Monday, February 20, 2012

Soccer memories: Part 3

Serie A Foreign Fiascos: Why some of the World’s best failed to adapt

(Note: I would like to once again thank for uploading this article
Serie A Foreign Fiascos )

Italy’s Serie A for decades now has been the El Dorado of top foreign players from all over the world.
As far back as the 1930s, foreigners, especially Argentineans and Uruguayans, played a prominent role in making Serie A the most elite championship in the world.
While for many decades, notably in the 60s and 70s, the game itself was decried as aesthetically non-pleasing due to the influence of Catenaccio,  that did not stop foreign players to try to make their mark in Italy.
The main reason was obviously economic, as players would multiply their salaries by playing for Italian clubs.
In fact in those early days (pre-80s and 90s), in some instances signing for Italian clubs meant the end of their international careers. In those days clubs were not compelled by any authority to release players and they seldom did.
But the salaries and standard of life more than made up the lost international caps.
In many instances the players became Italian citizens and played for the Azzuri.
This gave rise to the Oriundi, foreign-born players who could trace Italian ancestry in their lineage.
In Italy’s 1934 World Cup squad, Oriundis such as Argentineans Luisito Monti and Raimundo Orsi played prominent roles in Italy’s triumph.
The other reason that attracted world’s top talent was the understanding that if one had the ambition to be the best, then to excel in the tough jungle of Serie A was a must.
There are many foreign players through the decades who have become legends by succeeding in Italy: John Charles, Suarez, Sivori, Haller, Angellilo, Altafini, Falcao, Platini, Maradona, Matthaus, Gullit, Van Basten, Batistuta, etc.
But there have also been excellent players who for diverse reasons were flops in the Serie A and were unable to adapt.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Italian clubs signed a number of top British players.
While Welshman John Charles, during his time at Juventus, was the most successful, others such as Englishmen Gerry Hitchens (at Inter), Jimmy Greaves (at AC Milan) and Scottish Dennis Law (at Torino) were relative failures and returned home after short stays.
After Italy’s debacle vs. North Korea during the 1966 World Cup, the abundance of foreign players in the league was made to be the scapegoat.
To protect the interests of the national team, a ban on new incoming foreign players was put in place.
No new foreign players could be signed, however, those already on the books could remain.
So throughout the next decade into the 1970s, there would be no “flops” as the foreign players in place were those who had successfully adapted to Italian Football.
Players such as Brazilian born Jose Altafini and West Germans Helmut Haller and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger played for many years with distinction.

Photo From: Mondial, April 1985
(Brazilain Socrates in action for Fiorentina 1984/85)

Starting the early 1980s the borders were re-opened and once again Italy was flooded with top foreign talent.
Each team was authorized to have two foreign players.
The early 1980s influx, once again made the Serie A the pre-eminent league on the planet.
But with every success story like Falcao, Platini, Maradona and Briegel, there was bound to be failures.
West German midfielder Hansi Muller and Belgian midfielder Ludo Coeck failed to settle at Internazionale FC Milano and were eventually loaned to smaller clubs such as Como and Ascoli.
Brazilian captain Socrates at Fiorentina was a shadow of the player who dazzled the world with his displays during the 1982 World cup.
Austrian striker Toni Polster arrived at Torino as one of the most prolific strikers in Europe, but departed to Spain after an indifferent season.
Dutchman Wim Kieft, who had won Europe’s Golden Boot award with his club Ajax, managed 3 goals for Pisa and relegation battle.
England’s former Watford player, Luther Blisset’s season with AC Milan in 1983/84 is synonymous with failure.
Brazilian Renato also came with a good reputation, but was a complete failure at AS Roma.
While Hugo Maradona (Diego’s younger brother)’s season with Ascoli is not even worth mentioning.
Belgian Enzo Scifo was also a failure in his one season with Internazionale and was loaned out to the French league after one season. He did however, resurrect his career in France and returned and played two adequate seasons for Torino.
The most notable failure of the decade was Welshman Ian Rush at Juventus. Much was expected of him as he was replacing Frenchman Michel Platini
He performed so poorly that he was offloaded as quickly as he was signed.

Photo From: World Soccer, April 1993
(Welshman Ian Rush in action for Juventus 1987/88)

By 1988 the limit on foreign players was raised to 3 per team and with the fall of communism, the end of the decade and the new one brought the largely unexplored Eastern Europe contingent into the frame.
Eastern Bloc players were attractive prospects as they were cheaper than say Brazilians and Western European players.
This increase in the limit also increased the possibility of failures.
In general Eastern European imports for the most part failed to make the grade, there were exceptions, most notably Yugoslav Srecko Katanec at Sampdoria and Czech striker Tomas Skuhravy at Genoa.
But the likes of Czech midfielder Lubos Kubik (at Fiorentina), Romanian Marius Lacatus (also at Fiorentina), Soviet Alexei Mikhailichenko (at Sampdoria) and Yugoslav Striker Darko Pancev (at Inter) did not meet expectations and were offloaded after no more than a season or two.
The greatest disappointment was Soviet star Alexander Zavarov at Juventus. He came as a global star and was expected to perform miracles, but in his two seasons he failed to make an impact.
The irony is that most of the eastern European players were still useful for their respective national teams, but seemed to be out of sorts for their clubs.
Of the non-eastern players, Spain’s Rafael Martin Vasquez’s stay at Torino was deemed a failure.
So impressive for Real Madrid, yet very average for Torino, he also departed after two indifferent seasons.

