As you can probably tell, not only do we love soccer/football here–we also love music. Music in all kinds, shapes, sizes, ages and genres. So the other day I was reading a thread about soccer on a music forum and one of the posters opined that Serie A was the most exciting European league this season, and currently had the only interesting, exciting title race. I wasn’t sure I agreed at first, but the more I think about it I do believe there may be some truth and validity in that statement.
La Liga’s title chase is a two team affair. Real Madrid is most likely going to need some big breaks and bolts of lightning to close the gap on Barca. But that essentially is the only element of suspense left at the top in La Liga: Can one giant club catch the other? The quality and aesthetic beauty of play in La Liga is unquestionable, of course. The fight for European spots as well as the relegation battle will be exciting and intense, but for the purposes of this discussion we can concede that the title race is virtually decided, and is only legitimately contested by 2 sides.
The aforementioned post was written last week before the Wolves v. United match, so I can only assume that the poster thought Man. U had the Premier League pretty much sewn up going into Saturday. Either that or they bored him to death and he stopped paying attention. I heard and read a lot of pundits say the same thing regarding United’s chances and sense of “inevitability,” but I didn’t agree–then or now. I think Arsenal and, more likely depending on the result of the huge derby this weekend, (god does this hurt to write) Manchester City have legitimate title hopes. But that is still only 3 teams. I, personally, think that Premiership has been exciting as hell so far this year and I have absolutely no complaints about the relative dearth of true title contenders. As I wrote in the previous post, I’m starting to fall in love with the smaller EPL clubs and I’m nearly more excited about the relegation battle than the title chase.
But to the relevant point, if you look at the Serie A table there are only 10 points (49-39) currently separating AC Milan at the top from AS Roma in the 7th slot. There are still numerous sides with authentic Scudetto aspirations. Two of which, Napoli (46 points) and Palermo (40 points), are among the most exciting squads in Europe. I can’t write this enough–the upcoming Villarreal v. Napoli fixtures in the Europe League are matches I’m looking forward to almost as much the Barca v. Arsenal matches. I’ve often been critical of Inter Milan’s style of play, but since getting rid of Rafa Benitez they’ve been a whirlwind of goals, creativity, pace and shootout matches. Their thrilling 5-3 victory over Roma on Sunday being the most recent example. Not waiting to fall into Liverpudlian levels of disrepair, Inter fired the hapless Benitez, replacing him with former AC Milan trainer Leonardo. Under Leonardo the club have went on a full-blown tear, amazingly, sitting now in 3rd place, only 5 points behind Milan after this past weekend’s results. It’s amazing because I remember early season matchdays that consisted of dreary, slow motion 2-1 defeats to Chievo Verona in muddy stadiums. This truly looks like an entirely different side. The return of a healthy Wesley Sneijder never hurts, as the absolute rocket he sent twisting and screaming into the top corner of the net to open the scoring against Roma will attest. I’m very excited to see this version of Inter take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League later this month.
The co-writers of this blog have had friendly discussions and disagreements over Serie A. One of us generally thinks the Italian game is a little too-physical and played at too-slow a tempo for their individual tastes. I started the season more excited about Serie A than the Premier League and I’ve gone hot and cold on it as the season has progressed. I caught a run of boring Serie A matches in Nov-Dec. and then I tuned into El Clasico, that fateful Monday afternoon, which made me shift my focus to La Liga on afternoons when matches from both leagues were airing simultaneously. But over the past month or so the Serie A has been phenomenal. Last week, I raved about how intense and explosive the Inter v. Palermo match was. The tides shifted again this past weekend, as I watched Inter v. Roma over Valencia’s (a side I usually always watch when I can) match with Hercules on Sunday.
The Serie A and, probably to a more thorough degree, the Italian national team were long associated with and basically stigmatized for playing a style of negative defensive minded football called catenaccio. I swear one of the first things I read about the nature of Italian football referred to it as “cynical.” Catenaccio literally translates into “dead-bolt” or “lock” and was perhaps most famously associated with and successfully implemented by an Argentinian trainer named Helenio Herrera. There is a contention over who first invented Catenaccio, as noted in this excellent bio of Herrera from The Equaliser:
“What came to be known as catenaccio was a development of a tactical approach pioneered in Switzerland by a coach called Karl Rappan, a man who attempted to find a tactical system which allowed for both systemic discipline and individual freedom simultaneously. His quest led him to deploy a system known as verrou (bolt) which was essentially a more defensive interpretation of Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation.”
Whether he invented it or not, Herrera used Catenaccio brilliantly while managing Inter in the 1960’s. Under Herrera, Inter won their first European Cup (what is now the Champions League trophy) in 1963 over Real Madrid. The side then went on to win numerous Serie A titles and their sustained run of success made the Catenaccio style fashionable and prevalent in Italy and beyond. This style gradually became associated with negative, low-scoring football that was in many ways the antithesis to the tactics and tenets of the free-flowing Jogo Bonito played in South America and other parts of the world. According The Equaliser:
“Herrera was known to be irritated at the reputation for negativity that became attached to catenaccio, believing it to be a result of less capable teams imitating the style rather poorly. That said, defensive security was undoubtedly the priority of the catenaccio philosophy, “conceding one less” rather than “scoring one more” being its central tenet.”
There has to be some truth in Herrera’s observation. Nothing effectively dilutes and distorts a revolutionary idea faster than hasty, widespread adoption and ill-conceived attempts at mimicry. But for some reason this style and the negative perceptions of it attached themselves almost exclusively to Italian football in the global soccer mind. I think the Italian national team’s style has a lot to do with the solidification of this perception. Their style has obviously worked for them on the international stage, but I’ll never forget, for example, how tedious, ugly and, yes, cynical their matches in Euro 2008 were. In a tournament where Spain, Germany, Russia and Turkey were all playing wide-open, exciting soccer, the Azzurri looked, slow, one-dimensional and devoid of creativity.
As Phil Ball wrote recently, the nature of legacies in world soccer is that over time they slowly become fixed and embedded into the collective consciousness whether or not they still conform to the current realities of the teams, leagues and countries they are affixed to and this legacy/perception of Italians playing cynical, negative defensive football stubbornly persists. I don’t think Serie A deserves to be saddled with this perception. There are certainly Serie A sides that play a defensive, conservative style, but there are teams playing that style in every league because the financial imbalance that exists in said leagues makes it necessary for their survival. In soccer wins and losses are referred to as results. And Catenaccio and other defensive-oriented tactics often get those results. Yet for every side playing like that in Serie A this season there is a Napoli, a Palermo or a Udinese side that attacks with relish, style and ferocity. There are also recent blotches on Serie A’s reputation such as the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that seriously implicated and impugned then champion Juventus and many other top flight, world-renowned teams.
I’m still amazed at how much aesthetic value and principles inform this game. In many ways style points matter to fans and writers, myself included. I love it, but I see the paradoxes and dilemmas it creates.