From the best shinpads to the worst misses, via a referee-shaped dog-chew toy, it’s our end-of-season Italian awards
The numbers were simply unprecedented. Never before had a Serie A team broken the 100-point barrier, nor won 33 games in a single campaign. Never before had an Italian side posted a perfect home record in a 20-club top flight, nor found the net in 37 out of their 38 fixtures.
Juventus did all of these things, and more, en route to their third consecutive scudetto. It is the first time since the 1930s that the Old Lady has won so many back-to-back titles; on paper this was the most brilliant of them all.
And yet, not everyone was impressed. Rather than laud the Bianconeri’s achievements, many in Italy have questioned what such an outcome says about the overall state of Serie A. After all, this same Juventus team crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage, and subsequently failed to reach the final of the Europa League.
“Italy is no longer competitive [and not just at football],” wrote Fabio Licari in Gazzetta dello Sport after Juventus were eliminated from the latter competition in April. For the first time since 1984, the nation will fall to fifth in Uefa’s country rankings.
Not that this comes as a surprise. There is a danger in reading too much into individual results, but Italian performances in Europe have been slipping for some time. Since Internazionale won the Champions League in 2010, only three Serie A teams have made it into the quarter-finals of that tournament. They were eliminated there by a combined aggregate scoreline of 14-4.
This year only Milan squeaked through to the knockout phase, where they were easily beaten by Atlético Madrid. The Europa League, too, was discouraging. Udinese failed to qualify for the group stage, before Lazio were defeated by Bulgaria’s Ludogorets Razgrad in the round of 32.
More troubling still for Italian football have been the persistent instances of fan violence. The tone for this season was set as early as September, when Verona’s team bus was ambushed by Roma ultras hurling rocks as it left the Stadio Olimpico. Gazzetta described an “almost military” level of precision to the assault, which damaged the vehicle so badly that Verona had to postpone their return home until the following day.
Eight months later, three Napoli fans were shot on their way to the Coppa Italia final at the same stadium. A Roma ultra, Daniele De Santis, stands accused of pulling the trigger, even though his team were not involved in the match.
Between those two incidents came many more. Milan were trapped inside their own stadium following a draw with Genoa in November, hundreds of fans blocking the exits until they were granted an audience with players. Two months later, the Lazio owner Claudio Lotito would tell reporters that he was receiving 50-60 death threats per day since selling Hernanes to Inter.
This was also the year in which the phrase ‘territorial discrimination’ was thrust into the national consciousness. Adopting a hard-line interpretation of new Uefa guidelines on racism, the Italian Football Federation imposed stand and stadium closures on teams whose fans insulted the “human dignity” of supporters from different parts of the country.
Rival ultra groups rallied together in solidarity against these new rules – ratcheting up the levels of abuse. At one point Napoli supporters even unfurled a banner accusing themselves of having cholera, daring the authorities to punish them.
The sight of more games being played behind closed doors offered a dispiriting backdrop to a season which nevertheless served up plenty of entertainment. In another year Juve’s charge to the title might have made for dull viewing, but on this occasion things were kept interesting by Roma’s fearsome pursuit.
The Giallorossi were a revelation under new manager Rudi Garcia, winning their first 10 games and going on to post their highest-ever points total in Serie A. The Frenchman imposed his personality from the outset, stating his intention to “put the church back in the centre of the village”. Unlike his predecessor Zdenek Zeman, he would never criticise his players in public, instead reserving his ire for those fans who showed up to jeer them in preseason.
A rejuvenated Francesco Totti led the way for a group that was improved significantly by Kevin Strootman, Gervinho and Mehdi Benatia. A series of draws from November into December saw Roma fall behind Juventus, but it was not until May that Garcia finally raised the white flag, conceding the title only when his team found themselves eight points behind with three games left to play.
Roma could take pride in finishing comfortably ahead of third-place Napoli. The Partenopei were sometimes brilliant in their first season under Rafael Benítez, beating Juventus, Roma, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, as well as winning the Coppa Italia, but at other times they were just immensely frustrating – dropping points against seven of the eventual bottom eight.
Despite this Benítez charmed his audience in Naples, conducting lively press conferences in which he manoeuvred around journalists to illustrate a tactical point, or handed out flowers to female journalists. Pizzas and life-size terracotta statues were made in his honour.
