Giancarlo Antognoni: Happy 60th to a special player for Fiorentina and Italy

Who was the first player who really stirred your emotions? The footballer who made you excited every time they touched the ball and raised the hackles when you heard someone dare to criticise? For me, it was Giancarlo Antognoni.

National team games were one of the few times when Italians abroad could clap eyes on their heroes back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were eagerly anticipated events and tended to be something of a gathering of the clans. The antipasto, spaghetti, espresso, red wine and grappa were ordered in advance. Even if the result went wrong, we always knew we would eat and drink well.

But for all my sense of community, I also felt like an outsider. Far and away the majority of those watching Azzurri games with me were Juventus fans when it came to the domestic game. And Enzo Bearzot’s squad, too, was awash with Bianconeri as they were the dominant force in Serie A at the time - just for a change.

That only increased my connection with Antognoni. He was usually one of the handful of players from other clubs slotted in around the Blocco Juve. That, and his jaw-dropping elegance on the ball, made him far and away the stand-out player in the side to my eyes.

Not that everyone shared my view. It felt to me back then that he was singled out for criticism more than anyone else in the side. I sensed that this had as much to do with the colours he wore during the Serie A season than any actual failings on his part. The Bianconeri amongst our gatherings would turn on him much more quickly than any of “their own”.

Looking back, though, I think I was only really grasping half the story. It was not simply his Viola allegiance which prompted people to get on his back but also the role he played. He was the classic “regista” - the man meant to illuminate Italy’s performances. He was expected to unlock defences, dictate the play, deliver pinpoint set-pieces and carve out goalscoring opportunities for his attacking colleagues. So when the Azzurri struggled, he became the natural focus of dissatisfaction.

But even as an uppity schoolboy, I leapt to his defence. His failures, I always thought, were because he was daring to try to do what others could only dream of. His vision, poise and balance allowed him to see things on the pitch which few other members of that Italy side could even countenance. When it came off, it was almost taken for granted. But when it went wrong, the heavens often opened with a downpour of abuse.

"Get him off!" or "What are you doing?" were the most common cries of despair. An eye-of-the-needle through ball had just failed or a mazy run had finally been thwarted by a desperate tackle. The price that the fantasista has always had to pay is to hear the jeers when his audacious attempts to open a defence end in failure.

Think forward through Giuseppe Giannini to Roberto Baggio to Francesco Totti and then Andrea Pirlo nowadays. We’ve all sat near to somebody who howls in derision when their attempts to outwit an opposition defence go wrong or roars in frustration when they get caught on the ball. But, without them, a team is surely diminished in its attacking threat and the viewing pleasure it provides.

I can’t quite believe this is Antognoni’s 60th birthday. It is more than 30 years since he last played for the Azzurri and over a quarter of a century since he appeared for Fiorentina. And yet the memories of how he glided through games remain as clear as they ever were. The only man always worth watching when he got the ball - at least to my eyes.

He could have won more by playing elsewhere, but he didn’t. Injury robbed him of a victorious World Cup final appearance after being a vital part of paving the way for that triumph. The closest he got to a Scudetto was losing one on the last day of the season. That might sound like a celebration of failure to many, but those who watched him play - and revered the way he did so - could never come to that judgment.

Antognoni might have driven others to distraction but he enjoyed my unconditional affection throughout his career. Everyone should have a player like that - the one they will defend to the hilt no matter what others might say. Substitute the name with whoever you like, but hold on to the conviction that they are worth standing up for. I’m still fighting the corner for the players I love watching the most - just as I did for Giancarlo back when I was just a boy.

20 Great Italian Games - now available to order in print

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It’s taken its blessed time but you can now order a print copy of the Kindle book 20 Great Italian Games. It’s available via Amazon by following this link in the UK or this link to the US site. Or direct from the Create Space Store.

It costs a bit more than the Kindle version but if you can’t live without the feel of a book in your hands, please purchase.

A World Cup adventure: how I almost missed seeing one of football’s most famous trophies

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I walked right past the World Cup. One of the most significant items in my football-obsessed life and I nearly missed it. A gun-toting policeman pointed out that I was about to walk out the door without seeing a trophy much of my existence has revolved around. My embarrassment at my blunder was as clear as a Tuscan summer skyline.

This was 1990, in the build-up to the competition being held in the Azzurri’s homeland. As part of the preparations, the trophy was being taken on tour around the host cities. I was studying in the Florentine satellite town of Borgo San Lorenzo at the time, so a pilgrimage to see my Holy Grail in its temporary home near the River Arno was an unmissable attraction.

