The Last Word: Title race - Boil down gently to a finish, add Italian seasoning
In confronting protest, Sculli’s stand was gripping and, on the face of it, inspiring
It misrepresents the denouement of the football season to speak of the temperature rising to a searing, scalding intensity. The attrition that has shaped both ends of the table sooner reflects a long, slow, low heat; a casserole that reduces and sheds all the fleshy cushioning of bluff and bluster, and now discloses the bare bones.
No neutral, accordingly, could possibly quibble with Manchester City as deserving champions, should they win their last two matches. For they quite plainly face a far harder task, at Newcastle tomorrow, than they did in the one last week billed as The Decider.
Those same neutrals, come to that, should be wishing Roberto Mancini well – because the team he seeks to depose surely cannot retain its status in Manchester, never mind the nation, after a performance so bereft of flair and ambition.
As against Basle, or the two Athletics (Bilbao and Wigan), on Monday the most accomplished British manager of the modern era seemed bereft of solutions. Seeing his men again stripped of their aura, Sir Alex was instead reduced to a tantrum with Mancini – this foppish dude, who has shocked him with a steeliness he thought patented in Govan.
In extremis, football tends to reveal character – or its lack – to the point of caricature. In this country, true, even a cosmopolitan playing population appears to adopt a suitably Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip. Some Blackburn fans have arguably contributed to their own downfall with unsparing vitriol through the winter, but Mancini will testify from recent events in his homeland that even the gravest crisis here is received, relatively speaking, with sangfroid.
Fiorentina have just sacked their manager, the seasoned and respected Delio Rossi, after his spectacular response to insubordination by one of his players: 2-0 down after half an hour, at home to Novara, Rossi had seen enough of Adem Ljajic. As he gave way, Ljajic gave his boss sarcastic applause and then, dropping into the dugout, a thumbs-up. Rossi went berserk. He leaned down and grabbed at Ljajic – 31 years his junior – before falling into the dugout, where he tried to push away various restraining hands so that he could aim a proper haymaker at the insolent boy.
His predecessor, Sinisa Mihajloviæ, might reproach Rossi only for undue restraint; the fans chanted their own support for his actions, and the team rallied for a draw. Some might even yearn for the relentlessly decent Roy Hodgson to do something similar with one or two of his new charges this summer. But Fiorentina's owner, while acknowledging that "months of stress came out in a few seconds", reluctantly felt he had no choice but to dismiss Rossi straight after the match.
In Serie A, however, the relegation run-in is a tale of two Rossis.
The previous week, a few dozen ultras managed to stop play at Genoa – a team in even deeper trouble than Fiorentina – after seeing a fourth goal conceded at home to Siena. They climbed into the family enclosure and threw fireworks on to the pitch. After the Siena players retreated from the field, the Genoa captain went to speak with the ringleaders, who had clambered on to the tunnel canopy. Marco Rossi was told that he and his men were not fit to wear their blue-and-red shirts, and so to remove them. Astonishingly – such is the meekness with which the Italian game, in too many respects, has failed to haul itself out of the Bad Old Days – Rossi consented, and went round asking his men to surrender their shirts. One was sobbing as he added his to the pile.
Only Giuseppe Sculli refused. He marched over to the protesters, confronted them with animated words and gestures, and eventually climbed on to the canopy himself. You feared for his safety. Instead he pulled the ultras' spokesman close, and whatever he said appeared to prompt a change of heart. Jumping down, Sculli told his captain to redistribute the shirts. After a 45-minute delay, play resumed.
Sculli's stand was gripping and, on the face of it, inspiring. Inevitably, Italy being so incorrigibly Italian, some discover grounds for unease in the footnote that his grandfather was for many years a fugitive from police investigating a crime syndicate in Calabria; or that Sculli was once banned for alleged involvement in match-fixing. One way or another, however, Sculli preserved his dignity in a way that shamed others.
Enrico Preziosi, the Genoa president, had certainly been unable to do so. And he himself scarcely has an unblemished past. (Preziosi, in turn, would fire his manager after the game.)
Meanwhile the whole calcio community seems braced for another traumatic series of corruption revelations. Yet among those of us who remain helplessly infatuated with the game in Italy, however troubled, it must simply be admitted that sport is always most engrossing when it divulges the man within.
Whether or not it is too simplistic to discern some national character within that man, the climax of the season has a uniform effect throughout Europe. For better or worse, richer or poorer, all pretence has been gradually stewed away.
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