Football: FA Cup Final: Azzurri return to the twin towers

There will be many nationalities on the pitch today, but, says Glenn Moore, the biggest contribution will made by England's World Cup group leaders, Italy
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The Independent Online
When the FA Cup kicked off with its preliminary round in August, the most exotic thing about it was the name of one of the competing teams, Viking Sports. Today, 572 matches later, there will be more foreign players on the pitch than Englishmen.

There will be the first Brazilians to play in a final, the first Romanian, a Dane, one or two Norwegians, a Frenchman and maybe a Slovakian. Most of all, there will be Italians. After 115 finals without one, today they will be everywhere. There will be Italians in red and blue, in defence, midfield and attack, on the substitutes' bench, in the crowd and, in vast numbers, in the press box.

Italians have previously taken little more than a passing interest in the FA Cup but, said Cesare Maldini this week, "this year it's going to be something else''. The Italian national coach, who will be at Wembley to watch his five internationals, added: "Our players have made a terrific contribution to English football."

Some more than others. While Gianfranco Zola is Footballer of the Year, Gianluca Vialli has become the season's most famous substitute. Roberto di Matteo has been effective but low-key. In Middlesbrough Fabrizio Ravanelli has scored heavily in the cups but neither he, nor Gianluca Festa, have been able to save Boro from relegation. Ravanelli will be playing his last game for Middlesbrough today (unless there is a replay), and Festa may also leave.

The difference in the fortunes of the clubs is marked and has much to do with the way their foreign players have been integrated - or not. At Chelsea even Vialli, despite apparent provocation from Ruud Gullit, has been diplomatic outside the club and a good influence within. At Middlesbrough, Ravanelli has been quoted making critical remarks so often you feel there must be substance to them. He and Festa have also caused resentment by preferring medical treatment in Italy to using club staff.

Poor results obviously account for part of the difference, but there is more to it than that. Chelsea have had two great advantages over Boro. One is location. Ravanelli may live in an idyllic village in the Cleveland hills, but Ken Bates is probably right to suggest, with characteristic bluntness: "It's easier for foreign players to adapt to London than a northern outpost. It must be a great culture shock going from Rome to Middlesbrough compared to Rome to London."

All Chelsea's foreigners rave about London. Vialli may want to leave Chelsea, but he does not want to leave the capital.

The other advantage is experience. Chelsea have been signing foreigners since Ken Monkou and Erland Johnsen arrived in 1989. The first non-English speaker, Dimitri Kharin, arrived three years later. Dealing with their problems - Kharin was burgled in his first week - has given them the experience to set up a structure to look after the foreign players. This involves Gwyn Williams, the assistant manager, helping with the major aspects and Denise Summers, the personnel manager, doing the day-to-day nursemaiding.

An example of how these little details matter arose at Chelsea's Christmas party. When the Kharin family said they could not come, Summers did some investigating and discovered that, the previous year, Chelsea's `Santa' had told Kharin's son that next year he would have to stand up and tell a story. Five-year-old Igor was apparently so panic-stricken at the thought the family decided not to come.

Summers then wrote a letter from Father Christmas explaining that he "was very sorry but I am so busy this year I won't be able to hear your story. I hope you don't mind not doing it this year." Igor then enjoyed the party. Roberto di Matteo's blind sister has also been made very welcome, while Zola's father was happily roaming the training ground on Thursday.

Boro did not sign any foreigners from 1986, when they were reformed, to 1994. They then brought in Uwe Fuchs and Jan Age Fjortoft, who had both already been playing in England, and Jaime Moreno, a young Bolivian. Though they will have learned from the experience of Moreno, who was not a success, they do not appear to have set up a settling-in process like Chelsea's. Juninho has settled well, but he brought his family with him. Emerson's girlfriend was notoriously unhappy, while Ravanelli's wife has recently gone back to Italy with their son citing "air pollution". This is a new one to villagers at Hutton Rudby, where they live - and where Ravanelli is a regular, and noted, darts player in the Queen's Head.

Settled players are obviously happier players. They are also more likely to give something back. An obvious fear with the number of foreign players on show today is that English players are being squeezed out but, in the long term, this influx will produce better English players.

