Fiorentina v Genoa this weekend but for fans of a certain vintage, it will always bring back memories of a terrifying Sunday more than 30 years ago…
- 2 weeks ago
The old woman leapt into the air in fright. She had only gone out to hang up her washing but suddenly found herself apparently being berated by an angry mob of wildly gesticulating men. The look of shock in her eyes was as genuine as it was understandable.
I’m ashamed to say that I was one of those bile-spitting individuals who scared an unsuspecting neighbour so undeservedly. I was in the process of breaking the world record for packing the most Scottish-Italians possible into a one-bedroom flat to watch a football game. My fear was it might be followed by the record number to appear in court on manslaughter charges. It would have taken the most benevolent and Azzurri-sympathising judge to accept our plea in mitigation: “But, M’Lud, this was Italy against the Netherlands in the semi-final of Euro 2000!”
Happily, the woman scurried back inside unscathed after our howls of fury and frustration in her direction. A penalty award had provoked such ire that I have never seen more red faces since the participants in a Scottish stag-do fell asleep under the Spanish sun. It was the kind of clash with the host nation of a major tournament which has become something of a speciality for the boys in blue. And its hero was the kind of player not normally used to earning much praise - a Fiorentina goalkeeper.
Dino Zoff’s side had already played its part in sending out co-hosts Belgium in the group stages but there was little doubt the Oranje represented a stiffer test. The Azzurri had managed a competent 2-0 win over Romania in the quarter-finals while the home side brutally put away Yugoslavia by six goals to one. Patrick Kluivert with a hat-trick and Marc Overmars with a double had been the main architects of that destruction. Frank Rijkaard looked to have a very strong chance of taking his team all the way to lifting the trophy.
But Club Italia in general and Francesco Toldo in particular had other ideas. Over a gripping two hours and more of football they delivered a performance which was excruciating and ecstatic in equal measure. You know the Nazionale by now, they never like to do things the easy way.
Even by their own torturous standards, however, this was a particularly uphill struggle. The Dutch had the best of the opening exchanges - Dennis Bergkamp hit a post - and when Gianluca Zambrotta saw red after a little more than half an hour it appeared the game had taken a crucial swing. A few minutes later and a penalty was awarded which should have given the host nation a concrete advantage. Alessandro Nesta tugged at Kluivert and the referee pointed to the spot and the Orange-tinged Amsterdam Arena roared in delight.
“The referee, Marcus Merk I think, had given an interview before the game warning the Italians to be careful with their hands,” recalled Nesta. “I tugged him a little but the decision was quite harsh.”
But that was where Toldo really started his heroics. He palmed away Frank de Boer’s effort and the scores stayed level. It seemed to galvanise the whole Italian team into some kind of superhuman effort to stay in the game.
“The referee favoured them because they wanted a France v Holland final, that was very clear,” said the big Viola goalie. “In the game before I remembered De Boer had shot to the goalkeeper’s right. I guessed he would go left this time and he did.”
“We were all sure he could save it,” remembered Gigi Di Biagio. “He was going through a great spell.”
The goalkeeper needed to be in outstanding form. When a second penalty was awarded - the one which sent us screaming at the television and scaring an old lady - it looked like his efforts had been in vain. This time, though, Kluivert would take the kick.
“We exchanged glances and it was like there was a challenge between us,” claimed Toldo. “I knew I shouldn’t move until the last minute because he was watching me. He had to angle the ball as much as possible because he thought I might go that way.” Incredibly, the ball pinged back off the post and the Azzurri survived to fight another day.
They would play all the way through normal time and extra time with 10 men and still hold on to the draw which could potentially put them through. They even created a few chances, the most notable falling to Marco Delvecchio. But this game was always destined to be decided by a penalty shoot-out.
“From the tips of my toes up to my back my whole right leg was cramped up,” recalled Di Biagio, who missed a spot-kick at the World Cup two years earlier. “I got back up because we had no more substitutes. I will never forget those last minutes because I could hardly walk but I knew I had to take a penalty.
“I was shaking,” he continued. “It is a feeling I will never forget. I will remember this one more than the one in France. Because in France I was sure I would score, I had been playing well and then came that error.”
Luckily, he could count on the dubious help of Francesco Totti. “Instead of telling me everything was going to be fine he looked at Edwin van der Sar and said: ‘Look how big he is!’.” The joke worked, however, and this time Gigi thumped his spot-kick home. It put the pressure, once again, on Frank de Boer.
