La palla è rotonda. “The ball is round.” It’s a common saying about soccer. It means that anything can happen. That wisdom is backed up by stats; Chris Anderson and David Sally, in The Numbers Game, cite several studies demonstrating that “soccer is the most uncertain of the team sports” (Ch. 1). The underdog prevails much more frequently in soccer than in basketball, baseball, or American football (10-15% more of the time). It was certainly true this week at Don Bosco in Perugia.
Wednesday was the first semifinal of the small four-team “G. Modestini” memorial tournament (2nd edition) for giovanissimi born in the year 2000; the teams had all played each other once to determine the order of the knock-out round. Don Bosco (rossi squad), Santa Sabina, and Nuova Alba all had 6 points, and Ventinella had 0, but due to goal difference, Nuova Alba was tops, and so they played no. 4 seed Ventinella, who did not score a single goal in regular time of any match. Somehow, after a 0-0 semifinal, Ventinella beat Nuova Alba 4-3 on penalties to reach the final.
And that would not even turn out to be the craziest game of the tournament so far.
On May 30, the second semifinal pitted no. 3 Don Bosco v. no. 2 Santa Sabina. The home side had won the first round-robin match in a wild 4-3 match, so Santa Sabina was out to get some revenge. Each team was allowed to add one ‘1999’-born player to their team; Don Bosco didn’t have one, but Santa Sabina fielded a trequartista (no. 9) who was a real magician. Early in the first half he picked up a ball on the left touchline, dribbled through half the Don Bosco team, and slid a perfect pass across the face of goal. 0-1. At halftime, the coach ordered Simon (no. 5) to mark him closely and not worry about anything else—an easy instruction, difficult to carry out.
Defensive confusion and bouncy-ball luck allowed Don Bosco to equalize through Jordy’s goal about midway through the half, but a foul in the area and a penalty kick (rigore) put Santa Sabina ahead 1-2 at halftime. The score did not seem to reflect the game. Throughout, Santa Sabina was quicker, more coherent, calmer, and they played the ball snappily on the ground. Don Bosco was mostly hoofing balls forward to the top line of their 4-3-3 formation and hoping Jordy’s speed could make something happen. Don Bosco’s keeper, Alessandro Franicevic, a big lad brought over from the other 2000 (gialli) squad, was doing his best, and kept his team close.
Despite the lightning and thunder noticeable across the valley to the south, the weather held in Perugia, and so did the play. Santa Sabina dominated; the Don Bosco keeper made more saves, and a Don Bosco defender cleared a ball off the line. Soon, their dominance paid off—an excellent corner swung in from the right was knocked home at close range. 1-3.
Time ticked away; Santa Sabina began to protect their lead a bit as the home side pressed for any foothold whatsoever. Simon put a few free kicks and corners in good spots, but nothing materialized. We were all resigned to the result. Then, with two minutes left, off of a throw-in, the ball took a fortunate deflection and ended up at the feet of Minciaroni, the central midfielder, who lined up a lofted shot that sailed over the head of the (relatively short) Santa Sabina keeper. 2-3.
The crowd yelled at the referee to tell them how much ‘added time’ (‘recupero‘) would accrue to the game. Two minutes beyond the normal thirty-five. Don Bosco pinged the ball forward; Santa Sabina booted it away; in one case, completely out of the field (useful for wasting time), making coach Titoli scurry to find another ball to blast across the field for the throw-in. With the game draining away, Santa Sabina kicked the ball out one last time to defuse a late rush, but across their own end line for a corner. It would be the last play of the game. With me screaming for Simon to hustle over to take the corner before the whistle, the team lined up in the penalty area. Franicevic, the Don Bosco goalkeeper, even came up; perhaps his height would help get a clear header.
At this point, I am inserting the highlights video (14 min.). You can watch all the goals, and see what happened with that corner. Then you can continue with the film (if you like), or come back to the narrative.
‘Mitico!‘ (‘mythical’) cried one Don Bosco parent incredulously. He had had the unenviable task of defending Rudy Guede in the Meredith Kercher (aka Amanda Knox) murder trial. This match must have been one of his good days.
