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Aug 21, 2007

The great goal exodus

While taking coals to Newcastle seems to have gone out of fashion, even as a cliché, taking goals abroad has apparently never been easier for Italian players.

With the latter, of course, it's always a matter of potential. Goals, after all, are immaterial even when they provoke the most concrete of responses, and you can't 'export' them just like that, just like another load of tomatoes. You just hope that the players you bring in can produce the goods when required.

But the promise of goals is basically what has prompted this season's unprecedented exodus of Italian strikers to greener pastures (England, Spain, Germany and - er - Ukraine) has meant. Luca Toni's strike against Werder Bremen on Saturday raised his total to two in two matches for Bayern Munich, while Rolando Bianchi's scoring debut for Manchester City at West Ham on the opening day eased the fears that the young Italian striker may find the jump from Reggina to the Premier League too awkward to take. Eastlands is now the home of Valery Bojinov, too, a Bulgarian who was basically raised in Italy from 13-years-old.

On the opposite side of Europe, Cristiano Lucarelli is now a Shakthar Donetsk player and expected to take his goal tally at least into double figures after netting 63 times in the past three Serie A seasons. Giuseppe Rossi will soon start his first Primera Liga campaign with Villarreal and in yet another corner of Europe Italy Under 21 striker Graziano Pellé has signed a five-year contract with AZ Alkmaar and is already marveling, according to an interview he gave to La Gazzetta dello Sport, at the high standards Louis Van Gaal has established in practice.

A quick count of the export business details turns up the impressive number of 86 goals which left Italy in the summer, although Rossi technically was a Manchester United player and only played for Parma on loan. That 86 is the total the aforementioned strikers scored in the Serie A last year, and it's not hard to see why many commentators moaned about the talent drain that is making our league poorer. Although none of these wise men realize that's the global market, baby, and Italy may well have become a selling country.

Obviously, the constant reference to this trend as being one in which foreign clubs 'poach' players is jingoistic. There was no poaching, obviously, only more financial muscle and better opportunity in football and life, and if someone is to blame it's not the foreign clubs - although it's clearly easier and lazier to do so.

At 21, Pellè should probably be expected to have a less cynical view than he has, but as he told Gazzetta: 'I was growing tired of our calcio. Look at what happened in Catania [when a police officer was killed in a riot]. How can you lose your life for a soccer match? And do you think it is normal that when a team struggles its players get assaulted by the fans? Do I go and punch the cook in the nose if I have a bad dinner? Then we had the Calciopoli scandal, with the loss of credibility. I felt I needed to leave'.

Still, Pellé would have joined Siena or Reggina without blinking had Lecce accepted either club's offer, but they rated their striker at a higher value and here he is, in Holland, back on the scene of a memorable moment during the European Under 21 Championships in June, when he scored his penalty in a shootout against Portugal.

His chipped spot-kick was so finely struck that the ball, caressed rather than kicked, traced a slow, agonisingly perfect arch in the air in front of the Portuguese goal before finally crossing the goalline. That's apparently when Van Gaal, sitting in the stands, made up his mind about Pellé, but it was still surprising to many when his move was announced, as the Dutch league is hardly seen as the place to be right now.

This obviously makes Pellé's transfer abroad much more difficult to stomach for many. One positive effect for all lovers of international football in Italy, though, is that the general public will get to read and see a little more of the Dutch league. It is perhaps only natural that the Italian media takes a deeper interest in leagues where Italians play, but sometimes the tendency of the press to believe the public are only interested in clubs linked to anything Italian becomes ridiculous.

I used to joke with colleagues that younger readers may have come to the conclusion Chelsea actually did not exist before Gianfranco Zola joined them ten years ago, and that the directors should probably have the club renamed since it was always mentioned in the media as 'Zola's Chelsea', as if the name of the club only gained significance when added to 'Zola' (or Vialli, Ranieri, Di Matteo. Now, obviously, it's Luca Toni's Bayern. As we all know, Bayern didn't even play proper football before the Azzurri striker joined them).

