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What’s Mihajlovic ever done for Milan?

A typical refrain heard from many Milan fans this season is that the squad isn’t good enough. Early on, it wasn’t strong enough to compete for the Scudetto, despite Silvio Berlusconi’s usual bombast and the spending of around €85 million on the likes of Carlos Bacca and Alessio Romagnoli.

More recently, many Rossoneri fans weren’t buying that Mihajlovic’s men could suddenly lead the charge for Europe, despite a 12-game unbeaten streak and rivals Roma, Inter and Fiorentina all either running out of steam or facing an identity crisis.

And who could blame them? The Diavolo lined up the likes of Mattia De Sciglio, Antonio Nocerino, Cristian Zapata and Suso as they lost two of their first three league games, triggering an early panic and somehow justifying Silvio Berlusconi’s repeated public criticism of his coach.

Read the rest of the article here on Football Italia’s website

I veri Opti Pobà sono Made in Italy

“L’Inghilterra individua i soggetti che entrano, se hanno professionalità per farli giocare . Noi, invece, diciamo che Opti Poba è venuto qua, che prima mangiava le banane, adesso gioca titolare nella Lazio”

Un potenziale Presidente di federazione non dovrebbe parlare in questo modo. Ma in Italia… Da quando Carlo Tavecchio, candidato favorito alla presidenza della FIGC si è espresso in questi termini, il mondo del calcio internazionale ha reagito con sdegno. Ma non in Italia, dove Tavecchio può ancora farcela, a meno di un improvviso voltafaccia delle società più importanti.

Questo incidente rischia, come altri in passato, di coprire di vergogna l’Italia, e la dice lunga non solo sulla piramide inversa del potere nel vecchio stivale, ma anche su come razzismo e immigrazione vengano percepiti da queste parti; e su come l’ondata di sdegno non sia stata sufficiente né a squalificare Tavecchio, né a far sì che alcuni Italiani percepiscano le questioni razziali come nel resto dell’Europa.

In questo articolo, insisterò molto sulla parola “alcuni”. Ci sono infatti molti miei connazionali che trattano le altre nazionalità con il rispetto che meritano, anche se su un fenomeno sottile, diffuso e sfaccettato come questo, i numeri e le percentuali sono difficili da stabilire. Peccato che il dibattito sul razzismo in Italia sia a volte estremamente contorto. Ancor più preoccupante è che proprio coloro che detengono il potere o possono formare l’opinione pubblica spesso sono i peggiori trasgressori.

Che sia La Gazzetta dello Sport a pubblicare una vignetta con Balotelli raffigurato come King Kong, o Tuttosport che che prova la battuta a effetto (“Li abbiamo fatti neri…”), non importa. Preoccupa che certi grandi quotidiani cerchino la battutaccia (senza ammetterne la natura razzista) anche quando Mario Balotelli (e chi sennò?), nato da genitori ghanesi, aveva appena schiantato la Germania con una doppietta che aveva proiettato l’Italia verso la finale dell’Europeo. Ma perché King Kong? Perché ricordargli che è nero? Non dovrebbe essere semplicemente italiano, ormai? Ancora piu inquietante e’ che sia La Gazzetta a macchiarsi d’un tale passo falso, la stessa Gazzetta che non ha lasciato la prima linea da quando Tavecchio ha parlato e che continua a tartassarlo di critiche. Se questi sono i cosiddetti non-razzisti, significa che il dibattito, da noi, non e’ poi cosi approfondito come ci piacerebbe pensare.

Non è la prima volta che cose del genere succedono in Italia, che persone di vertice imbarazzino il paese incuranti dello sdegno popolare, come quando Berlusconi definì “abbronzato” Obama, il giorno della sua inaugurazione. E’ forse per questo che ancora non si riesce a formare una massa critica sufficiente a liquidare Tavecchio. E così si spiega forse perché Joseph Minala sia corso in suo aiuto: Minala gioca nella Lazio, e il presidente della Lazio difende Tavecchio a spada tratta!