“He took the first one (in the shoot-out),” said Toldo. “He took it like the one before but harder and less accurate and so it wasn’t as angled. So I saved it and he was in despair.”
Gianluca Pessotto put his penalty past his Juventus team-mate and then it was Jaap Stam’s turn. “His penalty was a classic defender’s penalty, it was really powerful but he hit it too high and it ended up in the crowd,” said Toldo. That set up a special cameo performance from Totti.
“When he went up to take the penalty he turned round and said: ‘I’ll chip it.’”, remembered Nesta. “We said: ‘Let’s hope not, let’s hope he hits it hard.’ He jokes a lot, we hoped he was joking.” It was no quip, of course, and his cucchiaio was scooped into the goal.
“He showed great character,” said Di Biagio. “It was not easy to do something like that.”
Kluivert finally converted a penalty to give the Dutch a chance at 3-1 with Paolo Maldini to step up for Italy. But he admitted he took a poor kick which was saved. Suddenly the door was open for an improbable comeback. Paul Bosvelt had to score his kick to keep the game going but he would be no match for Toldo. Once again the goalie guessed right and the match was over. Incredibly, Italy were through to the final.
Toldo still beams from ear to ear when asked about that game. It was probably the finest performance of his career and there was little more he could have done to influence its outcome. As a Fiorentina follower, it was a rare pleasure for one of our own to play such a vital role for the Azzurri.
The tournament ended badly, of course, with that golden goal from David Trezeguet giving France victory in the final but the semi-final was a performance to live long in the memory. It took every ounce of concentration and focus from the Italians to secure their qualification from that match. All it cost me was a red-faced apology to a neighbour for any fright I might have caused.
Italy: Toldo; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Nesta, Iuliano, Maldini; Albertini (77 Pessotto), Di Biagio, Fiore (83 Totti), Del Piero, Inzaghi (67 Delvecchio).
Netherlands: Van der Sar; Bosvelt, Stam, F de Boer, Van Bronckhorst; Cocu (95 Winter), Davids; Overmars, Bergkamp (86 Seedorf), Zenden (77 Van Vossen); Kluivert.
I’ve tried to work out a league table of who has the most early/late kick-offs in rounds two to 16 of the Serie A season via the list released recently.
Hopefully I’ve added them up correctly, table as follows.
11 games - Juventus, Napoli, Roma, Hellas Verona, Inter.
10 games - Lazio, Empoli.
9 games - Milan, Torino, Sassuolo.
8 games - Fiorentina.
7 games - Cagliari, Chievo.
6 games - Parma, Sampdoria, Palermo.
5 games - Cesena, Atalanta, Udinese.
4 games - Genoa.
- 2 weeks ago
- 1 month ago
There was no real road to Damascus moment. I wish I could say I fell off the back of a mule while taking a mountain track to Sommocolonia, the hilltop village where my grandfather used to go to school. I had, instead, a much more gradual conversion to Italian football.
I don’t think I could put a precise date on when I finally saw the light but I reckon I could probably tell you where it happened. And, funnily enough, it was on another lump on the Tuscan skyline. A series of summertime visits to Il Ciocco training complex near Barga fully opened my eyes to the delights of Calcio.
These were the days of the Ritiro. Hot, languid afternoons where only the tourists stirred and rumours buzzed of a scappatella by some soccer superstar with a local lovely. Sometimes, in the cool of the evening, you could even catch a glimpse of the immortals.
Fiorentina were the first team I remember coming to town but they would be followed in years to come by Sampdoria. Giancarlo Antognoni, Claudio Gentile, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini were all within touching distance. And there was definitely a more relaxed atmosphere than once the stresses and strains of the season got under way.
It was a bewitching experience to see them starting to go through the gears for the campaign to come. The contrast with your average Scottish player back home could hardly have been more stark. These bronze-skinned ball players positively strutted through the streets and were never anything less than impeccably turned out. Every time I flew back into Glasgow I was ten times more determined to try to live and look like they did. And every time, of course, I failed.
But this was the seed-planting time for a process which would eventually lead to a creation which consumed several years of my existence. Watching the Ritiro gave birth to an obsession with Italian football which in turn produced a stream of writing on the subject. Eventually, after sporadic publication elsewhere, I set up the fanzine Rigore!
I think it was born out of those first summer days in the Garfagnana valley. I spent my mornings studying the latest Gazzetta dello Sport to see how the teams were shaping up for the new season. I am old enough to just about remember the excitement it provoked when the barriers came down to foreign imports and overseas stars could be freely purchased once again.
