I grew up knowing the New York Cosmos as a thing of the past. The club that brought Pelé and many other world stars to America to help popularize the sport back in the 1970s & 1980s were somewhat a mythical phenomenon for me. If you weren’t around during the club’s heyday, I do think it’s very difficult to understand the magnitude and scope of the NY Cosmos’ influence. I grew up with my father telling me stories of going to a packed Giants Stadium with 70,000+ fans to watch the super team that was the Cosmos. He’s always been jubilant at the fact that he was in attendance at the game when Giorgio Chinaglia scored seven goals.
So when the announcement in 2010 came that the New York Cosmos would be revived, both my father and I were ecstatic of what the future held. In fact, in the summer of 2011 I joined BW Gottschee’s pre-academy team, which had some type of partnership with the Cosmos brand. For that first season we received Cosmos gear, which I still have. We wore the green and white Cosmos jerseys produced by Umbro. Every match I took pride in wearing that jersey because I knew what the Cosmos name and legacy meant and being a small tiny part of that was pretty cool for a 14-year-old kid. Unfortunately after that season, the Gottschee-Cosmos partnership was diminished and the Cosmos gear was gone, although I still have my jerseys.
In July of 2012, the famed club announced they would begin playing in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second division of American soccer. While I was somewhat disappointed the club would not be joining Major League Soccer, I was still pretty happy the Cosmos would be back on the soccer field. The reported $100 million expansion fee that MLS wanted from the Cosmos at the time did seem quite steep. Nonetheless, it was exciting times for old and new Cosmos supporters.
With the Cosmos setting up shop at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium, I would only be a 10-15 minute drive away to go watch them play. Now admittedly, this is where I have some regrets. I did not attend their opening reboot match or ever ask my father to buy us season tickets. I suppose we were often busy and probably just wouldn’t be able to make every game to buy season tickets but still I feel I didn’t attend enough games considering how much I cared about the club. Don’t get me wrong I have attended a solid handful of matches but I do feel I could’ve and should’ve attended more. The most memorable games I attended were the Open Cup matches against the NY Red Bulls and NYCFC at Shuart Stadium. Not only were the results on our side but you could feel the importance of these matches and how they were different then the NASL league matches.
When my father and one of his colleagues decided to put on a big conference of the world’s beautiful game at Hofstra University he worked quite closely with the NY Cosmos, including club COO Erik Stover. They scheduled the conference around the Cosmos home opener of 2014 NASL season and even awarded an honorary degree to the great Pelé to attend. The club was cooperative and helped make it a great weekend.
A great 2015 season saw another Soccer Bowl trophy and the retirements of both Marcos Senna and Raùl. This was certainly one of the high points of the clubs reboot: winning a trophy and sending off two legends of the game off on a glorious note. Then in the spring of 2016, I applied to be a communications intern at the club. After sending in my application and a phone interview, I was elated that I would spend the summer working at the club. And it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. From working with my boss, meeting people in the front office, to working at home matches, I enjoyed every bit of it. I felt honored to be able to write match previews and feature pieces on the club's website. I was more than happy to contribute in any way I could to help benefit the club. Splitting time between the Garden City and Manhattan offices was pleasing and everyone I met within the organization was more than welcoming. As I was walking up to the door for my first day at the office in Manhattan, I bumped into one of my old soccer coaches and was delighted to find out he was actually working at the club. It was great to catch up and joke around with him throughout the summer. I also remember being at the Manhattan office one afternoon when Head Coach and Sporting Director Giovanni Savarese came into the office and went around to say to everyone and even gave me a handshake and asked how I was doing. That’s what the atmosphere is like at the club and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
There were also some great moments working the games. From riding the elevator at Shuart with Shep Messing and JP Dellacamera to being asked if I was Sebastian Guenzatti's brother. I remember my first match was the classic rivalry against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Not only was a comeback victory great but also after the game I actually bumped into Alessandro Nesta at BurgerFi. What a way to get things started!
After a couple more games under my belt, I began to memorize the 5 Points chants, which they sing relentlessly for 90 minutes. When I was behind the net trying to get quality footage of the action I would sing along when I could. Then came the U.S. Open Cup match against NYCFC at Fordham’s Coffey Field. Being the away team, I wouldn’t be working but of course I would be attending. I went into the Manhattan office in the morning and then took the subway out to the Bronx in the afternoon. I watched the game with my father and my old soccer coach mentioned earlier. It was a pretty back-and-forth affair with each side having their fair share of chances. Then late on in the 88th minute after a beautiful build-up play from the back, a cross from Yohandry Orozco found Danny Szetela who headed the ball home. Once the ball hit the net, I ran over to the section where the 5 Points were and embraced my cousin who was there. I’ll always remember my emotions during that moment, pure elation. We were singing, dancing, jumping up and down well past the final whistle.
The club would host the New England Revolution in the third round of the Open Cup on June 29th. Believing this would finally be the year the Cosmos get past this stage of the competition I eagerly awaited this match for over a month. The match was certainly worth the wait, a thrilling match that we unfortunately were on the wrong side of despite having a lead in the second half. From that heartbreaking loss two things stood to me which both came after the final whistle. In the 5 Points section I saw a young boy probably around 10-years-old start tearing up, showing how much he cares about this club. And on a lighter note, the 5 Points gave a salute and cheer to goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, who has arguably at fault for one of the Revs’ goal due to a very poor clearance. Nonetheless, the Cosmos faithful expressed their gratitude and solidarity to the goalkeeper who has been so good for the club over the years. Thankfully I caught that on video.
