Archive for the ‘Serie A’ Category

Everton v Arsenal - Barclays Premier League

The Premier League

The Winner: Everton! Literally, and in the spirit of this little mini round up piece as well. Arsene was right: with glory in football basically having boiled down to qualifying for tournaments that pay big TV money, the race for fourth is a distant but important side show to the incredible three way dogfight up top.

As far as that goes, Everton are now a single point behind Arsenal who are still clinging to fourth, after defeating the North London side 3-0 in a game where Lukaku scored a fairly decent goal and Everton looked fairly comfortable throughout. If you want to boil down the game to a single moment (not possible but let’s pretend), this would be it:

That’s Seamus Coleman forcing Santi Cazorla to question his purpose in life.

As for the future fortunes of both sides, a certain graphic has been making the rounds supposedly hinting at future form. Everton though face the (slightly) tougher opposition in the weeks ahead, though I’m being charitable and including Man United in that group.

The Loser: Chris Hughton, sacked after Norwich lost 0-1 to West Brom. And here too is an unfortunate case of a manager falling victim to the high variability of shot and save percentages—Norwich City are 11th in the league in TSR but dead last in PDO. In short: Norwich aren’t as crap as a miserable squad replete with a dour faced Ricky van Wolfswinkel often appear to be.

Oh sure, there are probably other things Hughton could be doing better, but with the Canaries now five points off the drop, the idea that the now ex-U18 coach Neil Adams will offer a marked improvement between now and the end of the season doesn’t seem to be part of a deeply thought out long-term strategy. Football!

The Takeaway: With Liverpool still top of the table after a badly reffed but solid 1-2 win against West Ham this weekend, and with City with a pair of games in hand, all eyes will be on Anfield when the sides meet next Sunday (on rather poignantly the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough).

Also, that business about Chelsea not being good and needing strikers will get a waiver as they ran through Mark Hughes RED HOT STOKE three nil (you get “red hot” affixed to your team name if you win three times in a row). As for the relegation battle, it could be that the incompetence of the lower mid-tablers will be saved by the consistent awfulness of Sunderland, Cardiff and Fulham (despite the latter’s 1-2 victory over a sorry Aston Villa).

La Liga

The Winner: Atletico Madrid. Without Diego Costa, who is now apparently being carved up like Solomon with a baby for a transferin’ by the money twins Chelsea and Monaco, Atleti could have stepped into the match against the 7th place Villarreal and slipped up ahead of Barca’s weekend fixture (they defeated Real Betis 3-1).

Instead they overcome a slight shot deficit to beat the Yellow Submarine 1-0 via Raul Garcia and remain top the league with the Champions League still very much in play. Do I write this every week?

The Loser: The Spanish national team. Things are looking ugly as the season progresses between the usual Barca/Madrid suspects, and now Iker Casillas has promised to “slap” Busquets next time they meet over his alleged head stamp on Pepe from the last El Clasico. It’s ridiculous.

The Takeaway: The Mexican standoff continues at the top of the table as the three contenders face fairly mundane competition next weekend after their midweek Champions League deciders. Elsewhere the battle for fourth continues to be interesting, with Sevilla winning 4-1 against Espanyol after having dropped all three points the week before.


The Winner: Bayern. Despite all the empty headlines about the shock 1-0 defeat to Augsburg ending a 53 match unbeaten run, a game in which they outshot their opponents 16 to 11, they are still, somehow, champions. Moreover, Pep’s side have sowed the seeds of doubt after the first leg Champions League quarterfinal tie with Manchester United, only to further give their opponents false hope.

The Loser: Sami Hyypia. The Bayer Leverkusen boss and former Liverpool defender was sacked after a 2-1 defeat to Hamburg on the weekend. As quoted in the Guardian:

“After a lot of thought and because of the ongoing crisis we reached the conclusion that a change at this point could help us turn things around urgently,” the Leverkusen chief executive, Michael Schade, said.

Which is totally how this works. Football again!

The Takeaway: The battle for the final CL spot is intense, and perhaps even more up for grabs by Wolfsburg, Gladbach and Mainz. That, and the relegation battle, is all that is left to care about in this league, essentially.

Serie A

The Winner: Unknown. I mean, Roma perhaps for staying in it with a 1-3 win over Cagliari (a Destro hattrick!), adding to their midweek spoils against Parma. Then Parma for knocking off Napoli to stay in the hunt for the Europa League. Fiorentina for stopping a short skid by beating Udi 2-1. But I can’t tell you until after the Juventus match against crappy Livorno tomorrow.

The Loser: Managers. Diego Lopez was sacked by Cagliari after the above defeat, and Catania fired Rolando Maran for the second time this season.

