James Horncastle


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FIFA President Blatter shake hands with Italy's Farina during the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2011 soccer Award Ceremony at the Kongresshaus in Zurich

Last month the Daily Telegraph revealed that members of an alleged betting syndicate had been arrested on suspicion of fixing games in English football. Since then yet more have followed after the National Crime Agency acted on information passed on by the Sun on Sunday.

A Whitehall summit with five leading British sports and representatives from the Premier League, the Football League and the Gambling Commission was called yesterday. The FA has indicated it would consider signing up to a cross-sport anti-corruption body. A debate is being had. How can the integrity of the game be better protected?

It was while reading about and listening to the various proposals that my mind turned to Simone Farina. You probably should have heard of him by now. If not then that tells its own story: his actions haven’t got the coverage they deserve.

Farina is 31. He was born in Rome in 1982, the year Italy won the World Cup with goals from, among others, Paolo Rossi. Pablito, as he became known after his heroics in Spain, had made a stunning return to the Azzurri following the two-year suspension he had served for his part in the Totonero betting scandal in 1980.

Over three decades later, another one would send shockwaves through the game in Italy, Operazione Last Bet. Farina would be caught up in it and emerge a hero. He was a modest no-name footballer, a centre-back who spent nearly all his career marshalling the defences of clubs in the lower tiers of the Italian game.

Two years ago almost to the week that the Telegraph broke its story about match rigging in England, Farina had been preparing for Gubbio’s fourth round Coppa Italia tie with Cesena when he started to receive text messages from an unknown number. “How you doing?” they asked. “It’s Zampe’.” At first Farina chose to ignore them but they were persistent. He finished training one day to find a series of missed calls.

They were from Alessandro Zamperini, a former teammate of his with whom he’d played in Roma’s academy. Zamperini claimed to be on his way to Gubbio to sell his car and wondered if Farina fancied a catch-up while he was in town. It seemed innocent enough. Why not? So they arranged to meet for a coffee one morning at a local patisserie. Once there, however, Farina soon realised the reunion was a ruse.

He was offered €200,000 to split between himself, his team’s goalkeeper and two defenders to guarantee a Gubbio defeat by an ‘over’ scoreline. For a player in the lower divisions of any country, not just Italy’s where wages are low and not always paid on time or in full, the temptation was obvious. But Farina flat out refused. Zamperini was undeterred. Do him this favour and it could be returned. He asked to be put in touch with Gubbio’s director of sport. If the club risked relegation at the end of the season and required a result to stay up, then that could be arranged.

Farina had heard enough. He made his excuses pretending he had an urgent appointment and left. As he did Zamperini raised his finger to his lips. The inference was clear: Don’t talk about this to anybody. But Farina wasn’t about to let himself be intimidated. He went to the authorities that afternoon and told them everything. Another player, Fabio Pisacane had done so earlier in the year after he had been approached to help fix a game between former club Lumezzane and Ravenna. No one else did. They were the exceptions.

Giancarlo Abete, the president of the Italian Football Federation, the FIGC, thanked them but added: “We mustn’t commit the mistake of making a normal act pass for an extraordinary act.” Absolutely, but what Farina and Pisacane did wasn’t normal. The ‘done thing’ would have been to look the other way, seek refuge behind the wall of omerta, forget about it and pretend nothing happened. That would have been the easy thing to do. What they did was a lot harder than you might think.

While Farina insisted: “I haven’t done anything special,” it was certainly recognised as such. “Farina and Pisacane are role models for young people,” tweeted FIFA president Sepp Blatter. “Courage in denouncing match-fixing is an example for all.” He would stand beside Farina at the 2012 Ballon d’Or ceremony as he named him a Hope ambassador.

Cesare Prandelli also made the grand gesture of inviting Farina and Pisacane to Italy’s Coverciano training camp as the team prepared for Euro 2012. “It’s an invitation to show our solidarity, our support and our gratitude,” he said. “Simone did his duty, but at times doing so takes courage and runs risks. Farina has shown great inner strength. His example is a message of hope. Today everyone is saying so but in a few months’ time Simone might find himself alone again.”

Prandelli’s words were prophetic. Before the beginning of last season, Gubbio released a statement to communicate that Farina’s contract had been rescinded by mutual agreement. Even though he insisted “there’s nothing dark behind the termination of my contract,” the suspicion was that he was being made an outcast. There was talk of an offer from Ascoli. But nothing came of it.

“I find it incredible that a player of only 30 who has had a dignified career in the Lega Pro and played some games in Serie B last season can’t even find a team on a free transfer and the minimum wage,” said FIGC vice-president Demetrio Albertini.