Ma sarebbe troppo facile dare tutta la colpa ai soliti politici e far finta che l’Italia sia un paese tollerante, al pari di quelle democrazie occidentali che cerca disperatamente di emulare. La verità è che tante persone di ogni estrazione non esitano, anche spesso, a oltrepassare i limiti del razzismo o della xenofobia. Che dire di chi sostiene che una casa popolare “è sporca da quando ci abitano gli albanesi”, oppure non frequenta ragazze di colore “perché puzzano” ? Devo queste citazioni a due miei amici italiani, istruiti, solitamente moderati, sensibili e fieri delle loro conoscenze multietniche…ma potrei citare parecchi altri esempi, a partire dall’italo-londinese che in piena estate si mette a gesticolare davanti ad una musulmana col velo, urlandole “Nevica, signora, nevica!”, o dei passeggeri in treno che, alla vista d’una poppante (musulmana anche lei) in preda alle lacrime, sparano: “Mamma, non voglio saltare in aria!”.

Certo, ci possono essere casi in cui la non conoscenza, o la mancanza di una componente africana nella cultura italiana moderna possono rappresentare un qualche tipo di scusa: come quando i giocatori del Crocetta Baseball Club (nel Parmense) si sono dipinti il viso di nero per prendere in giro l’attore Wesley Snipes nel film “Major League”. Dopotutto, mancando in Italia una tradizione teatrale con il “nero” stereotipato, e non essendoci stata la tratta, o peggio ancora la schiavitù dei neri, chi mai avrebbe potuto offendersi? E come potevano gli ignari giocatori immaginare di aver fatto qualcosa di sbagliato? Ma a pensarci bene, dietro cotanta ingenuità potrebbe nascondersi una memoria nazionale molto selettiva (come spesso succede), grazie alla quale, nella scia post-bellica degli “Italiani brava gente”, il paese si dimentica del suo passato fascista, punta il dito contro la Germania e cerca di dimenticare i propri peccati.

Forse il problema va oltre quello che sostiene John Foot, e cioè che l’immigrato tipo non sarà mai “uno di noi” . Forse non ci pensiamo nemmeno all’immigrato, o meglio non pensiamo a quello che prova quando gli tiriamo addosso l’ennesima pietra. Dopotutto, non fa nemmeno parte della nostra cultura o del modo di pensare: esiste perché noi possiamo farci gioco di lui. Eppure esiste un’altra Italia, quella che si dimena per i disperati di Lampedusa, o la famiglia che ha adottato un extracomunitario (già adulto), provando a far di tutto per aiutarlo ad ottenere il permesso di soggiorno. Lo hanno cercato disperatamente anche dopo l’espulsione, scoprendo pero’ che era morto nel disperato tentativo di attraversare il Sahara per tornarsene in patria.

E persino quando scoppia la bolla dell’indignazione antirazzista, tanti la guardano con incredulità: “Ma come? Noi non siamo razzisti! Ma non capite che è una battuta? Basta con gli estremisti del politicamente corretto! “ Il colmo è che, a parti invertite, gli Italiani fanno presto a scendere sul sentiero di guerra: che si tratti di un giornalista inglese che fa la solita battuta sui napoletani, o dei siti internazionali che parlano di razzismo per giustificare le intemperanze di Balotelli in serie A (quando in alcuni casi si trattava di ben altro), o ancora del quotidiano Bild che spinge a fondo sul pedale della propaganda anti-italiana… Certo, per essere un popolo la cui storia è tutt’uno con l’emigrazione, gli Italiani potrebbero fare alle nuove generazioni cioè i loro padri avrebbero voluto per se stessi. O no?

Quello che succede con l’attaccante Mario Balotelli è tipico, e dimostra che anche coloro che hanno una sensibilità razziale non ne capiscono a fondo tutti i risvolti. Ad esempio, quando Super Mario è stato destinatario di uno striscione degli ultrà juventini che recitava :” Non ci sono Italiani neri” (e non sono gli unici), alcuni hanno attribuito la colpa proprio a lui e ai suoi atteggiamenti provocatori, che avrebbero per così dire fatto da catalizzatore e causato l’incidente. E tanto per spargere sale sulla ferita, alcuni altri si sono precipitati a difendere gli ultrà: non sono razzisti, hanno solo usato quelle parole perché sapevano che gli avrebbero dato fastidio e lo avrebbero innervosito… Vale la pena ricordare che buona parte dei media italiani non siano cascati nel tranello, e che abbiano anzi continuato a contraddire queste menzogne.