While it now seems like the New York Cosmos are at a crossroads with an uncertain future, the Cosmos will always have a special place in my heart. Along with many fellow fans, I am waiting for substantial developments, not just rumors and hoping for the best. Hopefully this isn’t the end (for the second time for some people) but just another rough patch along the way. I know the situation is looking bleak but no matter what happens I’ll be forever grateful for what the Cosmos reboot has brought. Thank you to both everyone I met at the club and the club itself and here’s hoping to a brighter future for all of Cosmos Country.
Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@sandro_pugliese):
In the fifth edition of the New York Derby, New York City Football Club finally claimed their first victory in the rivalry. The number one overall pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft, Jack Harrison, helped propel NYCFC to a 2-0 win providing a goal and an assist. This is the first time in club history that NYCFC have beaten a New York team, having lost all previous matches against the New York Red Bulls and the New York Cosmos.
NYCFC kicked off the match on the front foot in front of a passionate 33,613 fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium. Luis Robles made two early saves on David Villa and Tommy McNamara but the home team found the breakthrough in the eighth minute. Andrea Pirlo lofted a corner kick outside the box to Jack Harrison and the youngster did well to get past a pair of Red Bull defenders and finish home at the near post. NYCFC continued to have all the threatening possession in the opening 20 minutes before the match started to open up more. Josh Saunders made a commendable save on a 22-yard shot from Alex Muyr to ensure NYCFC went into halftime with the lead.
The beginning of the second half was quite even, with each side having their fair share of the play. The visiting Red Bulls had a golden opportunity to equalize in the 63rd minute but Felipe missed an open header from inside the six-yard box. NYCFC were able to double their advantage just three minutes later. Frank Lampard did very well to find Jack Harrison on the right flank to spring a counter attack and the English teenager played a ball across goal for a David Villa tap in. As the Red Bulls were chasing the match, Chris Duvall received a red card in the 79thminute for a studs-up tackle on Andrea Pirlo. Both Lampard andPirlo received standing ovations when they were substituted in the 73rd and 83rd minute, respectively. Jefferson Mena almost put the icing on the cake for Patrick Viera’s side in the 88th minute when he went through on a breakaway but his chip sailed over the crossbar. New York City Football Club held on for a vital three points and a statement win.
NYCFC had a rocky start to the 2016 season with a 1-3-4 (W-L-D) record but have shown resilience to rebound and now sit in first place of the Eastern Conference standings. Patrick Viera has done quite well getting his squad to play as a collective unit. David Villa’s leadership has been evident both on and off the pitch and he fully deserves to be wearing the captain’s armband. Pirlo and Lampard are really starting to show their worth, playing with experience and vitality.
Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch complimented NYCFC, admitting they were the better team on the day. “They wanted it more and they showed it on the field. They changed things on defense to make it harder on us. Their whole team seemed to pour its heart out on the field.” Meanwhile NYCFC coach Patrick Viera was rather happy with his team, “I’m really pleased with how we played, the performance. We are strong and we are determined and there is a really good spirit on this football club.”
Frank Lampard mentioned he formed a formidable relationship with Jack Harrison when they were both injured at the beginning of the season while they were often in the gym. The former Chelsea midfielder also mentioned he was disappointed with England’s exit at Euro 2016 but acknowledged the young players would learn from the negative experience. Meanwhile, David Villa admitted it was difficult for him to see Spain’s early exit at the European Championships but gave credit to Italy for being a very good team.
New York City Football Club will certainly be delighted to finally have that derby rock off their back. They will look to build upon their recent impressive results and earn their first MLS playoff appearance this season. NYCFC now begin a four-match road trip starting with the New England Revolution on July 6th and ending with a trip to Red Bull Arena on July 24th. The Red Bulls resume play against the Portland Timbers on July 10th in Harrison, New Jersey.
Below is some footage from the match including some Frank Lampard and David Villa's post-match comments.
Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@sandro_pugliese):
The New York Cosmos lost in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Revolution in the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It was a similar script for the Cosmos, who have now lost in the fifth round of the competition to an MLS club for the third consecutive year. This year the NASL club was selected to host and the match took place at Belson Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University.
A well-worked team goal finished off by Ruben Bover in the 38th minute put the Cosmos in front. But the Revs responded just five minutes later when Teal Bunbury blew by Ayoze and roofed a shot into the top of the net at the near post. The Cosmos regained the lead in the 56th minute as Sebastian Guenzatti took down a pass in the air onto his left foot inside the box and placed the ball into the far corner. The NASL club had two opportunities to double their advantage but could not convert their chances, which would come back to haunt them. Kei Kamara found his first goal for the Revs, with some luck as Roversio’s block gave him an open net, 14 minutes after coming off the bench. Following the dispossession of Adam Moffat by Zachary Herivaux, which looked like foul, Kei Kamara played in Teal Bunbury who scored his second of the night and seal the comeback for the Revs. The Cosmos pushed forward in the remaining seven minutes and change but couldn’t find a late equalizer.