It reminded La Repubblica’s columnist Gianni Mura of the treatment of Jacques Glassmann, the former Valenciennes defender and recipient of a FIFA fair-play award, who blew the whistle on Marseille offering money to go easy on them ahead of their European Cup final against Milan and Ligue 1 title decider against Paris Saint-Germain in May 1993. His contract at Valenciennes wasn’t renewed. And so Glassmann went on to play for amateur club US Mauberge before finishing his playing days on the distant island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. “I hope that it’s not like this,” Mura wrote.

Farina went to England instead. In September last year Aston Villa made him a community coach. He works with kids between eight and 12. Ron Noble, a friend of Villa’s owner Randy Lerner and secretary general of Interpol, the organisation that awarded Farina a Commemorative Medal for his contribution to crime prevention and law enforcement said: “Simone is a football defender both on and off the pitch. He showed integrity and courage by turning down and reporting to the police an attempted bribe to corrupt the outcome of a match.

“He needs to become just as important a role model for our youth like stars such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Corruption in sport is a very complex problem for which there is no quick fix. In addition to strong enforcement efforts, all those linked to the ‘beautiful game’ must place a great emphasis on prevention.”

If I were the Premier League or the Football League, I’d consider giving Farina a call. Why not involve him in their efforts? The FIGC recently made him an advisor within their youth sector, maybe the FA should too. He’s got something to teach. His experience is useful and the values he upholds are those everyone in the game should aspire to keep. Farina can be an educator of the next generation. He’s right under our noses. You just hope he gets noticed and isn’t forgotten about.

Corinthians's Pato warms up before the start of their Brazilian Serie A Championship soccer match against Goias at Serra Dourada Stadium in Goiania

Redemption is just 12 yards away. Twelve yards. Alexandre Pato had a long time to think about that. Five Fluminense players were gathered around the referee protesting the decision to give Corinthians a penalty kick. Who could blame them? It was 0-0 with only minutes remaining. Lose and the holders, who’d relinquish their title to Cruzeiro that night, would be even further drawn into a relegation dogfight.

Pato had come off the bench. He’d sat there for over an hour listening to the crowd at the Arena Corinthians hurl abuse at him, the home crowd. The 24-year-old pulled at his shirt. He lifted the neck up over his chin to wipe the film of sweat that had materialised on his top lip and around his mouth. Taking a swig from a energy drink bottle, he grabbed the ball under his arm then paced up and down until it was time.

“Pato! Pato! Pato!” the fans shouted. Now they were on his side. How soon things change. The referee blew his whistle. Pato ran up. He went to his right. Fluminense’s goalkeeper, the former Liverpool back-up, Diego Cavalieri dived to his left. The right way. But he couldn’t get to it. The shot, too powerful, too accurate, flew into the top corner. Pato took off his shirt and put his hand to his ear as he jogged towards the Corinthians bench. He did it again. “What you got to say about that?” he seemed to be asking.

The day before Pato had posted this Michael Jordan quote on his Instagram page: “I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

About three weeks ago, he had missed a penalty in a shootout against Grêmio. Danilo and Edenilson had before him too. But the law in shootouts, a cognitive bias perhaps, states that it’s the last person to miss who gets associated with, stigmatised even, by penalty failure. And that person was Pato.

This was a perfect storm, a mass of dark clouds had been gathering for some time. It wasn’t so much that Pato missed– although of course there was an element of that–rather it was the manner of the miss itself: a Panenka straight into the arms of a grateful Dida, his 40-year-old former teammate at Milan.

It’s a double-edged sword, the Panenka. Score and you humiliate the keeper. Miss and you appear even more foolish than if you’d blasted it wide, over the bar, or made the `keeper work harder to make a save by going for either corner. Pato fell on that sword.

That notion of not making the goalkeeper work hard enough reflects on the taker as well. The nonchalance required to feather the perfect Panenka means that, should it not come off, the player can come across like he doesn’t care, like he is taking the situation too lightly and not treating it with the seriousness it deserves.

For Pato, whose commitment to the Corinthians cause was called into question in September after he dashed off to a Beyonce concert following a home defeat, it was, in hindsight, perhaps the worst choice of penalty he could have made. His favourite song of hers “Sweet Dreams,” foretold a not so “Beautiful Nightmare.”

Since the penalty miss, Pato has been vilified. Reprimanded in front of his teammates by coach Tite, his actions were labelled “childish.” President Mario Gobbi was unsparing too. “Considering the potential [Pato] has, we’d hoped for more. He still hasn’t shown anything here.”

There’s disappointment. So much so in fact that the club has hinted that they will look to try and recover the €15m they invested in Pato. “Today [the player] is angry and dejected at how things are going,” said Corinthians director of sport Roberto de Andrade. “If a few offers were to arrive, we’d make our valuations and speak to the player.” Tottenham have apparently been in touch. Just imagine for a moment the pace they’d have in forward positions with him up front and Erik Lamela left or right.

