Buon appetito, ragazzi: Italian football jumps straight back in

Coppa Italia kicks things off before 124 Serie A games scheduled in a span of 44 days

Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg in February. Photograph: Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg in February. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Consider this weekend as the antipasto, leading us into an Italian footballing feast. Serie A will return on June 20th, with the first of 124 games that are scheduled to be played in a span of only 44 days. Until then, fans can whet their appetites with the final rounds of the Coppa Italia, which resumes with Juventus hosting Milan on Friday night.

The first legs of this season’s semi-finals were played in February – a full four months ago. Both took place at San Siro in Milan, a city that would find itself close to the epicentre of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak. Nobody could have imagined such a scenario back then. The first confirmed case in the Lombardy region was not diagnosed until a week later.

There have been moments when the resumption of this season seemed impossible. The owners of several Serie A clubs went public in March and April with their belief it was time to call the whole thing off. Even now, opinion is divided. More than 34,000 people have died in Italy of Covid-19, and more than 16,000 of those in Lombardy alone.

Hardest hit has been Bergamo, home to Atalanta – whose first-time run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League had been this season’s great footballing fairytale. The thought of seeing that free-scoring team on the pitch again will delight some supporters, but not all. A group of Ultras greeted news of Serie A’s return by hanging a banner outside their stadium. “Disgusted by an absurd decision,” it read. “You chase the millions, not the ball.”

Similar protests have been made elsewhere, but it would be wrong to imagine that fans speak with one voice. There is relief, for many, to be found in the return of familiar pastimes and passions. The decision to stage the remaining cup fixtures before Serie A’s return was made at the request of Italy’s minister for sport, Vincenzo Spadafora, because the rights for these games are held by the state broadcaster Rai, meaning they will be free-to-air.

Negotiations are ongoing to make some league games available to everyone, too, though there are legal obstacles to overcome. Domestic broadcast rights in Italy are sold in specific categories of free-to-air or pay-TV packages that cannot be modified later. The government itself is arguing these are exceptional circumstances.

More critical to the success of this attempted restart will be the evolution of quarantine regulations. As things stand, a positive test for any individual player would oblige their entire team to isolate for 14 days. Plainly, there is no room in the schedule for such a scenario. The hope among football’s administrators is the government’s scientific committee will soften its position as the number of coronavirus cases nationally continues to fall.

The Italian Football Federation’s president, Giuseppe Gravina, declared himself “optimistic” on Wednesday, noting the downward trend of the epidemiological curve. He has already raised the possibility of allowing a small number of fans back into stadiums before the end of the season, observing that cinemas and theatres are being allowed to reopen (with restricted capacities) from June 15th.

For now, football will take place strictly behind closed doors. Friday was supposed to mark the opening day of Euro 2020, with Italy hosting Turkey in the tournament opener at a packed Stadio Olimpico in Rome. A domestic cup semi-final, played to an empty Allianz Stadium, is not quite the same thing, but Juventus’ game against Milan still has plenty riding on it.

The first leg ended in a 1-1 draw, Cristiano Ronaldo converting an injury-time penalty to rescue the Bianconeri from what would have been a surprising but deserved defeat. Despite sitting 22 points clear of Milan in the league standings at the time, and holding more than 60 per cent of possession, they barely carved out a chance until the Portuguese’s late overhead kick struck Davide Calabria’s arm.

This game may look very different. Milan will be without the suspended Theo Hernández, their best performer this season, as well as the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Juventus have themselves lost Gonzalo Higuaín to a thigh injury since they resumed training, but an abundance of attacking options ought to give them the upper hand. Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa are expected to join Ronaldo in the starting XI.

With the cup final to follow on Wednesday, this feels as if it is a critical juncture for the managers of both teams. Maurizio Sarri is seeking a first trophy to prove he belongs at Juventus. Stefano Pioli appears to be on borrowed time at Milan, with Ralf Rangnick reportedly close to agreeing a deal to replace him, but this is an opportunity to win the first major cup of his managerial career.

The second semi-final, to be played on Saturday, boasts similarly high stakes. Napoli won 1-0 at Internazionale in February, their most impressive result of Gennaro Gattuso’s tenure to date. Two further triumphs would make a compelling case for him to be granted an extended opportunity at the club, after replacing Carlo Ancelotti in December.

For Antonio Conte, meanwhile, this competition may represent the best chance to rescue a once-promising season from ending in total disappointment. Inter were joint-top of the Serie A table when the first leg was played. They subsequently lost back-to-back league games against their main title rivals, Lazio and Juventus. With their game against Sampdoria also being postponed prior to the pause, they now find themselves nine points adrift of the leaders – albeit with a game in hand.

As with so many other decisions relating to football’s return, the decision to jump straight back in with such pivotal fixtures was not universally appreciated. The Milan president, Paolo Scaroni, argued that “having two such high-adrenaline matches after a three-month pause is a risk for the players”. Rumours circulated briefly that Inter might field their youth team in protest.

No doubt there will be further such disagreements as football picks its way through the complicated weeks ahead. For the football-starved viewer, though, the prospect is mouth-watering. Buon appetito, ragazzi. Here’s hoping that time away has not caused the dishes to spoil.

- Guardian

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