Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sampdoria v Lazio: The Birth of 'Football Italia'

Football fans of a certain age and/or taste will be lovingly familiar with Football Italia. Throughout the early nineties Serie A was at its most captivating, and a magnet for the world's best footballers. With England's Premier League in its infancy, Channel Four, and producer-turned-presenter, James Richardson made Serie A wonderfully accessible to UK viewers. Richardson, with his charming ability to wear the hats of both an in-the-know and fluent local, and a completely captivated fan, was one of us. Despite failed attempts for an Italian football highlights show on Welsh TV, and an early incarnation of BSkyB, Football Italia was propelled to prominence and success by signing with Channel Four prior to the 1992/93 season. For the first time ever, Serie A would be shown live on British TV. Sunday September 6th 1992 saw the start of a brave new world, and Sampdoria v Lazio didn't disappoint.

Des Walker and Karl-Heinz Riedle. Image from here.

This coming weekend see's the two clubs come together again, complete with a couple of poignant similarities to September 1992. In Ravel Morrison, Lazio have a divisive Englishman in their ranks, if not on their team sheet, and Sampdoria have a recently appointed manager at the helm. 1992 saw Sven-Goran Eriksson getting acquainted with Serie A, while today it's ex-Sampdoria player, Vincenzo Montella who's the relative rookie in the home side's dug out. Incidentally, Eriksson would leave Sampdoria to manage Lazio in 1998, and lead them to a famous scudetto shortly after.

Sampdoria entered the fixture with a weight of expectancy. The Genoa-based club having won their one and only scudetto in 1991, and narrowly lost the European Cup final to Barcelona just months prior. Despite losing star striker, Gianluca Vialli to Juventus in a summer of change, Roberto Mancini remained, as did at attacking midfield. Contrastingly, Lazio, who had narrowly avoided a humbling relegation to Serie C in 1986, were steadying themselves in the upper echelons of mid-table Serie A. Sergio Cragnotti had assumed power in the summer of 1992, and started his lavish project of transfer fee record breaking. The first notable signing of the 'Cragnotti era' was, of course, Paul Gascoigne. Gazza, though, was still nursing his knee injury, and didn't play till week three of the season, which was another live fixture on Channel Four against Genoa. Making debuts on 6th September 1992, along with boss Sven-Goran Eriksson, were; English defender Des Walker and Vladimir Jugovic for the home side. Playing for the first time in Lazio colours were; Aaron Winter, Diego Fuser, and Guiseppe Signori.
Gazza in Lazio colours in 1992. Image from here.

With viewers in England enthusiastic for the unknown, primed for excitement, and tantilisingly briefed by James Richardson, the first round of the season kicked-off in front of a capacity crowd at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. If some viewers were pessimistically expecting a show of the defensive arts of catenaccio, they were to be disappointed. 

Three goals inside the first twenty-two minutes, all from debutants, set the tone for an open, enthralling, and often tense opening to the campaign. Sampdoria struck first. Lazio's Uragyuan forward, Diego Fuser, broke the deadlock with an unfortunate own goal from a corner. Guiseppe Signori, making his first appearance of what would become a fairytale five years with Lazio, then struck twice in three minutes. Restoring parity with a poachers finish from a narrow angle, and giving Lazio the lead with a neat left-footed drive from the edge of the area. Seven minutes before half-time, parity was restored once more. Another debutant, Vladimir Jugovic who was signed at the insistence of out-going manager Vujadin Boskov, equalised for Sampdoria. Shortly after the break, Roberto Mancini put the home side 3-2 up with a powerful penalty. Another own goal decided the match with fifteen minutes remaining. Renato Buso was the unfortunate man this time, deflecting in a Lazio corner to make the score 3-3.

Lazio had finished the previous campaign in mid-table, yet with a summer of eyebrow-raising transfers, the hype of Cragnotti's investment was starting to build. Gascoigne would go on to enthral and infuriate in equal measure, yet only endear himself to the majority of Lazio fans in the process. Beginning with their fifth place finish in 1992/93, the Rome club would finish in the top five of Serie A across six consecutive seasons, initially under the continued stewardship of Dino Zoff, and then Zdenek Zemen. In continuing a theme of players and managers appearing for both teams across their careers, Sven Goran Eriksson became the Lazio manager in 1998, and led them to their remarkable 2000 scudetto.