Imagine. Because Pato revealed that, at least for now, he is turning their overtures down. “I sat at the table with the club and my agent and I decided I wanted to stay.” How long will he continue to feel that way?

It’s fair to say, Pato’s homecoming has not quite worked out as planned. He was supposed to be “born again” and not in the “I belong to Jesus” sense. Returning to Brazil was meant to be restorative. Sixteen injuries in three years at Milan had left him desperate. He never played more than a month without breaking down.

Pato risked becoming Brazil’s Michael Owen. MilanLab was to blame, he argued. “The treatment was different there,” Pato told SporTV. “They do a lot of physical exercise, in the swimming pool, physiotherapy. You end up doing 20 days of work in just one week and it’s only normal that the body can’t cope.”

There was friction with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his penultimate season and coach Max Allegri throughout too. A section of Milan’s supporters turned on him as well. He could have left a year earlier. Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani wanted to bring in Carlos Tevez from Manchester City, a move that was contingent upon Pato switching to Paris Saint-Germain where he’d be reunited with Carlo Ancelotti and Leonardo. The deal was vetoed by Silvio Berlusconi. Or was it his daughter Barbara, who Pato was going out with at the time?

Anyway, Corinthians came in a year later. The deal wasn’t as good for Milan, but Pato seemed thrilled. He was joining the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup champions. Their ability to sign him was indicative of the strength of Brazilian football. Playing back home meant Luiz Felipe Scolari, the coach of the Seleção, could follow him up close ahead of the World Cup in 2014. Things started well. Pato scored on his debut as he did for Internacional, then Milan and Brazil. In total he has got 17 in 56 matches, a return of 0.30 per game. Not as many as Corinthians had hoped, nor even up to his Milan standards where he scored on average every 153 minutes.

The misses have been more memorable than the goals. Included in Scolari’s squad for Brazil’s last set of friendlies against South Korea and Zambia, he was left out for the forthcoming ones. You worry for his chances of making the World Cup squad and have to question the wisdom of going back to Brazil in the first place – 20 of the 22 players named to face Honduras and Chile over the next week are based in Europe. Then there’s the risk and reward of leaving again – he’d only have five months to prove himself and would need to adjust to wherever he might go too.

He’s in a delicate spot. Pato remains a promise unfulfilled. Think back to the 2007 Ballon d’Or ceremony when Leonardo took Kaka to collect his award. Pato had just signed for Milan. Hopes were high. So high, Leonardo said he’d be back with Pato to pick up his Ballon d’Or one day in the future. It hasn’t happened yet. “He isn’t in crisis,” his former teammate, the Botofogo midfielder Clarence Seedorf says. “He’s a great talent. He just has to work and needs patience. There aren’t many around like him.” It’s true. There’s time for Pato to come good and realise his full potential. The duck isn’t cooked. Not just yet.

AS Roma's Castan reacts during his Italian Serie A soccer match against Chievo Verona in Rome

A rather curious story has been going around the Eternal City in recent days.

Lazio’s owner Claudio Lotito had apparently told his counterpart at Napoli, Aurelio De Laurentiis, that there was trickery behind Roma’s success this season. He supposedly claimed that their owner James Pallotta had brought in five wizards to work at the club’s Trigoria training ground and at the stadium on match-days.

“You know why you lost [to Roma a fortnight ago]?” it’s claimed Lotito said. “Because Pallotta’s magicians got Diego Maradona [a guest at the match and Napoli talisman] to rise from his seat before the end of the first half and remove his negative energy…”  Within seconds of him doing so, Miralem Pjanic gave Roma the lead with a free-kick.

Just like magic.

Do you believe in it? A more pertinent question might be whether you believe Lotito ever suggested as much. If he did – something which Lazio deny – it was probably a joke. But Roma supporters weren’t about to let facts stop them from having a bit of a laugh.

A local radio station Te la do io Tokyo called Lotito. Amusingly its presenters pretended to be a couple of wizards. Lotito hung up. They phoned back and, to be fair to the Lazio president, he was good value making the sort of wisecrack that left the listener with the impression this was radio gold.

More fun was to be had at his expense on Thursday. This time it was organised by Roma. Shortly after referee Sebastiano Peruzzo blew for full-time at the end of their 1-0 win against Chievo on Halloween night, the crowd at the Stadio Olimpico were given a special treat. Out came five wizards. They walked under the Curva Sud in full costume looking like they’d come straight from Hogwarts, disembarking from platform 9 and three-quarters at Termini rather than Kings’ Cross. It’s a night that will live long in the memory.