Seriously, though, the haemorrhage of goalscoring talent is a matter of concern: the great strikers who left have not been replaced by an equal number of foreign players of similar quality, which makes a mockery of one optimistic newspaper columnist's opinion back in March that the Serie A was getting its swagger back and at least some from the illustrious crowd of Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Shevchenko, Tevez, Drogba, Ribéry, Lampard, Vidic, Torres, perhaps Thierry Henry, would be making Italy their home soon.

As if, obviously, someone like Vidic would leave Old Trafford, where he has a starting place locked up, to join Juventus - that was the rumour then - for the simple allure of the Turin club's name, despite the fact they do not even play in Europe. And that's one reason the many 'exclusive revelations' on the calciomercato are among some of the most ridiculous things in football.

The only high-profile arrival from abroad has been budding superstar Pato, whom Milan see as a valuable addition to their Brazilian colony, but the 17-year-old will only be allowed to play from next January. Other notable purchases from abroad have been Juan and Giuly, who joined Roma, and Grygera, Salihamidzic and Tiago who joined Juventus. None of them, as readers will know, possess the wow factor that makes fans look forward to seeing them in action, nor are there many young players who could become stars like the aforementioned Pato.

What has been particularly galling for many is that none of the football migrants seem to have joined the top clubs in each country, save for Luca Toni, and still his decision left some observers unimpressed because he'd always said he wanted to play Champions League football - Bayern have not qualified. But there is a reason for this: big clubs, and there are just about four of them right now in Italy, could have done with a talent like Bianchi - who after a few weeks at Manchester City still maintained Serie A is the best league in the world - but the price Reggina were asking for his services was deemed excessive by many.

And with the current situation in the calcio, mid-table clubs are not going to upset their financial balance and wage structure by bringing in players whose goals may make a difference of a couple of wins per year at the most, with no practical advantage. Look at Sampdoria, who only accepted the gamble - and gamble it is, a huge one - of bringing back Antonio Cassano once Real Madrid accepted to keep shouldering most of the disruptive forward's costs.

This is also why Lucarelli accepted Shakthar's offer: he would never claim the Ukrainian League wields more class and international reputation as others, but his time at Livorno was clearly up after yet another spat with chairman Aldo Spinelli, and his choice was either join a big club as a reserve striker or make the jump abroad. Sadly, after being the local hero for som many seasons and pandering, admittedly out of personal belief, to the extreme left creed of many of the Livorno fans, Lucarelli was labelled a traitor by some of them. This was shameful treatment for someone who, famously, gave up half a million euros in order to join his hometown club, although too much may have been made of this as he was not exactly signing for Livorno for peanuts anyway.

One curious consideration which makes this goal exodus even more surprising is that it has probably never been easier to score goals in the Serie A. As former Italy Under 21 coach and notorious hard man Claudio Gentile remarked a couple of years ago, man-marking has almost disappeared in Italian players as a football skill, who have been bred to believe zone marking is the Holy Word in modern football.

Fabio Cannavaro may have had a great World Cup and Marco Materazzi has been known to use body, skill and words to great effect, but what used to be the hardest league to emerge as a goalscorer, so much so that the more nationalistic commentators would dismiss the goalscoring prowess of any foreign player unless he'd proved himself in Italy. Which, for example, still makes Ian Rush, in most Italians' opinion, a fraud, because he produced little in his only Serie A season. And the general consensus at that time was that English goalkeepers and defenders were donkeys so anyone could score against them.

Things may have not performed a 180°, but Serie A matches are much more open than it used to be, and the abundance of cheaper, plug-and-play foreign defenders who sometimes do not live up to their job title means there are plenty of opportunities for strikers.

So one thing we may expect from the upcoming season, which I will preview later this week, is a few new names in the goalscoring charts. Which may not be too bad, unless they move abroad, too, in twelve months' time. We may then have to endure a 'Pazzini's Charlton', next summer.


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