The Thunderclap of Sport Nostalgia.

 

When thunder roars, we bolt upright. It’s a natural reaction to power; the order of things.

My friend and brother-in-law, Davide, isn’t one of many words. Concise would be the adjective for him. When he pings something, it’s usually quite important…

Friedkin and Cardinale likely have absolutely no idea who Gigi Riva was. 

End of message.

Davide, like so many, is not a fan of how new money is approaching the custody of our game, and it would have been unnecessary fuel to the fire to tell him that the Saudis, before the Italian Cup final held there, had actually whistled the minute’s silence for Riva.

Thirty thousand were outside the church for his funeral in Cagliari, and that’s a truly profound number for this magnificent island.

Sardinia and its culture have been influenced by many different civilisations, from Carthage to Rome, Vandals, Byzantines, Iberia, the Alpine House of Savoy. Its personality is naturally complex, strong, and deep; diffident towards foreigners.

But they took to the footballer from Varese, near Como.

Riva, in turn, never ever left the place again. Why would you?

 

 

Rombo di Tuono.

Gigi Riva was given this nickname “ThunderClap” by the journalist Gianni Brera, who somehow found that line in his piece one day, and it became a brand, such that one wonders if he realised the historic impact when submitting his afternoon copy.

Rombo di tuono is the sound of a Gigi shot, perfectly struck with the left instep.

Paam!

Riva is the absolute symbol of 1960/70s Italian football, in that classic shirt. Handsome, as was the fashion of those days, like a Jean Paul Belmondo. Loved by men and women alike.

 

He gave Cagliari its first and only title. A remarkable feat, especially as he would have been consistently distracted and tempted by advisers telling him to go to the big clubs in the North.

 

Stubborn and proud.

Riva did what I guess he set out to do, with Sard principles, and the universal respect he is now afforded is therefore boundless.

Where are these people in our money-dominated game today?

The funeral hymns for departed legendary players aren’t ever just for our memory of their talent and glory, but really it’s our nostalgia for a football that no longer exists.

 

(…) a deeper bond with the product… Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. In Greek, nostalgia means the pain from an old wound, a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.

Good luck at your next meeting.

This is arguably Mad Men’s finest moment, and let’s all take a minute, after this clip, to remove the dirt from our eye. On occasion, you always need to pause in respect, regardless of your culture.

This piece today is unashamedly about nostalgia, for a time before money and sportswashing, before endless glut live TV, before legal battles around salary cap cheating, before presidents hoping to end term limits.

As lamented in this previous Column.

Riva’s funeral fell exactly on Davide’s 60th birthday, so today’s Sunday essay is different, unapologetically personal, and simply my gift for him.

And to myself.

I too will soon enter the door to the 7th decade, as in fact will all the Children of Riva, Charlton and Beckenbauer.

Sixty is also pretty close to the average age of all sport viewers, and my generation, de facto, still completely defines sport and the sports business.

Whether it is a convenient fact or not, we keep the economics of the industry afloat, as the TV-watching, subscription-paying, season-ticket holding, paymasters for the whole shooting match.

But we are also the only remaining living witnesses to old football, pre money.

 

We saw Gigi Riva in the flesh. 

Davide’s birth year, 1964, is the very last year of the “Boomer generation” and statistics will tell us that, on average, we have another 20 years to go. In all walks of life, this is still not well enough digested, notwithstanding the datapoint is the most easy to predict and calculate with absolute accuracy.

Demography is destiny.
– 
Auguste Comte

So, what [tf] happens to this industry when Davide and I definitively hang up our boots? It’s not so far away and time passes quickly. What replaces the Boomer model and audience for sport?

Goal own Goal this week is a natural companion to that debate, here

 

Italians absolutely love “passing of time” films of this pathos, and they do them really well. The most recognisable example for an international audience would be “Once Upon a Time in America“, directed by Italian Sergio Leone.

 

I’ve been going to bed early.

Music by another Italian genius, Morricone, to rip at your soul.

 

Tempus Fugit. 

Less well-known, but a more appropriate example for a sports column, would be the movie Italia- Germania 4-3.

It is the story of an old friends’ reunion in Italy, gathering to watch the rerun of “the Game of the Century”, twenty years later.

 

To many, this is the greatest game ever played.

For the plot of the film, the actual match is incidental, save to remind us of an indelible moment in time, in Italy and elsewhere. It is a milestone memory for friends who have since drifted apart. The film is not an easy study, watching human innocence consumed by cynicism over the two decades.

Tempus Fugit indeed.

The context of the Mexico World Cup, the first in colour, with absolutely legendary commentators, has never been surpassed in our football psyche. In that specific moment in time, three serious footballing countries had their greatest ever player, in their pomp, in direct competition with each other.

This can not be dismissed as mere Boomer nostalgia.

