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Arsenal must end season on a high

Arsenal
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By ESPN Staff

Paris in the springtime

Easy, easy, easy. Too easy, even, writing that being in Paris at the Stade de France for Wednesday's Champions League final really felt being a universe away from the chaos of the latest 'scandal of the century' - unless a bigger one erupts.

Can it really get worse than this - in Italian football?

It's so big newspapers and TV networks have a hard time keeping up with the countless pages of the wire-tapping transcripts that keep finding their way from the investigators to the media.

Soccernet readers may have read about them. They tell a horrifying tale of corruption, coercion, collusion, in what has been labelled by many as a cupola ('dome'), a term usually reserved to identify the Mafia string-pullers.

The main culprit appears to be (now former) Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi, who seems to have had a free rein in requesting referees who might help Juventus in a variety of ways - most of them downright illegal, all morally reprehensible.

And he seemed on first name terms with Government ministers and anybody who needs anything. You tend to believe it even when, in a surrealistic moment, he's heard telling an army commander friend that Joseph Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI last year only after enlisting as a client of Alessandro Moggi's GEA player agency.

Alessandro, of course, is Luciano's son. That's how an overwhelmingly huge number of people get their businesses or their careers started and booming: by being the offspring of someone in power.

Anyway, what a jump from the poisoned environment of Italian football to the rarified air in Paris, the height of continental football.

My experience during the day was of the type that makes me want never to go back to Italy. Competitiveness and bantering among fans on the trains and in the streets around the Stade de France, obvious anguish and despair for the Arsenal fans, but few if any of the bulging-eyed anger at anything that moves and wears a different colour shirt that still marks a day out at any important sporting event in Italy.

Granted, what has transpired from the phone-tapping transcripts may vindicate the assumption of corrupt behaviour which is at the root of the hostility towards referees, but it does not justify the baiting that constantly takes place.

A few dodgy decisions attracted boos and frantic gesticulating towards ref Terje Hauge, but they faded after a few seconds. In Italy, it would be long minutes, and in basketball, umpires occasionally get harassed for the whole match.

And when you remember that Claudio Ranieri was frequently besieged by autograph-seekers outside Highbury, whenever he attended Champions League matches while still Chelsea manager, whereas he'd be more likely to get insulted in a similar situation - coach of A team attends match of rival B team - in Italy...

Let me stop there, because just moaning and pointing out the many horrible facets in the attitudes of people and fans in Italy leads nowhere and may even become grating for readers.

Not to mention your writer, who'd rather delve into the finer points of the 4-2-3-1 or the 3-5-2 than be forced to confront the effects of paranoia and the decades-old failure of the educational system.

Did I mention 4-4-1, the formation unfortunate Arsenal were forced to deploy after Jens Lehmann got himself sent off?

This brings us back to Italy, of course. Arsenal's ultra-cautious approach at Villareal had left some observers back home, bred in the immortal concept of the catenaccio, sceptical and disappointed, as if we still expected all British teams to attack relentlessly and mindlessly, and this despite the evidence to the contrary provided by Chelsea and Liverpool in the last couple of years.

On the other hand, Barcelona are rightly seen as a bastion of entertaining, creative football and their fans are much envied - unless Barca beat Milan, in which case praise in the media tends to be subdued and people would unfairly rather point out Shevchenko's 'disallowed' goal in the return leg at the Camp Nou than take note of the proceedings over the two ties.

So it must have come as a surprise and a disappointment to many that Barcelona could not play free-flowing football and produce chance after chance against a ten-man side.

I just hope no one back home used the word boring, not if they remember the 2003 final between Juventus and Milan, which I loved for the variety of tactical aspects it brought forth, but can hardly be described as a classic, not when its most memorable moment is the last penalty kick. Now, I am perfectly aware that dull, boring matches are not a Serie A specialty.

I've seen a lot of them and once renowned English journalist Brian Glanville told me 'you must be a masochist' when I revealed to him in Wimbledon's press box that I was enjoying probably one of the worst matches in the history of the Premiership, Wimbledon v Chelsea 14 years ago.

In fact, if you take out of the picture those with an inevitable outcome (i.e. involving Juventus and Milan), whether they're fixed or not, most Serie A matches are unpredictable and can produce goals at any time.

The fact that Luca Toni topped the goalscoring charts with 31 is at the same time a sign of his prowess, which he may put on display during the World Cup, and an indictment of the lost art of defending, which has in some instances been comical.

Whatever it is, you can count on goals being scored aplenty in most Serie A matches and few cases of negative tactics, so I dearly hope no one back home took Barcelona's failure to produce chances galore as a sign the Emperor's clothes were not cut from as fine as cloth as expected.

Italians have always had a snobbish tendency to believe those who star elsewhere will not deserve to be labeled as real superstars until they've proved their worth in Serie A.

On the other hand, those who tried and failed, like Lehmann on the pitch or Carlos Bianchi on the bench, are requested to put in an even more strenuous effort to convince people they're for real. Snobbish, snobbish, snobbish.

Italian football has many problems, huge problems, as Norman Hubbard pointed out accurately a few weeks ago - among them the fact promising youngsters from other countries are shunning Serie A and choosing other Leagues or Ligas.

But most of them bear the address of its structure and organization and mentality and cannot be found on the football pitch. That's why a small lesson from Wednesday's final in Paris can be learnt more from things outside the pitch than from what the teams produced, which was still - for me - more than good enough.

It wasn't the quality of play, the tenacity and organization of Arsenal, but the sheer joy in the positive excitement surging from the crowd every time Henry, Eto'o or Ronaldinho run with the ball at their feet.

It was the huge organizational effort UEFA put it, whatever one can think of their ways. I have attended several Super Bowls since the late Eighties and I can now say football authorities have made huge strides in making the Champions League final as smoothly-organized and enjoyable as the NFL has been doing for a while.

It was in the beauty of a stadium that despite being built almost ten years ago can still be defined as modern and fan-friendy, sightlines included.

Sometimes, despite the Italians' passion for calcio, which of course cannot be denied, it seems our lack of a culture of understanding sports and its precise place in society means we only gravitate towards football when we have a personal reason to do so; to let out our emotions and anger and frustration and rage.

It wasn't the case in Paris on Wednesday, but then there were very few Italians around.


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