Marco Borriello’s glancing header made it 10 wins from 10 for Roma this season, the best start ever made by a team in Serie A. “… We have 27 wizards in the dressing room,” said coach Rudi Garcia afterwards, alluding to the number of players in his squad. “We believe in work, not witchcraft,” added Roma’s general manager Mauro Baldissoni.

Peerless in Serie A history, benchmarks for this team’s achievements are now being sought abroad. Thursday’s victory meant Roma matched the start made by Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United to the 1985-86 season. Beat Torino away on Sunday and they will equal that of Bill Nicholson’s double winning Tottenham side in 1960-61.

But 11 in a row has a resonance of its own at Roma. They managed just that under Luciano Spalletti between December 2005 and February 2006, playing arguably the best football in Europe. Remember how it came about? Bereft of strikers, Spalletti had to get creative. So he fielded a team comprising six midfield players with Francesco Totti asked to perform a role as a false nine. On paper it looked like a 4-6-0. So successful was it that soon enough Europe’s elite were trying it. For instance, Manchester United adopted it after their encounters with Roma the following season and it’d be the system that exalted the characteristics of the side that won the Champions League in 2008.

Caught by surprise and unable to get to grips with it, defenders had no reference points and therefore no idea who to pick up. Roma’s run that season was a club record winning streak and a Serie A one too for a time until of course Inter strung together 17 under Roberto Mancini between October 2006 and February 2007.

After last season no one would have anticipated this, just as no one expected Spalletti’s Roma to do what they did. That team deserved a Scudetto. They led the league for an hour on the final day of the 2007-08 season. The hope among Roma supporters is that maybe this will be their year. For now at least whether it be through wizardry or hard work, their team really is living up to the nickname La Maggica.


“Each year,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas once said, “we fix as an aim to have sporting progress, and progress for our financial resources. It’s like a cyclist riding: you can overtake the people in front of you.”

To persist with the software entrepreneur’s analogy after pedalling up from the second division in the late `80s all the way to the top of the Ligue 1 mountain in 2002 and staying there for seven straight years, the peloton has caught up with Lyon and they’re falling down it.

Sunday’s 5-1 defeat to Montpellier – French champions the season before last but booed and whistled by the crowd at la Mosson recently on account of drawing too many games- was the heaviest Lyon have suffered since February 16, 2000. Members of the team and the club’s coaching staff apparently broke down in tears in the dressing room.

With only one win from their last 11 games in all competitions Lyon are in what the front page of Wednesday’s L’Équipe termed “a state of emergency.” Down in 14th in Ligue 1 with just 11 points to their name, only once has the club made as poor a start to a campaign since the LFP introduced three points for a win back in the 1994-95 season.

That was under Claude Puel in 2010. Lyon of course rallied and finished third, but that was in a league without a Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain and a Russian-sponsored Monaco. Repeating the feat looks beyond them. Asked if he felt his job was at risk, Lyon coach Remi Garde replied honestly: “Yes, I feel as if I’m in danger.”

While his decision-making did come under scrutiny against Montpellier – such as the decision to play Gueida Fofana, a midfielder, in the centre of defence ahead of Bakary Kone, a natural centre-back – Aulas’ chief adviser, the former Lyon striker Bernard Lacombe, revealed that before the game Garde had at least told his players to pay particular attention to Hilton and Daniel Congre sending balls over the top. His warning went unheeded.

“After five minutes, they’d already caught us out that way three times,” Lacombe lamented. Victor Hugo Montano’s opening goal came from one. Garde wasn’t to blame. The players were for not following orders and getting distracted. He hasn’t lost them either. The truth is not all “our players were good enough for Ligue 1.” Why is that?

Lyon have been ravaged by injury. Without veteran goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre, centre-backs Milan Bisevac and Samuel Umtiti and full-backs Miguel Lopes and Mahamadou Dabo – so, in short, an entire defence – and playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, the situation is critical. Perhaps understandably given the circumstances, fingers have been pointed at club doctor Emmanuel Orhan and fitness coach Robert Duverne.

The options available to Garde are limited. Promoted from his role as academy director the season before last with a view to bringing its many talented youngsters through to the first team, Lyon have become more and more dependent on it. That has meant kids have been drafted into the first team early, perhaps too early either to cover for the injured or because the club’s austerity policy has meant funds to sign the players needed in areas where the team desperately requires improvement hasn’t been forthcoming.

Some just aren’t yet ready for the step up. Jordan Ferri, the 21-year-old midfielder, started at right-back on Sunday. You felt for him. Montpellier playmaker Remy Cabella gave the academy graduate a torrid afternoon. It was a demoralising experience. His head went down as did those of the other kids around him. “I saw some players give up in the second half,” Garde observed.