Simon swung in the corner on a sweet right-to-left trajectory (he said later that he thought he had hit it too low), and Franicevic, the left-footed keeper, pulled off a half-bicycle kick, just missing Jordy’s head, to volley it into the far corner of the net. Pandemonium. The referee did not even wait for a kickoff to blow the whistle. 3-3. Simon said that the keeper was always doing bicycle kicks in practice. Practice made perfect here.
Then it was extra time. The teams’ two strategies were crystal clear. Santa Sabina, knowing their supremacy on the field and perhaps worried about the height difference in goalkeepers for penalties, attacked. Don Bosco scrambled to defend, and took their time with restarts at every opportunity (the referee never warned the goalkeeper about the six-second rule). They played two five-minute (not sudden-death) periods. No goals. But watch the highlights video in the second of those periods, when a scramble in front of the Don Bosco net somehow did not lead to a goal despite numerous point-blank shots that hit players, the post, and the keeper, before he finally gathered the ball, stretched-out in exhaustion on the turf (he had earlier hurt his shoulder on that game-tying volley).
It was with much relief to the home fans that the referee whistled for the next and final phase: penalties. It should be mentioned that the Santa Sabina fans were wonderful—cheering on their team, rarely complaining, and showering their team with a song at the end of the match. Positive and sportsmanlike.
Teams normally want to kick first in penalties, to put pressure on the other squad to equalize, but Don Bosco gave that right to their guests. The success rate for penalties in normal time is about 75-80%. However, in a game-determining sudden-death shootout, that percentage usually drops, due to pressure. In Italy, teams practice penalties at the end of almost every practice. This is a good thing. There are some rules of thumb: take your time (don’t rush), don’t look at the goalkeeper (he’ll psych you out), hit it hard (but don’t blast it over the bar), and place it in a corner (but not too close to the post).
Jakob had taken three penalties earlier the same day. A inter-squad scrimmage saw his team fall behind 3-0, but he stole the ball and fed it in front to draw one back, and then was felled in the area to earn a penalty. He sky-ed it over the bar, but the coach, citing encroachment (or maybe he was just being nice), ordered a re-take. Which Jakob sent wide, right as halftime struck. To his credit, though, he kept fighting, and ended up scoring two and assisting on one in the second half to leave it 5-5 at full time. In the subsequent shoot-out, he exorcised the demons and scored the winning penalty (above). Overall, it was the best I’ve ever seen him play; he raised his game to an entirely new level yesterday.
In the penalties for the giovanissimi semifinal, both teams scored their first. Then up stepped no.9 for Santa Sabina, the talented creative midfielder who had run Don Bosco (and esp. Simon) ragged all game. His penalty skidded off the outside edge of the post, and he clutched his head in his hands as teammates rushed over to console him. This is one excellent feature of Italian youth soccer—solidarity within the team, through thick or thin. Simon said that last night was the first time he had ‘really felt part of a team’. The sadness of the visitors and the hope of the home side was short-lived, however, as the Santa Sabina keeper then saved Jordy’s next Don Bosco penalty. All square, and through the next frame as well. Then the fourth arrived. Franicevic guessed correctly, and once again Don Bosco had the advantage. Simon stepped forward, or tried to, until he realized the ball had been kicked some ways off. Trying to retrieve the ball (but not to hurry, of course!), he placed it on the mark. It rolled off. Finally set, he slapped it into the left side, and turned away with a little fist-pump that is about the most emotion I’ve ever seen from him in a match. It was his first official goal in Italy.
Santa Sabina now had to score to stay in it, which they did, and then the captain, Cavalli, who has been a stalwart for Simon as he’s adjusted all year to playing in Italy, walked up. He confidently knocked it in, the match was over (7-6 [4-3 rigori]), and the team flew to the corner of the field to celebrate. Both sides, exhausted all over, congratulated each other on an insane match.
The final is today at 18:00.
[Now available: the report and highlights video for the final match]