E’ notevole come alcuni siano pronti a difendere un branco di ultrà quando di mezzo c’è la questione della razza, mentre li condannerebbero all’istante su tutta una serie di altre questioni. Insomma, si è trattato di un attacco razzista e basta. E in secondo luogo, perché concedere il beneficio del dubbio ad un gruppo di tifosi non proprio conosciuti per la loro moderazione? E se anche volessimo dire che non si è trattato di razzismo, come minimo dobbiamo parlare di “mancanza di sensibilità razziale”: qualcosa di cui andare fieri ?

Il comportamento di Tavecchio dopo che è scoppiato il bubbone è a dir poco scandaloso. Ha dichiarato: “Pochi hanno fatto quanto me per il terzo Mondo”, riferendosi al lavoro che sostiene di aver svolto per portare più immigrati nell’alveo del calcio dilettantistico. Io non sono un esperto in materia, ma non posso assolvere questo modo di ragionare. E’ come dire: “ Ho aiutato i neri in alcune circostanze, quindi va bene se adesso non li tratto da eguali. Che grande dirigente che sono!”

Ancora peggio, il ricorso all’immagine di “Opti Pobà” o della non fa altro che anticipare i grandi classici del dopo-scandalo, tipo :” Ho tanti amici neri!”. Tavecchio ha tutta l’aria di un razzista che fa di tutto per dimostrare di non esserlo, quando in realtà lo è, eccome. Anche quando ha detto una cosa tutto sommato giusta, cercando di rendere omaggio allo sport femminile, ecco uscire della parole completamente inopportune (“handicappate”).

E’ francamente deprimente che un paese che dà così tanta importanza alle buone maniere sembri pronto ad abbandonarle quando si parla di immigrazione e razza. Non è solo mancanza di consapevolezza, ma anche una questione di saper maneggiare con cura certi argomenti. Il fatto di non capire che una certa parola può essere percepita come un insulto non autorizza a muoversi con la grazia di un pazzoide leghista come Mario Borghezio che di mattina presto spruzza DDT sulle prostitute africane in treno.

La domanda è: il fatto che un settantenne usi un linguaggio dai toni razzisti proprio mentre si prepara all’incarico più importante della sua vita, cosa ci dice del personaggio Tavecchio, e soprattutto dell’Italia? Forse la risposta a questa domanda è la cosa più deprimente di tutte.

 

Italy needs a makeover

“In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. Here instead we get Opti Pobà, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio.”

This is not how a potential Federation President should chair one of his meetings. Not in Italy. Ever since Carlo Tavecchio, the heavily favoured candidate to take over the FIGC, uttered these words, the international footballing community has reacted with disgust. Not the Italian one, where Tavecchio still has a chance to take over, provided Italy’s major clubs don’t attempt a sudden volte-face.

This incident will, like many others before it, plunge Italy into infamy, and says a lot not merely about the inverted pyramid of power in the old boot, but also about how race and immigration are perceived there; about how plenty of revulsion hasn’t provided the necessary storm to hound Tavecchio from office, nor indeed necessarily helped Italians perceive racial questions in the same way as some of their European neighbours.

The emphasis in this piece will always be on the word some– there are plenty of kind-hearted people among my countrymen who treat other nationalities and creeds with the respect they warrant, though percentages regarding a subtle, widespread and multifaceted phenomenon are tough to quantify.

Yet the national debate on race in Italy can be incredibly skewed, and what’s even more worrying is that those either at the top or in a position to shape public opinion can be some of the worst transgressors.

