Fabio Quagliarella’s Indian Summer

Sampdoria’s Christmas gift to their supporters was news of a contract extension for Fabio Quagliarella. With the evergreen forward receiving admiring glances from Serie A rivals, the Blucerchiati have moved swiftly to tie down their talisman for a further two years. The renewal has been widely lauded by Sampdoria tifosi and represents just reward for Quagliarella, who has sustained outstanding form since returning to the Marassi in early 2016.

Just a few weeks short of his thirty-sixth birthday, Quagliarella embodies the final throes of Italian football’s previous generation. He is one of the final remaining links to the World Cup winning side of 2006. Although not capped himself until the following year, Quagliarella played either with or against all of that victorious squad.

Quagliarella has had a somewhat nomadic career, beginning at Torino before substantive stays at Ascoli, Sampdoria, Udinese, Napoli and Juventus. He spent no more than two years at each of those clubs, the sole exception being four years at Juventus, where he was primarily deployed as an impact player from the bench.

Over the course of his career, Quagliarella has been consistent, but never devastating in front of goal. He hit double figures in eight of his last twelve seasons, but never scored more than 13 league goals prior to re-joining Sampdoria in 2016. However, what he didn’t produce in terms of quantity he made up for in quality. Quagliarella’s knack for the audacious and spectacular earned him the fabled reputation of a scorer of great goals, rather than a great goal scorer.

Following his 19-goal haul in 2017/18, Quagliarella has carried his form into the current campaign. He is the first player to score in nine consecutive Serie A matches since David Trezeguet in 2005 – and still has the opportunity to extend that streak. Overall, he has notched 12 goals and 5 assists in just 18 matches. The pick of the bunch was undoubtedly his impish finish against former club Napoli; airborne, he flicked the ball with the inside of his heel past a sprawling David Ospina. This rich form is made all the more remarkable by the fact he missed a large swathe of pre-season nursing a groin injury. Quagliarella is even being linked with a return to the Italy squad, more than 8 years since he last donned the Azzurri shirt.

Under the guidance of Marco Giampaolo, Quagliarella appears to have found his spiritual home with the Blucerchiati. Over the course of three years at the club, he is averaging roughly a goal every other game. Here we look at the reasons for this late flourish in Quagliarella’s career;

Maturity

When Quagliarella eventually retires, the legacy for which he will be remembered will be a catalogue of spectacular goals including long range rockets, audacious lobs and acrobatics. However, the fans of the clubs he has played for will also reflect on the physical strength that allows him to jostle with defenders and his intelligent movement in and around the box which creates openings for himself and others. And he can still finish too. Far from waning with the passage of time, these physical and technical attributes appear to have ripened.

Effective Leadership

Marco Giampaolo rarely diverges from the possession-based, attacking 4-3-1-2 that has brought him success at both Empoli and Sampdoria. He sets up his team in a way that is capable of bringing out the best in his players both individually and collectively. Under this framework he has nurtured raw talents such as Milan Skriniar, Patrick Schick and Lucas Torreira, with all three securing big money moves on the basis of their form for Samp. Perhaps more impressive though is his ability to rejuvinate others, such as Gaston Ramirez and Gregoire Defrel, who were on a downward trajectory before Giampaolo’s intervention. Another example is Edgar Barretto, at thirty-four years of age, he is arguably now playing the best football of his career in a Sampdoria shirt. On this evidence, the ascendancy of Quagliarella cannot be seen as coincidence.

A system that suits

Quagliarella has been one of the few constants during Giampaolo’s three-year tenure at Samp. He has typically been paired with a younger and willing runner (whether Schick, Zapata or Defrel) to apply a high press to the opposition centre backs in possession. Meanwhile, the highly capable flanking midfielders (Praet, Linetty or Jankto) put pressure onto the opposing full backs. This approach allows Quagliarella to drop off, enabling him to capitalise from the turnover of the ball in dangerous positions. With the ball, the presence of an industrious number 10 (Ramirez or Caprari), who is able to thread through balls into the strikers, or to bring overlapping full backs in to the attack, has proven key to the volume of chances created for Quagliarella.

Happiness

Finally and perhaps most importantly. Seven years of Quagliarella’s career were over-shadowed by off-field struggles precipitated by a stalker. Quagliarella had to keep the details of the case, involving a serving policeman, secret until sentencing was finally passed in 2017. Quagliarella opened up about the internal turmoil and the impact upon his family and career in a heart-wrenching Bleacher Report interview. With the details of the case out in the open and the perpetrator behind bars, Quagliarella is now liberated and determined to make up for lost time. Sympathy for his story has transcended the traditional tribal lines of Italian football. Redemption from Napoli supporters will have meant a lot to him, but it is the adoration of the Samp fans that has driven him onwards.

The form of Quagliarella has reportedly attracted the attention of both Napoli and Milan, though the new contract should now put those rumours to rest. In truth, Quagliarella’s head was never likely to be turned. He’s forged an unerring bond with Sampdoria and the feeling is mutual; “I got goosebumps when the Gradinata Sud sang my name. The emotion I felt was incredible. As footballers we live for this. Unforgettable days that stay with you forever”.

It seems this journeyman has found his home.

 

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AC Milan: Winter Break Innovators

As Serie A moves into its re-styled winter break, clubs across the peninsula will be contemplating how to strike the right balance between rest and recovery on one hand and retaining match sharpness on the other. This is the very same dilemma faced by AC Milan back in the early 1990s, when they sat at the very top of football’s world order. Their chosen approach was as unconventional as it was festive.

Milan had been in the habit of playing low key friendlies against minor Italian opposition during the winter breaks of the late 1980’s. Perhaps sensing a missed sporting or commercial opportunity, they changed their tact in 1991/92, complementing the usual friendlies with the Trofeo Di Capodanno Amaro Lucano (highlights). This was a round robin tournament of 45 minute matches played at La Favorita di Palermo on New Year’s Eve 1991, involving CSKA Moscow and Juventus. Milan ran out victorious, winning both matches in front of a 28,000 crowd.

