5 Stories That Caught My Eye This Month

It's a busy time around the sporting globe as we head into late October. Today on the blog Paolo Bandini takes a look over 5 stories that caught his attention in recent weeks.

SanSiro

A (YouTube) star is born in Milan

The YouTube video of Hachim Mastour’s debut for the Milan Under-15 team has already attracted more than 2.2 million views – football fans the world over marvelling at this teenager’s precocious mix of footwork, finishing, and fantasia. After scoring twice in a 7-0 rout of Albinoleffe, the 14-year-old – previously seen ball-juggling with fruit - is already being hailed, with painful inevitability, as the Moroccan Messi.

In reality, there can be no guarantees at this stage that he will ever even make it to the Milan first-team. As abundantly talented as Mastour – born in Italy to Moroccan parents – plainly is, there is no shortage of examples of gifted teenagers who never made good on such potential. Nevertheless, Milan cannot help but be pleased to have him on their books.

Mastour’s mere presence is indicative of the club’s shift in focus – with the drive to cut costs increasing the need to identify and develop young players rather than signing established stars. The forward was, after all, supposed to wind up with Inter.

First signed on youth terms by Reggiana, Mastour was prevented by legislation governing the transfer of young players from moving to another club outside the region before the age of 14, but had an informal agreement with Inter long before that birthday arrived. He even represented the Nerazzurri in a number of informal competitions, and told the Gazzetta di Reggio last April that he had “always” supported them.

And yet, when the time came, he opted instead for the Rossoneri, signing for a fee that could rise up to €500,000 if he does, indeed, make the first-team. And if that, for now, remains uncertain, then the player’s words, as well as his actions are encouraging. “I want to win the Ballon d’Or,” he said after joining in the summer. Asked how one goes about winning such an award, he replied: “With a lot of hard-work and sweat.”

Flagging attendances are a national concern for Italy

Italy secured an important and highly encouraging result in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, beating Denmark 3-1 to establish a four-point lead after just four games in Group B. They did so in front of a less than half-full stadium at San Siro. The attendance for the match was officially listed at 37,000 but even that seemed generous. “The trained eye … could see there were not even 30,000 present,” wrote La Repubblica’s Enrico Currò.

The problem was not one of a lack of interest. As Currò noted in the same article, the TV broadcast of the match had enjoyed a 35.53% market share – better than some matches at Euro 2004. Instead, on message boards and radio phone-ins, fans cited a host of reasons for non-attendance: from high prices to the difficulty of obtaining tickets online.

In the end, though, the discussion always returns to the same point: Italy’s outdated stadiums. San Siro is a grand and imposing venue – and watching a sold-out game there remains one of the most breathtaking experiences in European football. But half-empty it can be seen for what it is: an old and not especially comfortable stadium in dire need of renovation.

“Seeing it on TV, us players are used to considering it an epic place,” said Denmark’s William Kvist. “Instead from inside it seemed sad.”

A new stadium law which was supposed to facilitate the creation of new venues – reducing the red tape around planning permission and allowing teams the right to build accompanying stores and hotels – has instead become lost in the legislative process, the government’s failure to pass or kill it leading only to more inaction. Until something changes, attendances are likely to only trend one way.

America needs its Outlaws

A sharp contrast with the atmosphere at San Siro was that at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City for the USA’s qualifier against Guatemala. Here there were just shy of 17,000 in attendance – but that in effect represented a full-house (the stadium’s true capacity is higher, but Fifa regulations prevented the sale of standing room tickets).

Those fans were also here to make themselves heard, led in an almost constant chorus by the American Outlaws supporters’ group. "I can't stress enough how big a difference that makes,” the midfielder Michael Bradley told me. “When we step on the field and we feel like we're playing in front of a crowd that is 98% American and is going to push you and support you through 90 minutes no matter what."

The USA has not always been able to count on such backing – both because soccer has for such a long time been a minority sport in the country (interest levels remain far below others such as American football and baseball) and because in US cities with high levels of immigration from Central American countries – such as LA – their home support has at times found itself outnumbered.

After a 3-1 win and a performance that has been cited as one of the USA’s best since Jurgen Klinsmann took charge last year, it is safe to imagine that the advantages a partisan crowd can bring have now been duly noted.

Peyton Manning is just fine

Somewhere around 9.15pm ET on 17th September, consensus was reached. After watching the Peyton Manning throw his third interception in a single quarter, journalists and fans came to the collective conclusion that he was, indeed, a spent force. Before a national audience on Monday Night Football his passes had wobbled feebly into the arms of grateful defenders. Gone was the confidence, the accuracy but most importantly the power – seemingly drained by the neck surgeries that had cost Manning the entire 2011 season.

One month later, that conclusion looks more than a little silly. Through six games, Manning has thrown for 14 touchdowns, while he has only once in his entire career posted a better completion percentage over a season than his present mark of 67.8. He has thrown just one more interception since the game against Atlanta – and that was the result of a miscommunication with his receiver Matthew Willis.

Just as it was too soon to write Manning off that night in Atlanta, so it is too soon to assume that all will be fine going forward. More than a risk of re-injury, some injury experts have suggested Manning may be vulnerable to developing a problem elsewhere as his body tries to compensate for any reduction in arm strength (http://blogs.thescore.com/nfl/2012/09/05/five-questions-with-jene-bramel/).

The real lesson here, of course, is less about Manning, and more about not rushing to judgement.

Worth Watt-ching

On the subject of premature pronouncements, you would have to go some way to beat that of the Houston Texans defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips earlier this month. "[JJ Watt is] going to be a bust – not a first-round bust but a bust in the Hall of Fame," said Phillips. "The only players I've seen that can do what he can do with his intensity can be found in Canton."

Given that Watt is presently in just his second year in the league, that players cannot be nominated until they retire, and that defensive linemen as good as Jim Marshall – who played in 282 consecutive games between his time with the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings – and Alex ‘Mad Duck’ Karras, this was quite the statement to make.

Certainly it is true that Watt is playing at an incredible level – leading the league with 9.5 sacks despite playing in a 3-4 scheme (where defensive ends traditionally are less free to rush the passer). This after missing most of training camp with a dislocated elbow. Rather than enter into a serious discussion of the merits of Phillips’s plainly premature claim, perhaps we should just enjoy watching.

 

 

Follow Paolo on Twitter: @Paolo_Bandini

And read more of his work at The Guardian