Character is absent from their play, as is maturity. Relatives of goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, another player thrust into the first team after Vercoutre’s injury, and those of Fofana argued in the stands over who was to blame for Vitoria Guimaraes’ opening goal in the Europa League a week ago. It ended in a fight.

Spoilt, as so many young footballers are among the elite clubs today and of the opinion that they’ve made it when they haven’t done anything in the game yet, captain Maxime Gonalons – hardly an old head himself at 24 – reprimanded Umtiti after he had a Maserati with the number plate ‘Sam 23’ delivered to Lyon’s Tola-Vologe training ground just days after a 2-1 defeat to Ajaccio in full view of disgruntled supporters too.

Rumblings of discontent extend to the running of Lyon too. Once held up as a model club – Simon Kuper and the economist Stefan Szymanski dedicated an entire chapter to them in their book Soccernomics – Lyon were famed for buying low and selling high. They picked up Eric Abidal, Mahamadou Diarra, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda for €23.7m and later cashed in on them to the kerching sound of €98m entering their bank account.

Aulas was hailed as one of Europe’s savviest operators and toughest negotiators rivaling Porto’s Jorge Pinto da Costa and Tottenham’s Daniel Levy. Around six years ago, his touch started to desert him. Lyon paid €18m for Kader Keita. They then blew €14m on Ederson – the new ‘Juninho’ – and €8.5m on John Mensah. Next came Aly Cissokho for €15m – he got schooled by Pinto da Costa on that one – and then Gourcuff for €22m.

The change in policy was stark. After winning seven consecutive league titles, perhaps Lyon felt they needed to spend bigger in order to make the breakthrough in the Champions League, the winning of which Aulas rather hubristically claimed was a case of when and not if. His indulging of Puel however was disastrous.

Though Lyon reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2010, they won nothing under his charge. There was no return at least in silverware on an investment of €168m in players over his three-year spell at the club. Many of their wages have hung like a millstone around Lyon’s necks.

Shifting them has been like pushing against a series of immovable objects. The players of course don’t want to leave because no one is prepared to match what they currently earn, which in turn has meant Lyon have had to sell the kind of players they don’t want to in order to balance the books. Think goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to Tottenham for a pitiful €12.6m last season and someone like Anthony Martial, the jewel of their academy, one of the brightest talents in France, to Monaco for €5m this summer.

Lisandro Lopez and Michel Bastos’ wages have finally been struck off the payroll – though deals to sell them at better rates could have been done a year ago – and Aulas did at least get good money from Southampton for Dejan Lovren, but players like Gourcuff remain. Due an increase each year under the terms of their agreement he’ll take home €7.6m net in this, the final season of his existing deal, a colossal amount for a club that missed out on the Champions League group stages again after losing their play-off to Real Sociedad.

Unable to get Bafetimbi Gomis to agree to a €10.5m move to Newcastle, Lyon were limited in their recruitment: instead of signing France’s promising right-back Sebastian Corchia from Sochaux they had to settle for Miguel Lopes on loan. Gaël Danic was brought in from Valenciennes for €800k and Clement Grenier, the team’s big hope, was given a new contract, the sensation being that he is the future of the team, not Gourcuff who will be released next summer.

These errors of judgement, Lyon’s subsequent decline as a force on the pitch and the global financial crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time as they press on with their efforts to build a new ground, the privately owned 58,000 seater Stade de la Lumieres. Aulas and another shareholder Jerome Seydoux have put in €135m of their own money into the €405m project.

That has proven quite the burden, one that’s been exacerbated by the excesses of the Puel era, and made painful cuts necessary. Garde’s net spend is +€49m [that’s €17m in expenditure and €66m in sales] compared with -€70m under Puel. An income generator like the Stade de la Lumieres is essential if Lyon are to be competitive. Due to open at the end of 2015, its inauguration can’t come soon enough.

Until then, however, like the cyclist he referred to some time ago, Lyon’s legs will be heavy, catching their breath difficult, the oxygen thin. This season promises to be an uphill struggle for Les Gones.


It’s often said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Ahead of their visit to Denmark on Tuesday to face FC København in the Champions League, Juventus at least looked to have taken on board the lesson they received during their last trip to the Parken Stadion.

On that occasion, they had gone behind to Nordsjælland and needed to come back to get a 1-1 draw. There was a feeling of regret on the plane home to Turin. Juventus should have won comfortably. By the end of the match, they’d made no fewer than 33 attempts on goal. Nordsjælland `keeper Jesper Hansen had enjoyed arguably the finest night of his career but the conclusion many people drew was that Juventus’ finishing was imprecise and poor.

They lacked a go-to goalscorer, a cold-blooded executor of chances. Too often in the previous season and throughout that one, Juventus’ strikers made goalies look like Superman, the nickname of their own shot stopper Gigi Buffon.