The Takeaway The sackings likely aren’t done yet…Walter Mazzari may be ready to go after Inter’s 2-2 draw with Bologna. Other than that, Roma will need a miracle to press Antonio Conte’s Juve as the season winds down.

Arsenal v Manchester City - Barclays Premier League

Liverpool’s crushing 4-0 victory over Spurs

Does it matter?: Yes, but probably more for Spurs and the future of Tim Sherwood than it does for Liverpool’s title aspirations, which are as strong as they’ve ever been in the second half of the season as Luis Suarez continues to finish with dangerous precision and the whole team runs about with purpose in the opposing third.

That may seem an odd thing to say on the day that Chelsea’s stutter against Crystal Palace, alongside Arsenal’s ball-slinging draw against Manchester City, allowed Brendan Rodger’s Liverpool to finish the weekend two points clear on top of the table (and for him to make bizarre claims of a 533 million strong worldwide fan base).

But this could all be forgotten two weeks from now, particularly if Manchester City win against the Reds on April 13th.

For Sherwood though it is further proof he is a tactical naif, a manager who offers no added value to the vacuum left following Andre Villas-Boas’ departure. The game also gave Spurs chairman Daniel Levy another incredible headache, as by now he’s realized not only is the expensive attacking midfield talent he paid hand over fist for in the summer failing to come together, but Tottenham have a back line featuring Younas Kaboul and Michael Dawson. Spurs are a mess.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s defeatist remarks after losing 1-0 to Crystal Palace

Do they matter?: No. Before you know why, here is what he said:

“I don’t think it’s the moment to speak about next season and the market but it’s clear to everybody that Chelsea next year wants to bring a striker. What’s the future for the other strikers? The ones who are staying are competing with the striker we are bringing [in]. And normally, at the end of the season, players that are not playing a lot or players who are not happy may prefer a change. That is also part of the market. We want to improve the team and the players and make some surgical movements in the transfer window.”

Though Mourinho will almost certainly press for sweeping changes in the striker department in the summer, this was already on the books for most of the season anyway with the aging, end-of-the-line Eto’o scoring the most goals of any Chelsea striker, tied on 11 with Oscar. In fact, one might read into Mourinho’s constant insistence his team are not title favourites as a way to further make the case in the off-season for even more squad upheaval, even in the eventuality Chelsea win the thing “by accident.”

This was always the case; a lame 1-0 loss provides a nice alibi.

Manchester United’s resounding 4-1 victory over Aston Villa

Does it matter?: No, but with the idiotic way most football clubs are run, chances are it’s possible someone at the board level regarded this last match as a “reprieve” for David Moyes, if they were seriously considering sacking him now that is.

One result however shouldn’t be a basis for any decision of that magnitude, for the reason any single result must be judged in light of the whole. And in this case the win came down to the inept Villa backline. First, they allowed Rooney the simplest of unmarked headers to equalize after Ashley Westwood’s incredible opening free kick. Then they continued with Leandro Bacuna upending Juan Mata to concede a penalty. And so on and so on and so on. A great and good victory for Man United at Old Trafford to plug up the leaks for a time. Villa love handing out gifts. But this is a mere upward spike in Moyes’ killer first and maybe last season in charge.

If you want a brilliant account of the Moyes’ sitch by the way, look no further than Ken Early’s brilliant story for Slate on the load put, perhaps unfairly, on Moyes’ shoulders.

Napoli defeats Serie A leaders Juventus 2-0

Does it matter?: Only in the faintest of ways, with potential to give Roma a smaller, slightly less insurmountable but still insurmountable hill to climb in overtaking Juventus.

Right now Juve are 11 points ahead but Roma has a game in hand, which they will play this Wednesday in a huge game against Parma. Napoli already walked into the Juve match with a sizable lead on Fiorentina for the final Champions League spot, which is now probably impossible for the latter to overcome. So as nice as the victory—Callejon and Dries Martens both scored—was for Benitez and team moral, and despite it being Juventus’ first loss in Serie A since Fiorentina beat them 4-2 in October, it doesn’t change much in what is hardening into a semi-predictable table.

Unless this is the beginning of the end of an historic Juve collapse! (It isn’t).

Other things that matter/don’t matter

-Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Man City? Possibly matters for Wenger’s future, maybe, though I doubt it. I’m sure it does matter but not more than any other result for either teams this season.
-Atletico’s 1-2 win over Athletic Bilbao? Matters. Bilbao are no slouches and Atletico’s streak continues.
-Anything in MLS? Doesn’t matter, for now. Three more games and it will start to.


