champions includes a conversation with Andy Roxburgh, UEFA’s erudite technical director, about the secret of Barcelona’s possession play. (A clue: it’s not all about passing.) And we have an interview with Sergio Aguero, whose greatness has already begun to oppress defenders in the Premier League.
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