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Apr 29, 2009

Bologna struggle in centenary year

No baloney, but it's funny how the name "Bologna" evokes memories of everything, outside of Italy, except a successful football team. 45 years have now passed since the local side last won a Scudetto in a memorable play-off against Inter in Rome, and their modern-day battles revolve mostly around trying to avoid becoming a side who push the elevator button up and down every year.

Having left the Serie B last year, they were expected to establish a mid-table presence this time, backed by a resourceful owner and a squad that had been strengthened by the addition of a couple of experienced players. Unfortunately, both of those pluses soon became minuses: Alfredo Cazzola, the owner, sold the team to his former partner Renzo Menarini, and some of the newcomers failed to live up to their reputation except for centre-forward Marco Di Vaio, who has now scored 21 goals in 33 games, or 58% of his side's total of 36.

The Cazzola story itself would require an entire article, but here it is in short: one of the few genuine self-made men in Italy - most of the up-and-coming entrepreneurs the media lavish praise on are simply the sons and daughters of established stars of the business world - he had been a highly successful trade-show organizer, owner of local basketball side Virtus (who won trophies in the Nineties) and publisher of motor and basketball magazines, before taking on the task of lifting Bologna back to the top flight, which he did.

After accepting what ultimately turned out to be a unsuccessful offer to the club from Italian-American lawyer Joe Tacopina, Cazzola sold Bologna to Menarini and his last act as chairman was to sit in the directors' box at the San Siro last August, when the Rossoblu honoured their return to the Serie A by shocking Milan with a 2-1 win. A few days later Renzo Menarini completed the purchase from Cazzola, who is now running for Mayor of Bologna, and handed the chairmanship to his 44-year-old daughter Francesca, who joined Roma's Rosella Sensi, daughter of late owner Franco, as the only woman in charge of a top-flight football club in Italy.

However, the Menarinis have endured a torrid time since September. Bologna had followed up the San Siro win with five consecutive defeats, three of them at their less-than-intimating Dall'Ara; a 3-1 win over Lazio ensued, then three more defeats and the latest, a meek 5-1 surrender to Cagliari away on November 2, sealed the fate of manager Daniele Arrigoni.

On the apparent suggestion of Roberto Mancini, Inter's former number two Sinisa Mihajlovic was then named as a replacement, and his appointment at least managed to stop the rot. Bologna went on a nine-game unbeaten streak, but most of those were draws, five in a row after Mihajlovic was installed, then two more sandwiched between brilliant 5-2 and 2-1 wins over Torino and away to Catania.

Then the roof fell in: only two more wins in 12 matches, and a sequence of four consecutive defeats from March 14 to April 11 that led to Mihajlovic getting the boot as Bologna dropped into the relegation zone again. The last straw was a 1-4 home defeat to a Siena side which had already achieved a comfortable mid-table position and apparently had nothing left to play for. The fact the visitors seemed - read again: seemed - to be more lively, interested and active, coupled with a few glaring mistakes by Bologna players, turned the crowd against the side, with the customary reactions that readers will find detailed in the appendix at the end of this story.

After Mihajlovic left, apologising to the fans and the organisation for letting them down in a classy move that belied his reputation as a hard and uncompromising individual, enter 61-year old Giuseppe Papadopulo, an experienced coach who had had encouraging success with previous teams.

Under Mihajlovic, a few veterans had been left out of the side once the Serbian coach deemed them unworthy of a place in the starting XI, but Papadopulo set about reinvigourating them for the cause and set a clean slate of reputation, where each player would have to work hard to gain a place in the side. Despite this encouraging mindset, his first match in charge was a disaster: another 4-1 reversal at Palermo, where his preferred 3-5-2 formation - the tenth different one the Rossoblu have used this year - proved to be ill-suited to Bologna's personnel. This made last Sunday's home match against Genoa (perhaps the most brilliant side in an entertaining Serie A this year), even more crucial for Bologna's chances of survival.

It is, after all, that dodgy-result time of the season: the part of the campaign when you cannot even rely exclusively on your own forces, where fans of struggling teams half expect sides with little to play for to let down their guard. As uncomfortable as this is to say in print, suspicions also run wild. Fans are especially wary of matches where the side who's already safe scores first - as if to show their mettle - then concedes two goals, or matches where struggling team A scores early then controls play without breaking a sweat.

There doesn't have to be corruption or foul play, not even a silent agreement between sides: it just, er, happens. That's why it was shocking to see Udinese grab a very late winner at Chievo on Saturday. Udinese, obviously, honoured football and themselves and checking the fixtures to see whether your side's opponents will have reasons to be motivated is as important as knowing whether your players are in the right shape.

Bologna did show an improvement on Sunday: defensive mistakes that had marred most of their performances, to the point that they had kept only three clean sheets all season and had conceded 1.8 goals a game, the worst in the Serie A, were almost non-existent - although Genoa's Bosco Jankovic somehow managed to miskick the ball from ten yards out and perhaps fuel suspicions around the country.

Then within 10 minutes Genoa defender Salvatore Bocchetti first gave away a silly penalty, which Di Vaio converted, then failed to cover defender Claudio Terzi, who slotted in a free-kick at the far post, and Bologna coasted through the rest of the game in driving rain, while Genoa rarely showed the brilliant movement and attacking form that had seen them rise to fourth place and potential Champions League qualification only last week.

Those three points did not lift Bologna out of the bottom three, though. In their centenary year, the Rossoblu still have a struggle on their hands, but at least some of their fate is in their own hands: of the remaining five matches, they play two each against teams directly above and below them, hoasting already-safe Catania in the last one. The words "relegation-six pointers" may now take on more meaning.

  • Appendix

    Relegation struggles can cause a chain of events which is fairly predictable in Italian football. Methods can differ from club to club, and sometimes geographical considerations - a touchy issue here - affect the fans' behaviour, but here is a checklist of what usually happens when a side slides down the table and does not meet the fans' expectations. You may want to cut this out and keep it as future reference because the pattern will be repeated over and over again. A warning: this is not exactly what happened in Bologna, but a general list of events, based on experience.

    •  Side loses the nth game in a row

    •  Angry mob - dozens or hundreds depending on size of fan base, day of week, level of awareness that other things beside football do exist in life - meets team at the airport or car parka and demands a better attitude, among choruses of "go find a real job" ("andate a lavorare") and "you're not fit to wear the shirt" ("disonorate la maglia!")

    •  Side loses again

    •  Repeat second phase

    •  Handful or dozens of "Ultras" break into the training ground, demand a meeting with the manager and the players, verbally abuse those who are deemed not to be running hard enough, ask for a better result next time or.. else; alternatively - which was the case in Bologna and other places - choice words are hurled from the stands or written in banners hung on the chainlink fence during training; graffiti may also be written on walls on the way to the training ground

    •  Team loses again, fans put more pressure on players; manager may be axed

    •  Or, team wins at last, Ultras metaphorically nod to each other acknowledging their intervention made a difference and prepare to do same next time side struggles.

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