Monday, April 23, 2007

La Liga

My personal life has dictated that I have more important things to do lately than keep up my soccer blog, but I did want to post to thank you all for your patience. The football writing is important to me and I do plan to get back to work with real stuff in a few weeks. In the meantime, I wanted to pass along another great Phil Ball column, where he ruminates on great goals and reminds us that the best race in the next few weeks will probably be found in Spain.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Book Review: Italia Calcio

In this review I shall briefly consider three books about Italian football; all three books are written by men who came to Italy from other countries to observe the game with foreign eyes, and the three men stayed in Italy for various lengths of time. All three books are readily available to American readers, and despite some flaws, all are worthy of the attention of fans of football.

Te oldest of the three books is The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro by noted American author Joe McGinniss. Miracle is about how McGinniss falls in love with soccer following the 1994 World Cup and then becomes entranced by the story of the team from the tiny town of Castel di Sangro, a town so small that its football team really should only be playing in a league like the Italian C2. (For American readers, think, say, single-A minor league baseball.) However, through talent, luck, and sheer determination, the Castel di Sangro team, through the promotion and relegation system used the world over, rises all the way to Series B, one step from Series A, the highest in Italy and one of the best in the world. That this little team rose so far is the miracle of the book’s title, and thus McGinniss spends a year in the town chronicling how the club will do when playing the big boys.

Much of the book is very appealing; McGinniss paints a vivid picture of football life in Italy, and especially the lives of the players, who he clearly comes to adore. He also does a fine job of describing just how important football is in Italy, and how the tiny town comes to a stop whenever the teams play. By the end of the book you feel as if you are part of the small town, and you too want to root for Castel di Sangro. (Unfortunately, in the years since, the squad has been relegated back to a lower level.)

However, much of the book grates. McGinniss paints pictures of some of the residents of the town that can only be little more than caricatures. The older woman who feeds the team, for instance, is described as the stereotypical Italian mother found in every movie ever made about Italians; every woman is as sensuous as a heroine from a Fellini film, and the team’s owner, while no doubt a Mafioso, is described as a poor-man’s impersonation of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. At times these stereotypes are so blatant that they lead the reader to think, for just a moment, that the author was never really there; that he found all of characters in the cinema.

The end of the book is quite well known to football fans. McGinniss discovers that the team he has grown to love has thrown a game at the behest of their owner. McGinniss’ moral indignation at his former running buddies is hard to understate, and it is painful to realize how long McGinniss has integrated himself in this culture while failing completely to understand it. Still, the book is of great interest in the details, both small and large, and the theme of corruption is one that will return again in the other two books under consideration and also in the world of Italian football at large.

Tobias Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy almost does not qualify for this review at all, since it is not really a book about football. (It has one chapter exclusively on the beautiful game, while other chapters mention the author’s burdgening obsession.) The book concerns the author’s decision to move to Italy and his ponderances of the fascinating people who make up his everyday world.

Dark Heart of Italy is full of Jones’ nuanced observations of the character of Italians. On one hand, he notes that a kinder, warmer, gentler people cannot be found anywhere; but he also notes that these same people have embraced radical and violent forms of fascism and communism, and have also led the way in moments of obscene football violence. Jones argues that this is a result of the nature of modern Italian society, where unjust actions occur every day. Jones points out (as it is well known) that the big shots of Italy can do anything without repercussions. It is as if justice simply does not apply to them. But the saddest and most damming stories are of how little effect the concept of justice has in the everyday world, where people commit crimes daily, be it pick-pocketing or tax evasion, without consequence because the powers that be care not to stop them. That turns Italy into a deeply flawed country, one epitomized by AC Milan owner (as well as sometimes-Prime Minister) Silvio Berlusconi, a suave politician and almost certainly a crook. This corruption is also epitomized by the Italian people, argues Jones, who are glorious as individuals, but as a collective country seem content to let their country go strait to hell.

