In the name of decency, can someone please sanction Gaston Ramirez?

In the Walt Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast, the character Gaston is everything a cartoon villain should be; boorish, arrogant, conceited, cowardly and above all else, a small minded bully. It is therefore an unsettling coincidence that Gaston’s Uruguayan namesake Ramirez should display those exact same qualities whilst in action for his country during a crucial world cup match.

The major controversy from Tuesday night’s clash between Italy and Uruguay was not the suspected bite by Luiz Suarez on Giorgio Chiellini but rather the reaction of Ramirez towards Chiellini afterwards. The Italian defender was rightly incensed by Suarez’s conduct and made an attempt to show the referee the teeth marks adorning his shoulder. That Ramirez took umbrage with Chiellini speaks volumes about his character. He even went as far as to attempt to force Chiellini’s shirt back over his shoulder. There is only one word for this kind of behaviour, contempt; contempt for the victim of a crime and an astounding level of arrogance to believe that the victim should remain silent.

Make no mistake about it, Suarez has committed a crime here. If you and I were to approach someone in the street tomorrow and sink our gnashers into their shoulder we would be hauled in for questioning by police and referred for psychiatric examination. However, Suarez does not live in the real world. He lives in the cosseted world of the wealthy individual where indiscretion can be made to disappear like a magician’s handkerchief.

This is the third such incident where Suarez has bitten an opponent. In 2010 whilst playing for Ajax he received a seven game ban for biting PSV’s Otman Bakkal. His transfer to Liverpool occurred during this suspension so were he to return to the Eredivisie later in his career he would start with a ban. In April last year the FA handed down a ten match suspension for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. As this latest nibbling incident occurred during a match organised by FIFA it is in the hands of the world governing body to sanction Suarez. In a statement released last night, FIFA declared that the maximum ban permissible under their regulations is 24 international matches. If Suarez is found guilty (and I use the word if in the name of democracy) then FIFA should not hesitate to issue a 24 match ban and thus effectively end the Uruguayan’s international career. His behaviour is clearly not unprecedented and the punishment should reflect this.

And yet despite all the recrimination (there was also an eight game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra) Suarez continues to transgress and, infuriatingly, play the victim. You could be forgiven for asking how one player can have such a lengthy charge sheet without appearing to show any remorse?

The answer lies in the conduct of Ramirez. His outrageous behaviour in protecting his teammate was typical of the indulgence Suarez has received throughout his career. Strong willed managers will, naturally seek to protect their prize assets when the chips are down. One only has to think of the way Alex Ferguson refused to sack Eric Cantona in 1995 following his assault of a Crystal Palace fan as an example of a manager creating a siege mentality to strengthen his club in a desperate situation. However, the indulgences bestowed on Suarez go beyond the realms of siege mentality. Whereas Cantona was punished judicially, and Ferguson made no attempt to resist this process, the reaction of then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish during Suarez’s racism ban was little more than posturing. The Liverpool players and Dalglish himself wore t-shirts protesting Suarez’s innocence after an independent panel had found him guilty. As a show of defiance, it was lacking in dignity and class.

Ramirez however, has gone above and beyond the previous ways in which Suarez’s teammates have attempted to shield him from blame. In reacting angrily towards Chiellini, Ramirez showed that he is little more than a coward, a coward who felt the need to bully an opponent into concealing the truth. If and when Suarez is suspended, similar punishment should also be handed down to Ramirez though it is unlikely that this will happen as retrospective action against indecency is unprecedented in football. Ramirez the coward will, unfortunately, be able to wriggle his way out from under the microscope.


A Sweet Defeat or a Bitter Victory?

It seems that no matter what he does, Roy Hodgson will always be damned with the tag of conservatism. Despite throwing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in to Euro 2012, Andros Townsend in to crucial World Cup qualifiers and a host of young players in his final 23, there will always be those who prefer to remember the man who seemed almost deferential to Manchester United during his ill fated reign as Liverpool manager.

England started this world cup as massive underdogs. The announcement of a group containing Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica was met with a cut throat gesture by FA Chairman Greg Dyke. Ahead of last night’s game with the Azzurri, England supporters were clamouring for Hodgson to throw the youngsters into the deep end to see how well they could swim in the Amazonian humidity. The general consensus was that it will be better for England to crash out of this tournament swinging from the hip as opposed to the plodding, tentative ineptitude of South Africa four years ago.

It was therefore, a pleasant surprise to see Hodgson and England throw caution to the wind last night and start with Liverpool’s highly rated youngster Raheem Sterling. His inclusion illuminated the first half and one early shot from long range that rippled the side netting had the broadcasters convinced that England were one nil ahead.

England’s performance as a whole was by far the most adventurous and enterprising in a major tournament match since the group stages of Euro 2004. Yet England still, agonisingly, lost the game. Herein, lies the catch 22 situation facing Roy Hodgson for the remaining two group games. Had he not started with Sterling and played an extra man in midfield, England might not have been caught out as easily as they were for either of Italy’s goals. Had England sacrificed their adventure for greater stability, the match would almost certainly have ended in a draw. England must beat Uruguay on Thursday night to have any chance of progressing to the knockout stages but defeat will see them almost certainly out. Do England continue with their attacking intent and risk defeat or do they go back into their shells? For the supporters there is no debate. Watching England on Saturday night was almost a cathartic experience. There was pride in the team’s performance and a sense that the players were connecting with the fans again after being so detached in South Africa. The feeling among England fans was that the defensive naivety and the defeat could be forgiven because of the courageous aspects of the performance. There is definitely a good way to lose and this was it.