A visit to Chelsea's training ground at half-term underlined this. The site was thronged with children seeking autographs. The official session had finished and most of the players had been picked off but still the kids waited, and waited, and waited. Zola, Vialli and Dan Petrescu, a Romanian who previously played in Italy, were still out there. One youngster turned to his friends and said, in frustration: "The best players are still training." As his physics teacher might say, a classic example of cause and effect.

This dedication, this preparedness to work at their game, is what marks out the foreign players, and particularly the Italians, from most British- born footballers. Now the example is rubbing off. Just as Eric Cantona inspired the younger players to work on their game at Old Trafford, so Chelsea's youth players have begun aping the Azzurri at Stamford Bridge.

Jody Morris, the 19-year-old Young England international, has been sharing a room with Vialli all season. "He's been brilliant,'' Morris said on Thursday. "He always wants to practise his English so we are always talking about football. He often takes the younger players over to a corner at training and shows us things and helps us. People say the foreigners take our places, but we can learn so much off them. They do everything properly, warm-ups, fitness work. How else could I work with players like Luca and Franco [Zola] every day?"

Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, has noticed this effect of his club's cultural mix. "It's hard to persuade the 29-year-olds not to have six pints of beer after a game but we are really benefiting from them with the kids," Bates said. "They want to play with Vialli, Di Matteo and Zola. Those players say: `Yes we are good players, but if you want to be good you have to take more care of your body than the average guy. You have to work harder than the average guy.' The last time Chelsea had this appeal was in the 1970s, but the players were all Jack-the-lads. The seeds of Chelsea's years in the wilderness were set then as the next generation of kids thought you didn't have to train. If you were Chelsea, you drank."

l Additional reporting by Simon Turnbull and Andrew Gumbel

Gianluca Vialli

Fee: Free. June 1996. Age: 32. Previous clubs: Cremonese, Sampdoria, Juventus. A year ago he was preparing to lift the European Champions' Cup as captain of Juventus, now he is hoping "for five minutes". His arrival was hailed but he is too similar to Hughes, another scorer of great goals rather than great goalscorer, and has been squeezed out by the Welshman's form and the arrival of Zola. May yet play a dramatic part - remember Ian Rush coming off the bench to score the winner in 1989?

Gianfranco Zola

Fee: pounds 4.5m, Nov 1996. Age: 30. Previous clubs: Nuorese, Torres, Napoli, Parma. Crowned Footballer of the Year on Thursday, a gifted striker who is both a maker and taker of goals. Overcame ignominy of dismissal in 1994 World Cup and a missed penalty against Germany in Euro 96 to score against England at Wembley in February. Played alongside Maradona at Napoli and Asprilla at Parma. Son of a Sardinian bartender.

Roberto di Matteo

Fee: pounds 4.9m, July 1996 Age: 26. Previous clubs: Aarau (Swit), Lazio. Stylish and hard-working midfielder capable of playing holding role. Has tendency to disappear but, when in form, capable of great things. Not a regular scorer but a good finisher when given the chance. Born and raised in Switzerland.

Gianluca Festa

Fee: pounds 2.7m, January 1997. Age: 28. Previous clubs: Cagliari, Internazionale. Added much-needed strength and experience to Middlesbrough's defence when signed in January. Nicknamed "Uncle" and cheered with the chant of the "Addams Family". Escaped with a rogue punch in the fifth round tie against Manchester City but otherwise excelled in cup run. "He is a hard player," said fellow Sardinian Zola, whom he is expected to mark.

Fabrizio Ravanelli

Fee: pounds 7m, August 1996. Age: 28.

Previous clubs: Perugia, Avellino, Casertana, Reggiana, Juventus. Scored in the European Cup final a year ago then found, to his dismay, that he was not a part of Juventus' future. Nor will he be a part of Middlesbrough's after today. Though younger than he looks, he does not regard Nationwide League football as helpful at this stage of his career. Struggling to be fit today. "A great player and very dangerous, all of Chelsea hope he does not play," said former team-mate Vialli. "I do, he does not frighten me," said Franck Lebouef.