By 1992, teams were allowed to sign as many foreigners as they wished, though only a maximum of three could play per match.
French striker Jean-Pierre Papin arrived at AC Milan as the reigning European Footballer of the year, however, he was sidelined with the above-mentioned restrictions and poor form.
German midfielder Matthias Sammer, a future European Footballer of the year, was also a failure in his half season at Internazionale and was relieved to join Borussia Dortmund.
While Englishman Paul Gascoigne was hampered by serious injuries in his three seasons at Lazio and never made any headway.
English defender Des Walker had a nightmare of a time at Sampdoria and returned to England after a year and was never the same player as before.

Photo From: Onze-Mondial, September 1992
(French striker Jean-Pierre Papin in AC Milan uniform 1992)

The Bosman ruling in early 1996 did away with most foreign player restrictions. That in itself requires further analysis due to its implications to the modern game and the fact that in some cases foreign players outnumbered Italians in a given squad.
The shear number of foreign players makes the failure ratio higher just by the law of averages.
Also progressively Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League eclipsed the Serie A as the number one destination of top foreign talent.

So what are the reasons why clearly talented players failed to settle and shine?
There are the general ordinary reasons such as getting accustomed to new food, language, lifestyle, homesickness, etc.
Argentines historically have settled well in Italy. They are described as the most Europeans of South Americans. Since they are themselves descendants of immigrants from Europe and therefore have maintained some of the customs and mentality.
Other Latins such as Brazilians and other South Americans generally do well in Italy with some exceptions.
Very few British players adapted to Italy during the post 1980s influx, Trevor Francis and Liam Brady being the notable exceptions.
There were some who managed to hold their own without reaching the heights expected of them, such as Graeme Souness, David Platt, Joe Jordan, Mark Hateley and Ray Wilkins.
Ian Rush’s fiasco was blamed on his inability to learn the language, homesickness, and in his case, and probably countless others, being in the wrong team at the wrong time.
Platini is often cited as a successful example of someone adapting by learning the Italian language prior to coming to Italy. Although Enzo Scifo already spoke Italian due to his ancestry, but was nevertheless a failure at Inter.
Another reason is a player’s talent and ability being unsuited to for a particular team.
Essentially a player is being played out of position or in a different playing formation than what they are familiar to.
This was specially true for the former eastern bloc players who in their own countries adhered to rigid playing systems that rarely enabled them to play in different positions much less formations.
In fact former Dinamo Kiev manager Valeri Lobanovsky blamed Zavarov’s poor displays for Juventus due to the insistence of Juventus management to play Zavarov in a position completely different than his own. He stated that they were playing Zavarov (a midfielder) as if he were van Basten (Center forward)
This problem was not restricted to Eastern European only, Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp also suffered at Internazionale because of a completely different playing style than what he had enjoyed at Ajax.
He endured his two worst seasons as a footballer at Inter and left to join EPL’s Arsenal and rebuilt his shattered career.
Another reigning European Footballer of the year, the Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov also joined AC Parma with much fanfare, but played a forgettable solitary season and returned to his “home” at Barcelona.
One other reason could be the fact that these players were playing for exceptionally strong teams in their own league against vastly inferior opposition, but now they were playing in a high quality league where each match is difficult even for the strongest teams.
Many players were also unable to meet the expectations placed upon them, A foreign player was always expected to outperform local Italian talent because of the money spent to acquire them, And if they did not perform to the desired standard, they were accused of standing in the way of blossoming Italian talent.
There were cases where excellent players agreed to play for modest teams because they were paid a king’s ransom.
Brazilian Zico was such a case, at Udinese after a successful first season; he endured a difficult second season and relegation survival fight. He happily departed back home at the end of the season.
Had he played for a team worthy of his talents perhaps he would have had a longer career in Italy.
One must also remember that in these pre-Bosman days of foreign player limits, teams had no patience and one lousy season was enough to send someone home.
Perhaps in the post-Bosman era, Juventus might have been patient with Ian Rush and given him a second chance.
Internazionale might have kept faith with the likes of Scifo, Coeck and Hansi Muller with no limits restrictions.
Sampdoria could have afforded another season with Mikhailichenko.
Since there was a limit of 2 or 3 foreign players per team, the clubs had to be very selective about the chosen players. In most cases they were players with extensive international experience who were now perhaps closer to the end of their careers.

Some players are tailor made for certain teams, while others however talented can never fit into a system, culture, pattern.

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