If England continue in this attacking vein on Thursday night and still come up short then so be it. The fans will get behind a team that sets out to entertain. After so many years of seeing England go down with a whimper, it was perversely all the more upsetting to see them lose when playing well, And yet, at the same time, it was undoubtedly more uplifting.

Italy Team Preview

The Players

Gianluigi Buffon (captain) goalkeeper, Juventus

Mattia De Sciglio defender, Milan

Giorgio Chiellini defender, Juventus

Matteo Darmian defender, Torino

Thiago Motta midfielder, Paris Saint-Germain

Antonio Candreva midfielder, Lazio

Ignazio Abate defender, Milan

Claudio Marchisio midfielder, Juventus

Mario Balotelli forward, Milan

10 Antonio Cassano forward, Parma

11 Alessio Cerci forward, Torino

12 Salvatore Sirigu goalkeeper, Paris Saint-Germain

13 Mattia Perin goalkeeper, Genoa

14 Alberto Aquilani midfielder, Fiorentina

15 Andrea Barzagli defender, Juventus

16 Daniele De Rossi midfielder, Roma

17 Ciro Immobile forward, Torino

18 Marco Parolo midfielder, Parma

19 Leonardo Bonucci defender, Juventus

20 Gabriel Paletta defender, Parma

21 Andrea Pirlo midfielder, Juventus

22 Lorenzo Insigne forward, Napoli

23 Marco Verratti midfielder, Paris Saint-Germain

Star man

download (1)

One of the least star-studded Italian squads in living memory, a reflection perhaps of Serie A’s reduced status. That leaves the superannuated Andrea Pirlo, even at a stately 35, as their top draw. Despite his advancing years, there are few better conductors in the game than the Juventus playmaker. There are younger legs and livelier talents in this squad but for one last time at a major tournament just sit back and savour each and every perfectly-placed pass from Andrea Pirlo.

Most likely to be sent home in disgrace …
Mario”Why Always Me?  Balotelli. Why? Lets not ruin the surprise.

The coach

Cesare Prandelli has rejected the stereotypes and turned into a stylish attacking side. He has held on to at least one Italian tradition however: there will not be a better-groomed manager at this World Cup.

Grudge match

Italy love nothing more than annoying France, from Marco Materazzi’s masterclass in the 2006 final, all the way to 1938 when the team were sent out to play in black shirts, a strip with clear fascist overtones sported purely to annoy the Parisian crowd.

Holed up

There have been hygiene problems at Italy’s secluded beachside Portobello Resort in Mangaratiba, 85km outside Rio. Health and safety officials raided the hotel and confiscated 50kg of fish, butter, ham and other foodstuffs past their sell-by dates. The hotel was also warned for not providing condoms to guests as is required under Brazilian law. The team doctor, Enrico Castellecci, said that Italy were planning to bring most of their own food and chefs in any case: “It hasn’t created a problem for us but of, course, it’s not pleasing.”

How they qualified
Does it really matter? They are there. They are always there. OK then, they strolled their group finishing six points clear of Denmark in second place.

World Cup high
England can never forget 1966, but most Italians probably can’t even name the four, yes four, times they have won the World Cup. The 2006 victory stands out as a triumph against the odds played out to a backdrop of scandal and controversy.

World Cup low
Defeat on penalties to Argentina on home soil in the 1990 semi-final.

Familiar faces
No one in England, though Liverpool fans might recall Alberto Aquilani.

Title odds: 20/1

The stereotype is …
Solid defence, counter attack, slow starters, tournament know-how, lavish gestures, long hair.

The reality is …
Free (ish) flowing attacking football, dodgy defence, lavish gestures, long hair. The Italians, as always, are at their best when sitting back patiently and waiting for teams to make mistakes, or pass themselves out, before hitting them on the counter. Think José Mourinho’s Chelsea, only with more expensive cologne. Balotelli’s evisceration of Germany in Euro 2012 stands as the recent high point, though Italy held their own against world and European champions Spain at the Confederations Cup, before doing what they so often do, losing a penalty shootout. Prandelli says he has been drilling his team to line up 4-3-1-2 or 3-5-2 because he has to “organise how to get to the final”. How’s that for ambition, Roy?

What they’re known for
La Dolce Vita 30 per cent
Pasta 18 per cent
Their hair 12 per cent
Their mothers 40 per cent

How Google translates the national anthem
We were for centuries downtrodden and derided, we are not one people, we are divided.

How long does it last?
One minute 40 seconds of chest-pumping national pride. Note to any budding young countries out there: this is how you do a national anthem.

How to dress like their fans

It’s almost impossible for an outsider to look like an Italian man or woman so instead try and behave like them, which basically involves overreacting to every single incident waving your hands in the air and looking to the heavens in disgust.

Commentator’s go-to stat
Only Brazil (93) and Germany (99) have played more games in World Cup finals than Italy (83). The Italians have drawn more games than anyone else (21).