This was the trophy that I had tearfully watched Dino Zoff lift to the skies eight years before. It was the title we had limply failed to defend four years later. And it was the dream a whole nation hoped we could achieve once hostilities got under way in a few months’ time.

That explains my motivation for the journey but, perhaps, less so for why my poor mother was in attendance. She had come over to visit me during my time living abroad and ended up being a participant in my sporting expedition. Greater love knows no woman for her son than to be dragged to the Renaissance City to take her boy’s picture with one of football’s most famous bits of silverware. She did it without complaint, I remember, that’s the kind of character you are dealing with.

My memory of the actual location of the trophy is a bit sketchy, I confess. I think it was in a room in Palazzo Vecchio but I could not swear that was the case. It was around about Easter, I remember that much, and it must have been relatively cool as I was still wearing a T-Shirt and jumper beneath my light jacket. I was a bit nervous joining the queue of people who wanted to see the cup.

Maybe that was why I walked right past it. It really wasn’t much to look at - although you would think the bright lights shining upon it and the security glass case would have tipped me off as to its whereabouts. Instead, I was merrily on my way to another room before the Carabiniere nearby grunted something in my direction and pointed out the error of my ways.

I composed myself to try to enjoy my moment with the trophy. There it was, sitting beneath the World Cup emblem Ciao, and probably a couple of inches smaller. It did not glow or shine or glisten with any particular significance and yet, to me, it felt as if I were in the presence of greatness.

It was while in pursuit of this that long range strikes from Ernie Brandts and Arie Haan had broken my eight-year-old heart. I had joined a parade of horn-tooting cars with the Tricolore waving from their windows to celebrate its conquest four years later. And now I was brimful of optimism, like the rest of the country, that a competition on home soil could let us lift it once again.

I am laughing in the image, clutching something in my hand - maybe a train ticket, I’m not sure. My mother had probably just told me how daft I was to have made her come all that way to then nearly miss seeing the trophy. I had no idea, of course, of what that little trophy would have in store for me in the weeks, months and years to come.

My dreams of glory were reflected in Toto’ Schillaci’s enormous eyes until Diego Maradona’s Argentina forced them shut. I sank to my knees in despair as Roby Baggio’s penalty soared into the American skyline. I roared at the injustice of Byron Moreno and wept once more, as a grown man this time, when captain Cannavaro thrust this silly little trinket of sporting success in the air once more. And then, of course, the crash and burn of first round elimination.

This summer will see the 10th World Cup I can honestly claim to remember but it will be the first I can truly share with my own son - the same age I was back in 1978. He is already bursting in anticipation, knowing that he was named after two of the heroes of our last triumph - Luca Toni and Francesco Totti. Please note, my wife may dispute that version of the selection process.

Will he see a victory at his first attempt? I try to tell him it is unlikely, as if to dampen down his ardent enthusiasm. I have been lucky to see two wins but have also suffered a final defeat and elimination in the later stages. With a few exceptions, Italy have generally given a good account of themselves. But I know that a trip to South America presents great challenges.

He laughs when he sees that picture of me - I’ve got hair back then which I long since surrendered - but he also recognises the trophy. He knows what it would mean to win it, I think, and is almost uncontainably excited at the prospect. I know that the odds are against it but, at the same time, I have been able to embrace my father twice in celebration of winning that daft little World Cup. Wouldn’t it be nice if my own boy got the chance to do the same thing this summer or some time in the not-too-distant future?

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Serie A nostalgia: This weekend’s fixtures from yesteryear

Lazio 2-2 Juventus from the opening day of the 1978/79 season. A bit jumpy but you get the drift. Scorers: 2 & 51 Bettega (J), 24 Giordano (rig, L), 49 Garlaschelli (L).

Cagliari 1-4 Milan from 1991/92 campaign. A shock lead and first Serie A goal from Pierpaolo Bisoli. Scorers: 3 Bisoli (C), 53, 69 & 71 (rig) Van Basten (M), 77 Massaro (M).

Fiorentina 3-2 Genoa from the 1981/82 season, still a horrible one to watch for Viola fans. The game Antognoni nearly died on the pitch. Scorers: 24 Bertoni (F), 36 Gorin (G), 52 Antognoni (rig, F), 71 Graziani (F), 82 Iachini (G).