Paul Pogba is destined to be a superstar. At the tender age of 20, the French international (which is an incredible accomplsihment in its own right) is already a vital piece of a Juventus side that is well on its way to a third consecutive Serie A title.

Manager Antonio Conte knows it - Pogba has started 22 of the club’s 26 Serie A games so far this season.

President Andrea Agnelli knows it – he continues to work on extending the youngster’s contract, telling reportersduring a recent UNESCO event that he has absolutely no desire to see the midfielder wearing another kit.

Unfortunately for both men, the rest of the world knows it, too.

Read the rest of this entry »

New Inter Milan president Thohir, of Indonesia, greets supporters before the Italian Serie A soccer match against Sampdoria at San Siro stadium in Milan

Inter Milan president and majority owner Erick Thohir promised to roll up his sleeves. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli just wished he would pick up the phone. As the mooted exchange deal that would have sent Mirko Vucinic to Inter in return for Fredy Guarin slowly unravelled over the first two days of this week, Agnelli sought on multiple occasions to get his opposite number on the line so that they might have a frank conversation about what exactly was going on. But if the Bianconeri’s version of this story is to be believed, Thohir replied only in 160-character bursts.

“At 10.48am on Tuesday, Agnelli received from Thohir, whom he had tried to contact several times, a text message that gave definitive approval for the whole transfer,” said Juventus’s general manager Beppe Marotta in his statement to the press on Wednesday. “Then everything got cancelled and we don’t understand why.”

That final comment was rather disingenuous. Marotta knew very well why this deal collapsed, as did the rest of the country. On Monday morning, news of the potential transfer had leaked out into the public domain, sparking a furious reaction among Inter’s supporters.

What began as an online protest, with fans raging on message boards and social media, escalated quickly into something more serious as Ultras from San Siro’s Curva Nord issued a statement that condemned their club and its president, warning that: “The sale … of one of the most important player’s in Inter’s squad to another Italian club is the drop that will make the vase overflow.” By Tuesday afternoon, a group was preparing to march on the team’s offices in corso Vittoro Emmanuele.

Representatives of the two clubs had been engaged in face-to-face negotiations for the best part of two days by that point, switching between various hotels and offices in Milan. Although they had initially pushed for a straight swap, Juventus were reportedly willing to throw in a €1m cash sweetener, with a further €500,000 in potential bonuses. In the meantime, Vucinic had already cleared out his locker at their Vinovo training base and travelled north to undergo his medical in Milan on Monday night.

But the strength of the fans’ reaction was enough to give Thohir pause. As the head of a substantial media empire in Indonesia, he understands well the importance of PR. Pressing ahead with a move that would anger such a large part of his consumer base was difficult to justify. Somewhere around 6pm on Tuesday evening, he finally pulled the plug, cancelling the transfer shortly before those Ultras arrived outside Inter’s headquarters bearing banners with angry slogans.

The Curva Nord celebrated its “victory”, issuing a further statement thanking all those who had added their voices to its campaign, but for their club itself, this was another unedifying scene. Inter, after all, had been the ones who initiated the deal in the first place, enquiring about Vucinic’s availability as they sought to reinforce an attack that has scored just once in its last four games.

Although they had not initially planned to offer Guarin in exchange, the midfielder had been agitating for a move and appealed to Juve’s manager Antonio Conte. His €2.3m annual salary was not so far apart from what Inter would expect to pay Vucinic, meaning that they could make the switch without doing further damage to their already precarious finances.

That is not to say that the fans’ concerns were unjustified. At 27 years old, Guarin is three years younger than Vucinic and has a contract running through to 2016, whereas the Juventus player is scheduled to become a free agent in 18 months’ time. And while the Colombian has flattered to deceive on occasion, he has still been one of Inter’s better performers this season. Vucinic has made just four league starts for Juve, losing his place in the side following the arrivals of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente.

Inter, furthermore, have been burned by similar trades with their rivals before now. The Nerazzurri infamously sent Fabio Cannavaro to Juventus in 2004 in exchange for back-up goalkeeper Fabian Carini. As James Horncastle detailed in a piece for ESPN this week, it was not the first time that they had made a bad deal with the Old Lady.

But if the outcome looks like the right one for Inter, then the route they took to get there has damaged both the club and Thohir’s credibility as an owner. After all, it should not have required a fan revolt to alert Thohir to these concerns. If the club’s negotiators felt that they were getting a bad deal, then they should have dug their heels in much sooner. Conversely, if this was a transfer strategy they believed in, why relent so easily?

In truth, this story is all too familiar. Incoherent hiring strategies are a long-established fact of life for Inter, and they extend not only to the acquisition of new players but also the appointment of managers. In 2011, the club approached Fabio Capello, Marcelo Bielsa and Andre Villas-Boas about the possibility of replacing Leonardo before finally settling for Gian Piero Gasperini. Good luck discerning any common thread linking that particular foursome.