His life might have been more difficult were it not for the knee injury suffered by Giuseppe Rossi in January. The Italy striker had been Serie A’s leading scorer up to that point, driving Fiorentina’s challenge for third place. Without him, La Viola could not keep pace – although Vincenzo Montella’s side still finished fourth, playing some of the best football in the division.
They acquitted themselves far better than either of the two Milan teams. For Inter this season represented the end of an era, Massimo Moratti selling his majority share in the club to Erick Thohir after 18 colourful years. Milan also overhauled its leadership structure, as Barbara Berlusconi joined Adriano Galliani as co-vice-president in an uneasy power share.
As usual, Mario Balotelli dominated headlines. Billed on a preseason Sports Illustrated cover as “the most interesting man in the world”, he went on to score 14 goals in 30 league appearances but collected nine yellow cards and much criticism along the way. He also found himself at the centre of a high-profile paternity dispute. In February a DNA test proved that he was indeed the father to Pia, the one-year-old daughter of his former girlfriend, Raffaella Fico.
This was a bumper year for gossip columnists, who also found plenty of material in Mauro Icardi’s relationship with Wanda Nara – the former wife of his former team-mate (and friend) Maxi López. The so-called ‘Wanda Derby’, when Icardi’s Inter thrashed López’s Sampdoria in April, will go down as one of the most memorable games of the season.
But the football itself provided plenty of juicy storylines, as well. This was the season when a new wave of talented young Italian forwards made their mark, from Ciro Immobile scoring 22 goals at Torino – and becoming the league’s Capocannoniere in the process – through to a teenage Domenico Berardi, who blasted three hat-tricks for newly promoted Sassuolo.
At the other end of the scale, 36-year-old Luca Toni enjoyed one of the finest seasons of a wonderful career, finding the net 20 times for Verona. On the sidelines, Roberto Donadoni’s managerial stature grew as he lead Parma to an unexpected Europa League berth.
But of course, there was so much more. So without further ado, let us get into celebrating the best and worst of the season, with the 2014 Bandini awards.
“I do not judge an attacker on the basis of the goals that he scores,” insisted Antonio Conte back in March. The Juventus manager was protesting against media criticisms of Dani Osvaldo, arguing that the forward’s failure to find the net for his new team was irrelevant as long as he was working hard and contributing in other ways.
But in Carlos Tevez, the manager found his ideal – a striker who would both sacrifice himself for the team and bag his share of goals as well. The Argentinian was at his bustling best for Juventus this year, running tirelessly, harrying defenders and bringing team-mates into play.
He finished the season with 19 league goals – more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Michel Platini or David Trezeguet managed during their first seasons in Turin – but crucially also seven assists. If there is one knock on Tevez this season, it is that he failed to match such output in Europe – scoring just once in 12 games. But domestically, he was invaluable to Juve’s record-shattering charge.
Honourable mention: Giuseppe Rossi had 14 goals in 18 league games prior to his injury. He finished with 16 in 21. Had he stayed fit for the whole season, there is a good chance that he would have been the runaway Capocannoniere, and winner of this award as well.
5) You will not see a much prettier outside-of-the-boot volley than the one Paul Pogba teed himself up for against Napoli.
4) Miralem Pjanic only scored six goals this season, but almost had more than one entry in this list. His chip against Verona in September was delightful, but I rank it just behind his sensational run and finish against Milan.
3) We had two contenders in the same weekend for greatest long-range blast. Mario Balotelli’s thunderbolt for Milan against Bologna had slightly more power, but Emerson’s strike for Livorno against Cagliari came from even further out.
2) Antonio Di Natale has not yet confirmed whether he will return for Udinese next season. But if he does indeed retire, then at least he went out with a glorious turn and volley in his penultimate game, against Verona.
1) Alessandro Lucarelli’s audacious backheel volley for Parma against Torino looks all the better when you consider that he is, in fact, a centre-back.
Gervinho had a fine first season with Roma, scoring nine league goals and providing 10 assists, but there was still room in his game for the occasional mishap. Against Catania he contrived to side-foot on to a post with an open goal at his mercy.
Pepe Reina ended Mario Balotelli’s perfect career record from the penalty spot, plunging to his right to push the ball around a post as Napoli beat Milan in September. The spot-kick was not brilliantly struck but for symbolic value alone, this deserves the award.
Former Parma goalkeeper Lamberto Boranga, just a few days shy of his 71st birthday, went airborne to deny Faustino Asprilla during an exhibition match to celebrate the club’s centenary.
