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The Replacements Give Italian Soccer a Rebirth
June 12, 2005 - Italy gave second string players a tryout on the national soccer team during a two-game North American exhibition tour. The team, helmed by former Juventus of Turin coach Marcello Lippi, tied both Serbia-Montenegro in Toronto and Ecuador in New Jersey one to one on June 8 and 11 respectively. Without Italy's highly paid superstars, like Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, for once, Italian soccer was really about the game.
At the second game in New Jersey, Palermo's Luca Toni and Franco Brienza looked almost like ballerinas when they glided toward the opposing team's goal. Off a long cross from Brienza, Toni headed the ball past Ecuador's goalkeeper Cristian Mora in the sixth minute of the first game Italy had played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. since the 1994 World Cup. That national squad went on to the World Cup final but was defeated by Brazil. Back then, the stadium was filled to the brim with Italian supporters. But only a little more than 27,000 people showed up for what I would call Italian soccer's rebirth.
Even though this replacement team won't last for long, it made a statement about how much things are changing in sports - and especially Italian soccer. After numerous, embarrassing losses in important tournaments - from the European to the World Cup - people have had enough of those overpaid, larger-than-life athletes. A doping scandal featuring Italy's most popular club Juventus certainly didn't help matters. (Not that we fans are much better ourselves, considering the disturbing outbursts at Italian stadiums in recent years!)
But watching some of the lesser known, lesser paid, more down-to-the-earth players was a breath of fresh air for die-hard fans in North America. They didn't necessarily know the names of the players on the field. But they watched every movement and stood proudly as they sang Fratelli D'Italia. They cheered wildly and loudly for every near goal. They remembered a time when soccer was about the game - and not about Totti's mistake of spitting on an opponent or whether goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is having a bad day because he broke up with his girlfriend.
Toni represents a new era in Italy, an era in which smaller - and sometimes even southern - clubs are having success. Palermo, in its first year out of Serie B, inspired the masses by reaching sixth place. And so did their counterparts at fourth place Udinese, fifth place Sampdoria and seventh place Messina. Without the warped egos of superstar players, these teams put the spotlight back on the sport itself - the beauty of a curling pass or a heart-stopping save from right in front of the goal line. Stand-by teams like Lazio and Roma trailed behind.
Now, that's not to say that we'll travel back in time and start seeing players paid minimal amounts and have them traveling on the subway with us regular folk. There's no turning back on sport as business. However, games like the ones played in Giants Stadium last weekend have the power to move people, to unite them. In this business, I constantly hear about how the various Italian American groups can never get their acts together to support one another. But on Saturday in Giants Stadium everyone was a fan, everyone was a paesano, and everyone was on the same side. Forza Italia!
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