The following season, Milan’s approach further evolved, playing a full strength team in an exhibition friendly in Tenerife, beating the hosts 1-0 to lift the grandly-titled Trofeo Dell’Isola. Italy has a long tradition of creating such elaborate titles and associated silverware for one-off fixtures (see also Trofeo Luigi Berlusconi). However, the centrepiece of the winter calendar was the newly-created Coppa Della Bonta. A charity match to be contested between AC Milan against a select “Christmas Stars” XI. With undertones of what led to the creation of Internazionale back in 1908, Milan were to field an entirely Italian side, with their foreign players turning out for the opposition.

The Stars were comprised mainly of Italian-based internationals, such as Claudio Taffarel, Sergio Berti (both Parma), Branco (Genoa), Careca (Napoli), Gheorghe Hagi (Brescia) and Mattias Sammer (Inter), along with a smattering of players based outside of the peninsula (Laurent Blanc, David Ginola, Davor Suker, Ciriaco Sforza). In the age of modern football, it’s astonishing to believe, even for a charitable cause, that clubs were willing to release these players for such a meaningless fixture against a rival team. Milan’s stranieri provided a formidable backbone to the Stars, in the form of Jean-Pierre Papin, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Dejan Savicevic, Zvonimir Boban and a young Giovane Elber.Over 40,000 spectators were present to witness an enthralling 4-2 victory for Milan (highlights). Papin put his employers on the back foot, but replies from Evani, Massaro (2) and Serena sealed it for Milan. Amidst the carnival atmosphere in the San Siro, nearly 300 million Lire (around £250,000 in today’s prices) was raised to assist Somalian refugees. The match also provided a glimpse into the future of international friendly football; the visitors used 26 players within the 90 minutes. If the incessant flow of substitutions detracted from the spectacle, the Stars’ kit certainly did not. It was a glorious Lotto number, reminiscent of the classic 89/90 Ajax “TDK” away shirt.

The experiment was sufficiently successful to be repeated the following year (30 December 1993). The terms of engagement had changed slightly with Milan retaining the service of their foreign stars, meaning that Papin and Savicevic switched sides from the previous season, whilst they were joined by Marcel Desailly. The game was notable for Gianluigi Lentini’s appearance for Milan; his first since suffering life-threatening injuries in a car accident.

The Stars of 1993 certainly had a more eclectic feel. Gullit had since departed Milan for Sampdoria, but remained the talisman of the Stars’ team. Nestor Sensini, Tomas Brolin (both Parma), Jose Chamot (Foggia), Luis Oliveira (Cagliari) and Brian Laudrup (Fiorentina) were notable Serie A representatives. In pursuit of further appeal to an international TV audience, the Stars had a more cosmopolitan line up than previously, including talents from four different continents. Mexican Jorge Campos was in goal, whilst Hugo Sanchez (Valladolid) led the line. Victor Onopko (Spartak Moscow) and Ilie Dumitrescu (Steaua) represented the Eastern European states. The Stars also featured lesser-knowns from around the world, such as Bolivia’s Miguel Rimba (Bolivar), South Korea’s Shin-Hong Gi (Ulsan) and Tahar El Khejal (Kawkab Marrakech). Arguably, the game provided a showcase for several players who went on to appear in Serie A the very next season, such as Kazu Miura (Genoa), Goran Vlaovic (Padova) and Freddy Rincon (Napoli).

Milan once again romped to victory (5-3) to the delight of a 40,000-plus crowd, raising another 300 million Lire in the process. If the Stars’ starting line-up was a bit of a comedown from the previous year, so too was their kit. A slightly nauseating combination of green and black stripes fading into white. The disappointing Puma design was only tempered by Campos’ characteristically chaotic and self-designed ‘keeper top.By the 1994/95 season, the novelty of the fixture appeared to be wearing off and wet conditions had deterred many supporters from attending. Furthermore, having won three-straight Serie A titles, Milan found themselves languishing in seventh place at Christmas and home crowds at the San Siro had begun to dwindle. Consequently, only 23,000 were present when a weakened Milan, decked out in a yellow third strip and devoid of most of their foreign players, fell to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Stars.

Aside from World Cup Golden Boot winner Hristo Stoichkov (Barcelona) the Stars were no longer the stellar opponents of earlier years. Symbolically, the South Americans had been replaced with North Americans. Increasingly too, the fixture was becoming a thinly-veiled attempt by agents to get their clients in the shop window for a prospective move to Serie A. Back in 1994, European players such as Aljosa Asanovic and Igor Stimac (Hadjuk Split), Patrick Berger (Slavia Prague), Richard Witschge (Bordeaux), Nikos Machlas (OFI Crete) and Glenn Helder (Vitesse Arnhem) were just beginning to forge a name for themselves and failed to capture the imagination of the Milanese public. Not even the presence of the legendary Nils Liedholm in the opponent’s dugout could muster a larger crowd.

This proved to be the third and final instalment in this unconventional fixture. Poor support for the 1994 version, coupled with the curtailment of the 1995/96 winter break to a little over two weeks, spelt the end for the Trofeo Della Bonta. At its inauguration in 1992, it served as a meaningful sporting and charitable endeavour. By the end it was barely fulfilling either of those objectives. And with that, it was consigned to the annals of sporting history, the likes of which we are unlikely to see again.

Thanks for reading – and huge credit to the excellent magliarossonera.it site for information and pictures.

 

 

Calcio Misfit: Franz Carr at Reggiana

Summer 1990 witnessed the rebirth of English football. On the field, the guile and tactical acumen of Bobby Robson’s England team saw them reach the semi-final, bowing out in the most agonising fashion. Off the field, the largely impeccable behaviour of English supporters on the streets and in the stands led to a shift in the way the nation was perceived by the world.