Although fully aware of Gasperini’s preference for a three-man attack, the club then failed to arrange its transfer campaign accordingly, retaining Wesley Sneijder—for whom there was no natural role in the new manager’s schemes—but selling Samuel Eto’o. Inter subsequently signed Diego Forlan, without noticing that he would be cup tied for that season’s European competition. They ignored Gasperini’s requests for an additional midfielder and, as if to rub salt into the wound, did not sign the one player he had specifically requested—Rodrigo Palacio—until a year later, after the manager had been fired.

Countless more examples could be drawn from Massimo Moratti’s time as owner, during which incredible sums of money were wasted on the likes of Ricardo Quaresma and Francesco Coco while players as good as Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Leonardo Bonucci were allowed to slip away for much less than they were worth.

Things were supposed to go differently under Thohir, with his stated commitments to good business practice and to helping Inter get back to a self-sustaining financial model. In November he insisted that the club’s January transfer plans would be focused around signing more young players to complement those who would be promoted from the youth team. “We need to be confident,” he said. “I think a number of younger Italian players are worth giving a shot.”

Perhaps Inter’s disappointing performances have necessitated a shift in that mindset. A team that started the season brightly enough has now won just twice since November 9th. Though they remain in fifth place, the prospects of hanging on to a Europa League spot look slim unless something changes soon.

But the greatest concern for many Inter fans is simply that Thohir continues to entrust the day-to-day running of Inter’s transfer policies to the same people who have been guilty of so many mistakes in the past. The main driving force behind the Vucinic-Guarin trade was Marco Branca, the technical director who has held that job since 2003 (he had previously spent a further year with the club as a scout).

Working alongside him were sporting director Piero Ausilio and general manager Marco Fassone, whose overlapping roles do not always allow for a clear line of command. Until recently, it was always Moratti who took ultimate responsibility, applying his own personal judgement to every deal that got done.

Thohir, though, does not seem inclined to take such a hands-on role. Although he considers himself a fan, he is also quick to acknowledge that he lacks technical expertise. When it comes to transfer business, he would prefer to stand aside and let the football people do their job, working within the financial parameters that are set for them.

But while a hands-off approach makes good business sense, it only works if you have the right people in place. Although Branca helped to oversee a period of great success for Inter in the wake of Calciopoli, his successes are coloured by both the fact that Inter’s domestic rivals were so weak at the time.

Those successes were achieved, furthermore, without any pretence of trying to balance the books. In 2010, the year that Inter won the treble, they posted losses of €69m. In each of the two previous years, that figure had stood closer to €150m. Given that Thohir has no intention of supporting such losses going forwards, he must also ask himself whether Branca is up to the task of rejuvenating this squad on a far more modest budget.

When Thohir completed his takeover of Inter last October, he made a point of maintaining continuity with the old regime, even pleading with Moratti to stay on as a full-time president. The latter eventually settled for an honorary role (and Thohir did call him for advice this week before making his final decision on the Vucinic-Guarin swap), but with his son serving as vice-president and many directors remaining in place, much has stayed the same.

At this stage, it is tempting to wonder whether it might be too much. Inter’s performances have been in decline ever since Jose Mourinho stepped aside in the summer of 2010. To reverse that trend will require strong leadership. It might also require a break from the past that Thohir seems reluctant to make.


Not everything comes naturally to Juan Iturbe. Verona’s Argentinian playmaker has a way of making things look so straightforward on the pitch, bewitching his opponents with the simplest of touches or flicks. Since joining the club on loan from Porto in the summer, he has started three Serie A games and twice been named as Gazzetta dello Sport’s man of the match. Already he has two goals and an assist to his name.

Some things, however, remain a daily struggle. Asked by Sportweek magazine what had been the most challenging aspect of adapting to life in Italy, Iturbe did not hesitate. “Not eating pasta and pizza in the same meal,” he said. “[The club] banned me from doing it…”

The line was doubtless delivered with a grin. A smile never seems to be far from Iturbe’s lips these days, his mischievous sense of humour rendering him an instant hit with his new colleagues. In less than two months with Verona he has pulled so many practical jokes that even he cannot remember them all. “My team-mates say I seem like a Neapolitan,” he added. “In the changing room they always say that I have la locura – the madness – that Neapolitans are supposed to have.”

If he had been born a decade earlier, then Iturbe would doubtless have drawn comparisons with the greatest of all honorary Neapolitans. For many years it was the fate of any creative young Argentinian talent to be hailed as the “next Maradona”. These days, though, the meme has been updated. Iturbe has instead been dubbed the “next Lionel Messi” – just like Erik Lamela, Javier Pastore and Pablo Piatti all were before him.