I would draw up imaginary future formations in my head and try to assess the merits of each squad being pieced together. Invariably I got it all wrong but it was good fun trying. Mostly I overestimated Fiorentina’s final league position.
Then, later in the day, there would be analysis over cappuccino and a cake with my father. Although, at that stage, I think I was strictly a Lemon Soda kind of guy. We were the Saint and Greavsie of Onesti’s Cafe.
There was always something special back then about any links between Britain and Italy. My early years of Calcio study coincided with the lifting of the ban on foreign players so such transfers were, by their nature, few and far between. Picking your Stranieri was a much less scatter-gun system than is allowed by the free frontiers in existence nowadays. Initially teams were allowed one then two and then three overseas stars before it became pretty much a free for all. Imagine your own favourite Serie A team of today having to trim down its non-Italian quota to such levels.
So Brits in Italy were something of a curio, particularly in the early 1980s. They were considered to be a bit of a risk as their ability to adapt to the Italian game was thought to be less straightforward than, say, most South Americans. In addition, there was still a great deal of suspicion and prejudice ruling the relationship between the two nations’ football. To many UK eyes, Catenaccio was still king in the peninsula. While those looking in the opposite direction saw a kick-and-rush game where skill was submerged by physical exertion.
That made two British players at one club a pretty unusual thing. To have a pair of them on my doorstep during my summer holidays was an unmissable opportunity. It must have been either the summer of 1984 or 1985 when I made my pilgrimage to Il Ciocco to see Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis and their Sampdoria side.
It was another warm day, I remember, slowly trudging upwards to the hilltop training pitch. Then hanging around like a groupie for a hope of getting a moment with the Blucerchiati’s overseas double act. They were happy enough, I think, to hear a voice from back in the UK and posed for a picture and signed a couple of autographs before rejoining their teammates. As a crushingly-shy teenager, I was star-struck for weeks.
Francis clearly enjoyed the surroundings of Serie A. He spent four seasons at Samp and then a year at Atalanta after moving from Manchester City, before being lured to Rangers, where Souness had already found a home. The Scotsman spent just a couple of campaigns with the Doriani but he did help them win the Coppa Italia in 1985 - the Genoese outfit’s first major trophy since they were formed by the fusion of Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria nearly 40 years earlier.
Indeed, that Souness-Francis double act paved the way for some of the most glorious years in the club’s history. They played alongside many of the names who would become legends at the Stadio Marassi - none more so than Vialli and Mancini, but also the less-heralded Fausto Pari, Fausto Salsano, Pietro Vierchowod and Moreno Mannini who would rack up something like 1,300 appearances for the club between them. President Paolo Mantovani was busy creating a little masterpiece.
Neither the Scotsman nor the Englishman were giants of the Italian game but they certainly avoided the Bidone (dustbin) tag which was given to many other British players in Serie A. They were proof that players could come from the old First Division and prosper in the world of Calcio. Their pioneering laid the foundations for a veritable invasion which grabbed the game by the Pauls - as Elliott, Gascoigne and Ince all plied their trade in Italy along with the likes of David Platt.
But, for me, that was a golden moment in my love-affair with Italian football. Domestic sides gradually started to shun Il Ciocco and, instead, British sides made it their home with Rangers, Everton and even Kilmarnock making it their pre-season base in years to come. They never quite lit the spark of excitement that Samp did at a period when Serie A was about to enjoy one of its most sparkling periods of success.
Every time Ritiro rolls around, my mind wanders back to those heady summer days when life was so different. Serie A had a lot more money and I had a lot more hair, that’s for sure. You could rub shoulders with the heroes of the game before nipping back down the mountain for pizza, a glass of spuma and a shot on the latest video game in the local arcade. My romantic vision of those days infuses my thoughts of Il Campionato even now. Every pre-season fills my lungs with fresh enthusiasm, hope and a little sniff of nostalgia. And, although it gets harder every year, I try to hold my breath for as long as I can before I have to come back to the surface and find the real action is under way.
- 2 months ago
They are a ubiquitous presence on all routes to and from a Serie A stadium on matchday. Buzzing in and out of traffic, they swarm around cars and buses with the high-pitched hum of engines being thrashed into giving their maximum effort. In the streets around the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, however, there is only one Vespa that really matters.
Watching him play, it is not hard to see how Juan Guillermo Cuadrado picked up the nickname. His acceleration, control and ability to change direction would be the envy of even the most souped-up scooter. Little wonder he has acquired a price-tag worthy of a top-of-the-range racing machine.