This rebirth meant that clubs from the strongest domestic league in the world, Italy’s Serie A, were once again beginning to consider the recruitment of English talent. The 1990 tournament ultimately led to the multi-million pound transfers of Des Walker, David Platt and Paul Gascoigne to the peninsula in the early part of the decade. Whilst these players – later joined by Paul Ince in 1995 – went on to experience divergent fortunes in Italy, the common thread was that all were established international players, and all were at, or reaching, their peak when they made the move.

All of this was in stark contrast to the next English player to follow them in October 1996, when veteran winger Franz Carr made a surprise free transfer move to Serie A newcomers Reggiana. In a pre-internet era, Carr’s signing carried a certain amount of excitement and mystique for Granata followers. Meanwhile. La Repubblica heralded the signing of an “offensive [attacking] joker card”.

The transfer caused a collective eyebrow to be raised in the UK. Franz Carr had been nurtured by the inimitable Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. He built a reputation as a jet-heeled wide player, albeit one who at times lacked end product. Clough once described him as “the best bloody corner flag hitter in the country”. Despite these limitations, Carr made 131 appearances during a seven year stay at Forest before Clough finally lost patience. After leaving Forest, Carr became the archetypal journeyman, moving clubs four times in the next five years. In the two seasons preceding his move to Italy, Carr had featured just three times for Aston Villa. And so it was with great surprise and a degree of intrigue that the news of Franz Carr’s move to Serie A broke.

Reggiana hail from the provincial northern city of Reggio-Emilia, located between Parma and Bologna. They spent two years in Serie A from 1993/94, represented by players such as Paolo Futre, Michele Padovano, Sunday Oliseh and Claudio Taffarel – the latter lifting the World Cup with Brazil at the end of his solitary season in Reggio. The Granata’s forward thinking president, Franco Dal Cin, had also set the blueprint, to be followed almost two decades later by Juventus, in financing and constructing their own purpose-built stadium in 1995.

Following relegation to Serie B, Dal Cin had the foresight to hand a maiden managerial opportunity to a young Carlo Ancelotti. The Granata made a shaky start to the 1995/96 season, with Ancelotti battling to hold onto his job, before his men rallied in the second half of the season. Ancelotti’s team timed their run to perfection, creeping into the fourth and final promotion berth on the final day of the season, securing an immediate return to Serie A.

Despite this success, 1996 proved to be a summer of upheaval for Reggiana. Ancelotti’s achievements had not gone unnoticed by his first club Parma, who moved quickly to offer him a return to the Tardini. Meanwhile, there was a change of ownership at Reggiana with Luciano Ferriani taking a majority shareholding in the club. Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu was recruited to lead them into Serie A, following five yo-yoing years at Brescia.

Lucescu set about building his own team, bringing in established, but arguably fading, foreign talents such as Georges Grun (from Anderlecht), Dietmar Beiersdorfer (FC Cologne) and Adolfo Valencia (America Cali). The season could scarcely have begun better for Lucescu, taking a commendable 1-1 draw at home to the reigning European champions, Juventus. However, the Granata took just one point from the next three matches in September, including a morale-sapping away defeat at Ancelotti’s Parma.

At the beginning of October, Lucescu turned to Franz Carr to further reinforce the efforts of his international brigade. Carr was short on match fitness having not made the Aston Villa squad in the first two months of the season. A combination of this and an injury picked up at the end of November meant that Carr had to wait until 5th January to make his debut. By this time, Lucescu had been dismissed and replaced by Francesco Oddo. However, the Granata’s form had not improved under the new coach, ending the calendar year winless and rooted to the foot of the table.

In the first game back after Christmas, Reggiana unexpectedly found themselves heading into the dying minutes of their away game at Perugia defending a precarious one goal lead. Carr, donning the number 26 shirt, was called from the bench to provide an outlet for their besieged back line. The plan worked perfectly. With virtually his first touch, Carr broke down the left, squared the ball to his captain Alessandro Mazzola, who found Igor Simutenkov in space to drill the ball home from 12 yards. What then followed was a topsy-turvy few minutes involving a comical own goal from Reggiana’s Marco Ballotta, momentarily throwing the result back into doubt, before Pietro Parente sealed a 3-1 Granata victory in injury time.

Over the next fortnight, Carr made brief appearances from the bench, showing flashes of his potential against Fiorentina (0-0) and Atalanta (1-0 defeat). Next up, Reggiana faced a daunting trip to the Delle Alpi to take on league-leaders Juventus – with Carr handed a starting place on the left side of midfield. The Granata went behind after just 5 minutes following a stunning strike from their former talisman Michele Padovano. Juventus doubled the lead within the half hour. With Reggiana seeking to stem the tide, Carr’s pace provided a counter-attacking threat. First, he sent a wicked cross into the box that somehow evaded the reach of Simutenkov. Then Carr himself caught a glimpse of goal, only to shoot weakly into the arms Peruzzi. Reggiana fell tamely to a 3-1 defeat with Carr withdrawn, exhausted, on the hour mark.

That game marked the high watermark of Carr’s Reggiana career. He fell out of favour with an increasingly desperate Oddo, managing just two further appearances from the bench in March (v Udinese) and April (v Lazio). By this time his team’s fate had been sealed. It had proven to be a disastrous season for Reggiana; finishing rock bottom with two wins all season and 22 points from safety. Carr persevered in Italy, beginning the following season with Reggiana in Serie B. However, his failure to make the squad prompted an October loan move to Bolton Wanderers, before packing his bags for good in February 1998.

Almost 18 months after moving to Italy, Carr had managed just 102 minutes of football for Reggiana. Francesco Oddo had struggled to know how to use Carr’s attributes to greatest effect, playing him out wide, but also in more advanced central positions. The Reggiani were initial captivated by his pace and direct style, but quickly, as Brian Clough had done, grew weary of his erratic final ball. For his part, Carr had enjoyed at least some aspects of his Italian adventure, revealing to the club magazine his fondness for Lambrusco and tagliatelle.