Verona 3-2 Roma from the 1985/86 season - a last minute winner from Hans-Peter Briegel. Scorers: 21 & 29 Pruzzo (R), 24 Di Gennaro (V), 51 Galderisi (rig, V), 89 Briegel (V).

Azzurri in action: Dave Taylor and his fabulous figurines

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Big thanks to Rigore! legend, Football Italia stalwart and Boro sufferer Dave Taylor for this missive on a Calcio-related addiction he has had for some time….

I have a fairly extensive collection of Corinthian figurines with a massive percentage of them Serie A players. Some go for big money for instance the Roberto Baggio in Bologna away can go for upwards of £150 while Van Basten in the Milan home shirt £30-40 but my best is the Maradona Elite in the home and away of Argentina last time I looked £150. Yet I still love my plain old Diego in the Napoli shirt with Mars on the front you can still pick one up for a fiver and Robbie in the away Brescia shirt and Careca in a Mars Platinum version. Must have 250 including, as I look, Amauri in the pink Palermo shirt and Bojinov in yellow and red stripes of Lecce in 2005. Marvellous! Plus next to him Yanagisawa in yellow and red diagonal halves of Messina just three of my faves.

I started collecting just number 10s first after getting my first Maradona in Napoli shirt. I have worn two versions out now and my latest one has not been taken out the packet unlike the first two.

Followed that up with Zola in Parma and Cagliari colours, Zidane which is quite rare in Juve black and white, Hagi, Totti, ADP, Brady, Gazza, Platini all number 10s, all great footballers. Here are a team of my best 11 players who wore the national shirt.

BUFFON Juventus Dob: 28 January 1978. A record 138 caps. Won everything in the Italian game and the 2006 World Cup. Also some stats website said he was world’s Best Goalkeeper: 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 no reason to doubt it. Was a close call with Zoff mind, who I have in a Juve grey and Azzurri blue home and grey away.

BERGOMI Inter Dob: 22 December 1963.  81 caps appearing in four WC’s winning one as we all well know in 1982.  Affectionately referred to as “Lo Zio” because of the impressive moustaches (of which I also specialize in) he even grew it as a teenager and it is shown to perfection here. A one-club man, notching up 519 appearances for Inter in a Serie A career which spanned nearly 20 years.

BARESI Milan Dob: 8 May 1960. 82 caps. He is considered one of the greatest defenders of all time and he has won everything including three EC’s and a WC, well he was in the squad. 

SCIREA Juventus Dob: 25 May 1953. 78 Caps. What can you say a legend and absolutely irreplaceable during his career. Never earned a red card and was the archetypal libero, cool beyond words.  

MALDINI Milan Dob: 26 June 1968. 126 caps. Il Capitano the silk to Baresi’s steel they made a fabulous defensive pairing arguably the best in the world. 30 years of magic and another too cool for words.

TARDELLI Juventus Dob: 24 September 1954. 81 caps. I once had the best T shirt in the world with the Urla man on the front, wore it out. A tireless defensive midfielder of considerable technical quality, Tardelli was one of the finest midfielders in the world during the 1st half of the 1980s it said in wiki and I believe them. A man, my son.

BAGGIO Too many to write, Dob: 18 February 1967. 56 caps.The sort of player who could make a Prima ballerina look like she had hooves on. Scored 27 goals, the fourth-highest of all time for Italy. A Buddhist monk approaches a hotdog stand and says: “Make me one with everything.” Well Il Codino certainly did, one of the very best also had a fab T shirt of him with the World Cup.

CAUSIO Too many but mainly Juve with 304 appearances. Dob:  February 1 1949. 63 caps. The Baron retired in 1988 after a lengthy career which saw him notch up 570 league appearances for the likes of Reggina, Palermo, Juventus, Udinese, Inter and Lecce. He was also in the Italian squad for the world Cups in 1974 1978 and of course 1982.

ROSSI Juventus Dob: September 23 1956. 48 caps.  Not Italy’s best player but in 1982 he was the King of Italy and that cannot be forgotten. He also advertised milk which inspired me to drink the stuff. He returned from a two-year ban for betting irregularities just in time for the 1982 World Cup final and despite some below-par performances in the early stages, ended up as the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals and a true, true hero. I went to the leather factory he part owned in Prato hoping he would turn up - he never did.

RIVA Cagliari Dob: November 7 1944. Caps 42.  A real striker clean cut, square chinned. His nickname was static lightning but he played like the roar of thunder, a thunderclap even. Or as some prefer it Rombo di Tuono.  Remember Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the air” well that about Gigi. Oh he also scored the best goal in history.

