Something To Watch Out For: Calcio Stories

Friday, January 31, 2014

As fans, we tend to view matters through a very narrow and focused lens that is trained on our chosen club.  It is all us and them; black or white; right or wrong.  The fine detail, that which enriches the tapestry of the game, tends to be lost to us.

It is only when our attention is directed to these stories that we get to notice and appreciate them.

And those are the stories that I love to to tell.  Discovering and then bringing back to life to story of a player whose achievements had been forgotten gives me immeasurably more joy than discussing the latest controversy.  So does talking about clubs who rarely get into the limelight but are nevertheless doing remarkable things.  To me, that is the writing that really matters.

These are the stories that I have been writing for the past years on whichever site would ask me; a collection of which I'm proud but also one that is spread all over the web.

Which is why I feel that the time has come to collect them all in one place in the form of an e-book.

The focus for now will be on individuals and their stories with another book collecting the stories of clubs scheduled for later on (and depending on how the first book does).  Already the bulk of the stories are written (for a sample, check this one on Ferdinando Valletti) but I intend to add a few more in order to give it added depth.

This mailing list has been created so that anyone who would like to be kept informed about the progress of the e-book can do so.  For me, however, just an occasional e-mail reminder doesn’t feel right so, every two weeks, I’ll be sending a short story from the Italian game which will (hopefully) keep you entertained.

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Lost in Transit: The Story of Hugo Enyinnaya

Sunday, December 18, 2011

“I’m going to be rich!” was the typically honest reply of Antonio Cassano when asked what went through his mind after scoring a fantastic goal against Inter as a 17 year old, upon making his first start for Bari in 1999. As crass as such a comment might seem, it was, perhaps, only natural for Cassano to react that way, having been raised in one of Italy’s most impoverished and tough neighbourhoods. As things turned out, though, it was quite a prescient thought. Cassano may have never fulfilled his early promise or achieved as much as he might over the last eleven years, but this player has certainly done pretty well financially for himself.

He was also probably not the only one whose thoughts turned to the promise of potential fortunes that night. Playing alongside Cassano and scoring an equally brilliant goal was another teenage striker in the form of Hugo Enyinnaya. Signed from the Belgian second division club Molenbeek a few months earlier for £125,000, the Nigerian might have been forgiven for thinking that his life was about to change dramatically when his shot from thirty yards out flew past Antonio Peruzzi to give Bari the lead.
But it didn’t. and while Cassano quickly established himself as a regular in Bari’s starting line-up, a series of injuries crippled Enyinnaya’s chances of a lengthy career. In three season he made just twenty appearances without ever managing a lnegthy run in the first team. Loans to Livorno in the Serie B (which resulted in two goals in seventeen appearances) and Foggia in the Serie C1 (from which he returned one goal in seven appearances) followed but when his contract was up there was no one willing to offer him a new one. At just twenty three years of age, Enyinnaya’s Serie A career was effectively over. 
Yet not everyone had forgotten about him. The former Udinese midfielder Marek Kozminski, who had just taken over as chairman at Polish side Gornik Zabrze, still remembered the Nigerian with the fierce shot and decided to make an offer for him. An offer was also received to join Hungarian side Debrecen, but Enyinnaya wasn’t convinced of the merits of this move. Agents promised him contracts with Italian sides but as the weeks dragged on, none of those promised materialised. So Enyinnaya decided to go to Poland.”They pay as well as they do in Italy and it will be in the top flight,” he said at the time, “It won’t be too bad”.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case and his story was about to take a turn for the worse. The contract that he signed was written exclusively in Polish, and which – whether intentionally or not – prevented Enyinnaya from noticing that the €10,000 a month that he had agreed to wasn’t mentioned anywhere. When he tried to get paid he was met with excuses. When he played he was pelted with bananas. After a couple of months he had, unsurprisingly, had enough and he left the club having made just four appearances for them.
Friends and agents were all contacted as he desperately tried to find a new club in Italy. Yet it all turned out to be in vain. There were no Serie A or B teams interested in giving him another opportunity, whilst clubs lower down the Italian league system were prevented from signing an ‘extracomunitario’ (a player from outside Europe). For Enyinnaya there was no going back. So he stuck it out in Poland making moves to Poland II Liga Lechia Zielona Gora and Odra Opale. Finally free from injury, he began scoring freely notching up thirty goals in some eighty games.
Eventually he did make it back to Italy, joining Anziolavinio in the Eccellenza (non-league) where the ban on non-Europeans didn’t apply. Within months he moved on to Meda and then Zagarolo. Always struggling to play and show a glimpse of that early promise, he finally gave up this year at the age of thirty and chose to return home to Nigeria. “I thought that after that day nothing would have been the same for me,” he says of that game with Inter struggling to mask his bitterness. “Especially as everything in my life before had sucked. They said that he [Cassano] would become like Maradona so I wanted to be at least like Careca”.
Instead, that game and that goal against Internazionale turned out to be the highlight of his career. “People ask me ‘Hugo, how’s Cassano’, as if I had remained the same as that young player”, he later said, “I’ve got no contact with Cassano, I don’t hear from him. In these years I’ve got through situations that have left their mark. My story was different from Cassano’s. Our paths were different.”
This article was originally published on TwoHundredPercent. This is Enyinnaya's goal from that night against Inter:

