BOLOGNA, Italy - Thursday evening’s encounter at the Renato Dall’Ara Stadium between the Montreal Impact and Bologna was more than just a friendly match - it provided one final opportunity for the local fans to salute their former captain Marco Di Vaio.
As life goes in Italy, a midweek 6:30 evening kick off is far from an ideal time to have a soccer match, as many are still at work or still busy with university commitments. But though there were only 1800 in attendance, the fans still managed to make a great deal of noise, even more than what one would generally expect from an MLS league game.
The chorus and song of a passionate packed house would have surely been deafening and surreal.
The Italian peninsula is, after all, one where the majority of the population lives and breathes the game. The primary Italian sports newspapers of Gazzetta Dello Sport and Corriere Dello Sport are each filled to the brim with up to 30 pages of soccer stories and columns daily. From the city of Rome to the smallest of towns where cattle outnumber village folk, every place has its own soccer club.
Here, if you don’t consider yourself a guru of the sport, you are part of the minority.
And on the whole, there is arguably no country in the world that possesses more knowledge about the technical and tactical aspects of the sport and that has contributed more to the knowledge of the methodology of coaching soccer players and teams, than Italy.
Certainly in Europe today, Italian coaches are the most present and sought after.
Naturally, Italian clubs generally know how to play the game very well. On Thursday, even a second string Bologna side was able to dominate the Impact’s first team. For large portions of the match the Impact were stuck in their own half and though the game only finished 1-0, the hosts could have easily won by three or four.
The technical gap between the two sides was very noticeable, even embarrassing at times, as Bologna’s reserve players knocked the ball around with ease. Many were technical enough to get by Impact players without much fuss, and consistently too.
Luckily for the Impact’s sake, Bologna’s best players didn’t dress as they rested for an important away league fixture against Torino on Sunday.
Impact defender Alessandro Nesta explained to the media present following the friendly that the gap in quality between an MLS side and a Serie A side is to be expected.
“There’s certainly a difference between the two sides,” Nesta stated “[MLS] is a young league. Serie A has 100 years of history. It’s not easy, it takes time. MLS has grown very quickly, but still with 100 years of experience you can expect a significant technical gap.”
Though having grown at a very rapid pace since its inception in 1996, North America’s MLS is still years behind the major leagues of Europe.
But speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Di Vaio was optimistic about MLS’ future, explaining that it was “only a matter of time before MLS starts to steal Europe’s best players.”
A significant player migration from Italy could probably come sooner rather than later, for Serie A clubs are not as wealthy, or relatively wealthy, as they used to be. Most Italian clubs are swamped in debt and, worse, plagued by outdated infrastructure.
In the future, the relative financial stability of MLS could make it a very attractive destination for even the better European players in their younger and peak years.
But though it takes money and capital to build a top club, it also takes a great deal of experience and know-how as well, which is why a camp like the one the Impact have organized in Bologna and Florence is a great idea as it provides an opportunity to build relationships with century-old clubs that know so much more about both the game in general and how to run, or better, how not to run, a soccer club.
Like America sought to learn from governments and institutions of old so as to build an ideal or better democracy for itself, so too does MLS have the opportunity to create a great league for the future and one that could eventually tower over all others.
The salary cap, financial stability, and strong infrastructure are, for starters, the right way forward.
With the end of the MLS season, the Impact are already looking to next season and sporting director Nick De Santis will definitely be keeping an eye on the players he comes across during the current Italian camp.
But considering the physical demands of MLS, hopefully, for the Impact’s sake, club president Joey Saputo and De Santis no longer pursue – irrespective of their ability - players well beyond their thirties.
At a certain point, if you can’t keep up, you can’t play.
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If Thursday’s friendly was any indication, there are plenty of young, talented players that would gladly come across the pond and could do very well.
Bologna’s Daniele Paponi for example, who was the only scorer of Thursday’s friendly and probably the best player on the pitch as well, will probably be on the outs in January.
According to different sources, Bologna is looking for suitors for the player. The 24-year-old fiery forward and winger might not be good enough to start regularly in Serie A, but he could do well in MLS and wouldn’t cost too much either – certainly below a DP price range.
It’s these kinds of players that the Impact should be targeting.
De Santis will certainly have his work cut out for him, especially as he also has to devote considerable time looking for a coach to replace Jesse Marsch.
Italy is certainly an ideal place for both him and the club to contemplate these matters.
Nick Sabetti covers the Montreal Impact for Goal.com Canada, and he is currently following the team on its Italian journey.