The list goes like this: Jean-François Gillet for Bologna on September 21, 2011, Gianluca Pegolo for Siena on February 5, 2012, Stefano Sorrentino for Chievo on March 3, 2012, Massimiliano Benassi for Lecce on May 2, 2012, Hansen on October 23, 2012 and the exceptional Federico Marchetti for Lazio on November 17, 2012 as well in both legs of the Coppa Italia semi-final.

It was of great frustration. The resolve to end it hardened. And so, in the spring Juventus announced Fernando Llorente would be joining on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao at the end of the season and in the summer they signed Carlitos Tévez. After supposedly missing out on Sergio Agüero, Luis Suárez and Robin van Persie in recent years, the Old Lady finally had her leading man. Make that men.

The least fans expected was that this meant Juventus would now make lighter work of the likes of Nordsjælland. But football is a funny old game. Watching the København game, Juventini were struck by an inescapable sense of déjà vu. Once again, their team improbably went behind, got back on level terms but couldn’t find a winner despite making no fewer than 27 attempts on goal.

Johan Wiland, København’s man between the sticks, can add his name to the roll order of great goalkeeping performances against Conte’s Juventus. It wasn’t the start the champions of Italy wanted to their European campaign.

Much of the post-match focus fell on Conte’s decisions and one in particular. Why bring on Sebastian Giovinco and not Llorente in the 76th minute with his team chasing the lead? It did cause some consternation. “Juventus ignore Llorente,” was the headline of El País’ Champions League round-up on Wednesday morning.

You can understand how they have got that impression. In five competitive matches, Llorente has played just one minute. Told to warm up but ultimately overlooked against København, it was a game that seemed to be crying out for his introduction.

Juventus had 16 corners. That’s a lot. Nearly half of them were short. Another two went to the edge of the penalty area and the rest to the near post. In part, the strategy reflected the physical make-up of Juventus’ strike partnership. Tévez and Fabio Quagliarella are under 6ft so it’s really no use expecting them to win headers in a crowded box.

With that in mind wouldn’t the inclusion of a player of Llorente’s size – he’s 6ft 5in – rather than Giovinco, who is nicknamed the Atomic Ant for a reason, have given Juventus a better chance of making more of set-pieces like that? Not necessarily, no.

Perhaps Conte spent the summer reading David Sally and Chris Anderson’s book The Numbers Game which uses statistics to demonstrate that corners are an ineffective way of scoring goals. If you’re going to take them, they claim, do so short. But Juventus also made 40 crosses from open play, only 14 of which were successful.

Again, wouldn’t Llorente have posed more of a threat from this particular avenue of attack than those chosen ahead and instead of him. Conte’s riposte to this made some sense. København’s centre-backs Olof Mellberg and Ragnar Sigurdsson are tall—though not as tall as Llorente incidentally—and the way to put players like that in difficulty is with small mobile forwards in possession of a low centre of gravity.

But if it hadn’t worked up until that point why not try a different option? Because that’s what Llorente gives Juventus, a Plan B, their rationale in signing him being quite similar to Barcelona’s reasoning for the purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic four years ago. Some are already wondering whether it might be just as unsuccessful.

At least he didn’t cost €69.5 million. As with Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba, Juventus got Llorente for free. Cynics have claimed that they only did so in order to sell him on for an easy profit. But you don’t give a 28-year-old player a four-year contract worth €4.5 million a season if you don’t foresee him becoming a major part of your team. So how then do we explain Llorente’s struggle to make an impact in Turin?

Might it have something to do with the circumstances he found himself in during his final season with Athletic? At the club since the age of 11, Llorente, with a year left on his contract, felt ready for a new challenge at the end of the season before last. He informed Athletic’s president Jose Urrutia of his decision not to renew. It didn’t go down well. Juventus were told they’d need to pay Llorente’s €36 million buy-out clause if they wanted him.

Unlike Bayern Munich in the case of teammate Javi Martinez, they balked. Llorente would have to wait. Aware that he was planning to leave once his contract expired Athletic moved on. They signed Aduriz from Valencia. He’d be their first choice striker. Llorente was made out to be a villain, the great betrayer, an absurdity considering the loyalty he’d shown Athletic.

It got ugly. Graffiti sprayed on the window of the club shop read: “Death to Llorente, the bastard Spaniard.” Mentally, it must have been tough. Physically too, being out in the cold can only have numbed his instincts. Llorente went from playing 3171 minutes in 2010-11 and 2248 minutes in 2011-12 to just 865. Without consistency, match rhythm and the warmth of the San Mames crowd, he scored only four goals. It’s almost like Juventus have signed a player who has been out for a year with injury.