For 65 minutes, it seemed like the same old story. Juventus arrived at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in October looking down on Fiorentina in the league standings, and quickly blasted their way to a two-goal lead. They had not lost in Florence since 1998 – back when Gabriel Batistuta was starting up front for the Viola. First Carlos Tevez and then Paul Pogba imitated his goal celebration, miming a machine gun with their hands.
The home team seemed to have no response, drifting towards an inevitable defeat. Then Matí Fernández went down in the area. Giuseppe Rossi converted the penalty, and suddenly everything changed. The striker scored twice more, either side of a goal from his team-mate Joaquín. Fiorentina won 4-2, becoming the first team to score four goals against a Conte-managed Juventus. Not to mention one of only two teams to beat the Bianconeri in the league all season.
Honourable mention: There was no more decisive individual performance this season than the one provided by Domenico Berardi against Milan in January, when the 19-year-old became the first player ever to score four goals in a single game against the Rossoneri. His efforts were enough to earn Sassuolo an improbable 4-3 victory. Milan sacked their manager, Massimiliano Allegri, a day later.
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus); Mehdi Benatia (Roma), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Leandro Castán (Roma); José Callejón (Napoli), Kevin Strootman (Roma), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Arturo Vidal (Juventus), Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina); Carlos Tevez (Juventus), Ciro Immobile (Torino)
Subs: Mattia Perin (Genoa), Gabriel Paletta (Parma), Boukary Dramé (Chievo), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Miralem Pjanic (Roma), Juan Iturbe (Verona), Luca Toni (Verona)
Roma’s players had no idea what to expect when Rudi Garcia was appointed as their manager. In an interview with So Foot, Daniele De Rossi recalled typing the Frenchman’s name into a search engine, and then watching with bemusement as the first link he clicked on led him to a video of Garcia playing the guitar and singing Porompopero. “I was with the national team at the time,” said De Rossi. “I called Pirlo over and said: Fuck, look who we’ve hired!”
But it was not long before De Rossi himself was singing the manager’s praises. “I thank God every day that we hired Porompopero,” continued the midfielder. “He can be a turning point in Roma’s history.”
That sentiment might be premature, but there is no question that Garcia did an exceptional job this season, taking a group that had just finished seventh and making them the No1 challengers to Juventus. In most seasons, they would have had a good shot at winning the scudetto. Coming in second to a record-breaking rival does not diminish the manager’s achievements.
5: Number of games that Alberto Malesani lasted as manager of Sassuolo, after being hired to replace Eusebio Di Francesco in January.
0: Points collected by Sassuolo during Malesani’s tenure.
2: Occasions on which Rolando Maran got sacked by Catania this season. After losing his job for the first time in October, Maran was re-appointed in January only to get it again in April – with his team bottom of the league.
In September, Genoa’s youth team goalkeeping coach Luca De Prà was found hiding in the woods that overlook Sampdoria’s Bogliasco training base – armed with a pair of binoculars and dressed in full military fatigues. More amused than upset, Sampdoria posted a picture on their club website describing him as “a new Rambo, hiding out amongst the branches”.
“No prisoner has been taken” continued its accompanying article. “Nor has there been any needless spilling of blood. Once caught with his hands in the marmalade, the enemy soldier was allowed to return to his base. You must always pardon your enemies. Nothing annoys them more.”
But De Prà had the last laugh. Genoa disavowed any knowledge of his actions and suspended him from work for a week. But by the time he returned, his team had thrashed Samp 3-0.
“A Conte Juventus team without rage is as credible as a tiramisu without mascarpone” – Luigi Garlando keeps our mind on dessert in the pages of Gazzetta dello Sport (hat-tip to the excellent Matt Barker for spotting this one).
Before his team’s game against Napoli the Parma goalkeeper Antonio Mirante was seen spitting out a piece of chewing gum only to flick it straight back up from his right boot into his mouth.
A close run thing, with a pair of excellent entries. Napoli’s Vesuvius-themed Christmas cake was impressive, but it takes second place behind Francesco Totti’s birthday cake, featuring the Colosseum, a football and a centurion’s helmet. The latter weighed in at a reported 37kg – one for every year of the player’s life.