It is extremely difficult to find any images of Franz Carr in the Granata shirt; even the most adept and creative Google user will struggle to track one down. However, Carr’s largely forgettable time in Italy is perhaps best summed up by his presence on calciobidoni.it – a hall of shame dedicated to remembering “rubbish” footballers of Serie A.

Links:

Highlights: Perugia 1-3 Reggiana 1997 (1:21:57)

Highlights: Juventus 3-1 Reggiana 1997

Never go back: David Platt and Sampdoria

Born in the shadow of Lancashire’s dark satanic mills, David Andrew Platt climbed his way from Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra to star in the most competitive league in the world. The 1990 World Cup provided the tipping point in Platt’s career. Aged 24, he had gone into the tournament as a fringe player – allocated the no.17 shirt – he was used sparingly as a substitute in the opening four matches. It was his last minute winner from the bench in the last 16, finally breaking the resolve of the plucky Belgians, which propelled him into the limelight of world football. And it was the knee-slide which followed shortly after, subsequently replicated a thousand time on parks and dance floors across England, which secured his place in the hearts of a grateful nation.

England fans weren’t the only ones to take notice of Platt. After carrying his World Cup form back to Aston Villa in the 1990/91 season, Bari stepped in the following summer to make a lucrative offer to take him to Italy. The arrival of Platt was a signal of newly-promoted Bari’s ambition; the fans responded by turning up en masse at the airport to welcome their new hero. For his part, Platt further fuelled the levels of expectation by declaring that he wanted to become the “Maradona of Bari”.

Platt’s four-year Italian sojourn must be regarded as one of the more successful amongst British players to have tried their luck on the peninsula. He was no John Charles or Gerry Hitchens, but his success certainly eclipsed the more contemporary precedents of Ian Rush, Gordon Cowans and Paul Rideout. After a solitary season with Bari (during which time he became a fluent Italian-speaker), he moved onto Juventus where he won the Uefa Cup alongside Baggio, Vialli and Conte. In 1993 he moved again to Sven Goran Eriksson’s Sampdoria, finishing third in his first season and winning the Coppa Italia. His second season didn’t quite hit those heights, but Platt had firmly established himself as a crowd favourite for Samp, returning 17 goals in 55 Serie A games.

In summer 1995, Platt had the offer of a two-year contract extension on the table from Samp, but ambitious Arsenal had other ideas. Having smashed their pay structure to accommodate Dennis Bergkamp at Highbury earlier that summer, they were now focused on persuading Platt to join him. With a heavy heart, Platt opted returned to England in pursuit of trophies. However, his time in London was only a qualified success; by the time he achieved a league and cup double in 1997/98 his role had been reduced to that of a bit-part player.

Unexpectedly, Platt announced his retirement in the summer 1998 at the relatively young age of 32. Platt the player was highly regarded for his leadership, intelligence and tactical awareness; all qualities that would translate to management. He immediately set about building his knowledge and expertise as a coach, taking the role of assistant to Howard Wilkinson within the England Under-18 setup and travelling extensively to learn from coaching philosophies around the world. Even in those first few months he was being courted with job offers in England, reportedly turning down both Sheffield United and Wolves to continue his coaching education. It appeared that Platt was committed to serving his apprenticeship and was willing to be patient.

However, in December 1998 an offer arrived out of the blue, which would prove too good to refuse. After a mediocre start to the season, lying in 14th position, his former club Samp had disposed of coach Luciano Spalletti. A 5-2 hammering at Lazio, with a hat-trick from the recently departed Sinisa Mihajlovic, proved the last straw. Having initially targeted Nevio Scala and Daniel Passarella, Samp turned their attention to their former maestro. Captivated by a sense of romance and perhaps a degree of regret given his abrupt departure three years earlier, Platt took up the role.

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No sooner had Platt conducted a seamless bilingual press conference, were the daggers out for him. According to the Italian league regulations, he did not possess the required coaching qualifications to perform the role. The Italian coaches’ federation were leading the charge, warning Samp that they were in breach of the Federation Article 1. Samp proposed a cunning solution which they hoped would satisfy all parties; Platt would take on the role of “supervisor”, whilst little-known Giorgio Veneri would take the formal title of “coach”. This was an approach used previously by Inter, where Roy Hodgson had been levered into a newly created “technical director” role to circumvent the same set of rules. However, Hodgson was a manager with a rich pedigree across Europe and at international level. Whilst the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye in the case of Hodgson, they felt that Samp were deliberately undermining them by applying the same wheeze to accommodate the inexperienced Platt. He faced hostility too from other managers, the trade union effectively closing ranks on the interloper. Samp persisted and the controversy rumbled on as the first match approached.

On the pitch, Platt would face challenges too, many of which could be traced back to the summer before his arrival. In the 1998 close season they had sold Juan Sebastien Veron and Alain Boghossian to Parma (£13m and £3.5m) and Sinisa Mihajlovic to Lazio (£8.5m). Arguably, the replacements they had recruited in the form of Ariel Ortega (£2.3m) and Fabbio Pecchia (on loan from Juventus) did not possess the consistency or quality to allow them to remain competitive at the highest level. Even having hung on to the services of the prolific Vincenzo Montella, the squad was considerably weakened from the previous campaign.

Upon arrival, Platt was able to add Doriva (£900k from Porto). He also afforded himself the home comfort of recruiting Lee Sharpe on loan, someone with whom he was familiar from the England international scene. Sharpe, recovering from a cruciate ligament injury, was not making the team at Leeds and saw this as an opportunity to recapture his form. Although the extent of Sharpe’s decline was not apparent at the time, this was the beginning of a steep career descent for someone who should have been approaching his prime at 27 years old.

