Forza Sampdoria: From Scotland with Amore

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From the age of six I have had an irrational dislike for Ronald Koeman. I have never met him, I have rarely read any of his interviews and on the face of things he seems no better or worse than your average late 80’s/early 90’s football legend. In fact his place in history as a left sided set piece master should really mean that he is one of my all time favourite players. However it’s those skills at the set-piece that will mean that I will forever secretly hope he fails at whatever he does.

It’s the 20th of May 1992 I’m six years old and starting to become engulfed in the wonder that is professional football. I know by this time that I will have seen my local sides Queen’s Park and Pollok a couple of times as my old man slowly integrates his boy into the Saturday routine but my memories of these trips remain hazy at best. In a somewhat depressingly modern twist of fate my first clear football memory actually comes via the medium of television broadcast, sitting in my parent’s bedroom along with my dad as Ronald Koeman’s 112th minute rocket sent Barcelona on their way to their first ever European Cup.

I’ve watched that goal back a few times before sitting down to write this and whilst I don’t remember it in every detail there are bits that resonate nearly 27 years later. The colours of my memories were purely in black and white so it was strange to see that Barcelona played in orange and Sampdoria in white, although that instantly recognisable chest design was still as clear in my head as it is today. I remember the unmistakable head of Atillo Lombardo shaking in protest and I remembering thinking that the space behind the Wembley goals where the final was being played was massive. I remember the ferocity of Koeman’s strike but I don’t remember how close the Sampdoria players come to charging it down. I don’t remember the tears from nearly every player on the pitch both in joy and despair as the Dutchman ran around in celebration and I didn’t really understand how significant a result it was for that Barcelona side. What I do remember though is that having stayed up later than I ever knowingly had before I was gutted, and so with that an unexpected love affair with Sampdoria had begun.

The following season Football Italia made it’s debut on Channel 4 and whilst a fondness for James Richardson’s morning paper reviews wouldn’t come until I was much older the iconic Sunday lunchtime roar of Golaco is one that, when the males in the household could wrestle control of the only television in the house (remember this was the early 90’s), would fill my ears with joy. Whilst the likes of Gabriel Batistuta at Fiorentina, George Weah at AC Milan and much later Giuseppe Signori during his spell at Bologna would often pique my interest it was the sight of the blue of Sampdoria that would really focus my enthusiasm. Gianluca Vialli may have deserted I Bluccerchiati for The Old Lady of Turin after that final defeat but Roberto Mancini was still there and over those formative years the likes of Atillo Lombardo, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Valdimir Jugovic, Alberigo Evani and Vincenzo Montella earned my support as players came and went. Each one donning that beautiful blue, white, red and black kit.

Oh my, what a kit it is. Whilst I will always remember the letters ERG emblazoned across the player’s chests the top that takes pride of my place amongst my collection is sponsor free. The club crest featuring a sailor on the sleeve and the Genovese shield sitting pride of place in the centre of those red, white and black hoops. The blue body a perfect back drop to it all. My Subbuteo set (again, early nineties folks) had felt incomplete until the day I was bought squad number 398, that of Sampdoria and, rather annoyingly, Dundee who had understandably ripped off Samp’s shirt design for their own such was it’s majesty. I can say with some confidence that the Tayside version was nothing but a pale imitation.

Life and television deals meant that I stopped seeing as much of Sampdoria as I would want to. I still kept my eye in though and my betting account was often boosted in the late 2000’s by the exploits of Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini as they made it to the Champions League play off round in the 2008/09 season. They failed to make the group stages and a couple of seasons later in 2011 they were relegated. I started having fears that this great club would go the way of so many others in Italy have and continue to do but thankfully their stay in Serie B was short lived and the following season they were back regularly on my screen. Led by Mauro Icardi, the latest in a long line of Argentine mavericks including Ariel Ortega and Juan Sebastian Veron to wear the famous blue shirt, they survived relegation beating champions Juventus on the final day of the season along the way.

Since then sustainability has been the watch word aided by a revamped and very successful scouting system. In 2015 Samp qualified for the Europa League after city rivals Genoa couldn’t meet UEFA licensing criteria a sweet moment after their city rivals funeral procession mockery following the 2011 relegation. Mid table is currently the staple though for Marco Giampolo’s side but that doesn’t mean the romance is dead, far from it, and the goalscoring exploits of Italian football’s latest renaissance man 36-year-old Fabio Quagliarella are just one of a number of reasons that will ensure this side will always have a place in my heart.

I sign this ode off with an admission. I’ve never made it to the Stadio Luigi Ferrari. I know one day I will, quite frankly I have to and I hope that when that day comes it’s everything that the six year old boy sitting on his parent’s bed all those years ago in Glasgow hoped it would be.

Forza Sampdoria per sempre!

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Defining World Class

"courtesy of @8bitfootball"

“courtesy of @8bitfootball”

There is an old adage that is true across all walks of life, but is particularly poignant in the world of sport. It goes, ‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent’. But what does that mean? And with the topic being wholly subjective to personal opinion and preference how do we, as individuals, define the parameters to which the term ‘world-class’ can be donned upon a player. I’m certain somebody with more time and resources could make a fairly interesting book out of trying to provide a true definition but in lieu of those aforementioned gifts I’m going to try to do it in around a thousand words. Wish me luck!