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A Different Kind of Success

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

With the exception of those who happen to be quite familiar with the Italian Serie B, that of Walter Salvioni isn’t a familiar name. Helping Ancona avoid relegation from the second division for the past two seasons count as the biggest achievements in Italian football for the man who took over at Triestina in the final week of December.

Yet there’s more to Salvioni than his modest CV reveals, starting by the inspiration that led him to take up coaching. “I was at Parma when Arrigo Sacchi arrived as manager,” he says during an interview held a couple of days into his new job. “At the time I was 32 and I would say that it was only then that I truly learned to play the game of football.”

“I wouldn’t say that I took nothing from my previous managers but Sacchi was something else; his approach to the game, the pressing high up the pitch, his offensive outlook, everything.”

The time spent with the man who would eventually lead AC Milan to dominate European football clearly marked Salvioni who has always tried to replicate his mentor’s system wherever he’s been.

At Vastese, his first managerial role, he was handed a group of very young players who were widely expected to be relegated. That prediction was ultimately played out but only on the final game of the season and, even so, the locals greatly appreciated the adventurous style of play adopted by Salvioni.

“Before the final game,” he recalls. “They had a banner that read ‘let’s go to support Salvioni’ which was a great way for them to show their appreciation.”

That of being put in charge of teams that are fighting against relegation is a recurring theme in Salvioni’s carrer, including this latest job at the side who went into the new year bottom of the Serie B.

“You have to give players a new stimulus, hit them with something new,” he says, talking of the impact he tries to make. “Before I accept a job, I check what the previous manager used to do in training and how he used to operate. If his method is similar to mine, then it is useless to go there as I won’t be able to change much.”

There have, however, been occasions where Salvioni was tasked with more than simply keeping a club up. Most notable was OGC Nice, the French club then owned by Franco Sensi where he spent eighteen months and achieved probably the biggest success of his career.

“Sensi had been there for some three years and had spent a lot of money without achieving anything. Ultimately he got fed up and so decided to sack everyone, from the club president to the groundsman!”

This created a vacancy that Salvioni, who had just left Parma’s primavera setup, was invited to fill. “What we found when we arrived was a group of players who weren’t willing to work hard enough,” he recalls. “Nice is on the Cote d’Azur so they were perhaps more interested in the beaches and the nightlife. What we did was instill in them the mentality that they were professionals and had to put in the effort if they wanted to achieve anything.”

The message eventually got through: after finishing thirteenth in his first season, Nice pushed on and were eventually promoted in his second year.

It was also at Nice that he met and shaped the future of a player who would go on to be on of the world’s best: Patrice Evra. “In my first year, there was a bit of pressure from within the club to use Evra,” Salvioni recalls, picking up the story. “My reply always was that I would use him when I felt that he was showing the humility and desire to improve. At the time he was a striker and I think he only played a handful of times that year.”

“But then, within three days of getting back together for the new season, I realized that I had a whole new Evra on my hands. His attitude had changed completely and he started to take on what we were telling him.”

By that point, Salvioni had already made a minor modification to his playing position by using Evra on the left hand side of midfield. Then necessity forced the Italian coach to make a further change. “The way I set out my teams means that I need my wingers to know how to defend so that they can cover for the full-backs,” he explains “so I knew that Evra was capable of handling that side of the game.”

“Then, during a game with Laval that we drawing 1-1, I needed to change some players and ended up putting Evra at left-back.” It was a switch that would define the career of a player who is now arguably the best in that position. “He was a revelation as we won the game, played there for the rest of the season and was one of the best defenders of the division.”

Even so, Salvioni is honest enough to admit that he wouldn’t have guessed that the player would achieve as much as he has. Not that he begrudges him such success. “I always say that if a player does well, it isn’t due to the manager but due to the player himself because he puts in the effort needed. The fact that he’s gone on to play for Manchester United is, I think, down to the hard work that he put in to constantly improve himself.” He might be too modest to say it, but the defender’s success is at least partly down to the work ethic that Salvioni instilled in him during that time in Nice.