Jones also believes this has repercussions on the football field, where he notes that certain clubs seem to frequently get breaks from referees that other clubs simply don’t. The fact that he essentially predicted the Moggiopoly scandal in print years before it happened is impressive enough; the fact that he used the scandals as a metaphor for all that is wrong with beautiful Italy makes the book required reading for fans of Italian soccer.

The most recent book considered (and the best overall view of Italian soccer) is Paddy Agnew’s Forza Italia: A Journey in Search of Italy and its Football. This book would be of interest even without the football connection. After years of serving as an editor for an Irish newspaper, Agnew and his wife decided to pull up stakes and move to Italy to start over, even though they could not speak the language and knew no one in the country. Remarkably, Agnew became a noted Italian football journalist and raised a small family living near Rome.

There are many interesting little vignettes in the book, including Agnew’s interactions with greats like Diego Maradona and Liam Brady. There is a fascinating chapter on hooligan violence (which eerily presages many of the awful events in Italy this year) a thought-provoking piece on then-Lazio coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, and a justly admired mini-biography of Ettore Gandini, who, Moonlight Graham-like (for you Field of Dreams fans out there) played all of seven minutes in Series A.

This book ends, however, as Jones did, in tales of corruption. Here Agnew specifically tells the tale of Juventus, how they illegally drugged-up their players, and how rumors abounded that they cheated to win games. Agnew was proved right only a few months later, but this book can just be added to the pile of three very different but very interesting books. Taken together, they collectively suggest that as beautiful as Italian football is, it can never match the sheer ugliness of what can happen off the pitch.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Weekend Matches April 14-15

Good slate of games this weekend, including a fight for a champions spot in England (Bolton v. Arsenal) and the Super Classico in Argentina. Interestingly, if Real Madrid wins Saturday, they will actually slide into first place (!?!) in La Liga. I myself will be in Foxboro Massachusetts this weekend to see the home opener of the New England Revolution as well as a friendly featuring the national women’s teams from the U.S. and Mexico. If I ever get a moment of free time I will tell you all about it.


10:00am Arsenal vs Bolton Setanta

10:00am Manchester City vs Liverpool FSC

10:00am Sheffield vs West Ham United Setanta

2:00pm Racing vs Real Madrid GolTv


9:00am Messina vs Milan GolTv

1:00pm Atl. Madrid vs Levante GolTv

3:00pm Boca Juniors vs River Plate FSC

3:00pm Valencia vs Sevilla GolTv

5:00pm Inter vs Palermo GolTv

11:00pm Manchester United vs Wimbledon (1997) FSC

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

News of Note

Because of an unfortunate spate of busyness in my real-life world, I have been unable to post to the fanatic website in quite some time. I will try to have something up by the end of the week, commenting on this week's exciting champions league games (including last night's Manchester United match, which was a joy to watch) and also a few lengthy book reviews. In the meantime, I leave you with link to a REAL football writer, the great Phil Ball.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Weekend Games: April 7-9

There are a TON of games this weekend, especially Saturday, with crucial games in England, Italy, and Spain. This weekend is also important because it is the opening weekend of the MLS here in the states. The ABC network will be hosting a national game each week (see below) but check your local listings for broadcast of your team. It’s a busy sports weekend here in the states with the first full weekend of baseball, the NBA, and the Masters in full swing, but be loyal to the sport you love and watch a little of the beautiful game.


7:30am Chelsea vs Tottenham Setanta

9:30am Sheffield Utd vs Newcastle Utd Setanta

10:00am Reading vs Liverpool FSC

11:30am Reggina vs Inter GolTv

12:00pm Portsmouth vs Manchester Utd FSC

2:00pm Zaragoza vs Barcelona GolTv

3:30pm Colorado vs DC ABC

4:00pm Atl. Bilbao vs Valencia GolTv

5:00pm Catania vs Roma FSC

6:00pm Milan vs Empoli GolTv


9:00am Lazio vs Messina FSC

11:00am Sevilla vs Racing GolTv


10:00am Fulham vs Manchester City FSC

10:00am Newcastle vs Arsenal Setanta

9:00pm Real Madrid vs Osasuna GolTv

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Book Reviews Coming Soon

I received a nice email today from a reader asking when I plan on posting some new book reviews. In fact, I have been swallowed up by football books lately and plan on posting some new reviews soon.