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20/12/98 – Sampdoria v Milan (highlights)

The controversy regarding Platt’s appointment persisted and, in order to avoid further tension, he elected to watch the first match from the stands of the Luigi Ferraris. Samp had briefly considered registering Platt as a player to allow him to take his place on the bench, but ultimately thought better of it. Milan took the game by the scruff of the neck, creating, but wasting a string of good chances before Leonardo broke the deadlock just before half time. Samp continued to ride their luck in the second half and equalised against the run of play, courtesy of a close-range header from Francesco Palmieri. It appeared as though the luck had run out when Oliver Bierhoff steered a header into the far corner on 73 minutes. But Samp weren’t to be beaten; with time running out, Ortega delicately sent a free kick beyond the reach of Sebastiano Rossi to a creditable point for Samp against the eventual scudetto winners.

6/1/99 – Fiorentina v Sampdoria (highlights @ 13:49)

In the first game back from the Christmas break, Samp faced a difficult mid-week trip to high-flying Fiorentina. Giovanni Trapattoni’s side were unbeaten in seven matches and four points clear at the top of the table going into the match. Samp battled bravely and were successful in subduing the dual threat of Gabriel Batistuta and Edmundo, but ultimately fell to a 1-0 defeat. On 28 minutes, Rui Costa was given half a yard of space in the box and fired a low shot past the sprawling Ferron.

10/1/99 – Sampdoria v Bologna (highlights)

Samp were now hovering perilously close to the relegation zone, but the home match against mid-table Bologna provided the perfect opportunity to arrest the slide. However, Bologna’s Beppe Signori had other ideas, sending a rasping free kick past Ferron from fully 35 yards after just 13 minutes. Samp rallied, spurning a number of chances to draw level. Lee Sharpe was sent on for his debut on the hour and just a minute later a neat chest control and finish from Francesco Palmieri got Samp back on terms. Samp were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty late on, but ultimately had to settle for a solitary point.

 17/1/99 – Bari v Sampdoria (highlights)

The blucerchiati headed south to Bari next, but did not find Platt’s former employers in charitable mood. Lee Sharpe was handed an opportunity in the starting line-up, but Samp once again found themselves a goal down on 35 minutes, following a sharp turn and shot from Phil Masinga. Bari doubled their lead just after the break, prompting Platt to call for Ortega from the bench; changing shape in order to chase the game. Despite grabbing a goal back from Pierre Laigle, Samp eventually fell to a 3-1 defeat. With results not going their way, fans were already beginning to lose patience. Platt’s perceived favouritism for Sharpe and his lack of trust in the mercurial Ortega were particular points of friction.

24/1/99 – Sampdoria v Udinese (highlights)

In a match that Samp could scarcely afford to lose, Platt found room for the attacking trident of Ortega, Palmieri and Montella in his side, also handing a debut to Brazilian midfielder Doriva. However, their attacking bravado backfired within just three minutes; Le Zebrette cutting through the Samp defence with ease for Roberto Sosa to put the visitors ahead. Samp were immediately on the backfoot and chasing the game. Ortega pulled a goal back early in the second half – another arced free kick – but Samp’s subsequent attacking endeavours came to nothing and the match ended level. For the first time, they found themselves in the bottom four and, with results elsewhere not going their way, two points from safety.

31/1/99 – Perugia v Sampdoria (highlights)

Platt’s team had developed a costly habit of conceding early goals. The curse struck again at a snow-bound Stadio Renato Curi as Perugia found themselves 2-0 up within half an hour. Ecuadorian Ivan Kaviedes opened the scoring with a looping 25 yard drive and, just five minutes later, Matrecano was on cue to convert following Nakata’s parried shot. Knowing he was now on borrowed time, Platt pulled the stops out early in the second half introducing Sharpe and Ortega (in place of Balleri and Pecchia). Despite having considerable fire power on the pitch, Samp could not make the break-through and Perugia took all three points to lift themselves away from the relegation places.

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Platt’s team had been difficult to beat at home, showing spirit to come from behind on all three occasions, but their away form had been poor. Having taken just three points from a possible eighteen, they were firmly mired in a relegation dogfight and three points from safety. Under considerable pressure (it was rumoured he would be given one more match at home to Cagliari to prove his worth) Platt did what he felt was the honourable thing. He resigned, citing the on-going dispute regarding his qualifications as a definitive factor. After just six matches later his dream return to Liguria had become a nightmare.

Samp moved quickly to re-appoint Luciano Spalletti, a move that would surely have raised eyebrows in any country other than Italy. He lifted them out of the relegation places temporarily in February and March, but his side faltered once again leaving them in 16th place at the end of May. Lee Sharpe was effectively frozen out by Spalletti, acting as an unused substitute in February before disappearing from view altogether. Ultimately Samp would serve four years in the purgatory of Serie B before returning to the top flight in the summer of 2003.

Upon retirement in 1998, Platt had set out his own masterplan for forging a long and successful managerial career. He enjoyed the sponsorship of the Football Association who saw him as a potential England coach of the future. However, the golden opportunity at Samp came earlier than he, or anyone else, had expected and those carefully laid plans were duly torn up. With hindsight, the decision to accept the Samp role may be viewed as a rare moment of the heart ruling the head.

The odds had been stacked against Platt from the beginning and those bruising 50 days at the helm appeared to leave some lasting damage. In summer 1999, he was installed as manager of Nottingham Forest where, despite considerable backing in the transfer market, he achieved only limited success during a two year tenure. This proved to be his last major managerial assignment; those lofty expectations rapidly dissipated and Platt would later perform niche in roles, out of the media glare and without the pressure to achieve results.

Perhaps he should never have gone back.

Arena Civica: Milano’s other iconic stadium

The Gentleman Ultra

Milano’s Parco Sempione is a hive of activity on a warm, autumnal afternoon; the gentle hum of a lawn mower, mothers pursuing their young children, dogs on leads and a steady flow of tourists here to explore the Arco della Pace (Arc of Peace) and Castello Sforzesco.

