Much like one of the festive season’s now ubiquitous pantomimes, Serie A’s return from a winter break had everything; villains, heroes, a dose of magic, the absurd and some inexplicable stupidity doled out by the usual suspects.
Set on the public holiday that is the Epiphany when a mystical broom-wielding witch known as La Befana does her rounds of the peninsula, leaving a piece of candy that looks suspiciously like coal in every household, it didn’t take long for millions of Italian football fans to discover who had been good or bad over the last 17 days.
Serie A kicked off just after breakfast at the ungodly hour of 11:30am, perhaps before La Befana had even reached Sicily. The game’s timing had it’s fair share of problems, no more so than when it came to preparing the pre-match meal.
Julio Cesar, Inter’s Brazilian goalkeeper, said: “I had just woken up when I had to eat scrambled eggs, rice and chicken. The beauty of it was that I wasn’t even hungry.” Luckily, he managed to keep it down, something Ronaldo, Adriano and Maniche also would undoubtedly have had no problem doing were they still at the club.
His team-mates struggled, though, and throughout Inter’s gritty 1-0 win away to Chievo it looked as if several players were suffering from violent indigestion. The only thing festive about the whole affair was Jose Mourinho’s Christmas tree formation, which gave Patrick Vieira a charitable final starting appearance and Goran Pandev a debut following his free transfer from Lazio.
In all, 44 fouls were committed, nine players received bookings and most tragic of all Cristian Chivu ended up in intensive care after a clash of heads with Sergio Pellissier left him with a fractured skull and a dangerous haematoma pressing on his brain.
The focus should have fallen on Chivu’s health. His injuries have been compared with those sustained by Ferrari’s F1 racing driver Felipe Massa last year. The Romanian is now expected to be out for three months and Inter’s medical staff expect him to make a fully recovery. Unfortunately, as is too often becoming the case, it was Mario Balotelli who stole the headlines.
The 19-year-old scored Inter’s only goal of the game, but was whistled by the Verona crowd for going to ground far too easily. By all accounts, there were no racism in the chants, but Balotelli took act with the fans and clapped them sarcastically as he was substituted late in the second half.
As he collected his Man of the Match award, Balotelli couldn’t resist having the final say. “Every time I come here, I understand that Verona’s people disgust me even more.” The remark caused outrage. Minutes later, Mourinho defended not the player, but Inter’s hosts. “Verona is a very beautiful city. The club is well managed, educated, with a good trainer. In short, I like the people here. They are having a good season and if something happens in the stadium it’s nothing. Let’s not make a drama out of this.”
Wishful thinking, Jose, for it wasn’t long before Verona’s mayor was on the line. “Balotelli is an immature and presumptuous young lad. He will never be a champion,” Flavio Tosi explained. Chievo President Luca Campedelli said: “He cannot be allowed to offend the city. Professionals have to know how to accept the whistles. If Balotelli doesn’t then he is wrong. There were only whistles. I, for one, didn’t hear any racist booing towards him. It’s not the colour of the skin that’s the problem, but the attitude he has on the pitch.”
Editorials in Italy’s most respected newspapers took Balotelli as their subject this morning. Beppe Severgnini, the well-known Interista columnist from Il Corriere della Sera, wrote: “If the referee and the linesmen had been the Three Kings they might have looked up at the wandering star and said: is this really why you brought us here?”
There are two things we can take from this affair. 1] Balotelli has to decide whether he intends to become a top class player or, as Franco Arturi wrote in La Gazzetta dello Sport, remain an adolescent at war with his environment. 2] Chievo fans may not have launched racist chants towards Balotelli.
Indeed, they are perhaps only guilty by association with neighbours Hellas, who have been forced to play behind closed doors twice in the last two years for racism. But Balotelli has been specifically targeted in Cagliari, Bologna and Turin this season, which reinforces the point that it’s time to decide upon a punishment that really hurts clubs for the actions of a few Neanderthal supporters.
- Inter’s victory preserves their eight-point lead at the top of Serie A and made their coronation as winter champions for the fourth year in a row all the sweeter. In 77 years two thirds of Italy’s winter champions have managed to win the Scudetto.
- Juventus returned to winning ways after a three-game losing streak in Serie A. The Bianconeri travelled to high-flying Parma and came away with an ugly 2-1 win. Ciro Ferrara is safe for another three days at least until after this weekend’s match against Milan. If Juventus lose, it has been widely reported that the club’s new vice-general manager Roberto Bettega will bring in Guus Hiddink.
- Bolstered by the arrivals of David Beckham and the star of Ghana’s Under-20 World Cup win, Dominic Adiyiah, Milan look the most likely to challenge Inter this season, although it might already be too late. Leonardo’s side came back from a goal down to smash Genoa 5-2 last night with even Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scoring his first goal at the San Siro. The Rossoneri have a difficult January ahead with Juventus up next, then Siena, Inter and Fiorentina.
- Napoli are unbeaten since Walter Mazzarri took charge of the club on October 6. Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over bogey team Atalanta sees them leapfrog Roma into fourth place and pundits are tipping them to qualify for the Champions League. Hometown hero Fabio Quagliarella scored yet another screamer, his seventh of the season so far.
- Roma drop to fifth after throwing away a 2-0 lead in stoppage time. David Pizarro put them ahead from the spot against Cagliari despite being hit by a paper bomb as he left the field at the interval. Simone Perrotta then doubled the Giallorossi’s advantage, but the Sardinians came back and equalised through Roma legend Bruno Conti’s son, Daniele, who has now scored three goals against his father’s alma mater. Bruno called him “ungrateful” and a “degenerate” after the game. In jest of course.
- The Italian FA’s disciplinary commissioner has opened an investigation into reports that three Torino players bet on their side’s match against Crotone on November 28. Torino lost 2-1 and the defeat cost Stefano Colantuono his job. The case has eerie hallmarks of the 1980 Totonero scandal that led to Milan and Lazio being relegated.
- Mantova President Fabrizio Lori has been criticised for paying his players and not the workers he employs in his factories. Lori is famous for being something of a playboy after picking up fines for, among other things, parking his supercar illegally on some of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas and racing his motorboat up and down Venice’s Lido.