It Wasn't Pretty But Chelsea's 'Catenaccio' Was Pure Football
The manner of Chelsea’s win at Anfield on Sunday has prompted much talk of aesthetics. In a game that is meant to be beautiful, winning ugly is frowned upon. But is it really fair to describe the kind of controlled, defensive performance Chelsea’s players put in as ugly?
The discussion currently raging took me back to the summer of 2000, and a similar collision between footballing swashbucklery and dour determination. It was the semi-final of Euro 2000, still the best international competition I’ve ever watched, and the semi-final in Ajax’s impressive Amsterdam Arena pitted hosts the Netherlands against Italy.
The Oranje were everything you’d expect of a Dutch team, with Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Denis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and player of the tournament Boudewijn Zenden at the heart of a team that had stormed through the tournament, sweeping Denmark aside 3-0 in the group stage in front of an ecstatic home crowd in Feyenoord’s De Kuip Stadium in the group stages before stuffing a pretty useful Yugoslavia side 6-1 in the quarter finals.
Italy, in contrast, had reached the semi-finals by keeping it tight, only conceding two goals all through the tournament. There were players of flair, including Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero and Stefano Fiore, but this was an Azzuri who had the Italian tradition of catenaccio –the door-bolt – down to a fine art.
So the semi-final was set up as the forces of good versus the forces of darkness, football versus anti-football. Italy set up with five at the back. The Dutch, roared on by the wall of orange that went around almost the entire stadium, set about them with a starting line-up that featured just two natural defenders. Then, on 33 minutes, Italian defender Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Del Piero was dropped back into midfield, leaving Inzaghi isolated up front. From then on, the Italians did not so much counter-attack as simply counter. The Dutch missed two penalties in normal time, one from Kluivert and the other from Frank de Boer. Watching rom high in the stands, I was mesmerised by the two disciplined lines of blue, moving purposefully up and down the pitch to squeeze the life out of the Dutch attack.
The longer the game went on, the more inevitable a penalty shootout looked. And so it came to pass, despite the introduction in extra time of Francesco Totti and Marco Delvecchio giving the Italians some attacking verve and, almost, a late win. The Dutch fans could not believe it had come to this, and maybe their nervousness transmitted itself to the pitch, because de Boer missed his second penalty of the game, while Jaap Stam delivered what will forever be known in the game as a Chrissy Waddle, blasting high over the bar.
For Italy, Pessotto scored nonchalantly and Totti chipped a cheeky one over Edwin van der Sar before Francesco Toldo saved from Paul Bosvelt to take the Italians, written off before the tournament, to the final.
The Netherlands retreated into a state of shock and those of us who had watched the game argued long into the night about what it meant. For me, a firm adherent to Danny Blanchflower’s famous quote about glory, it had been an eye-opener. Italy hadn’t played the style of football I like to watch, and the game was, after all, meant to be entertainment. And yet I couldn’t see how anyone who loved the game could fail to appreciate the quality of what Italy had done.
It relied more on mustering the qualities of reading, positioning and tackling than it did on breaking up the play by taking ages over set pieces, staying down for as long as possible and – a Jose Mourinho speciality that he boasted about using in the European Cup with Porto – preventing quick throw ins when the ball goes out. And so it distinguished itself from gamesmanship. It was football, played at the very top level, effectively.
I still prefer the expansive game to the restrictive. It’s easier to appreciate the thrill of attacking football than to appreciate the qualities of obduracy, you have to look that bit harder. That semi-final taught me to look a bit harder. And to remember that the famous Blanchflower quote about glory was not just about glory, but glory and winning.
Martin Cloake is a journalist and author who writes about football, the football business and football culture when he’s not doing the day job writing about other stuff. That other stuff has included finance, politics, music, celebrity and real life stories – and fruit and veg. His most challenging commission was delivering a 5,000-word epic on potatoes. Sadly, this is no longer available. But his books, in ebook and paperback form, plus some rather handsome hardbacks, are available direct from his website.