Kei Kamara and Lee Nyguen coming off the bench brought the Revs to a level of play that is just above this Cosmos team. Meanwhile, when Adam Moffat came into the match he was far too slow and simply not up to the pace that was needed. When MLS clubs play their top talent in Open Cup matches, it’s very hard for any NASL club to keep up to par.
The New York Cosmos have once again lost in the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the third straight year. Two years ago it was to the Philadelphia Union after Extra Time and last year to the NY Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey. Each loss gave Cosmos supporters hope of the possibility to make history and advance to the quarterfinals of the Open Cup. Each loss has also come with mistakes from Cosmos players that have directly resulted in opponents scoring. Last year, Hunter Gorskie lost the ball right outside his box and then gave up a penalty trying to win the ball back. While last night, a dreadful punt from Jimmy Maurer allowed the Revs to quickly find Kamara for the tying goal. Then, as Adam Moffat was too slow with the ball at his feet in his own defensive third, a crunching tackle won the ball for the Revs, which allowed Kamara to play Bunbury in on goal.
So, the Cosmos have yet to been able to get over the fifth round hump of the U.S. Open Cup. Both the players and fans really felt this was the year to make the deepest run in club history in the competition. This loss will sting especially being only 15 minutes away from glory but coach Giovanni Savarese after the match said it best, “We are ready to continue to go forward. We cannot stay hanging on the result tonight. We analyze, we look at it, we learn from it, we grow from it.”
It was evident by the player’s reactions and emotions at the end of the match how much this game meant to the club. I even saw a little kid crying in the stands after the final whistle. Supporters chanted, “We’ve got Jimmy Maurer!” as the Cosmos goalkeeper came over to greet and acknowledge the 5 Points (Cosmos supporters clubs). Also, the 5 Points deserve tons of credit for singing and cheering on their team for 90 minutes even after falling behind.
The Cosmos will have to rebound quickly as they kick off their Fall Season on Saturday night against the Ottawa Fury at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium. Jimmy Maurer put it nicely in his post-match comments, “Tonight is a tough one to swallow, it hurts a lot but tomorrow we’ll wake up and get back to work.” It was an immense missed opportunity for the New York Cosmos but sometimes the beautiful game can be painful. The storied club will definitely be looking to break their fifth round curse next year in the U.S. Open Cup.
Below is some footage of clips I took of the match.
Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@Sandro_Pugliese):
All stats via FourFourTwo and WhoScored
A world-class performance from Antonio Conte and his squad conquered two-time Euro Cup defending champions, Spain. I think it’s more than fair to say Conte has perfected the 3-5-2 formation and is outstanding at preparing his squad for a single must-win match. This Italian performance was quite similar to the one against Belgium but even better.
The Italians may have surprised some folks with how they approached this match. They did not sit back, allowing Spain to possess the ball while playing catenaccio. Instead, Italy started the match on the front foot as Conte had his team attacking wisely and efficiently. If it was not for some brilliance from Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea, Italy could’ve easily ran away with the game in the first half. Granted, De Gea gave up the rebound, which lead to Chiellini’s goal but he still played very well and kept Spain in the match.
Italy dropped a forward, usually Graziano Pellè, to mark Sergio Busquets, making it difficult for Spain to build up play from out of the back, as they love to do. In the first half, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas didn’t find the ball in dangerous areas and had very little impact on the match.
Even when they played long and over the top, Morata struggled to win the ball against his former teammates. Spain played 41 long passes, nine more than Italy, exemplifying how Italy’s tactics worked, not allowing the Spanish to develop their typical tiki-taka rhythm. Two attackers, Nolito and Morata, who were both substituted, combined to complete only 33 passes, just one more than Gigi Buffon. Spain may have had the edge in possession but Italy proved what matters most is what you do with the ball and not how much you have it.
While Spain did have their fair share of chances, Buffon was up to the task each time and the Italian defense held firm. Buffon showed us once again, at the age of 38, why he’s considered one of the all-time greats. As the leader of Gli Azzurri, Gigi stepped up when his number was called upon, especially in the 90th minute on a Pique shot from eight yards out. This Spanish side just did not seem up to the task while Italy played impeccably as a team in unison. The Italians played as a compact unit showing true desire and a will to win, which Spain was lacking.
It really can’t be said enough how remarkable the Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini partnership is. They’ve all played together for the past five years and have formed an impeccable chemistry. Each of them are standout defenders while also possessing the ability to comfortably play the ball around the back and build the attack. Barzagli and Bonucci, in particular, are phenomenal at finding diagonal passes into the midfield. The leadership characteristics of these three along with Buffon are the backbone for this Italian side. As long as this defense plays up to their high standards, Italy will have a chance in this tournament.
Conte has formed a well-oiled machine with the squad he’s brought to France. Everyone who steps on the field gives 110% and works hard on both sides of the ball. Italy do a fine job of playing out of the back, utilizing the wingbacks, finding the central midfielders and then linking up between the two strikers. This Italian team has done a superb job of utilizing the wide areas, working the ball out wide and then whipping in crosses or cutting in to shoot.
Graziano Pellè’s stoppage time goal was splendidly orchestrated. As Giaccherini laid the ball off to Lorenzo Insigne in the attacking third, the Napoli winger exchanged a give-and-go with Tiago Motta. Instead of just heading towards the corner to waste time, Insigne then picked out an exquisite ball to switch the play to the right side, allowing Matteo Darmian to find Pellè inside the box and finish off the game; a lesson that you can finish off a match with skill and intelligence rather than just time wasting.