 

It is our core DNA as football fans. 

This is why Davide’s message about Friedkin and Cardinale is so true. You need to know this stuff, if you aspire to own and manage the asset class of football.

You need to have an opinion on: “What happens if Alf Ramsey doesn’t take Charlton off to rest him?”

What happens if Kaiser Franz doesn’t dislocate his shoulder?

And what happens if Italy doesn’t have to exhaust itself in the semi, and can take on Brazil fresh?

 

Whilst that last one may sound heresy towards “the greatest team of all time”, let’s not forget 1982.

A similarly “invincible” Brazil team had its pocket well and truly picked by the same Italy, and I am sure that Pele, Tostao, Rivelino, Gerson were not better than Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Junior, Cerezo, Eder. In truth, both formations had flaws, in defence and in goal, that any elite counter-punching team could punish, exactly like in Barcelona on that noisy sunny day in ’82.

Italy in Mexico were simply on their knees, and could only hold Pele at bay for a half.

We shall never know the truth but, unless you can debate it all with credibility, you aren’t a proper fan.

 

Football is the only universal language we have.

And, for Davide, seeing new entrants and investors who don’t know this foundation alphabet is like witnessing a murder.

Charlton, Beckenbauer, and Riva, importantly all one-club legends, have now died within days of each other, and their funeral processions do nothing but cruelly remind us of a purer time. In substance and body-language. In mood music, and tone of voice.

Sport people like Geno Auriemma also know. He’d rather lose, than watch the wrong approach of some kids today, with no respect. 

 

I personally welcome all fresh capital into sport, as a catalyst to disrupt the current appalling structures and governance. But our American and Arab friends will never ever take serious stewardship of our game without accepting how to bow to its history.

You can not own Roma or Milan and not know Gigi Riva. You can not aspire to host an Italian Cup final without realising, immediately, that a solemn 60s of silence for Riva (or Beckenbauer) is a non-negotiable, regardless whether your culture does or doesn’t do it.

These new people, who want to be serious long-term investors in our game, need to adapt to our game and its traditions, not vice-versa. Sardinia grew over the centuries through the influence of new cultures, as did America. You grow with exposure to different ways of thinking. Certainty about the superiority of your home is the sanctuary of the limited.

 

Money alone will never give you true ownership.

Nor fan/player commitment. The American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool found that out with the SuperLeague. The Chinese found it out in recent years, and the Saudis have found it out today.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Saudi football, but I personally hope they get over this. Their demographics are much more encouraging for the future of the game.

 

We are all Brothers in Football.

At the end of the day, this is what we have in common, beyond race and faiths. Friendships are made, bonds are forged, over a round piece of leather.

We all know this is the true gospel story we share.

I today humbly offer my own.

Davide and I met for the first time in October 1986, when we both worked at PWC in Bologna. I had just arrived, spoke no Italian, and he was told by the company to get me up to speed, more on Italian culture than on the language. The latter is easy to learn, the former takes a lifetime.

Davide has had a splendid business career, principally at CEO level at Nike, mainly because he hasn’t ever suffered fools, and has always believed in standards of excellence.

Football immediately brought us together in Bologna. He willingly spent time with me 38 years ago, also because I could play a wee bit. Simple as that.

It got me past his naive foreigner “fool” hurdle.

Forget all the other stuff, football knowledge and ability has always been the golden ticket.

Women will sniff around each other for ages in assessing friend compatibility; but if you can kill a ball on a sixpence, guys are good to go straight away.

Davide was a top footballer, so much so that, whilst living in London at 19, playing for a non-league team, he was spotted by a Chelsea scout, and overnight found himself training with Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin. God’s honest truth. He got very close to making it, but just not quite. In my humble opinion because, stubbornly, he wanted to play as a 10, and not what he was; a natural 8 (fast, good engine, box to box, strong shot, aggressive).

 

Building dressing rooms.

PWC Bologna was a small office, so the talent pool of footballers for the works team we wanted to build was less than ideal. Compromises had to be made in selection, but the great thing about Italian football is that it has a process. Even if you are pretty shit, you can still do a job defensively, cancelling out one of theirs, if you play with discipline.

Il “calcio” back then was old school. Two man markers (say Gentile and Nesta), a libero (Baresi), an attacking fullback (Maldini), a mediano (Gattuso), an 8 (Tardelli), a playmaker (Pirlo), a tornante deep lying winger (Bruno Conti), a 10 (Totti), and a centre forward.

 

Riva was the 9, the best there’s ever been here.

This is the Italian school that won 4 world cups, but has now utterly lost its way.

They started me as mediano, the most humble of positions in Italian football, explained here.

Below, nearly 40 years on, is that Scottish would-be “mediano”, having a morning espresso in Como with the greatest man-marker the game has ever seen. Ask Maradona and Zico.

