anthony lopopolo

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Luis Suarez: Newsmaker of the year 

By Anthony Lopopolo

A villain makes a story, and Luis Suarez made a lot of them this year. He bit a player on the field – not for the first time! – and months later he travelled to London to accept an award. He got suspended for 10 matches and he still scored more goals than any other player in the Premier League. He thought he could leave Liverpool, only to sign a new contract with them worth £200,000 a week. He is a paradox and he is flawed, and may Luis Suarez never change.

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What did we learn from Brazil’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup?

By Anthony Lopopolo

The player of the tournament was Neymar, but the smell of tear gas was just as unmistakable. Even though the actual gas did not pass into the stadium, one person wore a mask and real FIFA officials at the start of the Confederations Cup final scrambled for cover. These are the reports.

The damn thing stung the eyes, all the way over there, hundreds of yards away from the ring of small chaos around the Maracana where thousands of protesters clashed with police once more. There, Brazil beat Spain – the greatest team of its era – so convincingly that we all thought the era was coming to an end, and the parties outlasted the protests deep into the night on Sunday.

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No challenge too big for Clarence Seedorf

By Anthony Lopopolo

In the gym was Clarence Seedorf, arms still bulging, abs still firm, and yet old enough to be the father of the kids around him. Just off Rio de Janeiro, his favourite city, the 37-year-old would teach the things he learned over the course of his 22-year career. He’d ask them questions. He encouraged them to think for themselves. It was a two-way conversation off the field; orders and lectures saved for the field. They’d talk about positioning, footwork, little details, shaping the body to receive the ball, opening up, preparing for it, moving this way instead of that. 

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Carlo Ancelotti: Cool in the hottest of moments

By Anthony Lopopolo

On the margins of a blank piece of paper, he would scribble in his starters. He would fill the rest of the page with points about the defence and attack: to maintain possession, to play two-touch football, to bide your time. And he would make copies and hand them out to his players before matches.

Carlo Ancelotti writes all of his notes by hand. He writes in ink. He always wanted to make that human connection. “You can’t write a love letter on a computer,” he writes in his book, The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius. You could say Ancelotti is a bit of a romantic.

Communication is the most important thing. He wants everyone’s opinions. If one of his players is upset, Ancelotti hears them out. He prefers talking to his team instead of shouting; listening instead of ignoring, even when he knows he is right. 

“For me,” says the 54-year-old, coach of Real Madrid, “it’s managing people. Managing Ronaldo is the same for me as managing Carvajal or Morata.”

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As We Watch Brazil’s Dance

By Anthony Lopopolo

In the beginning of Dave Zirin’s book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, one of America’s pre-eminent political sports writers tells us that he simply had to write a book about Brazil – a country, said one of his professors, that is certainly not for “beginners.” But Zirin is no beginner. He is the voice of reason in a country of unreasonable disparity.

He first starts in the favelas, one of them surrounding Rio’s Maracana, where hundreds of homes, once built by generations of families, were “cracked open.” Those residents were relocated, some moved hours away, some getting no compensation at all.

Zirin then interviews journalists and academics, street sweepers and the indigenous peoples, as he searches for the meaning behind everything that has happened in Brazil over the past year. His latest book is an essential companion for this month. It examines what it means to be Brazilian and explains why FIFA is exploiting the land like its colonizers from Portugal so many years ago.

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Brazil awaits for Balotelli and Gli Azzurri

By Anthony Lopopolo, writing from Torino

Think of the madness that is Mario Balotelli – the hair, the cars, the racism. But when he takes a penalty kick, he’s ice-cold. Everything stops. For that moment, no matter its weight, he is serene. So this time, against the Czech Republic’s Petr Cech, Balotelli stepped up to the spot and scored. It was the winning goal, the second of a comeback, but no different than the rest he has taken. It was the goal that won Italy a ticket to Brazil two games ahead of time. It was perfect in an imperfect game.

This is what the kids came to see. They came to see the Azzurri, of course, and they came to see Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both honoured on Tuesday evening for the record-breaking amount of appearances they have made for the national team. Even on their night, the journalists asked them questions about Balotelli. Another game was his.

All the way at the top of Juventus Stadium, just below the rafters, children no older than 12 or 13 jumped and caroled for the AC Milan striker before the game. In the hymn of the famous French nursery rhyme, Alouette, they sang: “Se saltelli, segna Balotelli! Se saltelli, segna Balotelli!” Meaning, “If you jump, Balotelli scores.” These kids wore the colours of Torino, the burgundy track suits, and the shades of Juventus, white and black. It didn’t mean a thing. No matter the colour of their skin or jersey, Balotelli speaks to the youth of Italy unlike any other athlete.

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When the Swedes invaded (and embraced) Dublin

By Anthony Lopopolo, writing from Dublin

The Swedes were everywhere. You could hardly tell that this was Dublin, not Stockholm. They wore the blue and yellow, but they also wore green. The pubs here flew Swedish flags, beacons for the weary travelers looking for a pint. The reason for the occasion, the World Cup qualifier, was always big: Ireland had to win the game against Sweden.

But the people of these two countries greeted each other before the match like old friends, not adversaries. One country simply stood in the way of the other. This wasn’t Bucharest, where riot police had to use tear gas before the game between Hungary and Romania. This wasn’t Belgrade, where Serbia and Croatia played against each other after years of fighting against one another. No, this was celebratory. This was fun.

