Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Into the Milan frying-pan

Oguchi Onyewu signing for AC Milan is a great thing, isn't it? Never mind Alexi Lalas' stint at makeweights Padova; Gooch is the first Yank at a Serie A giant and one of the world's elite. A three-year deal expiring at the end of June 2012 is good news all round. I've seen a salary of $1.1million a year reported but don't quote me on that.

But I fear he won't enjoy the pressure-cooker of calcio, which swamps their media and public discourse to an unhealthy level. The Italian soccer picture remains un-rosy. The administrators are invariably mired in corruption, while the fan culture remains resolutely ugly, with militaristic ultras holding clubs to ransom. Tifosi chants are aggressive and wholly lacking in the humor found in the EPL or MLS stands. Apart from a couple of TV shows, there isn't any levity in calcio; everyone always seems deathly serious about the beautiful game.

Serie A stadia are fenced fortresses patrolled by heavily-armed police. After the calciopoli scandal of 2006 proved Italian clubs were still trying to illegally influence referees, there have been intermittent deaths in soccer-related violence, league suspensions and brutal experiences for overseas fans. Italy was the outstanding candidate to host Euro 2012, but UEFA could not be seen to be rewarding such a culture, so handed it instead to Poland & Ukraine, which is causing them all manner of headaches. On the field, Italian football is still highly skilled and tactically astute but overly defensive and cynical for the spectator; not a patch on the entertainment of La Liga or the EPL.

Gooch needs an iron self-belief and an open mind to stand the heat in that kitchen because the mentality is special in Italy. Remember Joe McGinnis' wonderful book 'The Miracle of Castel di Sangro'? - The innocent American was horrified when his beloved team fixed a match at the end of the season, but it is normal practice over there to store up friendship credits when you have nothing to play for. Anyone like me who has lived in Italy and followed a team there will have seen a suspicious game sooner or later. Italy is clientelist in football as in government. It leads to corruption and chaos but that is the way they do things there. It is an island with the Alps at the top, separate from the European mainstream.

There, the pressure on players to perform is far more intense than what Gooch has experienced before and being black, tall and American, he won't blend easily into the crowds when he wants to hide. I recall how stressed and unhappy he was when I spoke to him after a Newcastle defeat at Charlton, when an error of his had led to an Addicks goal and his chances of making his loan permanent were vanishing. If he did the same at San Siro, the blowback would be 100 times worse.

We all desperately want Gooch to do well at Milan. But it won't be as easy as England or Belgium were for him to settle into. Too many foreign stars from Jimmy Greaves to Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry have struggled to adapt to Italy and its footballing ways, feeling marooned and unfulfilled before proving their greatness in other leagues.

Those who have succeeded have been mentally strong. Firstly Gooch must learn Italian, make local friends and above all accept Italy as it is, not how he would like it to be. Once he enters into a culture which it must be said is not the best at accepting diversity, he will feel happy and settled.

Only then can he enjoy his soccer and be the first great American success at a really top club. He can make it a great Italian adventure. Good luck, or as they say in Italy, 'in bocca al lupo' (into the wolf's mouth!)

As a flavor of what to expect, here are some Italian reactions from today's message board of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the nation's top-selling soccer daily:

* 'Is this a joke? What happened to chasing Fabregas and Mexes?'
* 'I am changing my team'
* 'A Mr. Nobody for nothing'
* 'Is this an April Fool? Please wake me up and tell me this is a bad dream'
* 'I remember seeing this giant against Brazil and thinking Milan should buy him'
* 'I never thought Milan would be after AMERICANS. So this is where Italian soccer has ended up...'
* 'Onyewu is gonna make a lot of people eat their words. I think he's a great buy'
* 'Onye-who? I heard Sochaux and Recreativo Huelva were after him...'
* 'I don't think the fans are going to get excited about him'

* 'Getting excited about Onyewu after Kaka is like appreciating salt pork after caviar'
* 'Looks like they bought him to protect them from the fans: He's an animal'
* 'Feet of lead but an interesting physique'
* 'The training ground has a new gardener'
* 'I wonder if he plays the guitar better than Alexi Lalas'
* 'A real monster but have you seen his marble feet - Mamma mia! Don't give him the ball!'
* 'OK he won't be a legend but he cost us zilch'
* 'If Nesta is a definite alongside Silva then Onyewu will be an excellent reserve'
* 'He can't be worse than Senderos, can he?'
* 'More trash for Milan as usual'
* 'He could be a new Stam and at least we got him for free. Have some faith in Milan!'
* 'Oh please - he's 27 and let go by mediocre Liege and was on the bench at Metz'
* 'We've bought a good player. Well done Milan'
* 'The guy in goalkeeper gloves - nice one Milan; next year we'll be in the Intertoto'
* 'It's just a publicity move to tap the American market. Next year we'll get a Chinaman and the following year a woman centre-forward'
* 'At least Milan now has enough height to stop conceding from free kicks'
* 'Just one question before I renew my season-ticket. Who is Onyewu?'
* 'He is physically fantastic and really impressed at the Confed. Cup. Let's have hope and not judge him before we have seen him'
* 'He's arrived at just the right age and will be a useful back-up'
* 'We got him for FREE - what more do you want?'
* 'A great buy - for the Milan bench'
* 'Finally some good news'
* 'The morale of all the fans is even lower - San Siro will be empty'
* 'I don't get those saying he will be a flop. In the Confed. Cup -he was a brick wall'
* 'I'm sure he'll do well at Milan. He's got great positional sense and really strong in the air, though he has a little work to do technically'
* 'Who is this guy and who put the 67m we got for Kaka in their pocket? We're embarassing'
* 'He'll have one game in Italy but is too heavy to make it to a second'
* 'He was one of their best at the Confed. Cup but the USA defended with everyone including the team masseur'
* 'Shame, shame. This is not my Milan. It's all over'
* 'If it hadn't been for the Confed. Cup we would never have known he existed'
* 'Above all it's a good opening to the American market for merchandising. With a bit of technical and tactical Italian teaching he'll be fine'

