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eat the cup 2018, part four :: the new italy

one of the shocks of the world cup came before it even started, when italy, arguably the most football-y of footballing nations, were knocked out of qualification by sweden. i remember watching the game and thinking the entire time "it couldn't happen... could it?" italy is the team we all love to hate because they have a reputation for diving [although they've arguably ceded that crown to portugal or brazil] and for playing a resolutely defensive game that doesn't create a lot of excitement [an approach that's worked for any number of teams in recent years, including the ruthlessly organised swedes]. so while there was undoubtedly a bit of schadenfreude when we all found out that italy wouldn't be attending this year's world cup final. at the same time, it felt weird to see all the powerhouses of southern europe fall by the wayside by the first knockout round: italy, greece, spain, portugal, each of whom has been either world or european champion since the turn of the century [or in spain's case, both] are all gone. but there is one team that still carries the flag for southern europe.

in many ways, as the title of this blog implies, croatia is very much like the new italy. the two countries are separated by a splinter of slovenia in the north and there is a history of italians living in dalmatia, to the point where they are a recognized minority even now. they occupy opposite sides of the adriatic sea and on exceptionally clear days, they can even see each other across it. they both have a mountainous north and a long spur into the mediterranean. in the twentieth century, both countries fell under the spell of fascism, but both have emerged and are now members of the european union.

in soccer, clearly, italy have been dominant; they have four world cup titles whereas croatia [either independently or as part of yugoslavia] have never even been in a final match. croatia's best showing came in 1998 when they finished third in their very first post-independence competition. they've been a part of every world cup since then with the exception of 2010, but they've never come close to equalling that performance. [yugoslavia never won a world cup either, but has an enviable collection of olympic medals in the sport, including a gold from 1960.]

there are also some similarities that both sides would rather not talk about. when italy entered the world cup in 2006, few journalists were talking about the team. the month before the tournament began, a match-fixing scandal involving the biggest teams in the top two italian professional leagues had exploded into public view. the biggest names in italian football were punished, none more harshly than juventus, the jewel of serie a, who were demoted to the second tier of football. [note :: the guardian article was written after the initial decision, before appeals. the complete list of punishments is given in the wikipedia article linked earlier in the paragraph.] the scandal knocked the stuffing out of the italian league and some would argue that the resulting exodus of top players from italian teams and the refusal of players to join anyone in the tainted league left damage that is still being felt today.

when italy emerged victorious from the 2006 cup, it arguably meant more than their previous three wins. in the wake of the most humiliating revelations, they had managed to hold their heads high. [side note :: none higher than goalkeeper gianluigi buffon, who managed a great save against zinedine zidane in the final. buffon was still a suspect himself at that point but had agreed to cooperate with the investigation into match-fixing. he was eventually cleared of all charges and was one of the few players who stayed at juventus during their relegation.]

sadly, croatia enters this year's world cup under a similar kind of cloud. it is the result of years of corruption most of which can be traced back to a man by the name of zdravko mamic. his control of football in the country has resulted in widespread fan revolts, including one at the 2016 euro where an assistant referee almost got his hand blown off by a flare. at the beginning of june, mamic was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison. assuming that the conviction sticks and the sentence is upheld, that is likely a good thing for croatian football. however, at least two of the players on the national team are potentially facing criminal charges themselves in the very near future and one of the two is team captain luka modric, probably the best croatian player of his generation. so the croatian national team has arrived in russia having had the leader of their most prominent professional team forced out of his job and convicted of crimes, with two of their strongest players looking at the possibility of jail time and with their fans incredibly cynical after years of seeing the corruption up close.

nonetheless, they have soldiered on. they plowed through their group with the maximum number of points and while it took a massive effort to dispatch the unexpectedly tenacious danes in their round of sixteen match, they were finally able to prevail in a penalty shootout. next up on their dance card is the host team russia, which will be by far their greatest test of strength thus far. [side note :: russia are under a bit of a cloud themselves as there were reports that their national team might have benefitted from the kind of performance enhancers that got the country tossed from the olympics. fifa investigated but determined there was no wrongdoing, however, many have been quick to point out that fifa itself is corrupt and deeply invested in keeping the world cup away from any potential scandals.]

so in honour of croatia's gutsy performances so far, i decided to cook up a lovely brodet [or brudet, or brodeto] a tomato-based fish stew from the adriatic coast. it's made with a mix of fish and seafood with a focus on fish that has a stronger flavour like cod or sea bass. [scorpion fish is apparently a preferred variety, but i have literally never seen it for sale here in montreal.] the seasoning is very simple- onions, garlic, white wine [croatia is great wine country, and quite affordable compared to italy] and parsley. some recipes add bay leaves, or raisins, or lemon juice, but it's always a short list. the preparation is simple as well: since the fish is supposed to be "intact" when it's served, you just fry up the onions and garlic, add the wine and tomatoes, then the fish [but not the seafood]. after a few minutes of letting the fish fry, you add water and let everything cook for twenty minutes or so. then you add your seafood and parsley for a few minutes but at no point do you stir the pot. that's how the fish stays intact. [it is acceptable to pick the pot up and shake it gently to prevent anything from sticking, but keep your damn spoons out of there.]

i'd encountered brodet before, actually, but when i had, it was a slightly different version called brodetto. that's what they make in italy, which is just further evidence that croatia and italy have very much in common. it's also similar to french bouillabaisse and spanish/ catalan zarzuela, which i've already said are the same thing. in the croatian version, more than any of the others uses little seasoning, so the most important part is making sure that you start with great ingredients. and that's perhaps my odd way of giving advice to the croatian team going forward: you already have great ingredients, don't get them all messed up by mixing in other stuff. stay focused on the simple goal of playing the best tournament you can and winning as many games as you can. complicated can wait.

and now it's time for the simple pleasures of...

man candy of the match

yesterday's game was nerve-wracking for all and while i think that the better team [croatia] did prevail, it's hard not to feel sorry for the danish team. it's also hard not to feel sorry that their exit means that we won't be seeing any more of their ur-viking goalkeeper kasper schmeichel. even in a corner of the world known for producing tall blondes, kasper stands out.

lay your hands on me...

of course, the most remarkable thing about kasper's nordic good looks may be that he's part of a genetic twin set:

human cloning?
that's kasper's dad peter on the left, who had an illustrious career with manchester united as their keeper. indeed, little kasper's education in football came in no small part from watching his dad win trophies in the premier league.

in 2016, kasper got a trophy of his own with leicester city, undoubtedly one of the great fairytale sport stories of all time. and of course, who was there to celebrate with him right away?

camera operators at the game yesterday could not resist cutting to peter in the stands, expressing every emotion that his son was successfully containing. in a game already overloaded with tension, seeing the elder schmeichel's face made it nearly unbearable. i'll miss seeing both of their faces for the rest of the tournament.

 the famous danish keeper and his biggest fan.


Shadowy Lady said…
I have supported Italy since I was 5 years old and this cup feels weird without them. I dislike how ppl talk about the diving though. Italians have maybe invented diving, but for the past 20 years they’re nowhere near the top of diving competition.

Interesting take on similarities between them and Croatia. I have been rooting for Croatia to win the cup :)
Kate MacDonald said…
I joke about the diving, but you're absolutely right. They've done a lot to clean up and a lot of the continued heat is based on a video that circulated of players supposedly practicing their dives. Only thing is that the video was apparently done as a joke by The Guardian. It's just that some people took it seriously... I'd like to see Croatia do well because I think they deserve it. The organization might be corrupt, but that's no reflection on the team.

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