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Calcio memories from 21 years ago. Myself & Ray Della Pietra’s labour of love.

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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.

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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.

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Costa Rica v Italy from 1994, Roberto Baggio feeds Beppe Signori for the game’s only goal…

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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.

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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….

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With his appointment as Milan coach now official, here is a tribute I paid to Filippo Inzaghi, the footballer some five years ago…
If they ever make a patron saint of the flukey goal, they should call him San Filippo. If there is an art form in scoring with every part of the anatomy imaginable then he is its Leonardo. Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore the goals of Pippo Inzaghi.

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.

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The Italy manager was under pressure. One of Serie A’s most proven goalscorers had been left out of his World Cup squad and the press and fans were on his case. But this is not the present-day tale of Cesare Prandelli and Giuseppe Rossi - instead it dates back to the summer of 1982 and involves Enzo Bearzot and another of Italy’s Grandi Esclusi - The Great Excluded - Roma hitman Roberto Pruzzo.
The Commissario Tecnico had been in charge of the Azzurri for almost five years and had overseen a bold challenge at Argentina ‘78 followed by a missed European Nations chance on home soil two years later. The heart of his side had been a solid Blocco Juve with the odd adornment of the likes of Roma’s Bruno Conti and Fiorentina’s Giancarlo Antognoni. A moustache-sporting Giallorosso striker did not seem to figure in his plans.
But Pruzzo had been busy compiling a pretty compelling case for inclusion. He was Serie A top scorer in back-to-back seasons in the build up to the summer competition in Spain. In addition, his competitors for a striking role had not had their troubles to seek. Paolo Rossi had only just returned from a lengthy ban dished out as part of a match-betting scandal. While Roberto Bettega had suffered a horrendous injury which destroyed his World Cup ambitions. And yet Bearzot seemed reluctant to turn to the ex-Genoa forward.

He had dabbled with him in a friendly in 1978, and took him to the Mundialito international competition in Uruguay three years later. Then there were two late qualifying match appearances against Greece and Luxembourg and another friendly with France. Six games in total to judge him in the blue of his country. In contrast with his prolific league efforts, he could not produce a single goal.
Nonetheless, there was a powerful lobby to at least make him a squad member for Spain. In times when defences were still pretty tight, he produced 33 goals across two seasons. In comparison, rivals like Fiorentina’s Francesco Graziani and Inter’s Alessandro Altobelli had managed just 20 and 21 respectively. At 27 years of age, Pruzzo was at the peak of his footballing powers.
But, for whatever reason, Bearzot decided to leave him at home. It prompted an outcry which ran in the sports papers - and beyond - for days on end. Nowadays, Twitter would be aflame.

"I’ve got nothing against Bearzot, like some people have tried to suggest," insisted Pruzzo. "Everyone tries to do their job the best they can. The CT probably has faith in other people - I can’t blame him for that. Just the same I thought it might have been right to give a bit more consideration to a player who has scored most goals for two seasons."

There were those who pointed to his disappointing performances on the international scene as a reason for his omission. But, while accepting some of the responsibility, he claimed that was not entirely his fault.

"Sure, it’s gone badly but if we want to be really objective, we should say the blame for that has got to be shared," he said. "I realise that a national team player has to adapt to roles which he might not be comfortable in and different circumstances. But you can’t point the finger only at me. I played games where nobody performed well. Let’s say I was unlucky. As a result when I had the chance to win my place in friendlies, I lost it for good.

So, instead of a summer in Spain, he faced one back at home.

"I’ll watch all the games on television," said Pruzzo. "Maybe I will record them and enjoy them in peace. My own personal story won’t stop me from being a fan of La Nazionale. I won’t cry, don’t worry about that. My life will go on."

And he set himself personal goals at the club - one of which he would achieve very soon.

"I’ll have even more reason to work hard next season, to show what I’m worth," he said. "We’ve got the UEFA Cup and Roma have always gone out of that competition early. We’ll fight hard, I think that’s normal. But, personally, I’m aiming more at the league than the cup. I’ve never won a Scudetto."

As for Bearzot, he was dismissive of those who suggested he should make his decision based on the capocannonieri charts. He told reporters his squad selection was down to other criteria rather than simply who found the net most often in Serie A.

"According to that logic I should have called up Pellegrini (Claudio, of Napoli), Bivi (Edi, of Catanzaro) and Beccalossi (Evaristo, of Inter) who are next in the goalscoring charts and leave behind the others," he explained. "Let’s be clear, my call-ups are not based on the championship but on the work I’ve done over the years with the national team, taking into account the needs of the team and the qualities of the individuals involved."