Whether it is the Gazzetta dello Sport publishing a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong or Tuttosport trying some suggestive double entendre (“Li abbiamo fatti neri”, meaning “we have beaten them black and blue”), it is worrying that certain mainstream newspapers are trying to go for the cheeky joke (and refusing to acknowledge the racist nature of their gags) even after the Ghanaian-born Mario Balotelli, (who else?) had buried Germany with an impressive double to send Italy through to the European Championship Final. Why a damn gorilla? Why always remind him he’s black? Shouldn’t he just be an Italian by now?

It’s a bit of a déjà vu in Italy, that of the higher ups embarrassing a country it does not represent and caring little for the public backlash, something akin to when Silvio Berlusconi called Barack Obama “tanned” upon the latter’s inauguration. This is probably why a critical mass sufficient to topple Tavecchio has yet to form. This may also explain why Joseph Minala came out in his defence: Minala plays for Lazio, whose president is backing Tavecchio to the hilt.

But it is frankly too easy to just blame it on the politicians and pretend that Italy is as tolerant as the Western European democracies it so desperately wants to emulate. Truth is that for all the upstanding people we have here, there are others who cross the line in all walks of life- and it happens all too often.

What can you say when someone claims that a council house has been “filthy since Albanians have been living in it”, or refusing to sleep with black girls because “they smell”? The first quote comes from an otherwise sensitive, articulate and moderate person, the second from a hip-hop enthusiast who repeatedly boasted of his ethnic friends. Both acquaintances, both Italian.

Admittedly there are times when ignorance, or rather the lack of an African component in modern Italian culture, could be an excuse, like when a local baseball team hit the ol’ blackface routine to lampoon Wesley Snipes from comedy film Major League. As Italy had never had a history of blackface comedy, or indeed of recent slavery, who would be offended? And how could the perpetrators know they were in the wrong?

On the flipside, such naivety could have something to do with a selective national memory (they all are), one that has conveniently left Faccetta Nera (little black face) behind in the post-war Italiani Brava Gente trend, when a rebuilding Italy pointed the finger at Germany and tried to forget its own sins. Faccetta Nera was a popular sing celebrating Italy’s African conquests in the 1930’s, achieved thanks to gas attacks and exploding-and outlawed- dumdum bullets.

Maybe the problem goes deeper than John Foot’s contention that your typical immigrant can never truly be “one of us”. Maybe we never even think about him to begin with, or rather not what he might feel when we cast the umpteenth stone. He isn’t even a part of the culture, of the local mindset, and is there to be made to made fun of.

Even then, when the anti-racial indignation hits the fan, it is dismissed with incredulity: “We’re not racist! Can’t you take a joke? DELIVER US FROM THE PC POLICE!”. Ironically, Italians are (rightly) never far from the war path when the boot is on the other foot, whether an English journalist makes a lazy crack about Neapolitans, international websites immediately cry racism as a reason for Mario Balotelli acting up in a Serie A game or when Das Bild goes full pelt on the anti-Italian propaganda. For a people whose history is synonymous with immigration, Italy could surely do unto the newer generations what its forefathers would have liked to have done unto themselves?

The country’s take on Ghanaian- born striker Mario Balotelli is particularly infuriating, and shows that even those who are well versed in racial sensitivity don’t quite grasp many of its niceties. For example. when Super Mario was the target of a Juventus ultras banner proclaiming that “there are no black Italians”, some threw it back at him, his provocative posturing blamed as the catalyst for the incident. Just to rub salt in the wound, there are those who have rushed to the offending ultras’ defence: they weren’t racist, but just used those terms because they knew it would hit him where it hurt most. It is telling that some would be willing to defend a group of ultras when it comes to race – when they would draw instant condemnation in many other fields. For a start, it’s a racist attack. Secondly, why give a bunch of fans not known for their moderate views the benefit of the doubt? Even taking this argument at face value, it may not be racist, but it’s racially insensitive. Is that something to feel proud of?

Tavecchio’s behaviour after the scandal broke has been nothing short of shocking, declaring that “Few have done what I have for the Third World”, plugging the work he claims to have done to bring more immigrants into the amateur footballing fold. Whilst I am no expert on such matters, even taking him at face value doesn’t absolve him: “I helped a black guy play football, so it’s fine if I don’t treat him as an equal. What a fabulous master I am!”. Worse, his use of “negro banana-eater” and “handicapped women” is essentially pre-empting post-scandal classics like “I have plenty of black friends!”. His delivery smacks of a racist doing everything he can to crudely prove that he isn’t- but he’s so out-of-touch that he can barely keep it under the surface.