Italy performed brilliantly and thoroughly deserved the victory against Spain. Conte outcoached Del Bosque, who never made any significant changes to his team’s approach when it was needed. Pellè and Eder created all sorts of problems for Pique and Ramos; Spain’s midfield was largely ineffective while BBC shut down Morata and the rest of Spain’s attack. Conte has earned all the praise he is now receiving, being hailed as the coach of the tournament thus far.
Next up for Conte and his warriors are the defending World Cup champions, Germany on Saturday July 2 at 3:00 p.m. EST. Interestingly enough, most Germans preferred to face Spain in the quarterfinals as Germany have never beaten Italy at a major tournament (four wins for Italy and four draws). Antonio Conte will be cooking up his next tactical setup in hopes to keep Italy marching on at Euro 2016.
Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@sandro_pugliese):
They say history repeats itself. It certainly did in the East River Derby on Wednesday night. The New York Cosmos defeated New York City Football Club in the Fourth Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Jack Coffey Field on Fordham University’s Bronx campus. The location and score line were different last year on June 17, 2015 but the final outcome was the same. Before the match I overheard an NYCFC fan saying, “It’s finally time to beat a New York team” but the Manchester City affiliate is still winless against New York teams (0-4 vs. Red Bulls, 0-2 Cosmos).
Both sides eased into the match, seemingly stuck in first gear for the majority of the first half, which might be understandable considering NYCFC’s much-filtered starting lineup. The Cosmos had the better chances in the first 45 minutes, testing NYCFC goalkeeper Eirik Johansen twice in the early going with shots on target from Jairo Arrieta and Yohandry Orozco.
NYCFC started playing higher up the field in the second half, putting more pressure on the Cosmos. Left-back Diego Martinez’s strike from 25 yards out had power and swerve, forcing goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer to parry it away. NYCFC continued to control most of the play, leading to a Patrick Mullins shot from inside the box that Maurer was able to save without too much trouble. The MLS side’s best chance came in the 73rd minute when Mullins nipped the ball between Roversio and Mullins, giving him an open goal. But in heroic fashion, Hunter Freeman was able to recover and make a goal-saving sliding tackle. A huge play which was a key moment in the match.
Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese made his first substitution, bringing on Adam Moffat for Ruben Bover in the 79th minute. With extra time looming, the Cosmos broke the deadlock through a fantastic build up of play. Ayoze played a ball into the middle as Moffat opened up his body to let the ball run by his defender. The Scottish midfielder then dribbled into the final third, spraying the ball out wide left to Orozco whose cross was headed home by an open Danny Szetela. The 88th minute strike saw the Cosmos supporters celebrating deliriously and singing passionately well after the final whistle.
“I am very proud of the guys, the way they were organized tactically,” said Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese after the match. “There was a moment in the second half where we struggled a little bit, but then we readjusted and at the end we were able to find the goal at a critical moment and important moment for us to win the game.”
This is the third year in a row that the New York Cosmos have defeated an MLS club in the Fourth Round of the U.S. Open Cup. The other North American Soccer League (NASL) club to advance was the Fort Lauderdale Strikers who beat D.C. United in a penalty shootout.
“The win against NYCFC yesterday was symbolic of everything the Cosmos and their fans stand for,” Cosmos supporter Franco Zagari said. “True heart, true passion that transcends any divisional status within the landscape of US Soccer. It was a truly memorable victory. That’s what makes the US Open Cup a very important tournament for all of us.”
The New York Cosmos will host the Fifth Round matchup against the New England Revolution at St. John's Belson Stadium on Wednesday, June 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@sandro_pugliese)
There were many skeptics of the Italian National Team heading into UEFA Euro 2016. Injuries leading to the absence of star-midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio certainly made matters even more difficult for Antonio Conte, who already announced he is joining Chelsea after the tournament. Some of his call-ups were questionable and received criticism from the Italian media. Expectations for the four-time World Cup winners are probably at an all-time low. ESPN commentator Ian Darke even mentioned before the match kicked off that, “Some critics say this is the worst Italy team they can remember.” But with a stout defense and exceptional organizational ability maybe this Italian side shouldn’t be written off.
Antonio Conte lined up with his well-known 3-5-2 formation utilizing wing backs on the flanks. Personally, I was disappointed to see Eder in the starting XI as his form has been quite poor since his January move to Inter, having scored one goal in the last six months. I did like the inclusion of Marco Parolo who offered a different dynamic in the center of pitch. I would hope to see Alessandro Florenzi inserted into the midfielder probably for Parolo or Emanuele Giaccherini but the Roma man was possibly left out since he became a father the day before. Matteo Darmian was given a start at the left wingback spot and did a solid job going up against Kevin De Bruyne. With more ability to hold possession and be more attack-minded in the next two group stage matches, you could see Conte play Federico Bernardeschi or Stephan El Sharaawy there. Lazio winger Antonio Candreva put in a very solid 90 minutes on the right flank, looking dangerous in attack while also contributing well defensively. Graziano Pellé offers a big body up front who can play well enough with his feet and also be a dangerous threat in the air. Playing off of the Southampton striker as a seconda punta ("second striker" - someone who plays alongside a central striker or targetman but is comfortable dropping deep or wide), Eder wasn’t too effective going forward but worked hard and made a defensive contribution.