For most managers, such a story would define their career. Salvioni, however, can also boast playing a key role in shaping the career of another player who is now one of the best there is and who, ironically, now plays opposite Evra for the blue club of Manchester.

This story takes us to Lumezzano, where Salvioni was put in charge with eight games to go and the team was fighting against relegation.

“Every Wednesday, to give some match practice to fringe players, I used to organize a friendly game with a different local side. Then one week we couldn’t find anyone so we played against the club’s junior teams.”

“It was during that game that I noticed a striker doing exceptional things with the ball. I asked the youth coach about him and he replied ‘Oh, that’s Mario Balotelli. He’s a bit mad but very talented’. At the end of the game I told him that starting from the next day he was going to be training with the senior side.”

Yet Salvioni had more in mind than simply having him train with the first team. “I wanted to play him but we had to get dispensation from a doctor before we could use him because he was still fifteen and at school at the time. The next Sunday I put Balotelli on when we were losing 1-0 and managed to draw the game. That was the impact he had despite being so young.”

Balotelli went on to play in the side’s remaining games and on the back of them earned a move to Inter. The two remained in contact – Salvioni recounts the flurry of excited phone calls he received when Balotelli learned that he was going to make his senior debut for Inter – and has no doubt over his talent.

“Perhaps he needed to be managed and guided a bit better to help him mature,” he says of the player who has often been in the news for the wrong reasons.

But there’s no doubting Balotelli’s love of the game, as a story Salvioni recounts highlights.

“When he joined the senior team at Lumezzano I used to notice him rushing off as soon as training came to a close. Then one day I confronted him and suggested he could stay behind to practice shooting. He replied that his brother was going to pick him up as he had to go home to study but I knew that this wasn’t the case because he used to come to training on his bicycle!”

“So I kept pressing for an answer and eventually he confessed that he was going to play football with his school friends!”

These are not the kind of stories that go on one’s CV and it is why Walter Slavioni – who actually prefers to be called Sandro – tends to go by largely unobserved. Yet for people like him people who are simply in love with football and for whom it is a joy to work within the game regardless at which level, it is such experiences that define just how truly successful they’ve been.

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One Game is Enough for Arnautovic

Monday, October 19, 2009

How long does it take to judge a player? In Inter's case the answer is one game and it doesn't even have to be a meaningful one.

That, at least, is judging by Marko Arnautovic's example. The Austrian forward arrived last summer from Twente Enschende and was promptly labelled as the next Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To be fair, there is a certain physical likeness between the two but reality is that it was the Slavic surname that really brought about the comparison.

Inter had battled hard to get Arnautovic. Twente were playing hard to get, a stand boosted by Chelsea's rumoured interested in him, but what looked like turning into an auction quickly fizzled out after the player suffered from a stress fracture to his leg that was to keep him out of action for a couple of months. Still, Inter were interested enough to press ahead with a loan deal that includes a clause allowing them to buy the player for €9 million.

Now it is increasingly looking as if they went through all that trouble for nothing. Already there had been rumours of Jose Mourinho's lack of enthusiasm over the player's attitude, what with his unwillingness to work hard to get back to shape and his increasing waistline. Rumours that increased considerably after Inter set up a friendly with Piacenza (which thely lost 2-1) last week specifically to test out Arnautovic and in which he was, by all accounts, crap.

Now talk has turned from 'if' Arnautovic will leave to 'when' with some insisting that it will be January and others going for next May. Either way, he doesn't seem to have a future at the club and will go down as another dud spotted by Inter's permanently beleagured sporting director Marco Branca.

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Serie A Preview 2009/10: Udinese

Friday, August 21, 2009

Main Transfers: Bernardo Corradi (Reggina), Jose Alemao (Santos), Leandro Caruso (Godoy Cruz), Kelvin Matute (Arezzo)

Outlook: Having waiting as long as they could, Udinese cashed in on Fabio Quagliarella this early on during the summer and with the money that they got ensured that they could comfortably price the likes of Gaetano d’Agostino, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata out of the market.

It is around that trio that coach Pasquale Marino will build his squad that, as per tradition, has been boosted by a host of new players from South America and Eastern Europe in the knowledge that one or two of them will turn out to be quite good.

Having to shift their focus between the league and the UEFA Cup didn’t help last year as they failed to achieve any of their goals. There will be no such distractions this time round so nothing short of a Europa League spot will do.

Manager: Last season was a tough one for Pasquale Marino as the side seemed to hit the wall mid-way through the campaign and he was unable to lift them back up. This led to talk of Pasquale Marino being replaced but such knee-jerk reactions aren’t in Udinese’s style. That said, they’re unlikely to be as forgiving if the team suffers another disappointing season so the pressure is on.