Most are oblivious, or perhaps even indifferent, to another monument which lies in the north-western corner of the park, partially concealed by the reds and browns of the arboretum. This is Arena Civica; Milano’s other iconic stadium.

Both Milan clubs have played at Arena Civica, but it is Inter who have a binding affinity to this spectacular relic. It was their fortress between 1930 and 1947; it played host to their early triumphs and now represents something of a spiritual home to the Nerazzurri.

The Arena has a fascinating and rich history that extends far beyond the birth of calcio. It was…

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Calcio Travel Notes: Milano Derby

June 8th 1990; Nessun Dorma, Des Lynam and Benjamin Massing physically assaulting Claudio Caniggia at the San Siro. That was the heady concoction captivating a 6-year old boy in the West Midlands, tuning into his very first World Cup.

At that young age my exposure to football was typically confined to a once-weekly dose of Match of the Day, Shoot magazine and the back pages of the tabloids. This was a good decade before the internet would begin to take hold of nearly every aspect of our lives. In that context the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza was simply unlike anything I had ever seen before – an extra-terrestrial behemoth that consequently took on a near-mythical status in my mind.

It was another 15 years before I paid my first visit to the San Siro; I was on a camping holiday with my then-girlfriend. The damp weather in the Black Forest had forced us to head further south in pursuit of the sunshine. We ended up in the Italian Lakes and took a day trip to Milano. I still remember that first glimpse of the stadium; the contrast of the deep red girders against the azure blue sky, the spiralling cylinders standing to attention, the surprising photogenic beauty of concrete and steel. The sparse surrounds of the San Siro gave the impression that other buildings, roads and trees had receded and retreated, dutifully bowing to her imposing beauty.

Whilst it was a case of love at first sight with the San Siro; the more I got to know, the stronger those feelings grew. Stadio San Siro was originally constructed by AC Milan president Piero Pirelli in 1925. Initially denounced as a white elephant, Milan grew into and, ultimately, out of their new home. In 1935 it was purchased by the Comune di Milano and expanded to cater for growing demand. Under municipal ownership, Inter later became joint tenants at the end of WWII. The stadium has been expanded twice since then; a second tier was built in 1954 and latterly the third tier was added ahead of Italia ’90. On each of those occasions the core of the stadium was untouched, with the new accommodation being built upwards and outwards from the existing arena. Barring some refurbishment work, the lower tier of the stadium is effectively the same terrace where the tifosi stood nearly a century ago. In a world of purpose-built symmetry, the missing section of the third tier on the Ippodromo side only adds to charm of the old place.

That first visit occurred during the height of summer so I had to settle for a stadium tour and mooch around the club shop (it was so hot that day, a packet of Haribo completely melted in the glove box of my girlfriend’s Peugeot 306). Since that first taste I’ve returned a number of times to see both red and blue, but it remained a long-held ambition to experience first-hand the intense atmosphere of the Milano derby.

I had been plotting for a couple months; the half-term family trip to Italy had already been booked, speculatively, to coincide with the derby. On the day that tickets went on general sale I headed into the office early and sat patiently on inter.it waiting for 8:00 to arrive. A frenzy of clicks and 75€ later I was on my way.

Game day finally arrived, the light was just beginning to fade as I parked up about a mile west of the stadium. I joined the crowds heading towards the stadium and it wasn’t long before I got first sight of San Siro through the trees of Parco Aldo Aniasi. Marching onwards, the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, those sparse surrounds of the stadium were transformed. Even several hours ahead of kick off, throngs of tifosi spilled out from the San Siro Metro station and headed towards bright lights and chrome of the food vans selling panini and beers. The scene resembled London Waterloo at rush hour; some groups in no obvious hurry were content to congregate, whilst others darted for the various entrances keen to take their seats. Making any kind of progress through the crowds was a slow and precarious business.

The massed ranks of the Carabinieri lurked ominously in the background, although the mood around the ground was buoyant and good natured. That calm was soon to be shattered by the not-too-distant boom of a pyrotechnic explosion, marking the arrival of the Milan ultras. The sea of Inter fans parted as people hurriedly moved out of the path of the marching, chanting ultras. At once the atmosphere was dialled up. Simultaneously, the volume from inside the stadium rose, as if the Inter ultras already assembled in their Curva were telepathically aware of what was unfolding outside.

I began the long climb up the spiral ramp towards the third tier – and was rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the ultras entering the stadium down below. Emerging high up in the rafters of the stadium, this was the first time I had seen anything resembling a steward at an Italian football ground. On that basis I felt compelled to make some effort to find my allocated seat. I found it, but it was located directly behind a temporary camera gantry. The combination of that, and the mildly opaque Perspex screen separating me from the Milan ultras in the tier below, meant that I would have seen precious little of the game. I climbed further, taking up a position in the gangway that would give me a better vantage point for the game.

Inter had invited Julio Cesar as the guest of honour for this match; their treble-winning goalkeeper entered the pitch, stoking the atmosphere ahead of kick off. Naturally, the assembled Milanisti responded with howls and whistles. At this stage there were few clues about the choreo arranged by the Inter ultras; a simple banner was displayed on the Curva Nord reading “…to see his eyes alone, in tears they vanish…”.

Finally the suspense was ended as a huge snake (representing Inter) was unfurled, with imposing orange eyes and forked tongue, covering the lower two tiers. This was juxtaposed with several small, fleeing devils (accompanied by the message “…the symbol of Milan”). It was incredible to see three sides of this magnificent arena coordinated in a shimmering sea of blue, backlit by a line of flares at the top of the stand. The mind boggles as to the complexity and cost of this kind of choreography.

