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May 4, 2006

Playing the numbers game

Italy's coach Marcello Lippi has had 29 players working under him in a mini-camp near Rome, an odd number considering that no one from AS Roma or Inter was going to be involved, since those sides were meeting in the first leg of the Italian Cup final on Wednesday.

One may ask why 29, or why did Costa Rica's coach Alexandre Guimaraes name 24 in his temporary squad, meaning only one will literally be the odd man out once late May comes around.

Keeping up the subject of numbers, then, here's what the last few days in Italian football have put forth.

3 - The goals Juve, as many readers will know by now, scored at Siena in the first eight minutes last Sunday.

We'd heard all week about the strong ties between the Tuscan side and the bianconeri, who have sold or loaned eight players to Gigi De Canio's side in addition to the assistant manager - former Juve captain Antonio Conte - and strength and conditioning coach Giampiero Ventrone.

Juve and Siena have been sharing more than shirt colours for some time, which in itself is a microcosm of life, not only football, in Italy: you don't get anywhere if you don't have someone rich and famous and influential who can help your career. And will, one day, ask for something in return.

This undisputable truth could, and was by many, be brought to the surface last Sunday while Juve were running rampant, but one side of the matter must also be considered.

Suspicions may have arisen from the ease with which the visitors sliced through the home defense, but Siena's home record until then had been Played 17, Won 5, Drawn 4, Lost 8, Goals For 18, Goals Against 24, and their form had been lousy for a while, so if there was a fix, well, it did not look too different from the way Lazio had won at the Franchi two weeks ago or Lecce, of all sides, had also emerged winners in late March - and the Siena players had looked less competent against those sides than last Sunday.

Of course, the mere fact that everyone was expecting Siena to roll over and open its gates to the Juve players makes the whole thing hard to swallow, if Serie A is to maintain even a semblance of credibility.

That the Tuscan fans were livid at the result and did not even stop to celebrate their side's survival in the top flight for a third consecutive season does also strike a chord.

And what does the priest who's in Siena's board of directors think of all this?

2 - The number of Southern clubs that have been relegated to the Serie B, Lecce and Messina.

A couple of summers ago, more than a few newspapers and TV networks deployed every conceivable tool of rhetoric at their disposal, a considerable arsenal under any circumstance, to give us a sycophantic rendition of how the underprivileged lower part of the Peninsula had finally started staging a revival on the football front.

Most Serie A teams, traditionally, have come from the upper third of the country, with, at times, a veritable glut of sides within a few miles of each other, like when Atalanta and Brescia were playing alongside Milan and Inter or, three years ago, Parma, Modena and Bologna, all within no more than one hour's straight-line travel, were in Serie A together (Bologna and Modena went down in successive seasons, so no Emilia Romagna revival here).

But it seems that when a Southern side, or one from the isles, shows an upward momentum, a series of cliche-ridden, demagogical, tear-jerking articles about the revenge of the poor South.

But wait a minute, are you telling us Lecce and Messina and Reggina and Palermo and Cagliari all went up because a wind of positive thinking and shrewd planning was sweeping through the Southern part of Italy - a side effect of climate change, perhaps?

Or wasn't it simply a case of a few businessmen putting it together at the same time, with greater resources and better management?

Massimo Cellino, in the time left between firing and hiring coaches, has kept Cagliari in the Serie A for two years now. Maurizio Zamparini, although controversial by grace of his attitude, has brought Palermo to the brink of European football for a second successive season, despite of - yet again - a tendency to get bored of whoever is coaching his side.

Reggina's Lillo Foti, panting and puffing, will see his side in the top flight again next year; and those who ultimately failed, Pietro Franza at Messina - see below - and the Semeraro family at Lecce, did so not because the tide that had brought them fortune turned, but because they made mistakes, huge ones at that.

So when in a few days' time Catania, another Sicilian side and a welcome return to the Serie A, gain promotion from the Serie B, let's avoid cliches and say it as it is: it's not a revival of Southern football, just as Messina and Lecce's relegation is not a sign of its failure.

It's just a matter of a club planning shrewdly, and reaping the results. Which may, and should, happen everywhere, regardless of latitude, but try telling that to the media who seem to have cornered the market on rhetoric.

4 - The number of Messina players sent off in the last couple of Serie A matches. Three were given their marching order against Milan, when at one point it seemed they were more intent on collecting their opponents' ankle bones than playing football - and they'd even been 1-0 for most of the first half.

If there was a way to spoil Messina's two-year run in the Serie A, and do it with as little dignity as possible - do not forget they sacked long time coach Bortolo Mutti last month, in a desperate move to shake things up - they surely found it.

Not that the Reggina fan who invaded the pitch at the end of last Sunday's game and hit Messina goalkeeper Storari knows much about dignity and civility, though.

73 - The days that passed between Francesco Totti's horrifying ankle injury on February 19 and his return to action with Roma.

Actually, it was a return to a photo opportunity, aka the bench, for the giallorossi home match against Inter in the aforementioned Italian Cup final, which ended 1-1.

Roma may need Totti in their quest to wrestle the last Champions League place away from Fiorentina, but Italy and Lippi need him even more.

There may be too many expectations on his shoulders, but a good chunk of Lippi's 4-3-1-2 set up depends on his being there to play 'in the hole', so expect every move of his to be closely monitored from now on.

He did not perform brilliantly in the last World Cup and at Euro 2004, so it may seem too much to place all of the Azzurri's hope on him. But it's nearly World Cup time, and no hype will seem too much.

5 - Euros. $6.50, more or less, or £3.40.

The price of a ticket in the home end for Sunday's Juventus v Palermo at the Delle Alpi in Turin. It could be the day Juve win their 29th scudetto: they have a three-point lead over Milan, who play at Parma, so there's a variety of ways they can clinch the title.

The embarrassingly low price may help bring a full house, but it's again a sad indictment of the current state of calcio that one of the best clubs in the world has to resort to that in order to lure fans to what could be a championship celebration.

Tickets for the same section for the match v Milan two months ago were ten times as expensive, at 50 euros, though, and not many decided to take up the offer so you can see Juve's point this week.

The conversion of the Delle Alpi to a smaller capacity bowl, which will require two years, cannot come soon enough.

Wonder what all those watching Champions League matches at home all those years will think the day they see Juve play with a background that does not look like people have been edited out of the picture.

3 - The persons involved in an investigation which may soon carry interesting consequences.

Wire-tapping carried out by investigators in Turin did not yield any criminally relevant offence on the subject that spawned them, doping, but the transcripts were turned over to the Italian Federation because their contents may open a new chapter over a wholly different matter.

The three persons are apparently the Federation's vice president Innocenzo Mazzini, Pierluigi Pairetto, formerly in charge of choosing referees for Serie A matches, and Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi, but others will soon be named.

Er, let's just wait and see.


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