Some looked upset: About 5,000 Swedes took over the city, after all, and only after the work day ended did the Irish truly reclaim their city. They were hospitable, but the time did come to shut the visitors up.

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Against All Odds: Atleti in the Camp Nou

Anthony Lopopolo was at the Camp Nou, camera in hand, to capture some of the scenes over the weekend.

A few seconds after Alexis Sanchez scored that first goal for Barcelona, an Atletico Madrid fan tucked underneath an overhang in Camp Nou held his head in his hands and couldn’t control the tears. He thought it was over.

Both Diego Costa and Arda Turan had gone off with injuries. It looked like Atletico were going to lose the league in the final game at Camp Nou. Then Diego Godin scored off a header, and the fan leapt. He was leading chants the rest of the game, a small section of Atletico supporters in the bottom corner of the stadium.

After the final whistle, signaling a the title-clinching draw for Atletico, a Barca fan turned around and shook his rival’s hands. Those remaining applauded Atletico. They know what it takes to win.

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AC Milan no longer playing like the club we once knew

By Anthony Lopopolo

They are already waiting for the comeback, as if it is certainly going to happen. AC Milan pulled off the improbable last season, winning points in 19 of their last 20 games in Serie A after a sluggish start to the year. And now there is the expectation, upon losing three of their first seven games, that they can do it again. It is only October, and Milan stand 13 points behind Roma and 11 points outside the Champions League zone. They stand behind Hellas Verona—only promoted this year—and they have conceded more goals than all but two teams (tiny Sassuolo and winless Bologna) in the Italian league.

Those are the statistics, and they are all ugly, and they tell the story, too. The points they did pick up were not wholly theirs to begin with. They stole what they could, in the dying minutes of games against Torino and Bologna scoring goals that they did not deserve. The story here was not about resilience. It was about a squad that struggled against clubs with much lower payrolls and expectations. After all, Milan are all about winning, but they do not seem to care so much about it anymore. They are afraid to impose themselves, afraid to take the reins and mush, afraid to push themselves and their opponents around.

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The Calm and The Storm: Lionel Messi’s Moment

By Anthony Lopopolo

When he was a kid, Lionel Messi used to take a one-hour siesta in the afternoon. He would sleep 10 hours a night. He wasn’t really bothered. 

He is still a pretty calm guy at 27 years old, by accounts of his teammates and those around him. “You see him warming up and he’s as calm as a kid who’s going to play on the field around the corner,” said Fernando Signorini, Argentina’s fitness trainer, in the book Messi: A Biography. The Maracanã, the World Cup final, is not exactly a game on a field around the corner, but it is his last frontier, the chance to be fully embraced by the country he left when he was 11, to share the same mantle as Maradona.

Messi understands this moment. “My hopes and dreams are being fulfilled due to the hard work and sacrifice of a team that has given everything from match one,” he wrote on Facebook. But this feels almost more about his own legacy than it does about Argentina.

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Already a great in Milan, what is Kaka looking for?

By Anthony Lopopolo

Even journalists asked for his autograph, the ultimate sin. Even the fans who make the most intimidating stadium in Europe stood and applauded for Kaka. He dashed across the field at Celtic Park in November like he did on that famous night in 2007 against Manchester United when two defenders ran into each other as he headed the ball by them. 

What’s always present is his composure. Kaka stands tall and scans and navigates the field while running with perfect posture. (That’s all the more remarkable given that he was almost left paralyzed after slipping off a slide at a swimming pool.) Not all of the passes hit the target, although not much is hasty either. And when it’s just him and the ‘keeper, he often rolls the ball into the net, gently.

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A Dispatch From The Milan Derby

Il Derby della Madonnina is not what it once was. It is still about the pride of Milan, but it is no longer the hottest city in world football. 

Still, AC Milan and Inter share a lot of history, and the rivalry never dies. They have played each other almost 300 times over the past 100 years. The latest match wasn’t a classic, a Nigel de Jong header winning the game for the Rossoneri, but you could still see the passion in the stands. [Photos and Words by Anthony Lopopolo, sent our way while sipping on an espresso]

The Best of Football Writing in 2013

This is the third year that The Best Football Writing list (2012, 2011) has come into existence. We’ve seen blogs come and go, as well as writers rise and get the recognition they deserve. 2013 was no exception, but the continued domination of social media in sport created a new landscape for writing. With a flood of information hitting us every day, it can be difficult to find the long reads amongst a pile of memes.

This year’s list was the hardest to compile, but there was hardly a shortage of quality writing. In fact, we were overwhelmed with tweets and emails recommending great writing in football. While we don’t know what’s in store in 2014, we’re proud to present The Best of Football Writing in 2013.

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The persistence of legends

By Anthony Lopopolo

This time, Franco Baresi would play.

He was there with the Italians and the Portuguese, all legends from their country, descending on a pitch in Toronto.

For all of them — Roberto Baggio, Paolo Di Canio, Pauleta, Maniche — the chase of the game is gone, the roars faded, the final whistle blown. But on this Monday night the cheers were loud, and the fans cared and the goals mattered. It was only an 80-minute game, and you could forgive them. This was an aberration of so many kinds, and they all embraced and smiled at the end. It was a taste of the life they once had.

Baresi was here just a month ago with Milan Glorie, the globetrotting icons of the famous seven-time European champion. Then he did not play. He didn’t look like he could.

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