Sampdoria ended the 1992/93 season in seventh place, and under Eriksson, would finish the season by confirming their own marquee signings in David Platt and Ruud Gullit. The 1993/94 campaign would see Sampdoria claim a top-three position in Serie A, and the 1994 Coppa Italia, yet ultimately never recapture the form of their 1991 success.
New arrivals in the summer of 1993; David Platt and Ruud Gullit. Image from here.

James Richardson labeled italian football at the time, 'technically sophisticated, tactically complex, and almost geometrically precise', and on the showing of its first live match, Serie A served up a wonderfully curious balance of entertainment. Enough to equally please the aficionados who understood Richardson's comments, and the 'philistines' who interpreted Richardson's descriptions as 'boring'. The mid to late nineties would see Football Italia go from strength to strength, and earn a fabled place amongst the heart and memory of countless football fans in Britain.
James Richardson educated us all. Image from here.

However, from such rich beginnings, came, maybe inevitably, such a humble end. As England's Premier League slowly replaced Serie A in terms of finance, pulling power, and ultimately entertainment, fewer of world football's big names would grace Serie A, and viewing figures dipped. Football Italia stopped broadcasting on Channel Four at the end of the 2001/02 season. Following a few months hiatus, the show returned on British Eurosport, again fronted by James Richardson, where it remained until 2005. By this time Lazio's scudetto was something of a fading memory, and Paul Gascoigne had just called time on a spell at Boston United. By the 2005/06 season, Bravo was the only UK channel willing or able to host the show, and despite offering the intriguing punditry partnership of Lee Sharpe and Ron Atkinson, Italy's 2006 calciopoli scandal represented the final nail in the coffin in terms of viewing figures. Channel Five tried to rescue the show's legacy for the 2007/08 season, but their Football Italiano show, hosted by Mark Chapman and Laura Esposto, lasted just a season.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Match of the Day: Excitement, Joy, and Deep Frustration

Match of the Day is an institution, and Gary Lineker is the latest in a long line of agreeable hosts who provide the heavenly gifts of goals and action from all of Saturday's football matches. Even in these modern times of ours, where there are sometimes only five or six matches actually played on a Saturday, and all shown live somewhere and somehow, MotD hasn't lost its appeal or magnetism. Which, thinking about it, is quite miraculous.
Gary Lineker exudes a certain 'cool', beard or no beard. Image from here.

As a re-cap, or an introduction if you've never heard of MotD, here's a brief synopsis of the show. The wonderfully nostalgic title sequence and theme tune cut purposefully through the Saturday night air. For those in the immediate vicinity of a television, this awakens them from the depressing slump of watching both the national and local news. For those who aren't near a television, the legendary theme tune is a calling, which summons the masses back home from the pub, and stumbling towards their sofa. Gary, looking a bit too healthy, and wearing a freshly ironed shirt, will introduce his two expert pundits, and provide a sneak peek of the pulsating action to come. After each game, Lineker invites the two expert pundits to talk through the most controversial moments featured in the highlights reel. Usually these consist of; dubious handballs, borderline penalty calls, rash tackles, very minor handbags, and disputable red cards. The experts, decked out in plain coloured, and often tight-fitting shirts, which lend the suspicion they've come directly from a Next sale, then delve into the fine art of stating the bleeding obvious. Before debate gets too healthy, Lineker will gently interject with mild humour before re-directing our attention to the next match, and the cycle continues. Regrettably, it's all bland, mostly scripted, and therefore lacking in depth or genuine insight. Like many, and despite the plethora of other more reasonably timed football highlight shows available, i'm still not deterred.

Each and every Saturday, I try to steer clear of any football scores, which is easier said than done. I'll ignore TV screens, carefully screen all calls, and steer clear of sports bars. Twitter goes un-checked, messages unopened, and sports news websites closed down. Reason being, I believe there are few pleasures sweeter than sitting down to watch MotD in blissful ignorance of any full-time scores. Even if I slip, and learn a final score, that somehow does little to detract the child-like excitement of hearing the theme tune. MotD is a national treasure, and each show has the potential to make a grown man feel like a five year-old boy on Christmas morning.

However, for every moment of exuberant optimism before 10.30pm, there comes disappointment and teeth-grinding frustration shortly after. Initially in waves, lasting a few moments in-between each of the match highlights. At first, it's fine. The kettle goes on, and the tea making process is complete by the time the experts have stumbled through their scripted analysis. However, as the football is sandwiched between waves of frustratingly predictable chatter, there's only so much tea a man can drink before a pending bedtime. I, like many others, am left with no choice but to sit, watch, and listen as Alan Shearer presents the fruits of his last two hours with the match footage, a computer, and a tactical editing tool.