It seems to be the fate of any player making their mark with Fiorentina that they will be the subject of transfer speculation. Last season it was the Stevan Jovetic saga which hogged the headlines, this season it is the Colombian speedster. A string of impressive displays at the World Cup has only piqued even more interest in him. But what would any potential suitor have to pay and what kind of footballer would they be acquiring?
The transfer fee question is probably the easier to answer. Fiorentina have, to all intents and purposes, bought him in installments from Udinese. He first came on loan with a right to buy one “half” of the player. They completed the acquisition of the remaining “half” earlier this summer. In total, they are reckoned to have spent about €21 million (£17 million) to buy him outright. Any sale, therefore, could only be concluded at somewhere above that figure - most likely about double it.
And is he worth such a lofty sum? The Tuscan club clearly believe so as they have effectively made him the most costly acquisition under the ownership of Tod’s shoe supremos Andrea and Diego Della Valle. Their summer investment in him is either building an incredible forward line for the future - along with Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez - or a case of speculating to accumulate. Either way, it looks a pretty shrewd move.
Cuadrado was one of Serie A’s star performers last season and his displays with the national team have only enhanced his reputation. Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have been mentioned as potential purchasers. And, when huge money is involved, it is almost impossible for a middle-tier club like the Viola to say no.
Versatility is one key element of his make-up. A breakdown of last season on the Who Scored website reckons he played in no fewer than nine different positions. He featured right across the front-line along with most central and right-sided midfield roles. There were even a couple of occasions when he stepped in as a makeshift right back.
There is little doubt, however, that he is better closer to goal. When put on defensive duties he is still prone to the odd blunder - most notably in setting up Paul Pogba’s goal in an epic 4-2 win over Juventus in Florence. But, when pushing forward - as he did later in that same game - he becomes pretty irresistible.
His pace is searing, particularly from a standing start, and he loves to dribble. Sometimes that can take him down the odd dead-end but under Vincenzo Montella he has started to eliminate that aspect of his play. If he doesn’t beat his man then he does, more often than not, win a free-kick. The sight of him being felled but some frustrated defender has been a common one during his time in purple.
That willingness to take on an opponent means he is often in a great position to deliver an assist - he has four so far in the World Cup - but his shot selection has also improved. There was a time when the sight of one of his thumping strikes flying over the crossbar or wide of goal was pretty commonplace. Nowadays, he seems to have got his eye in and they are much more often of a goalbound nature. And, when he hits them, they do - in football parlance - stay hit.
Indeed, towards the end of the last Serie A campaign, with Gomez and Rossi either injured or just recovering, he was used as an out and out front man with pretty impressive results. Playing through the middle put him into more congested areas but also meant his free-kicks were won in even more dangerous positions or his dribbling could land him a better view of goal. More than half of his 11 league goals last year came in a late rush in the final seven fixtures. It helped to convince Fiorentina, not that they needed much persuading, that they should spend big to try to keep hold of him.
He looks at his best when given such freedom to rove across the attacking third. Montella has said as much in interviews when asked about the player. He tries to free him up as much as possible from defensive duties - an area Cuadrado recognises is not his strongpoint. When allowed to think only of attack, he proved one of his team’s most regular matchwinners last year.
Adaptability to La Liga does not look to be much of an issue, but the English Premier might prove a slightly tougher ask. Many of the free-kicks he wins might not be given which could, in the short-term at least, prove frustrating for both player and any potential owner. The flipside to that, however, is that he would surely flourish in a league where less attention to defensive detail is generally given than in Italy. With time and space to attack defenders, he could prove a truly lethal weapon in any club’s armoury.
All of this information comes, of course, with the caveat that he might just stay put. At 26, he is at one of those crossroads ages in a player’s career. He could leave the Florentine club and its large South American contingent behind for a bigger name but that doesn’t guarantee success. Perhaps a little chat with Stevan Jovetic - yet to make a major impact at Manchester City - might be advisable before he decides to head north.
The Viola would have had stronger credentials to keep him if they had won a slot in the Champions League last season, of course. The attractions of another Europa League campaign might not appeal and, unless they strengthen further, they don’t look like genuine Scudetto contenders. A switch to a team with real title aspirations - and the huge pay packet that provides - might just prove irresistible. Only time will tell where this thrilling Vespa will be parked in a few months’ time.
- 3 months ago
Costa Rica v Italy from 1994, Roberto Baggio feeds Beppe Signori for the game’s only goal…
- 3 months ago
Not every child gets to see their father rolling around the living room floor with his two brothers. To the outsider, it might have looked like a fight that had got out of control as three grown men writhed around on the carpet. But what looked like aggression was actually ecstasy.