Importance of Juve Trio
The formidable BBC (Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini) partnership has been exceptional in Serie A over the last three to four years. The chemistry and understanding the three defenders have together is something special. In playing this 3-5-2 formation it is important to have central defenders who are comfortable on the ball and can play out of the back. While Chiellini is certainly the weakest in this department, he’s still serviceable despite the fact he might look a bit awkward on the ball at times. However, Bonucci and Barzagli’s world-class talent make up for what Giorgio might lack. Playing in the center of the back three, Bonucci was spraying the ball all around the field, drawing comparisons to Andrea Pirlo. His sublime 40-yard ball to the foot of Giaccherini in the 32nd minute propelled Italy into the lead.
Leo’s long ball passing has improved dramatically from a couple of years ago. I recall when most of his long balls in the air would hardly ever reach the target and would be a poor waste of possession but now those balls are a real threat. Meanwhile, Andrea Barzagli played some terrific diagonal passes out of the back to start the attack. Italy broke through Belgium’s midfield line with vertical and diagonal passes and then used quick one & two touch lay-offs. While it was the first match, the touches and passes in the final third need to be sharper and more effective for Italy as this tournament progresses. Not only will Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci be vital for the Azzurri defensively but also in building the attack with their passing.
Defensively, Conte’s side remained very disciplined and compact giving the Belgians little time and space in the middle of the field. The Italians did a commendable job of shutting down passing lanes and forcing Belgium to play the ball around the back only going side-to-side. Both the defensive and midfield units were always on the same page, pushing and squeezing up together in unison.
When not in possession, the wing backs essentially drop in and become full backs, essentially having five defenders across the back. It was quite impressive how De Bruyne and Eden Hazard never really had opportunities to dribble into space and take a defender on 1v1. Dries Mertens did look dangerous when he came on, running at defenders but his threat was handled well enough. Romelu Lukaku struggled to find space with Bonucci doing a great job on him defensively. Lukaku did have a golden chance created by a counter attack but the Everton man sent it just high and wide of the post. Daniele De Rossi played well in the holding-mid position, anchoring in front of the back three, clogging lanes and closing down space. While Belgium was certainly disappointing in attack, Italy deserves credit for executing their structured game plan to perfection. As Belgium looked more like a collection of individuals on the field, Italy played like a cohesive team, which was evident after their second goal when everyone, including the bench, celebrated together on the pitch.
It was just about as perfect a start to Euro 2016 as Gli Azzurri could’ve asked for; out-playing, out-working and out-coaching a Belgium side ranked 2nd in the world by FIFA, who are amongst the favorites to win the tournament. Conte and his squad have deservedly received much praise for their performance and it’s important to build upon this match going forward. The Italians will travel to Toulouse on Friday, June 17 to face Sweden, where a win would just about guarantee them to advance past the group stage.
Extra Video Clips of the Match
While soccer is still a growing sport here in America, it is a way of life in Italy and throughout Europe. One cannot really understand Italy or the Italians without an understanding of the role soccer plays in the country. I have followed the Italian soccer league since I was a little boy, watching games on TV with my father every weekend. This past fall I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Florence and experience the soccer culture in Italy firsthand.
The game was first brought to Italy from Britain during the 1880s. The oldest club is Genoa C.F.C., formed in 1893 and organized by British men. In a tradition passed down from the Brits, coaches are regularly addressed as ‘Mister’. In 1934, Italy was selected to host the second edition of the FIFA World Cup, held for the first time in Italy, a major political coup the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Gli Azzurri, the nickname of the national team for its blue jerseys, triumphed and won the tournament. As the 1938 World Cup was hosted in France, the Italian team was greeted with protests for their fascist ideology. While they were preparing for the Final, Mussolini sent a telegram to the team reading, “Vincere o morire!” meaning “Win or die!” After winning their second consecutive World Cup, the Italians would have to wait 44 years to be crowned world champions again.
Amidst a match fixing scandal back home, Italy arrived at the 1982 tournament with skepticism. Yet despite the odds, the Italian National Team played some very dramatic games, beating Argentina and favorites Brazil and West Germany in the final to win the competition. A famous photograph caught Italian President Sandro Pertini with two players and the coach playing cards on the plane along with the World Cup Trophy. And most recently, amidst another match fixing scandal, Italy lifted the World Cup Trophy in 2006. It is a major source of pride for Italians to be tied with Germany for the second most World Cups, only behind Brazil who has five.
The Italian soccer league, Serie A, is played from the last week of August to the last week of May but for all intents and purposes it is relevant all year round. Even during the summer, there are constant rumors about which players each team will both sign and sell. After what feels like a long, drawn out offseason, the whole peninsula is excited for the start of a new soccer campaign.
Whether it is a team tradition passed down from generation to generation or a team you started following because of certain players at a young age, every Italian has a favorite team, usually—but not always—their hometown team. Most people have an intense emotional connection to their teams, often at the expense of personal and familial relations [see Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby]. There are casual fans who occasionally watch their team and hope they do well. There are also the fans with a vested interest who watch every game and even usually attend at the stadium if possible. And then there are the die-hard fanatics, known as the ultras. They are notorious for their ultra-fanatical support, attending every game and sometimes resorting to violence. They often create spectacular choreographies for derbies and rivalry matches and often hold fanatical political views. These ‘ultras’ have considerable influence over the club they support. Quite often they will riot and protest when their club fails to perform well or they are upset at how the club is being run. About a year ago, the A.C. Milan Ultras protested against owner Silvio Berlusconi, pleading to #SaveACMilan.
