Greg Lalas
Monday March 17th, 2008

TAORMINA, Italy -- Ideally, whenever an American soccer freak like me travels, it will coincide with a match like AC Milan-Inter or Real Madrid-Barcelona. Unfortunately, the scheduling gods don't always take American soccer freaks' travel plans into consideration.

Which explains how I found myself in Messina on Saturday evening watching FC Messina take on U.S. Grosseto in a middle-of-the-pack Serie B match. Normally, to get my fix, I would've caught one of Sicily's two Serie A clubs, Catania or Palermo, but both were playing away on the mainland. So, Serie B it was.

The Stadio San Filippo might be the most gorgeously situated stadium in the world. It sits on a hill above the city, overlooking the Ionian Sea and the misty hills of Italy's toe just across the Straits of Messina. When you go there, you can't help but hope the game will match the beautiful setting.

Unfortunately, the play on Saturday was anything but beautiful. I had never seen a Serie B game in person, and assumed it would at least offer some semblance of artistry, especially since Messina was in Serie A just last season. But it finished in last place in the top division, and was relegated immediately.

Now I know why. Donkey touches, off-the-mark passes, slack defending -- it was like watching a scrimmage at a suburban soccer camp. Now and then, there was a bit of the fantastic -- a deft flick, a strong run, a shot -- but for the most part, there was very little joy in the game.

As the sun disappeared behind the west stand, the shivering fans let their boys have it. In the Curva Sud, the diehards unleashed a shrill chorus of whistles at every bad play. The old men in the Tribuna Autorità threw their arms up in that dismissive way only Italian old men can and hurled enough swear words to make Scarface seem PG-13. They smoked cigars and complained nonstop about defender Alessandro Parisi, hoping the coach would sub him out and that the authorities would "exile him to Paris." (Yuk, yuk.)

Grosseto took a lead on a fifth-minute penalty, which only increased the frustration in the stadium. But substitute Daniele Degano produced a bit of magic in the 75th minute to save Messina's blushes. After a poor pass -- more arm-throws, more whistles -- the ball bounced luckily out to Degano on the left wing.

He made a quick move to the center and fired a 30-yard rocket off the inside of the far post. The goal surprised the old men, who suddenly cheered as vociferously as they had criticized. It was nice to know they were not frustrated beyond the point of offering redemption.

Being an MLS fan, of course, I immediately ask myself one question whenever I watch a game like this in Europe: How would an MLS club do against either of these teams?

On this day, the answer was easy: An MLS team would do just fine. In fact, the best MLS teams, like Houston or New England or D.C. United, would consistently beat Messina or Grosseto.

Now I know most of the MLS-hating Europhiles out there just swallowed their hand-rolled cigarettes, but I also know that most of them also romanticize the European game. Also, many slam MLS despite having never actually watched an MLS game.

But trust me, Serie B is not good soccer. There are some fine players, some young stars of the future, some savvy veterans, but they don't add up to anything remarkable. Compared to MLS, Serie B may appear more tactically sound and more serious with its passionate tifosi and soccer-only stadiums, and coverage in the pink newspaper, but the reality is, it is exactly what it's called: B-level.

Not that I wouldn't go back to Messina. After all, I love a beautiful view as much as the next American soccer freak.

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