Key Player: Having some of the biggest clubs in Europe express an interest in you can play havoc with a player’s mind so it will be interesting to see how Gaetano d’Agostino (pictured) does after a summer when Juventus, Real Madrid and Liverpool were all willing to sign him until they heard of the price tag that Udinese had placed on him. An intelligent ball playing midfielder, hopefully he will realise that in World Cup year it might be better for him to stay at Udinese where he is guaranteed a starting spot and as a result the opportunity to remain in Marcello Lippi’s mind.

One to Look Out For: Manchester United are apparently interested in signing striker Alexis Sanchez and it is easy to see why as the young Chilean striker has both the skills and the strength to be a world beater. Now that Fabio Quagliarella is gone, he is expected to step in and play on a more regular basis, something that is likely to lead more clubs into following United’s lead and try to sign him.

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Serie A Preview 2009/10: Siena

Main Transfers: Gael Gennevier (Pisa), Gianluca Pegolo (Parma), Reginaldo (Parma), Francesco Parravicini (Atalanta), Albin Ekdal (Juventus), Michele Fini (Cagliari)

Outlook: Another summer, another host of key players that have left but still no one seems overly worried. Key for them was holding on to manager Marco Giampaolo whose organisational skills are at the heart of their continued survival in the Serie A despite the constant sale of key players.

Maintaining their impressive home form will be of imperative importance for Siena as it is there that they must gain the points that will ensure a stay in the Serie A for the eight consecutive year.

Manager: With such a good track record both at Cagliari and at Siena, there were expectations that Marco Giampaolo (pictured) would move this summer yet, as with many others, the big clubs’ decision to look within for new managers meant that his options were limited and ultimately he ended up staying at Siena. Not that he seems all too disappointed as it gives him the opportunity to keep building on the side that he already knows so well.

Key Player: Captain Simone Vergassola is not a player that many are likely to notice but his hard work in midfield is key for Siena and typifies their attitude where working hard for the team as at the base of everything.

One to Look Out For: Agostino Garofalo’s season at Grosseto didn’t end in the best of manners as he was accused by the club’s president of focusing largely on not getting injured to ensure that nothing jeopardised his move to Siena but up till that point the left midfielder had played a significant role in the small club’s surprising run to the top of the Serie B. Now that he gets his wish of playing in the Serie A, Garofalo will have to fill the void left by Daniele Galoppa.

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Serie A Preview 2009/10: Sampdoria

Main Transfers: Daniele Mannini (Napoli), Fernando Tissone (Argentina), Marco Rossi (Parma), Matteo Guardalben (Treviso).

Outlook: The arrival of manager Gigi del Neri was the big news of the summer for Sampdoria whose transfers have largely been low key. Of utmost importance for them was keeping the strike duo of Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano after the two hit it off so well in the second half of last season.

The two did so well that it led to inevitable comparisons to Sampdoria’s other strike partnership made up of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli. Pazzini and Cassano are perhaps just as talented as those two, and their understand almost as telepathic, yet the rest of the team is nowhere near as good as the one of Sampdoria’s golden era so dreaming of repeating their success is just that: dreams.

Sampdoria is usually a tranquil club where expectations aren’t too high but neighbours Genoa’s success last season has raised the stakes and they will now be expected to do just as good, even though the squad doesn’t look good enough to do so. A youth system that seems to be producing a number of promising players will help but the Coppa Italia once again looks like their best bet.

Manager: For some years, the man who had led Chievo Verona to the Serie A and then the Champions League looked to have lost his way as spells at Porto, Palermo and Roma all ended abruptly and with his reputation shredded. Yet the beauty of Italian football is that, despite all the sackings, coaches still keep of finding jobs and Gigi Del Neri was lucky enough to be given the chance to manage Atalanta, one of the most stable ones around. That stability allowed him to rediscover his touch as he led the Bergamo side to two good seasons. Having decided that he had taken them as far as he could, Del Neri now moves to an equally stable but perhaps more ambitious Sampdoria in the hope that here he can continue his upward ascent.

Key Player: Off the pitch he might not be the model professional that everyone seems to expect football players to be and his lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired. Yet there are few players in the world that can ignite a football game with a piece of individual magic as much as Antonio Cassano (pictured) can. There were rumours of Inter making a move for him but most probably it is better for him to stay at Sampdoria where he is the big fish in a small pond rather than end up being swallowed by the squad culture as he was in Madrid.

One to Look Out For: The best player of the last Viareggio Tournament – a famous youth competition held annually in the city of Viareggio – Guido Marilungo made his first full start for Sampdoria against Cagliari and marked the occasion with two goals. Five further games ensued during which he scored once more but enough had been seen of the twenty year old to offer him a five year contract at the end of June.

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