Such comparisons pass the lazy sight test. Iturbe, like Messi, is short, explosive, possessed of rare close control and likes to run at his opponents. Although he has been deployed on the right of a three-man attack by Verona so far, he tends to drift inside and might be more naturally suited to playing through the middle in a deep-lying role.

But that is about as far as you could go. Messi, lest we need reminding, played 50 games for Barcelona last season and scored 60 goals. Iturbe has so far played a grand total of 54 senior matches in his entire professional career, finding the net a modest 10 times.

The Verona player is not fond of the comparison. More to the point, he is sick of being reminded of it in every interview he conducts. Iturbe considers Messi as one of his footballing heroes, and told Gazzetta dello Sport last month that his greatest dream was to one day play a one-on-one game against his idol.

But while he is proud to say that Messi congratulated him on his performance after a friendly between Argentina’s senior national team and the Under-20 side before the 2010 World Cup, Iturbe remains acutely aware of how little he has achieved. “I can’t think about running,” he says, “before I have even learnt to walk.”

Iturbe has been accused of doing that more than once before now. His professional career began when he joined Cerro Porteño in Paraguay at 16 years old, but barely nine months later found himself frozen out of the first-team squad after refusing to sign a full contract. It was suggested – fairly or otherwise – that the player was already getting too big for his boots.

The stand-off lasted for almost a year, before eventually being resolved with a short-term deal in March 2011. Iturbe would return to Cerro Porteño for four months before being sold to Porto – amid reports of competing interest from Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. But the player did not shine in Portugal, failing to impress in his few first-team appearances. His selfishness in possession led many to conclude that he really did believe his own hype.

Negative perceptions were reinforced by events at international level. Although Iturbe’s parents were both Paraguayan, he had been born and raised in Argentina – in Barracas, a tough barrio in south-east Buenos Aires. Before the player even got to Porto, he sparked a feud between the two nations’ football federations over which country he would play for.

As a teenager, Iturbe had represented Paraguay at Under-17 and Under-20 level, as well as making a late substitute’s appearance in one friendly for the senior side. But the latter fixture, against Chile, was not a formally-sanctioned Fifa fixture. When Iturbe subsequently decided he would prefer to play for Argentina, Paraguay attempted to prevent him from doing so.

“One time I was at the airport, ready to leave so I could accept a call-up to the Albiceleste, and I was stopped from departing,” Iturbe told Sportweek. “Two policemen showed me the fax with which the Federation had banned me from leaving the country. [In the end] I just had to go home, what else could I do?”

It would take another three days for the situation to be resolved, Iturbe informed via another fax that he was, in fact, free to go. It is old news now, but even so the player still jokes that “if I had to play for Argentina in Asuncion, I might need a helmet.”

Again, Iturbe’s actions saw him branded as arrogant – the player accused of throwing the hard work put in by his Paraguay coaches back in their faces just for the sake of playing for a more successful national team. He rejects that suggestion outright, arguing that he simply feels a closer affiliation to the country where he grew up.

One way or another, it was not until Iturbe went back to Argentina at the beginning of this year, joining River Plate on a six-month loan, that he would finally begin to show signs of fulfilling his potential. He made 17 appearances for Los Millonarios, scoring three goals and contributing a pair of assists.

Iturbe returned to Porto in June, but with the likes of Jackson Martinez and Silvestre Varela ahead of him in the pecking order, his first-team opportunities were always going to be limited. Verona, newly promoted from Serie B, saw their opportunity, signing the player on a season-long loan on the final day of the summer transfer window. The deal also included an option to buy Iturbe outright at the end of the campaign.

Already it seems unthinkable that they would not do so. Verona have made a stunning start to life back in the top-flight, winning five of their first eight games – including a season-opening victory over Milan – to find themselves in fourth place, ahead of not only the Rossoneri but also Inter, Fiorentina and Lazio.

Iturbe began the season on the bench, making an underwhelming debut as a substitute against Juventus on 22 September but playing superbly ever since. He marked his first start, against Livorno, with a beautifully-struck goal from a free-kick, and followed that up with a 50-yard run-and-finish against Bologna. “Iturbe was singing in the rain,” wrote Diego Costa in La Repubblica. “But if Gene Kelly danced while he did that, then Iturbe made the opposing defence do it instead.”

Such ambitious dribbles will likely always be a part of Iturbe’s game, but he does appear to have reined himself in at least a little at Verona. The team’s manager, Andrea Mandorlini, allows him a good deal of freedom when the team is attacking, but expects his forwards to track back and contribute to the defensive cause once possession is lost. So far, Iturbe has shown himself willing to do so.