When I attended the Rome derby in November, both the Roma and Lazio Ultras decided to protest against the newly proposed stadium safety and security restrictions by not attending the match. It was very strange for the stadium to be half empty for one of the most anticipated and passionate match-ups in the country. Five months later and the Ultras from both clubs are still protesting. And just a week ago, Palermo Ultras set off flares, which caused the match to be temporarily stopped by the referee on two occasions. Far too often have there been instances when these Ultra groups have gone too far, even resulting in the death of fans in some instances; the most recently case was Napoli fan Ciro Esposito who died from a gunshot in 2014 before a game against Roma.
The beautiful game also intrudes into daily life. While studying in Florence for three months, almost every day I would buy a copy of Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s most renowned sports newspaper notorious for its pink pages. Calcio, as Italians call ‘soccer’, would consistently be about 80% of the newspapers coverage. On Fridays I would hear chatter amongst the patrons at the café regarding the upcoming match for the hometown club, Fiorentina, on the weekend. And then on Mondays when I went to get my morning espresso, I would hear the same men discuss how the game went. These discussions are undertaken with just as much seriousness as political talk, if not more so.
Going to the stadium for a match is usually a cultural event. In Florence, fans start making their way to the stadium about two hours before kickoff. There are street vendors set up selling club merchandise, food and drinks. “Tailgating” and drinking beer before a sporting event is a foreign concept for Italians. People get a bite to eat, hang out with friends and family and then have an espresso or gelato. In fact, we have started to see a culture like this start to develop amongst some Major League Soccer clubs here in America.
Soccer is undeniably embedded into Italian culture as a significant symbol of the country. There have been many great books illustrating this, notably A Season with Verona by Tim Parks and Calcio: A History of Italian Footballby John Foot. If you visit Italy, you’ll be sure to notice the significance of soccer. Read the local newspaper, attend a game, cheer with the home fans and—win or lose—consider yourself an honorary Italian.
Over the past few seasons, a couple of top Serie A talents have moved to the Barclays Premier League but haven’t found much success. The two leagues are quite different in their playing styles. Serie A is a much more tactical league, where finesse players like Jovetic and Borini can thrive, while the EPL is much more fast paced and physical. Many players who have flourished in Italy have struggled to adapt to the speed and physicality of the Premier League.
In January of 2014, Chelsea signed Mohamed Salah from Basel for £11 million. After making only 19 appearances and scoring two goals in all competitions, the winger was loaned out to Fiorentina in January last year and he took Serie A by storm. In 912 minutes of league play, Salah scored six goals and provided three assists for La Viola. Following a complicated situation, the Egyptian refused to remain on loan at the Tuscan club and he eventually moved to AS Roma. According to reporter Gianluca Di Marzio, the capital club signed Salah from Chelsea on a €2 million loan with a €20 million forced option to buy. While if this report is true, Chelsea will indeed turn a profit but Salah never had even half the success in the EPL that he’s found in Serie A.
Chelsea also signed Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina in the next winter transfer window on February 2nd 2015 for €35 million. The Columbian winger was expecting to give Jose Mourinho’s side a new dynamic with some more pace on the flanks. Unfortunately that never really worked out. Cuadrado has made a total of 15 appearances for the London club, playing a total of 363 minutes in all competitions and not scoring a single goal. After joining Juventus on loan, the Colombian looked the explosive winger he was at Fiorentina. He already has 2 goals and 4 assists in Serie A play and provided Juve a much-needed spark when their attack was struggling early in the season. Most people, including myself, thought Cuadrado would be successful at Chelsea but for some reason he never really fit into Mourinho’s plans and he didn’t perform well with the small amount of playing time he got. There have been reports that the Bianconeri are interested in signing Cuadrado on a permanent basis and if will discuss that will Chelsea either now or in June.
Stevan Jovetic moved from Fiorentina to Manchester City for a reported £22 million in July of 2013. The Montenegrin constantly had injury troubles, making only 13 league appearances in the 2013-2014 season and 17 league appearances in 2014-2014. Jovetic scored a total of 8 goals and 4 assists for Man City, all coming in the Premier League. In July 2015, he joined Inter on an 18-month loan worth €2.5 million with an obligation to buy for an extra €14 million. So despite Jovetic underperforming at Manchester City, the Citizens were able to just about recover their investment when you consider the pounds to euro exchange rate. The striker has already got 4 goals and 2 assists this season in only 880 minutes, including a game winner in the 93rd minute on his debut, early in the season. Jovetic seems to have returned to his playing style at Fiorentina, where he’s much more comfortable and can both score and create goals. Unfortunately, Jovetic’s main problem was the physicality and staying healthy. He is in fact a very talented player but just too fragile for the Premier League.
