2006-05-31

Perceptions of Italian Soccer No Longer Tenable

In 1964, Internazionale Milano defeated the keepers of beautiful European football Real Madrid to earn their first Champions League title. Packed with international stars and headed by legendary coach Helenio Herrera they were once again victorious the following year. This time the title came at the expense of Portuguese super club Benfica. They went for a third Cup in 1966 but were stopped by Real Madrid. The millionaires from Northern Italy returned to the finals in 1967 only to lose to Glasgow Celtic. Until this day this remains one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament and marked the beginning of Northern European dominance for the next 15 years under the banner of 'Total Football.'

Between 1963 and 1966 Inter were to capture 3 Scudetto titles (Italian domestic championship) in four years. Thus, the result was Inter Milan's successes were to have a lasting impact on Italian football. Early in its history, Mediterranean teams playing an intricate and artistic style of soccer dominated the Champions League. Inter were the antithesis of this style as they played a cynical, hard tackling, defensive interpretation that was to become the leitmotif of Italian football.

After the Torino airplane crash in 1949, Italian football was in a state of confusion. The loss of the team set back the national program at least a decade. Like a lonely divorced person in search of a companion, Italy took on the catenaccio (chain defense) strategy and forever left a mark on world football by playing it to near perfection.

Of course, one can argue that defensive, conservatism is a natural ally of the Italian character. Nonetheless, regardless of origins, Italy won championships with defense. This style does not win fans over. Indeed the reaction of people through the years dismissing this as "anti-football."

Italian football was the whipping boy of the anti-soccer crowd. For Italians, it's the results that matter. In other countries, the result is secondary to the style of play.

If Brazil represents all that is beautiful in soccer, then Italy represented all that was ugly. Both perceptions - as perceptions always are - are somewhat over blown. Brazil has won its fair share of ugly games while playing defense Italian style - when applied properly - can be an amazing thing to watch.

Serie A remains a tough league to play in. It is one of the world's best leagues where tactics and defensive ideas remain strong to the point of obsessive detail. However, it's a few years now that Italy plays an open, offensive style. Goals per game are slightly above the ones in the Premiership or La Liga. National coach Marcello Lippi was quoted as saying, "Some foreign critics have too negative a view of Italian football. No top level Italian club, for example, play the old-style, man-marking game. Our football has evolved." And evolved it has.

Leading up to the World Cup, I was somewhat dismayed on how some in the Canadian press continued to insist on describing Italian soccer as 'defensive.' Others simply failed to grasp the sophisticated subtleties of Italian soccer. It wasn't until discovering George Johnson of the Calgary Herald did my hope get restored. He's one of the very precious few who had the ability to get into Italy's soul. Just to give you an idea, one Canadian columnist called AC Milan a 'defensive' soccer team during the 2005 Champions League final. Of all the teams! Such are the comments from those who do not actually watch Italian soccer.

Most in the Canadian press focus on England because of the apparent 'storylines', which are really tabloid-marketing ploys more than anything.

Yet, any astute observer would point out that Italy does not play with a 'libro' or sweeper anymore. Their defense remains strong but the classic chain game has been abandoned.

The process began under Arrigo Sacchi in the mid-90s when he promised more offensive soccer. While Italy did reach the finals in 1994, it succumbed to the usually internal cliques that have marked Italian soccer for decades. Giovanni Trappatoni also promised to continue the trend only to revert in 2002. Under coaching master, Marcello Lippi, the process seems to have found stability. Changing a mindset that had lasted for 40 years can be a difficult and hard game. In fact, throughout the 90s Italy came agonizingly close to victory on a few occasions in spite of themselves only to come up short.

People began to realize, if not question, that defense is not always the best route - though it is a winning formula. It's still not a priority for Italy to play ball possession but to their credit they realized that perhaps it is time to show off its offensive prowess. Italy always had world class strikers. It's just the way they employed their offense that made people overlook it.

The idea of Italian soccer being defensive are clearly no longer tenable.

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