In truth, the match itself wasn’t the most pulsating derby. There was no lack of spirit or industry, but the quality was lacking at critical moments. Both teams had the ball in the net in the first half, both subsequently disallowed. The full-bodied dual played out on the pitch between Biglia and Nainggolan was mirrored in the stands as the Ultra groups raised the volume in response to one another. As we approached the final stages of the game, I was more or less resigned to 0-0, before Vecino swung an inviting cross into the path of the ever-reliable Mauro Icardi to grab an injury-time winner. There were serious questions asked of Donnarumma in the aftermath, but Inter’s persistence could not be disputed – and they were on balance the better team.

This game represented something of a pilgrimage for me and the experience did not disappoint. The San Siro at full capacity is truly something to behold – and is an institution I hope can endure the rapid pace of change in Serie A and the world of football more widely. However, it did give rise to one problem; far from quenching my thirst for derby action, the experience has had me scouring the fixture lists to explore the equivalents in Genova and Roma.

Thanks for reading – comments and shares most welcome.

Annex: Other Travel Tips

  • San Siro tour – 16€ for a self-guided tour of the stadium (changing rooms, tunnel, pitch side) and entry to San Siro Museum, which holds a great collection of shirts, boots and pictures associated with the stadium. May not be available on match days.
  • Arena Civica – former home of Inter, a Napoleonic arena located just a few kilometres from San Siro and well worth a visit (future blog post to come on this).
  • “Football Team” Store – located in Piazza Duomo, directly behind Milano’s other This shop stocks shirts for pretty much every Serie A team. It’s expensive though.
  • Milan and Inter official stores – located in the arcades east of the Duomo, they were queuing out of the door on match day, presumably quieter at other times. A wide range of gifts/souvenirs, but expect to pay a premium.
  • Ultra merchandise – if you have a ticket for the 2nd tier of the Curva Sud (Milan) or Curva Nord (Inter), you can purchase scarves, stickers, t-shirts directly from the ultra groups at the rear of the concourse for reasonable prices. And your money will be going towards future choreo displays (amongst other things…)
  • Newstands – the kiosks in the Metro stations around Milano are quite a good place to pick up football-related items, such as stickers, albums, cards, books and calendars.

Calcio Analysis: The most lethal finisher in Serie A?

With roughly one third of the Serie A campaign now played, I’m taking the opportunity to look at who has been excelling in front of goal so far.

I have chosen to focus on a fairly simple concept; the “strike rate” of a player is calculated by dividing the number of goals scored by the total number of attempts on goal. Out of necessity, I’ve restricted the analysis to those players with at least 3 Serie A goals – otherwise Alessio Romagnoli would win hands down!

As with any statistics, the “strike rate” is just one way of looking at a complex issue. For example; it may be argued that the most effective forwards get in the positions to create more chances for themselves, or are simply more willing to take a punt at goal, potentially depressing their “strike rate”. On the other hand, this measure neatly controls for the dominance of  the bigger sides who would naturally be expected to create more chances – allowing us to focus on the “efficiency” of forwards regardless of which team they play in. With that fairly sizeable caveat in mind, let’s take look at the data…Chart

So, the answer is Gregoire Defrel; he doesn’t get many chances but he’s been putting them away for Sampdoria since signing during the summer. Honourable mentions must also go to Mario Mandzukic (only 13 shots at goal), Dries Mertens (who still considers himself a winger at heart…) and Mauro Icardi (Inter’s fox in the box).

Krzysztof Piatek has been turning heads at Genoa in the opening rounds of the season – his position at the top of the capocannoniere chart is in part a testament to his finishing, but also the volume of chances Genoa create for him. On current form he’s in the same bracket as Ciro Immobile – and outperforming other out-and-out centre forwards such as Andrea Belotti, Gonzalo Higuain and Arek Milik.

At the bottom end of the Serie A table, a clinical finisher like Francesco Caputo is exactly what Empoli will need if they’re to have a fighting chance of survival. Rodrigo De Paul has made superb start to the season at Udinese (already having eclipsed his goal tally for the previous two seasons) – but the wide man has some distance to go before “doing a Dries”. Leonardo Pavoletti is an interesting proposition; his finishing is clearly an asset to a “smaller” team such as Cagliari (and previously Genoa), but he’s tended to struggle on a bigger stage with Napoli and Gli Azzurri. The presence of Marco Benassi and Kevin-Prince Boateng in the list feel like a bit of an early-season aberration, but they could prove me wrong, of course.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the man in 20th and final position; Cristiano Ronaldo. He sits in third place in the scoring charts, but he’s had 35 more shots at goal than anyone else in this table – perfectly illustrating the caveat set out above. He’s clearly a man who backs himself with the goal in his sights – and, of course, one of the reasons that he’s worth £90m is that he engineers a lot of those chances for himself.

Thanks for reading – please do leave comments and/or take a look at the @CalcioEngland Twitter account.

Calcio Travel Notes: Sampdoria

The historic coastal city of Genova is the beating economic heart of the Liguria region in north-west Italy. Perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, Genova established itself as a great trading powerhouse in medieval times. And it is to the Genovese to whom the English owe their beloved St George’s cross. In the 12th century, the English paid a stipend to the Doge of Genova to fly the patron’s cross upon their vessels, thereby enjoying the protection of the Genovese fleet within the Mediterranean.

The city has been in the news more recently, of course, for the tragic collapse of the Morandi bridge in August. The Ligurian hills rise abruptly from the sea; beyond the historic centre of Genova, much of the municipality is perched high up on the hillside. As a matter of necessity, the city has an intricate network of tunnels burrowing through the hills and bridges traversing the valleys. You simply can’t get very far in Genova without using one of these suspended motorways.

This is actually my second visit to Genova; however, on both occasions it’s been something of a flying visit, travelling by car and largely accomplished in the dark. This time I was here to watch the Serie A clash between Sampdoria and Sassuolo and, as part of a short family holiday to Milano and Como, I also had my wife and twins with me too. A key motivation for making the 4-hour round trip was that my son had developed a curious affinity for Samp after watching a pre-season friendly at Watford back in August.