Most fans assumed that Antonio Di Natale intended to give the linesman an earful when he ran over towards the sideline after being flagged for offside during Udinese’s game against Roma in October. Instead he gave the official a kiss on the forehead. Later in the same game, he pinched the referee’s cheek, too.
Back in October, one frustrated Milan fan offered his club’s then manager, Massimiliano Allegri, for sale on eBay. The price was just €1, but best of all was the accompanying special offer. “Buy now and receive a free [Mauro] Tassotti.”
Sinisa Mihajlovic’s press conferences with Sampdoria were often entertaining, the manager paraphrasing everyone from Dante to John F Kennedy. But he caused a few titters when he abandoned his literary and political heroes in favour of a footballing one. Responding to a question about the latest round of ground closures, Mihajlovic replied: “As [former Samp manager Vujadin] Boskov used to say: ‘A stadium without fans is a like a woman without breasts.’”
Reflecting on his enduring affection for Sampdoria and the city of Genoa, Antonio Cassano phrased things thus: “My relationship with that city is particular and goes beyond football. It is like Nutella: once you have tasted it, one spoonful could never be enough.”
Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Sampdoria were among the teams to feature a referee-shaped dog-chew toy in their official club stores over the winter break. Suffice to say, the refereeing community was not best amused. The product was hastily withdrawn amid laments about irresponsible “third-party suppliers”.
“If we find our rhythm, win our duels and have a bit of luck then maybe we could grab a draw. Certainly we would like to avoid conceding four goals” – Miroslav Klose prepares with the utmost confidence for a game against Juventus in January. As it turned out, his Lazio team were unfortunate to settle for a 1-1 final scoreline.
The ballboy son of Atalanta striker Germán Denis did not look too thrilled when dad ruffled his hair on the way out to the pitch before a game against Napoli in January. But he was happy enough to share a hug with his old man after seeing him score in the same game.
Bologna sold Alessandro Diamanti to Guangzhou Evergrande in February, days after the European transfer window had closed. Shorn of their top scorer, they managed just eight goals in the next 15 games, and were relegated as a consequence.
Milan supporters showed solidarity with Liverpool on the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, launching into an English-language chorus of “You’ll never walk alone”.
Andrea Pirlo moved up to second in Serie A’s all-time free-kick goalscoring charts, taking his career tally to 25. He needs three more to catch Sinisa Mihajlovic, although the Serb has already thrown down the gauntlet – challenging the Italy midfielder to a one-on-one to find out who is really the best. Mihajlovic already beat two of his Sampdoria players – Angelo Palombo and Enzo Maresca – in a similar contest this January.
But Pirlo deserves extra credit for revealing the secrets to his technique in his autobiography, translated into English this year. In it he recalls his fixation with learning how to copy Lyon’s Juninho Pernambucano, and the magical moment in which he finally understood what he had been doing wrong:
“The best ideas come about in moments of total concentration … My own Eureka moment arrived when I was sat on the toilet. Hardly romantic, but there you go. The search for Juninho’s secret had become an obsession for me, to the extent that it occupied my every waking thought. It was at the point of maximum exertion that the dam burst, in every sense of the term.”
Hats off to Inter president Massimo Moratti for helping his employees to get back into their bad habits. “I had stopped smoking for eight months but during Inter’s training camp I went back to it,” said Walter Mazzarri during an interview with Sky this February. “President Moratti smokes a lot, and he gave me a hand with getting started again during one of our very first conversations.”
Where else could we finish this year’s awards but with a salute to Javier Zanetti, bowing out of professional football after 1,114 games played? I already wrote a profile of the player here, so I shall limit myself here to a memory – from a game between Inter and Juventus back in March 2008.
Receiving a pass near the right-hand corner of his own six-yard box, Zanetti quickly found himself under pressure from Pavel Nedved. It was a situation that should have ended in disaster, both because Zanetti’s first touch was too casual and because Maicon had been foolish to play him the ball there to begin with. But Zanetti somehow kept possession, wrestling his way back to his own goalline before finally turning Nedved, wrong-footing another opponent and passing clear.
It was not an especially artful moment, but then the Inter captain was never an especially artful player. The beauty of Zanetti was in the relentlessness, the consistency, the absolute refusal to give up on a lost cause. And of course those glorious, thundering charges up and down the flanks, every hair in its place but limbs churning with a fury that promised imminent chaos.
Sundays will not be the same without him. Grazie di tutto Pupi, we look forward to seeing how the next chapter unfolds.