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  • Top 10 Reasons to Watch Italian Soccer This Season
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Italian soccer always features at least a dash of drama. But the upcoming season, which only began this weekend, is already turning into a soap opera. That is the small price you pay for the passion of a soccer-mad country. Here, 10 subplots you can look forward to as the Italian soccer season kicks off:

    Alessandro del Piero
    Image copyright Francesca Di Meglio.
    All rights reserved.
    1. Football Fiascos: Between the financial woes plaguing most Italian teams -- even the likes of Lazio, which was unable to pay its players for months last season but still managed to be among the top of the scudetto -- and scuttlebutts about favoritism among the referees, controversy threatens to overshadow the beautiful game. Starting the season with protests about an increase in the number of teams in Serie B - from 20 to 24 - hardly helped matters. The expansion came after Catania, a team destined for the lower-level Serie C1, won a court case after proving that another team had fielded an ineligible player during one of last season's games. This meant that Catania should have gotten the win and enough points to stay in Serie B. The court decision led Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns A.C. Milan, to "save soccer" by passing legislation diminishing the power of the judiciary in matters concerning sports. In a recent phone survey, 8 in 10 Italians said that the soccer league results are unacceptable and a little less than half of those disillusioned fans said they threw away their team's flag because they believe teams only win if they have the right political connections. Che casino!

    2. Made in Italy: Last March, the Italian government approved legislation that limits the number of foreign players on each soccer team. Now, Serie A and B teams can only sign one additional non-European Union player for the following season and only if they cut or trade another foreigner first. The goal is to reduce the number of non-European Union players by 20 percent within three years, so that young Italians get more opportunities. Many critics have said this is going to damage the elevated level of competition for which Serie A has become famous. While at first that might be true, the league is better off in the long run. After years of grooming foreign players for national teams that went on to beat Italy in major competitions like the World Cup, Italy will finally invest in its native talent. If that means growing the next Alessandro Del Piero or Antonio Cassano, then the Italian league will hardly suffer. I believe, if nurtured, European players can be as skilled at soccer as Brazilians, Argentines and Africans. O ye of little faith!

    3. Big Mouthed Bobo: Inter striker and national team regular Christian "Bobo" Vieri has become famous for his outspokenness about everything from questionable referees at the 2002 World Cup to Ronaldo's sudden departure from Inter at the start of the 2002 season. This year is no different. He already lambasted the Inter management for letting striker Hernan Crespo depart for Chelsea. "The good players must be purchased, not sold," said Vieri, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "If Inter sell Crespo, this means that we are heading in opposite directions. I'd rather be sold instead of Hernan. Why do I have to stay here? To arrive once again third or fourth?" Bobo, we hear ya man!

    4. Size Does Matter: Inter defender Fabio Cannavaro may have needed an extra large soccer ball to cover up his jewels when he posed nude on the cover of Italian Cosmo last year. But this season he already keeps hearing that he is too small -- in stature, that is. The Italian national team captain, Cannavaro may start getting benched on occasion at his club because Inter Coach Hector Cuper is looking for lankier defenders to guard his door, and he thinks Cannavaro is too short. Since Cuper's comments about the importance of height in defenders at the end of last season, the diminutive but scrappy Cannavaro has had to use his skills as a defender to defend himself - off andon the field. Has anyone reminded Cuper that the boy can jump, and is as broad as a bull?

    5. Catenaccio, si o no?: The new soccer is characterized by aggressive efforts to move the whole team into scoring positions. Sempre avanti! But Italian soccer games, especially when in the spotlight at competitions like the World Cup and the Champions League, has become notorious for old soccer characterized by scoreless matches that end in penalty-kick shootouts after entire teams play defense for 90 minutes. With Vieri of Inter, Francesco Totti of Roma and Fabrizio Miccoli of Juventus itching to score, maybe this could be the year of the striker in Italy. GOOOOOAAAALLLL!

    6. Bye Bye Baggio: Brescia striker Roberto Baggio, perhaps the classiest player Italy has ever known, announced that he will retire at the end of the 2004 season. The end will be bitter sweet for the Italian people, most of whom rallied around him when Italian national team Coach Giovanni Trappatoni denied him a spot on the 2002 World Cup squad. Even after numerous knee injuries and surgeries, Baggio never failed to inspire his teammates and made extraordinary plays on the field. In many ways, he is the Michael Jordan of the soccer world -- unstoppable even as he aged. Famous around the world for getting the Italian national team to the 1994 World Cup final in the United States and missing the penalty kick that gave Brazil the victory, Baggio's career has featured its share of disappointments. But Baggio the man, who is humble, dedicated to his family and the many teammates he has mentored over the years, can raise his head high with pride. His departure will leave a rather large hole in the world of professional sports. Is there a player worthy and capable enough to fill his cleats? I'm not so sure.

    7. Homecoming: Last year Gianfranco Zola, a former Italian international, was the top-scorer for Britain's Chelsea. Now, he returns to Italy to play for Cagliari in his native Sardinia. He chose his more humble home as opposed to the name-brand team. Some people never forget from where they came. Beato loro!

    8. Rock Stars: As British striker David Beckham, robed in the finest designer garments, gains notoriety for the parties he attends, his pop-tart wife and famous friends, we realize that soccer players are the new rock stars (replete with groupies and stylists). Perhaps this will be the year that one of Italy's young and beautiful players - Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon? Striker Filippo Inzaghi? Forward Vincenzo Montella? - go the way of Beckham and become even more famous for their personal lives. Watch out world!

    9. All eyes on us: Everyone will be watching to see if Italian teams can repeat last year's success that included three Italian teams - Inter, Milan and Juventus - making it to the semi-finals of the Champions League. We witnessed history: the first-ever all-Italian Champions League final, in which Milan defeated Juventus on a penalty-kick shootout. Can the often criticized Italian teams get to the top of Europe again? At the same time, the Italian national team, which recently was ranked a rather lowly 14th in the world by FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has a lot to prove in the qualifiers for the 2004 European championship in Portugal. The long road is ahead of us.

    10. We're coming to America: Amid the financial crisis plaguing most European football clubs, managers are searching for new markets for revenue, namely the United States and the already burgeoning fan bases in Asia and the Middle East. Certainly, it was no coincidence that the annual Italian Supercoppa, which pitted Juventus and A.C. Milan for a rematch of the 2003 Champions League final, was played at New Jersey's Giant Stadium at the start of August. Although the crowd for the two Italian teams was small (about 54,128), nearly 80,000 people showed up for the friendly game between Manchester United of England's Premiership and Juventus three days earlier. Chef Rocco DiSpirito had his waiters wearing soccer jerseys on the NBC show The Restaurant, a reality series documenting the opening of a hip Italian eatery in Manhattan. (And DiSpirito himself wore la maglia Interista with Vieri's name across the back in one episode.) Even Old Navy, an all-American brand, got in on the act and issued a cotton Milan T-shirt that flaunts Milan's recent Champions League victory in felt lettering. Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

    I want to know how you came to know soccer, the world's beautiful game. Why are you a fan? Write me now at fdimeg10@aol.com

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