BETTEGA Juventus. Dob: December 27 1950. Caps 42.  One of the early reasons I got into Italian football was when the Azzurri beat England at Wembley and Roberto scored with a flying header and there was a picture in Soccer Weekly. You have to love him for that if you hate the FA (It was their fault Juninho left - another number ten) and are from Middlesbrough, Italo-Scottish or indeed anyone who loves beautiful football. Big strong and although not ugly far from handsome, every team needs one.

Super Mario’s spot-kick skills secure Clarence Seedorf a winning start

The new regime started with a trademark of the old one. Last season, Milan enjoyed an impressive second half of the season surge thanks, in part, to the penalty-taking skills of Mario Balotelli. And he welcomed his new boss, Clarence Seedorf, with another vital spot-kick in the Rossoneri’s first League game since bringing the Max Allegri era to an end.

It was a deserved victory but one which looked to be slipping away until an ill-timed intervention by Verona’s Alejandro Gonzalez upended Kaka late in the game. Despite a couple of recent blunders which spoiled his perfect record, Super Mario regained his composure to secure three precious points. The delighted look exchanged between the striker and his manager suggested that they might work well together.

Read more at Football Italia

Milannus horribilis: why this season is not the worst in Milan’s history

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Milan 1981/82, via Almanacco Illustrato del Calcio

Barbara Berlusconi had seen enough. It was no longer tolerable, she said, for Milan fans to watch “unacceptable performances” like the defeat against Sassuolo. Heaven knows what she would have made, then, of the Rossoneri side which took to the field for the 1981/82 Serie A season.

Lady B, of course, was not even born back then. But some of us do remember what the San Siro side looked like in the years before her father took the helm. And it wasn’t always pretty.

Back in the summer of 1981, Milan’s big signing was Lo Squalo - The Shark - Scottish striker Joe Jordan from Manchester United. I can remember being pretty excited about that acquisition as he was the first player from the land of my birth to move to Serie A after a ban on foreign footballers was lifted a year earlier. At the same time, however, I did question the wisdom of the move and a look around the league explains my puzzlement. With just one Straniero allowed, Fiorentina boasted Argentinian Daniel Bertoni, Juventus had Irishman Liam Brady, Napoli included Dutchman Rudi Krol and Roma had Brazilian Falcao. With all respect for Jordan, he was not the thinking-man’s kind of football other sides had selected.

It is unfair, however, to single out the man who would cross swords with Rino Gattuso in later life for particular criticism. Other arrivals like jobbing Ascoli midfielder Adelio Moro, Brescia sweeper Maurizio Venturi and wide man Roberto Mandressi returning from loan at Como were hardly headline-grabbing acquisitions. Former player Gigi Radice was given the reins of a side which was supposed to be rebuilding after its relegation to Serie B two years earlier for its part in the Totonero betting scandal. But the season started badly and ended worse.

It took the Rossoneri more than 10 hours of league football before one of their own players actually found the net. In the opening seven rounds of matches, the only goal to their credit was an own goal by Napoli’s Moreno Ferrario which gave them a rare victory. Juventus, Inter and even Catanzaro all inflicted defeats on the Rossoneri in this miserable opening spell.

Not that things really picked up after Jordan eventually found the net 20 minutes into their home game with Como. The visitors, sitting bottom of the table, still salvaged a draw. The writing was already on the wall that this would be a long slog of a season.

Ascoli, Avellino and Torino also defeated Radice’s men in a miserable first half of the campaign in which they managed just three wins. Their total, under the two points for a win system, was just 12. Only Cesena and Como were behind them in the league table. The name of their shirt sponsors - jeans-makers Pooh - seemed incredibly apt.

It was not a team without its famous names. Soon to be World Cup winner Fulvio Collovati was part of the squad along with future heroes like Franco Baresi, Alberigo Evani and Mauro Tassotti. Bob Antonelli - father of Genoa’s Luca - was also part of the set-up. But it was a lack of attacking prowess which really cost them dear. They mustered less than a goal a game for the entire season.

Not that they did not try a few solutions to their plight. A new President, Giuseppe Farina, replaced Gaetano Morazzoni and, almost inevitably, Radice was relieved of his duties after a home defeat by Udinese in January. New coach Italo Galbiati was unable to change the pattern of an ill-fated season.