This was what growing up was like for me. There were not that many football games on television, even fewer involving Italian teams. So when the Azzurri played at a major championships it was a real occasion. A time for family, food and a few bottles of wine.
My grandfather, Nonno to me, brought his three sons up to be intensely proud of their Italian heritage. He vehemently refused to consider them to be Scottish, simply because that was the land of their birth. Jesus was born in a stable, he reasoned, but that did not make him a horse. They swallowed that Gospel and passed it on to my generation as well.
We became the defenders of the indefensible – nowhere more so than in Italian football. If the world viewed our game as negative and cynical, we went on a verbal counter-attack. And if results gave us evidence for our beliefs, so much the better.
Watching Italy play, I always got the feeling the players never knew how much it meant to us. For millions of emigrants and their descendants dotted across the globe, the Azzurri could send you to school or work with a spring in your step. Or provoke hours of abuse and ridicule. We wore the red-white-and-green with pride, no matter what the result.
But, I digress, we were busy watching my dad and his two brothers rolling around the living room floor. The cause, of course, was an Italy goal. But this was no ordinary goal for a Scottish-Italian, this was a goal against England. It came courtesy of Marco Tardelli pre-Spain 82 goal-celebration heroics. It was at a pretty humdrum European Nations tournament of 1980. For me that game was far and away the highlight.
My memories of the match are sketchy now at more than 30 years distance. I recall Tardelli being detailed to mark Kevin Keegan out of the game – which he clearly managed – before breaking free from his defensive duties to strike the only goal of the game. That’s what provoked the massive family pile-up.
Looking on, I think I was astounded at the raw emotion on display. What was this game that made adults act like children? And, whatever it was, could I have a piece of that action? I was hooked.
Since then I have ripped down curtains, burned my hands on an iron and terrified an elderly neighbour in the name of football. I have seen glasses and chairs broken and a door head-butted in sheer frustration. There have been tears and raucous roars of joy. Sometimes, I confess, the language has been a little rude.
It is an addiction which started, at least in part, with that Italy side which was approaching World Cup winning maturity. I can remember being taunted for defeat by Holland during 1978 and my self-imposed embargo on Dutch crispbakes after the tournament. But two years later was the first international tournament I fully followed. I fell in love with those players and with the nervous tension of watching their games.
And, of course, they had Giancarlo Antognoni. He was my bro-mance, man-crush, call it what you will, before those terms had even been invented. We shared a name but he seemed to live on another planet from a Scottish-Italian schoolboy. His skills were sublime, he played for my “local” side Fiorentina and, it was rumoured, the girls queued up to try to break into his chalet during pre-season training. There were no greater heights I could aspire to.
The flame that was lit on a south of Scotland housing estate three decades or so ago, shows no sign of dimming. I am still unbearable to be around in the build-up to a big match. I dream of victory but tremble with the fear of defeat. That is the power which football still holds over me. And I fervently hope I get to roll around the carpet or dance in the stands for a few more years yet.
This piece originally appeared in the Football Express.
Those great guys from AFR Voice decided they wanted the world’s most famous Queen of the South and Fiorentina fan on their show to discuss Italy’s chances at the World Cup in Brazil.
Here I am, chatting about the clash with England, the Montolivo injury impact and their unhealthy obsession with Andrea Pirlo….
It has been an amazing career for a man who has had many more lives than your average cat. His facial contortions as he takes a tumble in the penalty box have become the stuff of legend. And his ability to be in the right place at the right time is so uncanny that even experts in the paranormal are lost for an explanation.
It is a common insult of the school playground to dub someone a goal poacher. It implies a certain lack of effort in all other departments of the game other than popping up to tap the ball into the net. Inzaghi has taken it to a whole new level.
Yet there has to be more to his game than that surely? He scored the goals that gained Milan revenge over Liverpool in the Champions League Final. He is a bona fide World Cup winner. Your praise might be grudging, but it is nonetheless something he deserves. Inzaghi springs the offside trap like a master locksmith.
And, for a man with such a fragile frame, he shields the ball with the strength of Hulk Hogan. His precision in front of goal is football’s equivalent of keyhole surgery. Finally, of course, his ability to win vital penalties and free-kicks is totally priceless.
In many ways, Super Pippo is a symbol of Italian football. Disliked, reviled and generally belittled across Europe, he gets the job done. After all, he has got the trophies and the goals to prove it.