But if the temptation is to get carried away with the player’s bright start then fans would be wise to remember that the player remains, in relative terms, a big kid. Asked what his last thought was before he goes to sleep every evening, Iturbe replied: “I close my eyes imagining my goodnight kiss from my mum.”

His parents, after all, remain in Paraguay, half a world away. Iturbe’s father, a bricklayer who only moved his family to Argentina in the first place to escape the dire economic situation back home, still cries with joy down the phone line when they speak. He has never asked his son to be the next Lionel Messi; instead just the best Juan Manuel Iturbe that he can ever be.


Adriano Galliani vowed to appeal in “every possible seat of justice”. He would make his case first to the Italian Football Federation’s disciplinary committee, but was prepared to carry this fight on into the criminal courts if necessary. The Milan vice-president could not back down over what he considered an inalienable human right: the right to insult a group of strangers.

On Monday, Galliani had been informed that his team must play its next game, the one against Udinese on 19 October, behind closed doors. Milan were being punished for the behaviour of their fans during Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Juventus in Turin. Football federation observers had heard a number of the club’s supporters singing derogatory songs about people in Naples, claiming, among other things, that the city’s residents all had cholera.

The group responsible for these chants was small, a few hundred people at best. Their ditties were not loud enough to be picked up by TV audiences watching at home, and most people at Juventus Stadium will have been oblivious, too. “No TV station and no newspapers heard them,” said Galliani. “Maybe the observers heard them in the toilet or at the bar.”

It was not just the small size of the mob, however, that rendered this verdict contentious. What made Galliani most angry was the fact that Milan were being punished under the same rules that the Italian Football Federation used to fight racial discrimination.

Those regulations were updated this summer, following the introduction of Uefa’s new disciplinary code. That document lays out guidelines for all member associations to follow in areas ranging from player behaviour through to the maintenance of public order.

Article 14 covers “Racism, other discriminatory conduct and propaganda”. It states that punishments should be handed down to any team whose fans “insult the human dignity of a person or group of persons by whatever means, including on the grounds of skin colour, race, religion or ethnic origin”.

That is unquestionably a broad definition. A person of a more sensitive disposition might ask whether it is not insulting to one’s human dignity to stand in front of tens of thousands of people while they laugh at you for failing to kick a ball into a net from a few yards out. We all know that during football games, things get a lot worse than that.

Individual football federations have been left to clarify their own interpretations of these laws.

Article 11 of Italy’s rulebook states that: “Discriminatory conduct … is defined as any conduct which, directly or indirectly, causes offence, denigration or insult on grounds of race, colour, religion, language, sex, nationality, ethnic or territorial origin.”

The crucial words here are the last ones. Milan’s supporters – or at least the small number of them involved in the chanting – were indeed insulting their rivals because of their “territorial origin”. The observers noted that they had also run through several renditions of a more mild chant whose chorus simply ran: “We are not Neapolitan”.

Galliani, though, was never contesting the letter of the law. Rather he was making the case that the law is an ass. “’Territorial discrimination’ exists only in Italy,” he said. “Uefa talk about racial discrimination, but we’ve invented this territorial definition all on our own.”

Italian supporters are hardly the first to take aim at their rivals’ home cities. In fact, such insults are a staple of just about every major league in Europe. As Gabriele Marcotti noted in a recent piece for ESPN, the Premier League has plenty of obvious examples. Fans from Liverpool are mocked as thieves and crooks at just about every away game they attend.

The question raised by the verdict against Milan is whether such insults should be treated as seriously as racial ones. “For a long time the stock answer was that abuse based on race, religion or sexuality needed to be treated more seriously because it was predicated on real and pre-existing discrimination or power relations,” wrote Marcotti. “Some people don’t find that a satisfying explanation. Personally, I think it’s a pretty good criteria to apply.”

That opinion is shared by the Napoli supporters themselves. During the team’s win over Livorno on Sunday, Ultras at the Stadio San Paolo showed support for their counterparts from Milan, mocking themselves with an enormous banner that read: “Napoli [has] cholera and now you should close our curva too” (a move which brought echoes of recent arguments in England over Tottenham fans’ right to call themselves ‘Yids’).

They were not the only ones to put on a show of solidarity. On Tuesday a group of Inter Ultras released a statement offering support to Milan, even though the Rossoneri remained “our most bitter enemies, who, ever since we were little, have let us understand the words ‘hate’ and ‘grudge’”. The Inter fans vowed to engage in discriminatory chants at the next home game, and called on all other supporters to do the same, “so we can have a Sunday where every single stadium is closed.”

