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Sep 2, 2008

Disputes, riots and shocks - Serie A returns

Exquisite flashes of skill like the one Toto Di Natale employed to trap a long ball from midfield then lob it over Palermo goalkeeper Marco Amelia on Saturday for his and Udinese's second goal in a 3-1 win may have failed to imprint themselves in the memory of many Italians had it not been for events 24 hours earlier in Milan.

Lega, the Italian Football League, had finally reached an agreement with Rai, the State broadcaster, Mediaset, the commercial network owned by the Berlusconi family, and other networks over the new tv contract for the new season.

Sky, of course, own the rights to show all matches live on satellite, but until Friday no agreement had been close on the terrestrial rights. Had a deal not have been struck at the last minute, little more than the goals would have been available to Rai and Mediaset viewers, and all the Sunday night talks shows would have involved a lot of chatter, some bickering and the more than occasional shoutfest centered on something that could not have been shown, the actual game action.

One of the reasons for the protracted negotiations was that both Rai and Mediaset believed the Lega was asking for too much money: a total of 70m euros (in the end, it was 27.5m for Rai). Viewership for most of the highlights-cum-studio guests and rowdy audience shows had been disappointing for a while, the viewing public perhaps showing growing exhasperation towards some of the more disfunctional tv shows, and both companies felt spending too much on the rights would have made no financial sense (Mediaset) or betrayed the spirit of public service which Rai is nominally expected to provide, at a reasonable cost for the taxpayers.

In fact, it is encouraging to learn viewing figures are declining for those live shows, who often carry along an unlikely cast of former footballers with built-in clichés, outrageous pundits, inevitably a former referee asked to analyze each controversial incident, excruciatingly, at least five times before giving his opinion and even more inevitably an attractive female airing her football thoughts on the basis of her knowledge, usually rooted in being the girlfriend of a footballer or simply a beautiful face. Wisely, former star ref and current ref commissioner Pierluigi Collina mentioned 'former dancers and former refs apparently oblivious to their own shortcomings' among those who would be targeted by the refs' union legal office should it decide one day to clamp down on insults and partisan opinions.

That some sort of free-to-air football would be available to viewers unable to afford Sky or other pay channels was seen by many as some kind of natural right in the same sort as access to a public beach or to St.Paul's at the Vatican. Or in the same way the FA Cup Final or the Wimbledon tournament are listed among the events accessible to the viewing public in Great Britain.

Unfortunately, the notion of serving the public in Italy should not be reserved to 4-minute highlights but also be extended to protecting innocent train passengers. On Sunday, between 1,500 and 2,000 Napoli fans took control of a train bound for Turin, evicting the regular passengers (among them, a woman taking her son to a hospital in Genoa) and smashing it into pieces to the tune of half a million euros' damages on the way to the capital, where they also wrecked local buses taking them to the Stadio Olimpico.

Napoli fans have had a bad reputation for years, exposing the bias of many media organization who, in their southern-friendly ways, had bored readers and listeners to death for years praising Napoli fans for filling the San Paolo during the Maradona years and pandering to the hundreds of thousands potential customers down there.

Of course, and sadly, it could have happened in other places, but this is one time too many from Napoli fans and they're going to have all away travel banned in the near future. The problem may not stop there. A disturbing but hardly surprising story by reporter Marco Imarisio in Tuesday's Corriere della Sera exposes the fact the hardcore group of Napoli fans who wrecked the train were also at the centre of the street riots in Pianura last January, where local residents engaged the police in running battles to protest against the Government's decision to build a waste-disposal facility nearby.

At the time, according to Imarisio's story which quotes one of Sunday's train attackers, they helped local crime bosses fight the Government in order to preserve their monopoly over the waste-disposal business, and this says a lot about football's troubles.

Although one has to remember Napoli's top directors, Pierpaolo Marino, was recently fined for violating Italian Football Association rules by giving free tickets to groups of hardcore fans, an old and despicable practice used by many club directors to ensure publics backing.

Napoli's troubles cast a shadow over an exciting opening Serie A weekend. As newspapers were quick to point out, perhaps pointlessly as it's only the first match of the season, none of the expected top five managed to win, and pride of place must go to Bologna, the newly-promoted side who beat Milan 2-1 at the San Siro, sending the home team into panic mode already.

Actually, Bologna had only three goal chances, but took two of them extremely well, while playing a disciplined game in midfield and exposing the awkwardness of Milan's tactics at the moment. Carlo Ancelotti went with a 4-3-2-1 with Pippo Inzaghi as a lone striker backed up by Ronaldinho, drifting in from the left, and Clarence Seedorf. Ronaldinho had a much better than expected debut, creating chances which team-mates did not take, and flashing his well-known smile even after hitting a header straight at Francesco Antonioli after good work on the right by Gianluca Zambrotta. When Andryi Shevchenko and Pato were brought on, with the late addition of Emerson thrown forward as a - er - striker, Milan's afternoon disintegrated into a mess of balls lofted into the area from a short distance, and the defeat brought up the same sort of potential problems up front Ancelotti was bound to by having no fewer than six forwards.

While Bologna were celebrated their famous win - their second in a row away at Milan - and Napoli, as forceful on the pitch as many of their fans had been violent off it, were closing down Roma's attacking play and snatching a valuable draw at the Stadio Olimpico thanks to yet another flash of brilliance by Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik.

Elsewhere, Lazio came from behind to score four goals in Cagliari, setting the scene for that familiar situation for the Sardinia side: manager baiting.

One ancient Italian cliché about coaches in trouble is saying 'they won't eat panettone', meaning he won't last enough to taste the Christmas period delicacy, but in Cagliari's case Massimiliano Allegri, the former creative player turned successful manager, may be in hot water before tourists have the first fistful of panettone and its sweet mix is poured into a bowl.

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