Straight from the dark heart of Italy
The big freeze sweeping through the north of Italy has had those of a certain age pining for a much simpler time. A time when all Serie A matches kicked off at 3pm on a Sunday and venerable, gravel-voiced Sandro Ciotti ruled the airwaves, as reports filtered in from around the grounds while the country collectively digested its Sunday lunch.
The last time the full league programme was played in the afternoon was the 1991/92 season, and for many it has been all downhill since. That could certainly be said of many of the country’s stadiums, which over the 22 years since Italia ’90 have on the whole fallen into a state of disrepair, in some cases necessitating them being torn down and rebuilt from the bottom up.
Juventus took the decision to raze the Stadio delle Alpi and reaped the benefits of playing on through the snow storms, though when they traveled to Parma and the uncovered Tardini stadium they had to watch their name join the rest of the rinivati (postponements).
With first the midweek fixtures and then the weekend thrown into disarray, the question asked was whether Italian football and Italy in general had it in them to drag the game into the 21st century by beginning a rejuvenation of stadiums.
Sky Italia were particularly miffed as they had paid a healthy sum to broadcast three evening matches over the weekend, which would have ensured big TV audiences, particularly for Roma-Inter and Milan-Napoli. The channel’s deputy head Jacques Reynaud wondered where the €8 billion they had invested in television rights had gone.
The simple answer is on player salaries, with 80 per cent of club expenditure heading directly into player bank-accounts.
Sky may have had to fill a hole in their weekend schedule where the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Francesco Totti and Diego Milito would usually have been running around in, but Italian football is staring into a black hole of its own making.
Apart from Juventus and the local authorities in Turin, there seems little desire among clubs and their local councils to find common ground on improving outmoded stadiums: Roma are at loggerheads with the city with regards to a new site, while Milan have all but given up on settling into a new home away from the San Siro.
It is the same story in Genoa and Florence, while the San Paolo in Naples is beginning to look like the Coliseum from the outside. The only other club to have made improvements has been Novara – and the Piedmont outfit ensured their synthetic pitch was playable for the visit of Chievo on Thursday as temperature plummeted to minus 10.
What a shame they are odds-on to be relegated, which brings us on another nostalgic boom – the call for Serie A to return to an 18-team league. This, it is suggested, would not only ease fixture congestion for those competing in Europe, but also make the step up from Serie B to A a less daunting one for those teams winning promotion each season.
Of course, all the hand wringing and calls for change will probably be forgotten in a week or so when the sun comes out again and the temperatures start to climb.
By that time we may have a clearer picture on where the title may be headed. Juventus and Milan were both frozen out on the pitch, with the leaders held to a goalless draw at home to Siena while the Rossoneri were also left empty-handed against Napoli.
One constant in Italian football is of course a good dose of controversy – both the Juventus Stadium and San Siro warmed to it on Sunday.
Juve were beside themselves for what seemed like a stonewall penalty turned down when Siena captain Simone Vergassola’s out-stretched arm blocked Giorgio Chiellini’s cross. However, memories being selective, Cagliari should have had two spot-kicks on the same pitch a few weeks ago so, as they say, these things usually even themselves out.
While Juve were firing blanks down the road in Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was getting all slap happy in a match that reflected the climatic conditions to a tee – very chilly.
In an episode that was more vaudeville comedy than vicious act, the big Swede extended an arm from behind the back of team-mate Antonio Nocerino to deliver a slap to Napoli defender Salvatore Aronica, who was so shocked that he returned the favour to Nocerino, who had not been so innocent in instigating the melee in the first place.
It may have seemed a comic incident but it could see Ibra suspended for two or possibility three games. If it is the latter then he would miss the league game against Juventus.
The pair clash in their Italian Cup first leg on Wednesday with little sign of a thawing in the frosty relations between the two: Antonio Conte has been playing down his side’s chances of lifting the title so much that Massimiliano Allegri was forced to misquote “the lady doth protest too much.”
Juve still hold a point advantage and a game in hand; and despite the leaders stalling there was little change in the chase at the top, with both Udinese and Lazio losing, at Fiorentina and Genoa, respectively while Inter’s mini revival has gone into complete reverse after a 4-0 humbling at AS Roma.
In fact, with Roma still have to play their remaining 26 minute at Catania – suspended due to heavy rain – in midweek and Luis Enrique’s exciting but frustrating side could yet warm the hearts through this bleak mid-winter.
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