Before I look at what world-class is I think it is pertinent to provide some context to my conclusions by defining the term ‘Form is temporary. Class is Permanent’. In my eyes, and remember this is just one man’s opinion, the magic of one moment whilst glorious and beautiful does not make a world-class player. Neither does a series of these moments sporadically appearing over a one or two year period. I would also suggest that for any players in their late teens to be dubbed as ‘world class’ without being prefixed or suffixed with word ‘potential’ somewhere around about it is highly unlikely, although not impossible.

For me, to be world-class, a player has to have a body of work littered with moments of outstanding skill, supplemented by both personal and collective achievements whilst possessing an almost Zen-like aura that demands the confidence of your teammates in every little thing that you do having earned the respect those who deem themselves man enough to stand up against you. What world-class should definitely not be is a catch-all statement for any player, especially a young player, who is billed as the next big thing, something that the likes of Adnan Januzaj and Ross Barkley have been lumbered with in this current season. They may prove to be in the future but at present they are nowhere near; but who is?

Let’s start by making things easy for myself. Lionel Messi is world-class. He’s a statistician’s wet dream, sending goal records tumbling and in this current season turning his considerable talents to the creation of goals over scoring them himself in a slightly amended role within Tata Martino’s Barcelona set up. He is already a human highlight reel of footballing excellence and has shown in countless Clasicos and Champions League finals that his level of performance is not lessened even when the skills of the opposition are at their greatest. There has been criticism levelled at him for the perceived lack of success in the blue and white of Argentina but his skills at club level, perceived by some as superseding international football asking of the modern game, more than make up for this and with a World Cup as close to home as it is ever going to be who’s to say that 2014 will not be his crowning moment.

So what of his perennial challenger for best in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, is he world class? Once again I think the answer would have to be yes, although not as decorated personally Ronaldo still has a goals and assists record that makes the mind boggle. He’s won titles and Champions leagues and in international colours for Portugal he is as close to a one-man team as you will get at the highest level, exemplified by the way he singlehandedly dragged his team to Brazil scoring a hat-trick just when it looked like Sweden had got the better of his nation in Stockholm.

Then there is his nemesis on that particular day, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Winning titles in Holland, Italy, Spain and now France playing for some of the most famous teams in world football. Often derided as being not as good as he thinks he is there is no question that he possesses an aura that demands your attention, and once he has it he is capable of some truly memorable things, would Messi or Ronaldo have had the audacity to attempt a 45 yard overhead kick, never mind score from it? The fact that on that playoff night in Stockholm that he too was moments away from dragging his team to what potentially could have been his last World Cup almost goes forgotten such was the performance of Ronaldo and although he may be at level just below theEl Clasico rivals he too has earned the moniker of ‘world class’.

Being world-class should not be solely reserved for those who strut their stuff in the final third of the pitch. For me the greatest player I have ever seen is Zinedine Zidane, and with a flick and a twirl he changed the meaning of the verb poise to simply read ‘Zizou’. The film, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is not only achingly beautiful from an audio and visual standpoint but essential viewing in understanding why he was so good. His symbolic walk past the World Cup in 20o6 after the head butt heard around the world perhaps tarnished the man but not the playing legend.

The captain of the eventual winners that year Fabio Cannavaro was another world-class performer. Diminutive by centre half standards he is rightly considered one of the greatest central defenders of all time as well as achieving the almost impossible for a defender by winning the Ballon d’Or. In Italy he was known as ‘The Berlin Wall’ so great was ability to make even the greatest strikers look like a Sunday league stalwart feeling the effects of the night before. Perhaps only Vincent Kompany currently has the ability and aura to do even a fraction of what the Italian did for the profile of central defenders in the modern game.

What about Suarez, Ribery, Rooney or Bale, surely they’re world-class? Some will argue they are but does the sum of their personal achievements to date even come close to comparison when stacked against those of just one of the aforementioned individuals? I don’t think so. Nor am I suggesting that the names I have mentioned are the only ones worthy of the title world-class.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian version in this instance, was a part of two World Cup winning squads with his performance in the 2002 final seen as redemption to the farce that was his appearance in the very same game 4 years earlier. Henrik Larsson, whilst spending the majority of his career in Scotland blew away those doubting his class with career defining spells at Barcelona and Manchester United and it would be remiss of me not to make mention to Barcelona once again and the midfield mastery of Spanish midfielders Xavi and Anders Iniesta. There will be a few more, but not many, and for each of these men all have individually contributed to the evolution of the game across the globe and in doing so forming the essence of what world-class should be. Not reserved for the best, or even the very best but for those that have helped form and continue to define footballing generations.

If you enjoyed this then maybe you will enjoy www.meatfilledpastries.com. My footballing adventure searching out the tastiest snacks at grounds across Scotland and beyond. The link is on the right hand side.