Mediano isn’t a sparkly role that scores you points in Fantasy Football, and it’s hard to play it well, especially for someone like me.

I didn’t take to it easily because, as a Scottish tanner ba’ player to my core, I always liked an exorbitant dribble and shoulder-drop, even in my own box.

 

 Ma che cazzo fai?

Screamed Davide.

What the fuck are you doing? We don’t play like that in Italy. We do loads of little quick passing triangles. 

I learned.

We started challenging other teams and PWC offices. Any good players were noted, and recruitment calls were made. Bologna is close to Parma and Florence, so those lads were easy. Word would reach us of talent further afield, like Rome. One remembers a certain chancer called Iannuziello, who I wouldn’t have trusted with my lunch money. However, to be fair, he more than held his own on the field of play. And that’s what mattered.

They say there is a great libero in the South, in Ancona. His car is plated Campobasso, so it’s all a bit ambiguous, but who cares? Call him up.

A certain Calo’ duly arrived, the spitting image of John Cazale.

Fredo could indeed play.

Weaknesses and gaps were thus filled, leaving Davide the awkward task of informing our original Bologna mates that the team had evolved, and their careers were effectively now over.

Baccarini, Cis, Uguccioni, even Pasi were all let go.

 

Meritocracy of talent, the life we have chosen. 

Good midfielders were added to the squad, and I myself was “promoted” to the attacking left fullback role (fluidificante).

To the uncouth, this doesn’t make sense; fullbacks aren’t sexy.

In the country of Facchetti, Cabrini, and Maldini, oh yes they are. Below is Cabrini in 1982.

 

Paolo Baccarini.

A lovely lad, but not an athlete. A tall gangly boy with thin legs and a big head of curly hair, seemingly permanently distracted and moody. He was never really on it, as if he and the world hadn’t yet found an understanding. How tragically true that would turn out to be.

I liked Paolo. He was my kind of quirky.

We were travelling back from a client in Rome, he and I in his Fiat Uno Turbo. Paolo wasn’t a natural conversationalist and we all know what silence on a long car journey is. I nodded off, briefly, only to be jolt-woken by a scream:

I magici 200!

For Paolo, the milestone of 200 kmph in his new car, merited a piercing victory war cry.

I laughed. So did he.

Our team was playing a bounce game against a local mob that evening, I think the Como army barracks (level medium-low). Some of our proper starting 11 couldn’t be bothered.

Paolo played, but was peripheral to proceedings, in his version of a phantom right-wing role. I took a pass on the overlap, beat a defender, and whipped it in. The goalie was hopeless and got under the outswinging cross, leaving the goal practically empty. Baccarini had the simplest of headers from about 5 yards out.

Goal.

 

Something like this, but with a far easier header.

 

Seldom, in 60 years, have I seen someone so happy, laughing his head off in celebration. His first and last headed goal, and he let everyone know it. For weeks after, in the office, as he sat there in his usual permanent trance, he could be re-energised by a simple question:

How about that header Paolo?

He sadly passed away a couple of years later, in his twenties, from some bastard blood clot, but I still like to think that header was his happiest moment.

Our team was getting good, and it was time to take on the big office of PWC, the cool-kid fighetti of Milano. They had a squad bigger than Chelsea, full of good players, (level medium-high).

Yet, we absolutely skelpted them, and more than once. Very solid at the back, and with enough match-winners like Davide to hit on the counter, with pace.

 

A catenaccio team, old style. 

Bologna was officially now the “daddy” of PWC football in Italy. Time for Europe. A big match with PWC Spain was arranged in Barcelona.

By now, it was hard to get into the team, as it represented all offices in Italy. Tensions and jealousies grew. Blows were actually exchanged in the dressing room in Barcelona, when the “white Pele” from Milano took the no 12 shirt particularly badly.

Davide brought us back to focus. This was 1988. An era pre Xavi/Iniesta.

 

Questi non hanno mai vinto un cazzo!

Let’s remember that Spanish football has won fuck all in their history; we (Italy) always have.

5-0.

We served them the “Manita” in their own manor, in front of a very decent crowd of locals. That must have hurt.

I was approaching the end of my two years in Bologna where, in that time, I had also casually played in other teams (level low), as a striker. Easy pickings, of which Davide was always dismissive.

All my friends organised a final farewell match (level high), and Davide asked me to play up front for once, I think out of curiosity.

Ci divertiamo (We’ll enjoy ourselves.)

And play we did, with all the tricks and flicks.

In my head I remember it like this 😆.

 

Davide, always a man of few words, at the end of the game passes me on the way to the dressing room, head down,

We wasted 2 years.

 

The best compliment I ever got on a football field.

Happy birthday old china.

See you at the wall.

 

 


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