It did not take long for others to fall in line, with Ultra groups from Juventus, Genoa and Brescia all promising to do the same. Regardless of the animosity they might feel towards their rival fans, all had been united by a shared resentment of the stance taken by the powers-that-be.

Their actions have put the national football federation in a difficult position. Should it reverse or soften the punishment now, it will be perceived as giving in to the Ultras – making it harder to impose strong decisions in the future. One Milan supporter who claimed to have taken part in the chanting even gave radio interviews this week stating that his group had sung those songs precisely to force this situation.

On the other hand, polls conducted by national news outlets suggest that most people consider the punishment against Milan to be excessively harsh. Even the Serie A president Maurizio Beretta has spoken out against it, writing a letter to the federation requesting that the rules be revised.

The truth is, though, that the notion of ‘territorial discrimination’ is not a really a new one. It has been listed alongside racial discrimination in the Italian federation’s rulebook for some time, even if it has not been interpreted consistently by the observers that go to games.

Instead what changed were those Uefa guidelines – and specifically their instruction on how discrimination should be punished. Previously in Italy, a club like Milan might have received a token fine, which they would likely have paid rather than waste any time protesting.

But the governing body’s updated rules set out a firm list of sanctions for national federations to follow. First instances of discriminatory chanting by a team’s fans should result in a one-game closure of the section of the ground where they began. Second instances must be punished by forcing a team to play its next fixture behind closed doors. Any further instances can lead to points deductions and games being awarded to the opposition.

Milan had already been sanctioned once this season, for the behaviour of their fans during the game against Napoli at San Siro in September. Similar songs about cholera were sung, along with another chant imploring the volcano Mount Vesuvius to “wash Naples clean with fire”. And the Rossoneri were indeed obliged to close the Curva Sud, where the chants originated, for their next home game.

By ordering Milan to play the next game behind closed doors, the Italian football federation are simply following the Uefa regulations. Those are not up for discussion. Any hopes of Milan winning their appeal, therefore, rest entirely on their ability to re-open the discussion in Italy about which kinds of prejudice should really be defined as unacceptable.

“Our regulations reference discrimination. They not specify what it can mean,” confirmed the Uefa president Michel Platini on Wednesday. “The individual case goes to the disciplinary body that is evaluating the situation … federations are free to expand the field and add new types as they see fit.”

A decision on Milan’s initial appeal is expected on Friday. Even with the international break, they could not really afford to leave it any longer. They will doubtless wish they had more than a few short days to work through an issue as complicated as this one.


Roma were not put off by Adem Ljajic’s hazelnut spread habit. Nearly three years have passed since Sinisa Mihajlovic launched his famous criticism of the player, saying that he should “cut his hair, eat less Nutella and not live his life attached to a computer”. Ljajic has trimmed his locks in the interim, but there is no word yet of him giving up on either of his preferred snack or pastime.

Walter Sabatini seems not to mind. Roma’s director of sport was handed an unenviable task this month when the club’s owners concluded that further sales were required in order to balance their books. Sabatini had little trouble lining up Tottenham as potential suitors for Erik Lamela, but needed to find a lower-priced replacement before he could allow the Argentinian to leave.

On paper, Ljajic certainly fit the bill. Like Lamela, he is a 21-year-old forward who is comfortable operating out wide or just behind the attack. Both men are expert dribblers who relish the opportunity to run at an opponent. They each had a respectable strike rate last season; Lamela scored 15 goals in 33 games for Roma, while his would-be successor hit 11 in 28 for Fiorentina.

Most importantly, Ljajic was available at the right price. With just one year left on his existing contract, Sabatini knew that Fiorentina could not afford to turn down a reasonable offer.

They had rejected an €8m bid from Milan earlier in the summer, describing it in an official club statement as “inadmissible … late, and certainly inopportune”, but their anger on that occasion had a context. Fiorentina believed Milan were trying to turn the player’s head just as he was about to sign a contract renewal. The Rossoneri had been accused of doing much the same thing to Riccardo Montolivo twelve months previously.

If anything, Milan’s bid made Fiorentina more willing to do business with Roma. It soon became clear that the Viola could not meet Ljajic’s wage demands, but by that stage they were prepared to sell to just about anyone other than Milan. They accepted Sabatini’s offer of €11m up front, plus a further €4m in potential bonuses. Ljajic signed a four-year contract with Roma, worth approximately €1.9m per year – more than three times his previous earnings.

A year ago today, the prospect of Ljajic landing such a contract would have seemed inconceivable. He was perceived back then as a pariah, an insolent and undeserving shirker who might sooner have been sent back to his former club, Partizan Belgrade, than be sought after by Fiorentina’s rivals.