Right now I am actually reading four books at once, largely because they are all so good: a biography of Eric Cantona, George Best’s latest autobiography, Paddy Agnew’s memoir of Italian football (Forza Italia), and Phil Ball’s book on David Beckham’s first year at Real Madrid. I will probably publish the Cantona review first, and then perhaps the Best autobiography review. I plan to review Agnew’s book alongside another great Italian memoir, Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy (which isn’t entirely about football but is still fantastic.) Finally, I will probably review Phil Ball’s book much later, and will do another joint review along with Jimmy Burns’ When Beckham Went to Spain and John Carlin’s fantastic White Angles. It is almost absurd that three major books have been written about Beckham’s first year with Real Madrid, and it is shocking that all three are actually quite good. (And two of them are brilliant.) But that’s how popular David Beckham is. Safe to say we will probably see another slew of books covering his first year with the Galaxy. And, I promise, I will get to some reviews soon.

Champions Recap

After a relatively exciting four matches in this week’s Champions League play, I thought I would provide a brief recap of the games. I’m looking forward to at least three of the four games next week.

Liverpool – PSV

Tuesday’s Liverpool game was the only blowout; by winning three nil on the road, the Merceysiders virtually assured advancement to the semi-finals. As the otherwise intolerable Tommy Smyth pointed out, Liverpool didn’t even play that well; Steven Gerrard was in and out of the game, for instance, but did score a nice goal. Incidentally, if Tommy Smyth refers to the goal net as the “auld onion bag” one more time, I am going back to being a baseball fan.

Bayern Munich – Milan

An exciting game that saw Bayern pip two away goals, resulting in a 2-2 draw. Strangely, Milan was probably the better team for the majority of the game (probably for about 75 of the 90 minutes) but should have lost; Kaka was awarded a very dubious penalty with little time remaining. Milan is confident going into the next round, but those two away goals are crucial. Hard not to see Bayern advancing.


In my mind the stinker of the bunch; has there been a Chelsea game this year that has been exciting for a neutral observer? 1-1 draw suits Valencia, and right now I expect them to hold on to win it, even though earlier this year I picked Chelsea to win the tournament.

Manchester United – Roma

Maybe the best game of the week. I thought it was curtains when Manchester went a goal and a man down, but they managed to get one back and hang on for a 2-1 loss, which puts them in decent position for the return at Old Trafford. I usually give nut-stomping Wayne Rooney a hard time, but he demonstrated excellent control in chesting down the entry pass and scoring a sweet goal. I’m happy for that little fire hydrant of a man.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Champions are back

This weekend witnessed a pretty good slate of games, including further proof that this is Peter Crouch’s world, and that the rest of us just live in it. He scored three goals in the Liverpool game against Arsenal, using both his feet and his head. I personally saw the Milan game, which was better in the second half than in the first, and the Real Madrid game, which was better when Robinho came in with about 35 minutes left in the second half and eventually scored the winning goal.

It’s going to be a good week this week, seeing how the Champions League is starting up again. On Tuesday we have Milan v. Bayern Munich and PSV v. Liverpool. On Wednesday we have Roma v. Manchester United and Chelsea v. Valencia. I am very much looking forward to watching all four games.

So who do I like? I have Milan and Liverpool winning on the first day, and Manchester and Valencia on the second. All four games seem like they should be good, but for the best bet I am looking at the Roma v. Manchester match, which will be a good test of two very good football clubs and also an interesting test of two leagues as the Premiership and Series A go head-to-head. With the right breaks the Champions League could turn into the England Invitational (three out of the four semi-finalists could be from England) but I do think Totti and co. will give Fergie’s boys all they can handle.