For stadium aficionados, the Stadio Luigi Ferraris is a must-see. It’s located on the valley floor, alongside the Bisagno river, packed in amongst dense residential and business properties. Homes sit precariously on the hills that rise steeply either side of the ground. Located in the Marassi district, 3km from the historic centre and port, there has been a stadium on this site since 1911.

Stadio Luigi Ferraris – prior to the Italia ’90 rebuild

Simply known as the Marassi by locals, it was entirely reconstructed for the 1990 World Cup. The result is nothing short of phenomenal. Huge credit must be given to the architect Vittorio Gregotti, for creating a design that was as spectacular as it was sympathetic to the surrounds. Not only that, but it was highly practical too; both Genoa and Sampdoria continued to stage matches here throughout the late 1980s as the ground was rebuilt around them, one stand at a time.

The four towers, one in each corner of the ground, are undoubtedly the icons of the design. The white cantilevered stanchions which connect the towers give the stadium a unique geometric silhouette. As my 4 year-old daughter observed (the more creative of the two!), they take on the appearance of “mountains”, mimicking the surrounding topography. The terracotta exterior is in contrast to the surrounding pale stone buildings, and gives a nod to the work of 20th century maestro Archibald Leitch in leaving the vague the impression of an industrial building rather than a football ground. Inside, it’s a very British affair – staunchly rectangular without a running track in sight – the tiered stands positioned close to the pitch.

Stadio Luigi Ferraris – the modern incarnation (note: original exterior wall on nearside stand)

Obtaining tickets for the Monday evening game was less than problematic – print-at-home tickets were purchased from listicket.com (English translation available). Online tickets weren’t available for the Gradinata Sud – the domain of Samp’s most passionate followers – but prices started at just 10€ in the Gradinata Nord behind the opposite goal. With the family in mind, I opted for 20€ tickets; at the front of the middle tier just on the half way line (Distinti Est).

The journey from Milano had brought us along the A7, meandering for the last 30km through a sequence of sweeping bends that followed the contours of the landscape. We parked the car on Corso Monte Grappa, and began the spectacular descent down to the stadium. From the hillside we stole glimpses of the outline of the Marassi through gaps between the buildings, backlit by homes on the adjacent hillside. The distant rumble of traffic and sirens from somewhere in the darkness down below built the sense of anticipation. Eventually, we came to the Scalinata Montaldo; a vertigo-inducing flight of 280 steps taking you steeply down to the river, ultimately revealing a full view of the stadium from ground level. A fabulous way to approach the ground, but with the inevitable drawback of a return journey after the game.

View from Corso Monte Grappa

We crossed over the Bisagno (either a river or a river bed depending on the time of year you visit) and headed for Via del Piano behind the Gradinata Sud where home fans congregate before the match. The atmosphere was good natured with people eating, drinking and conversing in and around the various cafes and bars. This is an excellent place to find a souvenir; there isn’t a club shop at the ground, but here you can purchase scarves, t-shirts or badges from an array of street vendors, Ultra groups or a small independent store selling official merchandise. One particular storeholder demonstrated saintly patience as my son made him unfurl a plethora of different scarves, before eventually – and somewhat inevitably – deciding he wanted the very first one he had been shown. With his new scarf round his neck, and a ruffle of the hair from our new friend, we made our way into the ground.

Via del Piano

The anticipation of that first magical glimpse of the pitch steadily grew as we ascended to the second tier…and there it was in all of its vibrant glory; the green of the pitch under the floodlights, the noise, colour and movement of the Ultras on the Gradinata Sud. The kids pushed to the front of the gangway and simply stood, watched and absorbed; completely captivated by what they saw in front of them.

Gradinata Sud

The Samp fans were superb throughout, creating an unceasing wave of support for their team, despite a less than full stadium; singing tunes that were familiar from the August trip to Vicarage Road and displaying an abundance of banners and flags in the blue, white, red and black of their team. The two dozen hardy Sassuolo souls, located in the top corner of the Tribuna opposite, largely kept their powder dry. We sat beside an elderly gentleman (also with a fondness for hair-ruffling), who struggled to get to grips with the story of why we were there, despite several enthusiastic attempts on my part. He was still with me at “Watford”, but couldn’t quite fathom why we had travelled all this way for Sassuolo on a Monday night.

The game itself finished 0-0, though was far from dull – a Domenico Berardi strike coming back off the post being the closest we came to a goal. With both teams pushing for a top six spot, the result was a disaster for neither. It was a privilege to witness the evergreen Fabio Quagliarella lead the line for Samp – how they (and the Nazionale) must wish he was ten years younger. I’ve also got a bit of a soft spot for the hard-working Édgar Barreto – primarily because he had been so generous with his time signing items and chatting with young fans when in England back in the summer – but I’ve also come to appreciate his combative style in the centre of Samp’s midfield.

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Gradinata Sud

I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough; from the breath-taking scenery and outstanding architecture to the passionate fans and friendly locals. The family loved it too; since our return home my son has insisted on being Samp when playing football in the garden and my daughter wanders around the house shouting “Fabio Qual-a-rella”. I’ve made a promise to myself that we’ll return again soon – next time in the daylight with more opportunity to explore the waterfront and old town.

My final tip comes from my previous visit here; I stayed at a place called Busalla, just 25km north on the A7 towards Milano. Busalla itself is nothing to write home about; in fact the dominant sight of a refinery from the autostrada gives it a distinct similarity to Port Talbot. However, Albergo Birra is delightful little hotel with its own on-site brewery, bar and restaurant. The clincher is that it’s only a 50 metre stagger across the car park from bar to bed.

Thanks for reading my debut post – feedback (and shares) most welcome!

View from the foot of Scalinata Montaldo

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