And there was little solidarity from Rossi who would find himself heading to Spain.
"It’s not just about goals with the Nazionale," he said. "It is the group that is important. Even I’m not guaranteed a place. Nobody likes being left out."
Of course, we all know how the story panned out. Pablito started the competition painfully slowly before sparking into life and ending as its top scorer as Italy lifted the trophy. By that time, nobody was too concerned about whether the man with the moustache should have been picked or not.
But he, too, got a fair bit of satisfaction from making Roma his own Nazionale. He won that longed-for Scudetto in 1983 and took the Giallorossi to their ill-fated European Cup final with Liverpool a year later. There were a couple of Coppa Italia wins to add to a pair already won and a last blast to the top of the goalscorer’s chart in 1985/86. He was also elected to the capital club’s Hall of Fame in its first round of inductees a couple of years ago. Which all goes to show, perhaps, that sometimes a Great Exclusion can work out pretty well for everyone involved.

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There has been much ado about Pepito Rossi. Some outcry over Mattia Destro - and maybe even the odd bit of mumbling for Mimmo Criscito. But just how surprising were Cesare Prandelli’s call-ups for the World Cup in Brazil?

Here is a statistical breakdown of the players he has most relied upon in more than 50 matches in charge but then chose to leave behind. There are also figures for those who went largely ignored over that half-century of games but are on the plane to Brazil. Finally, comes a group of his most loyal servants who will also be part of the expedition.

What do they tell us? Maybe you can decide. Riccardo Montolivo was ruled out by injury, Christian Maggio by a downturn in form, perhaps. Did Emanuele Giaccherini and Alessandro Diamanti pay the price for moving overseas? Too few starting appearances at club level, perhaps, put paid to the dreams of Sebastian Giovinco. Injuries hurt a number of the others or, for Pablo Osvaldo, maybe one run-in too many with the ethical code.

But statistics sometimes tell lies too. The bare figures suggest that Antonio Cassano was a key element of the Prandelli era but, prior to recent friendlies, it was nearly two years since he featured. His league form has been impressive but, nonetheless, his late inclusion was a bit of a surprise.

There will be nine players in the Azzurri squad with 10 caps or less (as of 4 June) with some more shocking inclusions than others. Positional flexibility boosted Mattia De Sciglio, good late friendly work helped Marco Verratti while league goals catapulted Ciro Immobile into the frame.

Some will cry out over inconsistency, others that the core of his qualification squad remains. Whatever you think, here’s hoping he got it right. If not, the recriminations will begin as soon as the final whistle blows on the Azzurri’s last game in Brazil.

Most called-up or capped players by Cesare Prandelli to miss out on the World Cup.

Riccardo Montolivo (45 call-ups/41 caps), Christian Maggio (40/28), Emanuele Giaccherini (31/19), Sebastian Giovinco (34/17), Alessandro Diamanti (32/17), Federico Balzaretti (26/16), Giampaolo Pazzini (18/16), Giuseppe Rossi (20/15), Alberto Gilardino (30/14), Pablo Osvaldo (18/14), Antonio Nocerino (24/14), Domenico Criscito (19/12), Stephan El Shaarawy (18/10), Angelo Ogbonna (22/9), Davide Astori (30/7), Morgan De Sanctis (23/3).

The least called-up or capped players included in the squad

Mattia De Sciglio (12/9), Marco Verratti (13/4), Lorenzo Insigne (10/4), Marco Parolo (5/2), Ciro Immobile (1/1), Gabriel Paletta (1/1), Mattia Perin (2/0), Matteo Darmian (0/0).

The stalwarts…

Andrea Pirlo (46/41),  Gigi Buffon (44/37), Daniele De Rossi (38/36), Claudio Marchisio (42/36), Leonardo Bonucci (45/35), Giorgio Chiellini (42/35), Mario Balotelli (32/29), Andrea Barzagli (29/22), Alberto Aquilani (26/22), Antonio Cassano (22/20), Thiago Motta (23/19), Ignazio Abate (28/18), Antonio Candreva (21/17), Andrea Ranocchia (21/17), Alessio Cerci (18/10), Salvatore Sirigu (51/7)

Figures courtesy FIGC website. Do not include recent friendlies with Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg.

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A little over a year ago, I brought out a first batch of what I thought were 20 of the best football games in the history of Italian football. And enough people read it to make me think it might be a good idea to bring out another one. I have been working on the second edition for some time now.

I have 19 games in mind, but I need a 20th and that is where I want your help. What would you rate the best match you ever saw between two Serie A sides? It needs to have a bit of drama, controversy or historic significance in order for it to make the final collection.

Tweet me (@ginkers) or post your suggestions on our Facebook page  in order to have a chance of inclusion. I will narrow it down to three or four contenders and then put it out to a vote. One of the people who nominated the game which is finally selected will get a signed copy of 20 Great Italian Games II.

Anyway, get your suggestions coming in and you could well end up seeing them in print. And they don’t even have to be about Fiorentina. Although that 4-2 game earlier this year was some match…