Seen from this angle, you can appreciate why it might be taking longer than anticipated to reawaken this gentle giant. Apparently a timid sort, the Lion King as he’s called needs to discover his roar again. That’s the mentality expected of a player in Conte’s teams.

Then there’s the adaptation to a new country, new culture and new style of play. Marcelo Bielsa’s and Conte’s football do share some similarities. This was a reason why many thought Llorente would be a great fit for Juventus. But there will be several different nuances like, for example, the type of movement he’s expected to make and the tasks he is required to perform. Conte was seen picking up and placing Llorente in various positions during pre-season.

Unlearning old habits, things that have become second nature over the years, will be hard. “I have to improve in several things,” Llorente said during pre-season. “At times, perhaps I pass the ball when I could directly go for goal. I believe I should shoot more, be more concrete.”

Given time and the opportunity, Llorente should come good. The success of Borja Valero at Fiorentina last season went some way to debunking the myth that Spanish players can’t make it in Italy and remember it’s only September. The season in Serie A is three games old and with a World Cup at the end of it, Llorente, who had a game-changing role in Spain’s ousting of Portugal in the Round of 16 in 2010 – the sort he could have performed for Juve in Copenhagen – will want to be there. Fly in Turin and he should be able to fly from there to Brazil.


Karim Benzema underwent a metamorphosis at Real Madrid. “I’m not a cat any more, now I’m a lion,” he said after scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Atletico back in March, 2011. It was the France international’s 12th goal of the calendar year.

Gone were the days when he used to pussy foot around the penalty area. Now Benzema bounded across the pitch at the Bernabeu and beyond as though on the savannah, losing the meoux and finding his roar. Behind this feat of feline transformation was coach Jose Mourinho.

For a time, it seemed there really was no limit to what this man could do. “I’m not Harry Potter,” he likes to say. Give over, Jose. Turn a cat into a lion? That’s no problem for il Mago. And besides, it was a trick he had to pull.

Over the winter his dog, Gonzalo Higuain, had just been ruled out for the spring after suffering a slipped disc. “If I can’t hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat,” Mourinho said. “With a dog you hunt more and you hunt better. But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat.”

The cat was Benzema of course. With a poke of the stick, Mourinho stirred the beast inside of him. Remember he’d considered changing the time at which Real trained because Benzema arrived “at 10 o’clock half asleep and then by 11” was “already sleeping again.”

With his pride hurt, this big cat began to show the claws he’d displayed at Lyon again. Benzema ended the season with 26 goals and scored another 32 the next as Real overcame Barcelona to win La Liga.

But then, certainly towards the end of the last campaign, the spell appeared to wear off a bit. The lion was gradually becoming a cat again. Though Benzema managed to score 20 goals, he seemed to suffer like many of his teammates did throughout Mourinho’s fractious final season.

His goal-to-game ratio fell by 30% to 0.41, down from 0.62 per match the previous campaign. Benzema was often played out on the flank, substituted, or left on the bench, losing the continuity which all great strikers require.

All the while – actually much much before – Benzema’s form for France has been a cause for concern back home. He hasn’t scored in 1155 minutes for Les Bleus. His last goals for his country came in a 4-0 win against Estonia in Mans over a year ago. It’s a worry.

So what happened?

Let’s break his senior international career up into two phases. Interestingly, 11 of Benzema’s 15 goals for his country came in the 32 caps he received between 2007 and 2010. Since then in his other 27 appearances, he has, to cite the analysis of Jean Pierre-Papin, “become more of a playmaker [for France] than a finisher.” There have been twice as many assists as goals: eight to four.

On the one hand, this is a virtue and speaks of Benzema’s all-round forward play. “His palette is extremely large,” wrote Bixente Lizarazu in L’Equipe. “He can dribble, play the final pass, put himself about… He knows how to do everything. Score too, but without hanging around the penalty area.”

On the other hand, France need Benzema to score. They have run dry in each of their last four matches, which were defeats to Spain, Brazil, Uruguay and a stalemate with Belgium. It’s now been 389 minutes since they found the back of the net, the longest goal drought since the last one between July 1986 and April 1987.

And yet France have a striker in Benzema with a reputation as one of the best in the world. Deserved or not, most people will agree Benzema is in possession of potential without equal among his nation’s other strikers: Olivier Giroud, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Bafetimbi Gomis and Loic Remy. That’s what makes his travails in front of goal for France so frustrating and perplexing.

Is it a lack of competition? Could it be because he doesn’t have the same players or movement around him when he plays for his country as he does on turning out for his club? Or is he just not working hard enough, a judgement at odds with his apparently selfless, assist-providing style of play? At the weekend, Real’s new coach, Carlo Ancelotti touched upon this. “Benzema was whistled, [Angel] Di Maria applauded. The supporters see the work. Work is applauded.”