Liverpool signed two Italian from Roma just two years apart but both are considered very disappointing. The Reds paid €20 million and signed central midfielder Alberto Aquilani to a five-year contract in August 2009. Aquilani made just 28 appearances in all competitions over two seasons before being loaned out to Juventus and then Milan for back-to-back seasons. Liverpool finally cut their ties with Aquilani in the summer of 2012, when he joined Fiorentina for a very minor fee, possibly for free. Aquilani cost Liverpool €714,285 every time he made an appearance on the pitch. I simply don’t think Aquilani was suited for England at all; his game is too slow and not physical enough. His slower pace is certainly better for Serie A, where he had much more time on the ball. Alberto did re-establish his career at Fiorentina after playing well, making Italy’s 2013 Confederations Cup Squad and the 2014 World Cup squad.
Fabio Borini was the first signing of the Brendan Rodgers era at Liverpool in July of 2009 as Roma received €13.3 million in the deal. In his first season, Borini suffered a broken ankle and a fractured shoulder but he made 13 league appearances, netting one goal. The striker was sent to Sunderland on loan for the 2013-2014 season and he actually performed reasonably well. He scored 10 goals and racked up 3 assists in 40 appearances across all competitions. In the summer of 2014, Liverpool accepted a £14 million offer from Sunderland but Borini opted against the move to fight for his spot in Liverpool’s first team. After only 18 appearances that season, Fabio Borini joined Sunderland for reportedly £8 million, signing a 4-year contract. So €13.3 million got Liverpool a grand total of 38 appearances and just 3 goals in all competitions. I think one hit season at Roma, overhyped Borini a bit but also that he belongs in Italy as a prima punta.
While we’re on Liverpool, let’s just briefly touch upon Mario Balotelli, who LFC bought in August 2014 from Milan for £16 million. He scored one goal in 940 minutes of league play and added one goal in both the Champions League and Europe League. It was a very disappointing season for Balotelli who struggled under Brendan Rodgers. This past summer he re-joined Milan under loan, where he’s seemed to turn a corner in his career, working hard and playing well. He even scored a fantastic free kick against Udinese (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ1XzDXiUG8). Unfortunately he suffered a groin injury, which required surgery and he is just returning to full fitness. There has even been talk of Balotelli possibly returning to Liverpool this month since Jürgen Klopp is now in charge. Whether he returns now or over the summer, Balotelli will probably have another chance to prove himself at Liverpool. We know that Balotelli can perform well in England as we saw at Manchester City but it clearly didn’t work with Brendan Rodgers maybe it’ll be different with Klopp.
After a breakout 2012-2013 season at Roma with 15 goals and 5 assists, Erik Lamela moved to Tottenham Hotspur for £25.8 million + £4 million in bonuses. He really struggled to find time in his first season, playing only 329 minutes in the Premier League with one assist. His 2014-2015 season was much better as he made 33 league appearances, with 2 goals and 7 assists. Lamela has also done fairly well this season with 8 goals and 3 assists in all competitions so far. While he has cost Tottenham £1.78 million for each goal he’s scored thus far, the Argentine has played much better under Mauricio Pocchetino than he did under Andre-Villas Boas. While I think his one great season at Roma inflated his price and overhyped his actual talent, this season may be the beginning of Lamela turning his Tottenham career in the right direction.
Of course there are players who move from Serie A to England and live up to their price tag and perform well but quite often we’ve seen players flop. There are many factors that could play into this like the coach’s system, adjusting to a new club even the lifestyle difference from Italy to England.
After drawing their last two Serie A matches, Fioretina looked to get back on track as they hosted Udinese at the Artemio Franchi. Meanwhile mid-table Udinese were coming off the heels of a 3-1 Coppa Italia victory against Atalanta this past Wednesday.
La Viola started off on the front foot as Nikola Kalinic found himself inside the six-yard box in the 3rd minute but directed his shot right at Udinese goalkeeper, Orestis Karnezis. Just seven minutes later, Karnezis was up to the task again as he made a nice near-post save on a half volley from Marcos Alonso. Udinese found their first chance of the match in the 18th minute as Emmanuel Badu headed a cross from Cyril Thereau wide. La Viola broke the deadlock nine minutes later as Milan Badelj’s shot from outside the box deflected off Nikola Kalinic, threw Karnezis off balance and trickled into the back of the net. Udinese almost found a quick response as Silvan Widmer’s header hit the post following Francesco Lodi’s free kick in the 30th minute. The home side had a great chance to double their lead just four minutes before halftime as Marcos Alonso’s cross found an outstretched Kalinic but the Croatian put the ball over the net.
Udinese came out and controlled the pace of the first ten minutes of the second half but couldn’t create any real opportunities. The Zebrette made a double substitution in the 85th minute as Bruno Fernandes and Antonio Di Natale came on for Manuel Iturra and Rodrigo Aguirre. Unfortunately for Stefano Colantuono, his subs wouldn’t have much impact. Just five minutes later Badu made a clumsy challenge on Kalinic inside the box and La Viola were awarded a penalty kick. Josip Illicic stepped up and slotted the ball in the upper left-hand corner to double Fiorentina’s lead. Udinese had a great chance to get back into the match but Di Natale uncharacteristically skied a wide-open shot from just 8 yards out. Paulo Sousa’s side sealed the three points in the 86th minute as captain Gonzalo Rodriguez headed home a corner kick.