Fiorentina, Catanzaro (again), Como and Roma all defeated them in the second half of the season. And yet, come the final day of the campaign, they incredibly still had hope. It would need an amazing combination of results to go their way. First of all they had to beat a Cesena side which was, at least, already safe. But, in addition, it would need Bologna to fail to win and either Cagliari or Genoa to lose. Events unfolded in dramatic fashion.

Needing to win, the Rossoneri fell two goals behind at Cesena shortly after the hour mark. It looked as if their fate was sealed but the final day of an Italian season can do funny things. Jordan scored his second goal of the league season to kickstart a possible comeback. Then Francesco Romano levelled the game. Bologna were being held to a draw at Ascoli while Genoa were 2-1 down in Naples. A goal would keep Milan afloat.

Antonelli delivered that precious strike and it looked as if they had dodged their relegation fate. But they had not counted on a late kick-off to the second half in Naples and a goal in the closing stages for Genoa from Mario Faccenda. The knife was twisted, the side from the San Siro would face another season in Serie B.

The bare figures of that campaign make horrible reading. Seven wins all season, just 21 goals scored and a grand total of 24 points collected. Antonelli, with four goals, was their league top scorer. Ever-present in the side were goalkeeper Ottorino Piotti and teenager utility defender cum midfielder Sergio Battistini. Other regulars included the likes of Walter Novellino, Aldo Maldera and Ruben Buriani. Most of them would end the season in tears as they were consigned to the second division to play alongside the likes of Campobasso, Cavese, Monza and Pistoiese.

It was a brief torment, of course, as the club bounced back straight away and not long afterwards would be snapped up by Silvio Berlusconi. From that day on, they have rarely looked like suffering the embarrassment they did in what remains, to this day, their only relegation ever suffered due to results on the field of play. So anyone thinking this present campaign is the worst they have ever endured might be well advised to look back through the history books about 32 years.

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Milan 1982/83 via Almanacco Illustrato del Calcio

It’s A Wonderful Milan - guardian angel Clarence faces his toughest task

Maybe it is my age but the first person I think of when I hear the name Clarence is not Seedorf but the angel in the classic film, It’s A Wonderful Life. He’s sent down to get his wings by proving to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) that the world would have been a poorer place without him. Now, his namesake faces an even tougher task to earn his managerial spurs - persuade Milan that they can be a great team once again.

There are two schools of thought about the current Rossoneri situation which, in fact, need not be mutually exclusive. One theory is that the present set of players is perfectly good enough to sit in the top three or four in Italy - if only it had a decent manager. The second opinion is that years of selling off their stars and making up transfer policy on the hoof have finally taken their toll. You write your tweet and you make your choices as to which viewpoint you prefer.

But, to my mind anyway, there is at least a grain of truth in both camps. Max Allegri - a bogeyman for many - was not such an awful coach but, at the same time, Milan are sitting a lot lower in the league table than their collective talents should allow. However, it’s my suspicion that top three might be stretching credulity a little bit. Last season’s smash and grab comeback papered over a few cracks. And not much was done in the summer to address the problems.

That is the second element. Look at the names in the latest FIFA World XI and the only ones Serie A fans can claim are Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva - two players the Rossoneri sold. Arrivals like Mario Balotelli last January and Keisuke Honda this year have boosted the squad but there is still a feeling of diminishing quality throughout the side. Deals like the one which brought Alessandro Matri to the club have left most supporters confounded as to what strategy - if any - might be in operation.

And so up steps the guardian angel, Clarence, with a daunting mission. A legend as a player, of course, with more trophies than most of the current squad could dream of - but he will have his work cut out to achieve the same as a coach. The job-share between Adriano Galliani and Barbara Berlusconi looks like a set of foundations which would make the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s look solid. Supremo Silvio Berlusconi, of course, does not have his troubles to seek. And don’t forget the side-order of idiosyncratic players he will have to control.

What, exactly, would amount to success for Seedorf this season anyway? A place in Europe, perhaps, with the Coppa Italia looking the most likely avenue? A decent performance or two in the Champions League? Or just a few signs of recovery between now and the summer?

If he achieves any such goals, it is possible to imagine a scene similar to It’s A Wonderful Life’s emotional finale with a group-hug involving Galliani and Berlusconi senior and junior. The sound of a bell, perhaps, will confirm Seedorf’s recognition as an up-and-coming manager of some repute. All the Allegri-associated doom and gloom will seem just a distant memory with the club ready to build for a brighter future. That’s the perfect outcome, of course, which all Milanisti will hope to see. But life - and football in particular - does not always turn out like a Frank Capra movie.