What’s encouraging for France is that, although his attitude has been questioned, Benzema has at least started the season well with two goals and two assists in three games for his club.

Playing in a 4-4-2 under Ancelotti, he finds himself in the same system for France with the in-form Giroud as his partner. Familiarity with the formation – though under Laurent Blanc, Les Bleus also mirrored Real’s 4-2-3-1 – but also having someone to share the goal-scoring burden with might get Benzema scoring for his country again.

Yet should he fire blanks once more against Georgia tonight and Belarus next Tuesday, the calls for him to be benched will only grow.

Franck Ribery went a couple of years without playing well or being decisive for France in the build up to the 2010 World Cup and afterwards. He has since come through the other side, replicating his excellent club form at Bayern for his country. The hope is that Benzema, who wasn’t selected for that tournament, will do the same to get France to the next one in Brazil.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the symbol of Torino wasn’t the bull, but an elephant instead. The club’s fans never forget. Nostalgia for Il Grande Torino and the crumbling old Filadelfia go a long way to explaining the long memories of those who stand in the Curva Maratona. As such they remember who did right by the Toro and who did them wrong like it were yesterday.

So when it emerged that Torino were considering offering the Sampdoria midfielder Enzo Maresca a contract earlier this week, their opposition wasn’t a surprise. “We don’t want him,” one supporter said. Another warned: “If we sign him, I’ll give my season ticket back, actually, I’ll burn it.”

To understand the hostility towards Maresca you have to go back over a decade. It’s February 24, 2002. Torino are leading Juventus 2-1 in the Derby della Mole. With only a minute remaining, they look about to claim a first victory over their rivals in seven years.

It’s at this moment that Lilian Thuram gets forward. From the right, the Juventus defender launches a cross towards the edge of the box. Following it, he sees a young teammate rise and send a remarkable header beyond Luca Bucci in the Torino goal. That young teammate was a 22-year-old Enzo Maresca.

No sooner had the ball come to rest in the bottom corner of the net then he turned to celebrate. Maresca began to run and as he did so, he put both hands to his head, pointed his fingers up and imitated a bull, a cuckolded bull. He made a point of doing it in front of the bench where Marco Ferrante, one of Torino’s goalscorers, sat. Ferrante had celebrated provocatively too after he’d got his team back on level terms following David Trezeguet’s opener. Maresca’s was retaliation.

It’s an act Torino fans are still unwilling to pardon. One of the most famous among them, the TV presenter and showman Piero Chiambretti tweeted that should Torino sign him, he’d seriously consider changing the team he supports. After deleting that he clarified: “Changing teams is genetically impossible. Let’s hope the directors use their common sense.”

Expressing the same sentiment, surprise, surprise, was Ferrante. “If I were Torino, I’d think twice about it also for Maresca’s own good,” he said. It’s unknown whether his name is on the petition started to try and stop the move from happening. Despite it, Torino seem intent to resist fan pressure and go ahead regardless.

“We’ve never been slaves to anyone or anything,” director of sport Gianluca Petrachi insisted, “We’ve done deals in the past that haven’t been acceptable from the fans’ point of view, but we have to make judgements based on what’s in the interests of the team. If we were to believe the player would help us improve we’d definitely consider him. Maresca shouldn’t be afraid of throwing himself into this experience. He’s a leader. He has great character. There shouldn’t be any problems with his past.”

But there are. Which is absurd really. Because it’s not like Maresca is Mr Juventus like, for example, Beppe Furino, Antonio Conte or Alessandro Del Piero were in the past. After moving to Turin from West Brom at the beginning of the century, he was a squad player who, every other year, was either sent out on loan to Bologna or co-owned by Piacenza in his four seasons on their books.

When Maresca definitively left in 2004, he joined Fiorentina, a club whose fans hate Juventus every bit as much as Torino’s do. They accepted him as one of their own once he’d undergone a thorough “de-hunchbacking”, the ritual former Juventus players have to go through on moving to Fiorentina.

If Maresca is associated with one club, it’s got to be Sevilla with whom he spent four seasons as part of the team that won the UEFA Cup twice, as well as the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup. Torino fans, however, don’t see it that way. It matters little to them that only 58 of his 426 professional appearances came for Juventus. To them, it’s too many. To them, he’s a gobbo, a hunchback of the worst kind.

Accordingly, La Gazzetta dello Sport has called their stance medieval. “Love for your team can also express itself by favouring its reinforcement,” wrote Luigi Garlando. “Is Maresca the right man [for Torino’s midfield], at 33 and after only 16 appearances [for Sampdoria] last season? This is a legitimate question.” The rest, certainly in this case, should be irrelevant.