With the victory, Fiorentina move into 2nd place in Serie A on 32 points while Udinese drop to 13th place with 18 points. La Viola are one of only four teams in Europe’s top five leagues to have scored in every league match this season. Fiorentina will host Portuguese club Belenenses on Thursday night as they look to secure their spot in the Europa League knockout round.
Paulo Sousa: “We all believe in what we’re doing. At times it works, others it doesn’t, but the team is always ready to win with great hunger and quality football. We are trying to give a sense of consistency to our performances, both individually and as a group. We want to improve more every game. My players have always been very eager to work. It was a difficult match today and we did very well. It required a lot of intensity, both collective and individual, and we played some great football that allowed us to win. Federico Bernardeschi is doing very well and each week getting more and more into this new role out wide. We will need full concentration for the game next week. How will the Juve fans greet me? I’ve had respect everywhere in my career and I hope Turin will be the same.”
Stefano Colantuono: “It’s difficult to judge a 3-0 result, as it does not reflect the game and I don’t believe there was a three-goal difference between the teams today. We hit the woodwork, and then conceded the second goal. We had the chance to open it up again and the third goal was really too much. I am satisfied with the performance, I’m not disappointed and we cannot give up now.”
Empoli made the trip east to face league leaders Fiorentina at the Artemio Franchi. There was extra security on hand as every person who entered the stadium was patted down extensively. I entered the stadium two hours before the 3:00pm kickoff.
The traveling Empoli supporters let their voices be heard as they constantly antagonized Fiorentina fans before kickoff. They even jeered as the stadium sang the Inno Fiorentina. As the teams lined up with the French flag, La Marseillaise was played to commemorate the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.
I was a bit surprised with Paulo Sousa's starting lineup considering Kalinic, Rossi, Illicic and Bernardeschi were all left out. I'm not sure if it was the lineup or how Sousa prepared them but La Viola were dreadful in the first half. The match started with both sides playing a little sloppy as they both looked to get settled. Empoli started to have the better of the play and after some half chances, the guests would find the breakthrough in the 18th minute. A through ball over the top found Marko Livaja inside the box who fired home at the near post to give Empoli a 1-0 lead. Although upon replay, Livaja was clearly offside. Nonetheless, Fiorentina really struggled to find any rhythm and were playing poorly. Empoli eventually doubled their lead in the 27th minute through Marcel Buchel. A blocked free kick landed at the Austrian’s feet, he took a touch and hit a beautiful strike into the bottom corner from 22 yards out. Riccardo Saponara was at the heart of his side's attack and the Italian has had a hand in 4 of Empoli’s last 5 goals. The home side seemed to be in shambles and the whole stadium jeered loudly as if to send a wake up call to their team. Fiorentina went into halftime down two goals after their worst performance of this season.
Paulo Sousa made two halftime substitutions. Federico Bernardeschi and Nikola Kalinic came on, replacing Ante Rebic and Mario Suarez. Fiorentina started the second half much better as they looked to get back into the match. Empoli seemed to be happy with their two goals since they were already employing time-wasting tactics just minutes after the restart. In the 56th minute, Borja Valero picked up the ball and sprayed it out wide to Marcos Alonso, who whipped in a cross and Kalinic rose up to head the ball home. La Viola found their lifeline and the crowd gave them a real push. They found an equalizer only five minutes later as a through ball found Babacar inside the box, who slid the ball across goal for a tap-in from Kalinic at the far post. Fiorentina had completed the comeback after their terrible first half. With 30 minutes left to play, Sousa urged his side to keep attacking and look for the winner. Despite some good chances and even hitting the crossbar, Fiorentina couldn’t find a third goal and had to settle for a draw.
Considering their awful first half display, Fiorentina will be happy to have earned the draw but also disappointed in not picking up three points. Credit Paulo Sousa for not waiting and bringing on two subs at halftime. Bernardeschi and Kalinic both played well and the Croatian striker’s brace earned La Viola a point. After Inter’s victory against Frosinone, Fiorentina are now tied in second place with Napoli. Fiorentina will travel to Switzerland to face Basel in Europa League play on Thursday.
Post Match Comments
Paulo Sousa: “We are very satisfied with the comeback and the character shown by the team in the second half, the desire to win this game. Would I make the same decisions again? Absolutely not, which is why we rectified it over the break and indeed we did well in the second half. I believe in the quality of all my players and today many of the star figures struggled, which often happens after a break for international duty.”
When asked whether he saw similarities between this Fiorentina side and the Juventus team he played in during the 1990s: “When I chose this line of work, I promised myself I wouldn’t look to the past. My job is to analyse the players at my disposal, their tactical intelligence, and understand where I can improve them within my idea of football. Arriving at a new club I always try to understand the culture of the country, the city, the fans and aim to reflect those on the field. The determination and hunger we showed in the second half, mixed with the quality of football, reflects the culture that creates an ever clearer bond between us and the fans.”
Federico Bernardeschi: “I think the real Fiorentina were shown in the second half against Empoli. We slipped a little in the first half, but in the second half we had the right reaction demonstrated through our value and quality. We have to start by remembering the good things we have done today, without forgetting our mistakes.”
Marcos Alonso when asked about the Scudetto race: “Well we don’t want to think about that yet, we are thinking of every game and are trying to do our best. Now we have to think of Europa League on Thursday and we’re happy to be where we are in Serie A.” (Video: https://twitter.com/LadsOffThePitch/status/668477347167928320)