His reputation had been coloured by the events of 2 May, 2012. That was the day on which he got punched by his own manager. Substituted during Fiorentina’s eventual 2-2 draw with Novara, Ljajic turned to sarcastically applaud Delio Rossi. Seconds later, the coach flung himself into the dugout, swinging fists in the player’s direction.

Words had been exchanged between the two in the seconds leading up to the assault, and though the exact context has never been revealed, many fans chose to believe the darkest of rumours. It was presumed that Ljajic must have said something truly awful to provoke such a reaction from his manager.

Mihajlovic’s two-year-old comments were dredged up as evidence that the player was a bad egg, as were complaints made by a neighbour of Ljajic’s about his late-night partying antics. Vanessa Favio claimed that the player’s get-togethers were keeping his entire apartment block awake at night. “It happens at least two times a week,” she told La Repubblica. “They go from midnight through to four in the morning.”

Further negative headlines soon followed. After the incident with Rossi, Ljajic was suspended by Fiorentina for the remainder of the season, but still got called up to play for Serbia at the end of the campaign. He was immediately sent home again, however, after failing to sing the national anthem prior to a friendly against Spain. His actions were perceived by Mihajlovic, now in charge of the national team, as an act of gross disrespect.

In reality, though, there were two sides to this story. Ljajic was raised as a Muslim and felt uncomfortable singing the anthem on religious grounds. He had apparently phoned his father before the game asking for advice. “I told him to keep his head down as much as possible so nobody saw,” said Sahmir Ljajic. “But you all know what happened.”

Many of the stories about Ljajic can likewise be viewed from another angle. We might never know exactly what was said between him and Rossi on the night of their scuffle, but we do know that portrayals of Rossi as a man who never ordinarily loses his cool are probably wide of the mark. Last season, as manager of Sampdoria, he flipped the bird at Roma’s Nicolas Burdisso in the middle of a game, earning a two-game suspension. (The defender had reportedly told him to “sit down, dickhead”.)

And while Nutella might not be the most nutritious of snacks, the truth is that Ljajic spent a significant chunk of his youth being encouraged by adults to increase his caloric intake. Dusan Trbojević, the former Partizan Belgrade youth coach (he now works for them as a scout) recalls that the player was an exceptionally skinny little boy when first spotted at age nine.

“After one game I saw [Ljajic] sitting in a car and eating an apple,” Trbojević told Serbia’s Press Online back in 2010. “As I passed, I said ‘why not get him to eat more?’ His dad immediately replied: ‘That’s what I’m talking about. He knows a thing or two with the ball, but what use is it? The opponents are larger, and they just knock him over’.”

As for the rest – the late nights and excessive video game-playing – these might be undesirable traits, but are they that unexpected for someone who was launched at age 18 into a new country with significant income and lots of free-time at his disposal? Over the last year, Ljajic is said to have reined in his partying significantly.

In the end the greatest concern for Roma fans will be whether he can live up to expectations on the pitch. Lamela has left some pretty big shoes to fill. Francesco Totti had previously gone so far as to suggest that the Argentinian could one day become his heir.

Ljajic performed at a level towards the end of last season that suggested he could be capable of reaching such heights. His form from January onwards was blistering, with 10 of the player’s 11 goals arriving after the turn of the year. By the end of the campaign he had also chipped in eight assists.

On the other hand, sceptics will point to his far less impressive showings over the previous three years. Great things had been expected of Ljajic when he signed back in January 2010. He had arrived in Florence only after a move to Manchester United collapsed – apparently because the English club could not get a work permit for the player. Sir Alex Ferguson had likened him to a young Cristiano Ronaldo.

And yet, before this season his performances had been fitful. Ljajic was in and out of the team under Cesare Prandelli, Mihajlovic, then Rossi – scoring just four goals in 50 league appearances. He drifted in and out of games, only occasionally showing off the footwork and finishing that were supposed to be the hallmark of his game.

Was his recent improvement just a purple patch, then, or the beginning of a trend? Only time will tell, though Roma do have reasons to hope it could be the latter. Ljajic displayed a notably improved attitude last season, with reporters in Florence noting that he was consistently among the first to arrive at training and among the last to leave. He worked tirelessly on his free-kicks, and went on to score from them five times over the course of the season.

So effective was, he, indeed, that some analysts have already begun asking who will take free-kicks between Ljajic, Miralem Pjanic and Totti. In reality, of course, the new arrival will need to earn a place in Rudi Garcia’s starting XI before that even becomes an issue. No one would begrudge Ljajic a little celebratory Nutella if he succeeds in that goal.