Calcio Myths Dispelled

Ogo Sylla Date:8th June 2011 at 12:35pm
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Serie A, as a league, has often been the target of many disparaging comments. Many stereotypes surround the league and the football played, and most observers would describe Italian football as being slow, defensive, and dull. There are many reasons why observers of Calcio may have this perception. However there are just as many reasons why many of these perceptions are unfair stereotypes.

Before we tackle the issue itself, it is important to understand that Serie A has lost a lot of its appeal since the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. The scandal wounded the league in the eyes of the public and its effects are still being felt today. In the eyes of those outside the peninsula, Calcio had lost all the luster and glitter it boasted of in the 90s and early 2000s.

Of course I do not wish to focus on Serie A as it was two decades ago, as it would make for a much more convincing argument if I approached it respective of this 2010-2011 season. In doing so, it will be important to dispel many myths about Italian football.

“Italian football is just too defensive. The football is slow and the games are boring.” Many a calcio fan has heard these words far too often before and as much as it breaks out hearts to hear them, it frustrates us even more.

First of all, the idea that Serie A is full of catenaccio merchants who score one goal and look to sit on that lead is simply ridiculous. After all if we take into account this season’s top-scorers, the statistics seem to tell a different story altogether. This year’s top five goal-scorers were Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale (28), Napoli’s Edinson Cavani (26), Internazionale’s Samuel Eto’o (21), Juventus’ Alessandro Matri (20), and Bologna’s Marco Di Vaio (19). Thus the goal-scoring exploits of this season’s Serie A performers do hint at a much more attacking-natured football than people might have first assumed.

It is also worth noting that teams such as Napoli, Palermo, and Udinese have been prime examples of disproving this perception of Serie A as being a defensive league. In fact all three of these teams play with a three-men backline, which no team in the top-two so-called attacking leagues employs. Napoli have managed to strike balance in their system by boasting of the league’s second-best [tied with Lazio] defensive record (39 goals against).

Udinese’s system also bared its fruits as the Zebrette hold the second-best [tied with Champions AC Milan] attack in Serie A (65 goals scored). It is a bit more of a mixed bag with Palermo, where they ended with a -5 goal difference. The point is that these were three teams committed to an attacking philosophy and who played this way throughout the season.

Napoli and Udinese were even rewarded for their approach with Champions League places at the end of the season. It is also no surprise that both this season’s top-scorers play for Napoli [Cavani] and Udinese [Di Natale]. Their cavalier styles have been great adverts for the league and this alone deserves more plaudits from audiences abroad.

In the end, for fear of pointing the finger, we must admit that a lot of the blame for Serie A’s bad reputation falls squarely on Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter team. Herrera is one of the most recognizable names in football managerial history, for his catenaccio that he brought to success not only on the peninsula but in Europe as well.His Inter team famously won back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965, against Real Madrid and Benfica.

Herrera’s La Grande Inter and catenaccio were famously defeated in the 1967 final against Celtic. The Italian side had taken an early lead through a penalty but the Scottish giant reversed the result to lift the cup. What comes out from this game is the astounding statistic of Celtic’s 40 attempts on goal, as Inter doggedly held on to their lead. The loss epitomized the end of an era of sorts for Italian football, a sentiment that was echoed by Herrera himself when he said: “I congratulate Celtic, this is a great victory for them… but this is also a great victory for football.”

The Argentine coach was known to be a great innovator but even Herrera recognized the negativity of his style and accepted that the end of the catenaccio’s dominance in Europe was probably for the best. Herrera left an indelible mark on football history but sadly a somewhat tainting one on Calcio as many fans outside the peninsula have come to draw the generalization that all of Italian football still plays in the same manner that Herrera’s Inter.

In the end however, as much as I may be blaming others’ perception of Calcio on Herrera’s catenaccio, it is very important to emphasize that Herrera’s system was a modified formation of [Switzerland’s Austrian coach] Karl Rappan’s verrou (bolt). Rappan’s verrou was meant to counteract the largely dominant “WM” system by focusing heavily on defense in retreating into one’s own half and conceding possession in midfield. The difference with the catenaccio system is that – although it was still heavily based on defense – it utilized wingbacks far more often for the counter-attack whilst a libero would anchor the backline right in front of the goalkeeper. In other words the system was a far more fluid one than Rappan’s verrou, and thus not as intrinsically defensive as it may look.

If anything, we could go as far as saying that the catenaccio is a more extreme version of the inherently defensive counter-attacking 4-4-2 system. I say “inherently” because it was the Brazilians – a nation we laud for their attacking traditions – who were one of the first to revert to the four-men backline to add protection. Yes the fullbacks often attacked but the Brazilian midfield complemented that, when at the turn of the 90s we saw a much more conservative Brazilian central midfield than it had ever been, with exponents such as Carlos Dunga epitomizing this change of philosophy. Even Johan Cruyff said as much during the 1998 World Cup, after admitting his preference for France and Holland’s more fluid attacking styles as opposed to the more rigid counter-attacking machine that was Brazil.

Serie A is truly an exciting league and full of attacking verve. I could bring up the cases of high-scoring matches like Milan and Udinese’s eight-goal stalemate, Napoli’s 4-3 lat-gasp victory over Lazio at the San Paolo, or even Udinese’s 7-1 demolition of Palermo. However [just like it would be in other leagues] they are all isolated cases that cannot really be brought forth as valid proofs of the league’s attacking nature.

Serie A’s midfield play may seem laborious and at time ponderous to some onlookers, but it is part of the highly tactical nature of Serie A. The buildup play is often what most observers will complain about, frustrated at the fact that the ball is being knocked around at the back without the team [seemingly] looking to come forward.

Barcelona today are however lauded for that very same buildup and possession-based play, when Italy have done it and been vilified for it for past 40 year. Something seems unfair in this, at least to me. In the end however, the idea of Serie A being “defensive, boring, and slow” is nothing more than a stereotype and lazy analysis/punditry.

If none of the arguments above convinced, then consider the fact that Arrigo Sacchi’s and Fabio Capello’s all-conquering AC Milan sides in the late 80s and early 90s have completely dispelled the specter of ­Herrera’s catenaccio by playing a dynamic, pressing, and attacking style of football. Even Carlo Ancelotti did his part with his 2004 Scudetto-winning AC Milan team, which boasted of no less than four talented playmakers in Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Rui Costa, and Kaka.

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