Due to its overwhelming popularity, and despite sentiments above, it can be difficult to criticise MotD. However, if one thing was apparent throughout the nicely-edited and protracted fiftieth birthday celebrations, it was that not too much about the show has changed in half a century. Of course, the same cannot be said about the sport covered.

Change, though, is naturally a contentious subject whatever the context, and a TV show with over fifty years of history is no different. Gary Lineker only stopped wearing a full suit in the early 2000's. Rightfully, the 'what' MotD does will hopefully never change. Showing football highlights is a simple premise, yet the 'how', 'when', and 'for whom' should all be open for debate.

A choppy and fresh journey across the North Sea to the Netherlands affords a poignant contrast regarding the 'how', 'when', and 'for whom'. The ever forward thinking Dutch up-date their football fans in two parts; one show for football, and another show for talking. On a Sunday, usually late afternoon or early evening to include all the weekend's fixtures, NOS Sport will run through all the games, goals, and highlights. Pragmatic, without a script, and deliciously unfussy, the Sunday show is all action. A lone man in a studio gives the quickest introduction to each match, and concludes with the latest Eredivisie table. 'You know all you ned to know. Go and have dinner folks, you've got work and school tomorrow morning', seems to be the reassuring message. Those who like to see experts healthily debate the weekly controversy, tactics, talking points, and narratives, aren't disappointed either. For on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, there exists a ninety minute football talk show, again hosted by the Dutch Gary Lineker. Also without a script, and deliciously unfussy, five or six experts sit around a table and talk. There's a live studio audience, and it's not uncommon for current day players, managers, and even referees to appear on the panel, alongside the regular pundits. All of whom have had three or four days to digest their emotion, reflect, do some research, and come prepared for genuine debate. Their analysis goes a little deeper than arguing about the latest handball law interpretations, and the simple fact that it's not scripted makes for compelling viewing.
Ruud Gullit guests on NOS Studio Voetbal. Image from here.

In addition to its regular pundits, MotD has, in fairness, hosted a fascinating list of special guests, including; Russell Brand, England manager Roy Hodgson, Noel Gallagher, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. Their presence positively shakes up the sometimes overly politically correct BBC status quo, but it's not enough. Bless them and Gary for trying, but the home truth is that they're only operating under the same time constraints, dress code, script, and rules as the regular pundits.

In the most recent show, with the curious pairing of ex-Everton manager David Moyes, and Jermaine Jenas as pundits, the 3-3 draw between Chelsea and Everton received top billing. First in the fabled running order, the match was something of a modern classic. Six goals, attacking football, a feisty challenge or two, errors, own goals, a John Terry Vs. John Stones narrative, and a whopping eight minutes of time added on. The concept of time added on could be well worth looking into for the MotD producers, as the time allocated for three men to discuss the highlights, tactically analyse the match, and resolve the controversial moments, was three minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, it's Thursday 21st January 2016, and an agreeable half-past eight in the evening. Gary Lineker is in a slightly different studio. The MotD name and branding remains, but it all looks, sounds, and feels different. David Moyes is a guest, and he's sitting next to current Everton manager Roberto Martinez, another guest. The pair briefly discuss Saturday's result, before spontaneously moving on to a much more interesting discussion about Everton's curious form this season. Both men offer some frank admissions under the banner of a mutual respect. Other guests, including a surprisingly affable Jose Mourinho and delightful Kolo Toure, lend a convivial air, and personal reference points to the Everton debate. Later, Toure offers insight to Liverpool's transition under Jurgen Klopp, and many a true word is spoken in jest as Moyes and Mourinho discuss the fragility of Louis van Gaal's position at Manchester United. Oh, and the Saturday night highlights show is limited to just Gary, the football, and some post-match interviews. It's also aired at an agreeable half-past eight in the evening.

Granted, it may be difficult to get such a cast together on a weekly basis, but one must assume it's also far from impossible. An extended, discussion-based MotD show would provide players, managers, and referee's with a respectable platform to communicate their view of the footballing world, and bringing it together under the careful blanket of Gary Lineker's handling would benefit all. We might even realise that these people are only human, after all. We'd learn a little more about them as people, and therefore be in a better position to accept their decisions and performances the following Saturday.

If a Saturday night football show can go largely un-changed in fifty-two years as football vigorously evolves, anything is possible.
MotD celebrated its 50th birthday in 2014, which was nice. Image from here.