It is frankly depressing that a country that places so much importance on manners should seem ready to flout them when it comes it to immigration and race. It’s not just about a supposed lack of awareness, but about treading carefully when dealing with certain subjects. Just because you don’t understand how insulting a particular word can be, doesn’t mean you should bulldoze through the situation with all the subtlety of resident Northern League lunatic Mario Borghezio spraying DDT over African prostitutes on an early morning train.

What does it say of Tavecchio, and Italy, that a 70-year-old should use racially charged language in what was effectively the run-up to the most important job interview of his life? Maybe that is the most depressing thing of all.

Romanzo d’una catastrofe

Who would have thought that Italy’s 2-1 win over England would turn out to be the consolation prize in a group dominated by a CONCACAF team? Who would have expected Group of Death whipping boys Costa Rica to send two European giants packing in a little over ten days?

Following two humbling defeats in as many lacklustre performances, Italy are going home without manager Cesare Prandelli, who resigned in the wake of the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay that sent Italy crashing out of the competition whilst assuming responsibility for the defeat.

For a four-time world champion, two consecutive group stage exits are unheard of around these parts since the early 1960’s- and are more than enough justification for the resumption of a favored Italian pastime: the blame game.

After a wonderful showing at Euro 2012, few would have thought that Cesare Prandelli ran the risk of losing his job. The Azzurri had qualified without breaking sweat, and looked to be in the process of replacing their traditional defence-minded philosophy with an attractive brand of possession football- albeit more reactive than the hype would have us believe.

Yet the coach may well be the biggest culprit this time around, a position confirmed by the numerous tactical blunders he was responsible for during the tournament, and which would have arguably justified his sacking had he not left the fold immediately after Italy’s elimination.

Prandelli failed to adapt to the constant pressure that sides like Uruguay and Costa Rica applied on Italy’s midfield, all while tightening it up and the back and requiring Italy to pick apart a nine-man wall. In that light, is it so surprising that the Azzurri struggled against Ireland two years ago at the European Championship?

It is quite one thing to play Spain, Croatia and Germany- opponents who are far more expansive, and hence liable to give Pirlo more room and breathing space. It is another to try the same stunt against sides that are waiting for the opportunity to counter, exploiting a potentially lethal combination of inferior Italian defending and unimaginative attacking play. Italy’s front three (or front two against Uruguay) moved so poorly that Andrea Pirlo & co were often forced to spurn good opportunities on the counter by going for the safe pass down the wing, allowing their opponents to come back and cover. Italy’s form was so poor that they failed to muster a single dangerous chance from open play against Uruguay, or indeed in the second half against Jorge Luis Pinto’s Costa Rica.

Though it later emerged that Cassano was not well liked in the dressing room, he may well have been the X factor Italy were lacking up front, where a sedentary Balotelli added very little to Italy’s buildup and looked horrific when pulling the trigger. In a possession system a little bit of unpredictability is always needed, and Cassano would have added the counterweight Italy needed to avoid looking like the slow, cumbersome and predictable team we saw against Latin American opposition.

Things were little better on the wings: just like Guardiola’s Barcelona needed Lionel Messi and a mobile front three to provide an outlet to their buildup, so Italy needed both a creative spark and pace.Instead, the Azzurri got two disappearing acts in Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile, not to mention Alessio Cerci, who was “born offside” in the decidedly wrong sense of the term.

It is here that Prandelli’s months of experimentation were downgraded to mere tinkering, to tell-tale signs of a coach uncertain about both his starters and his attacking philosophy. Italy looked atrocious second half against Costa Rica, and though the players definitely deserve a share in the blame, a manager’s job is to make his charges comfortable in their roles. The Azzurri were as sloppy on the ball (if not more) as they had been back in the equally catastrophic 2002 and 2010 campaigns.