-Sean O'Conor


FS said...

Not bad Sean. An entire bunch of stereotypes and labels on Italians all stuffed together in the same post...

Anyway, the only point is that if Onyewu can make it in Italy he can make it everywhere else. It's going to be hard for him, but he can show that Americans are good not only for EPL.

Unknown said...

It just shows you that stupidity and bigotry knows no nationality. Man some of these people are crazy. No wonder Serie A has had so many issues! But, in Italy's defense, there are a lot of sensible comments in there as well, and normally only the loudest, most obnoxious people yelling are the ones heard. Let's not blanket stereotype the entire country. I think if Gooch can continue playing like he did in the Confed Cup, he'll surprise a LOT of people there. (Though it is sad that no matter how well he does, there are people who will never accept or acknowledge him.)

Phil McCracken said...

Nice to see that their message boards are as enlightened as ours are!

Sure, the pressure on Onyewu will be nothing like he's ever faced before in his career. However, that's what life is like at a big club in any one of the best leagues in the world.

Italy has its plusses and minuses just like Spain, England, France & Germany all have. To only focus on the bad side of Italy and its football is wrong. I've spent time in Italy and it's a great country with tons of friendly people. While I'm sure that Gooch will be experiencing it from a much different perspective, this will be a positive experience for him on a personal and professional level.

Hopefully, his move as well as Jozy getting more time at Villareal this season will make these two leagues more open minded towards American players.

Max Zeger said...

Unfortunately these commenters are most of the time correct. To a Milan fan, an American who they do not really know is not a very exciting signing.

Jamie said...

Golly, I hate Italian football...

But I'm still pulling for you, Gooch!

Jesse said...

The transfer window has been open for only 6 days and you got people protesting Milan's activity as if it is August 30th and Onyewu is their only signing. Sure, the fans would probably like a flashier signing to be their first, but if the swirling rumours are any indication Onyewu wasn't going to be available in a week while some of their other targets like Fabiano and Djecko still will be.

Chevis Ryder said...

Spicciarello: What stereotypes got your goat?

I don't see anything that should really piss anyone off, nor did I see any "stereotypes". All seemed like a pretty factually based take on Italy and their Calcio

Denny said...

I don't think he was trying to stereotype all of Italian football. I think Sean is only trying to point out how extremely difficult it will be for Gooch to fit in, let alone do well and exceed expectations. Seriously, out of all the leagues in the world, he may have chosen the hardest team in the worst possible league to try and do this. Milan are in a defensive changeover right now, so there will be the pressure to perform. And the flaming ultras and club organization are not going to be patient with mistakes.

TBH, I just don't see this working out. I am scared this could reaffirm how much Americans like Alexi Lalas deserve to stick to handegg and stay out of soccer, and could push back the serious progress Gooch has worked for (that is if he fails, of course). The Italian league has such a focus on tactical brilliance and technique that will give Gooch a steep learning curve. It is too much to ask of him, and Milan are foolish if they think this will be an immediate impact decision. And I don't think those rosso ultras are the patient kind...

Diesel said...

Yeah, as an American who is both a huge Serie A fan and has lived in the country, I can vouch for almost everything the OP said about Italian football. I don't think there's a more difficult fit for Gooch in the world than Milan, if only because the fan base's expectations are virtually impossible to satisfy. Add to that the fact he'll be wrestling with the ghost of the recently retired Paolo Maldini — who, along with Baresi, are viewed not only as perfect but also the standards by which all Milan defenders should play — and I can see huge potential for this to end badly.

However ...

IF Gooch can handle the media and the fans, he also has the opportunity to learn from the best. While I sometimes tire of stereotyping Italian football (it's not as cynical or negative as everyone thinks; just peep Palermo or Roma on a Sunday afternoon sometime) the bottom line is that Italian defense is an art form, and much more about technique than physical presence. If Gooch can learn to be a first-team CB with Milan, I am comfortable saying he will be the most valuable asset not in goal for the U.S. in 2010.

Just remember, Gooch: Crepi il lupo.