A robust dose of mea culpa is in order here, as Giuseppe Rossi, a player I discounted on fitness grounds, could not have done worse than those who boarded the plane instead of him. The Rossi debate opens up Prandelli for further criticism, namely regarding the 23 men who ultimately flew to Brazil. Did Prandelli call up the best players in the league, rather than those who best fit his system? Did the players who really raised their game this season (including Cerci and Immobile) get enough playing time in the (admittedly few) games Italy played in 2014?

A good example of how to handle a similar situation can arguably be found across the Alps- where Didier Deschamps kept plugging away with roughly the players and system, all whilst including new elements (notoriously Antoine Griezmann). He may, admittedly, have been a little fortunate that it all came together in the return leg against the Ukraine, but at least his side have shown clear signs of progress and look to be on the right track four years after the Knysna incident. Four years after failing to beat New Zealand, Italy are stuck in a rut once more.

Prandelli can, admittedly, attribute part of this disaster to factors beyond his control- including injuries to Christian Maggio as well as Riccardo Montolivo, two vital cogs in the 2012 campaign. Though he kept from criticizing his charges, Il Mister certainly didn’t have the pick of the European litter some of his predecessors had access to, right-back Ignazio Abate being a case in point. It is quite ironic, moreover, that many of these young players aren’t getting the opportunities they need to grow, especially when one considers how star-drained the Serie A really is. That considered, Italy’s made it all the way to the final just two years ago with a similar squad.

A more reasonable defence of the manager could well hedge on the difficult weather conditions the Azzurri encountered. Why Italy should have to play all three of their games in a tropical climate is frankly beyond me, and would have only escaped this damp furnace in the second round or, even worse, the quarter finals if they topped the group. With Italy’s players barely able to stand in the second half of last year’s semi-final Confederations Cup defeat to Spain, it is likely Prandelli wanted to keep his charges fresh for as long as possible this time round, and chose to adopt a more possession-based system to do so. Keep the ball, the logic goes, and you can slow the game down to a pace more suited to Italy’s heavy legs, thus allowing them to change the tempo when they need to. It is not a coincidence that so few European teams have made it to the second round, penalized as they were by conditions which their Latin American colleagues exploited to the full.

This all considered, the former Fiorentina coach can’t blame all of his errors on the weather, nor indeed on the Marchisio red card that some fans are blaming. My contention is that he lunged in looking for more than just the ball, his foot twisting awkwardly on Arevalo’s leg and giving the impression that the Juventus midfielder was aiming to add something extra to the contact, presumably unaware that the referee was right behind him. Then again, Italy have survived red cards before, namely against Australia in 2006, when Marco Materazzi was unfairly sent off early on in Italy’s Round of 16 tie. The Azzurri ended up holding Australia to just two clear-cut chances, and scraped through thanks to a highly questionable penalty call. It was significant that Uruguay really didn’t create much after the Juventus midfielder’s marching orders- but were able to exploit set-pieces, a major weakness for Italy in the qualifying campaign.

Prandelli’s substitutions are equally indefensible. His changes against Costa Rica were particularly rash- coming at half-time when Italy had at least showed some signs of life. It turned out that removing Candreva and Marchisio may well have cost Italy the game: both midfielders, whilst not brilliant, did at least provide an outlet to the midfield and a link (albeit tenuous) to Balotelli. They were both instrumental against England and arguably had a bad half against Costa Rica. There was no such luck for Insigne and Cerci, who blundered around looking listless and confused, and were more often than not caught offside anyway. The choice of Thiago Motta for the latter two games was puzzling- looking more tired than team-mates who had played the full 90 is a rare feat, but one Motta accomplished consummately.

Though he deserved more of a chance as a starter, Cassano the sub seemed a ridiculous choice once Italy went down to ten men against Uruguay, as he lacked the pace to contribute either offensively or defensively. It is a convenient microcosm for how the tournament went for the Azzurri- lacking a clear purpose, or indeed a read on the situation. Just like Prandelli’s Fiorentina sides seemed to run out of steam towards the end of the season, so Italy look to have exhausted their seemingly ample supplies of both energy and ideas. It’s high time for a change.