Champions League: Alessandro Del Pieros last hurrah

Alessandro Del Piero likes to describe how he learnt to be so clever with his free kicks. His father, Gino, used to park the family car next to the back garden of their Treviso home and turn on the headlights so that little Alex could carry on after dark his private, endless practice, landing a ball precisely on a chosen spot. His techniques have altered a little in nearly 30 years since but those hours, he tells, gave him the basis.

The renaissance of Del Piero may not be quite the right term for what has been an extended Indian summer to his career. He never started winding down, though he did voluntarily depart the big stage for a while. He was Juventus captain when, in the summer of 2006, the club he had served for 13 years were relegated to Serie B, Italy’s second division.

A few days earlier, he had won the World Cup with Italy. Two months earlier he and Juve had celebrated what they thought was a 29th league championship. It was not. Revelations that senior directors had been in frequent and improper contact with referees led to two of Juve’s titles being confiscated and to their demotion.

Most of the better players – Fabio Cannavaro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Patrick Vieira – left. The skipper stayed aboard, a decision that would burnish an already strong image of dedication that surrounds probably the most iconic Italian footballer of his generation.
The image is carefully managed, it is profitable and it gains Del Piero considerable sway at Juventus. Now 34, he is not beyond pulling the odd long face when the head coach makes a decision he thinks incorrect and he has had his disagreements with bosses such as Marcello Lippi, for whom he scored important goals in the World Cup semi-final and in the penalty shoot-out that won the Berlin final, and with Fabio Capello.

There have been moments of tension, too, with Claudio Ranieri, his current coach at Juventus, not least when, on being replaced earlier this month, he threw to the ground a jacket offered him as he took his seat on the bench. Typically, he explained his feistiness with a moment of delicate humour. The jacket offered him, he later smiled, was not in his size.

Last season, Del Piero scored more goals than anybody else in Serie A, for a team who finished third in the table the year after promotion. Last November, he was given a standing ovation by spectators, including Diego Maradona, at the Bernabeu for the two goals that earned Juventus a second win in the space of a month over Madrid in the Champions League.

Just after the new year, he converted his sixth direct free kick of the campaign, a figure that puts him, on form, ahead of the many specialists in this area, the Ronaldos and Beckhams. “Is it six already?” asked Ranieri, apparently not keeping count of Del Piero’s dead-ball expertise.

The Juventus head coach also played the innocent to the suggestion that this sort of precision from set-pieces might be precisely the trick that undoes Chelsea, whom Juventus visit on Wednesday in the last 16 of the European Cup, a Chelsea who have looked unusually vulnerable to manoeuvres from a dead ball.

“So Chelsea have problems at set-pieces?” smiled Ranieri. “Aha! That’s good to know.” We should not, said Ranieri, be distracted just by his captain’s expertise at curling a ball around a defensive wall. “Del Piero is amazing on the pitch everywhere, a fantastic player,” beams his head coach. “I think everybody in the world knows Alessandro Del Piero the man because he is such a good example. He’s a fantastically hard worker, in every training session he wants to be the best. That is important. It means that up here, in his head, he’s still a young player, as young as the rest. That’s central to his ability to keep improving.”

Searching for comparisons in English football, Ranieri thought not only of Ryan Giggs’ longevity but also of Gianfranco Zola’s extended excellence. Del Piero works in the league of evergreens. Francesco Totti, the Roma captain, was Serie A’s leading scorer, into his 30s, the season before Del Piero. Paolo Maldini, the Milan captain, is six years his senior and another four Milan regulars are Del Piero’s age or older. Luis Figo, 36, may get a run out for Internazionale against Manchester United on Tuesday and the streak of blond mane you will see along the left wing for Juventus at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday belongs to the Czech veteran Pavel Nedved, like Del Piero, a Juventus survivor. These two have lasted so well for a reason. Both spend their evenings not out on the town in Turin but at homes where gyms have been built.

Several of their colleagues, meanwhile, have spent much of the season on the side-lines. Ranieri’s Juventus entered 2008-09 as a squad full of experience. They have achieved their heights – a sustained challenge to Inter’s leadership that only faltered in the past fortnight, the victories over Madrid – with a back-up of half a dozen younger men supported by Nedved and Del Piero. Many of the veterans are now back in training and the coach’s decisions this week will be vital. He must weigh up the fitness of the prolific French goalscorer David Trezeguet; assess the readiness of the Italy winger Mauro Camoranesi; inspect the fragile but combative Cristiano Zanetti’s claims for a place in midfield.

“It’s important in this period to see who is at a high level for the Chelsea game,” says Ranieri. “I have had a lot of injured players. Now we are restarting with many of them and a lot of them are real champions: Camoranesi, Trezeguet, Tiago, Zan-neti, Jonathan Zebina, Giorgio Chiellini. I don’t know if, say, Trezeguet can play 90 minutes. We have to take things carefully.”

So the Tinkerman has some sharp choices to make before Juventus travel to London. But the presence of his totem, young Alex Del Piero, is not expected to prompt any second thoughts.

Wednesday, 7.30pm
Sky Sports Xtra, kick-off 7.45pm

Juventus slipped a long way behind Internazionale in the domestic Italian title race after taking two points from their past four Serie A matches before last night. Claudio Ranieri has managed resourcefully for much of the campaign without half-a-dozen injured players but he hopes that striker David Trezeguet will be match-fit for Stamford Bridge. Italy winger Mauro Camoranesi, France defender Jonathan Zebina and former Chelsea midfielder Tiago make the squad – Ian Hawkey

Guatemala apologizes to Cuba for Bay of Pigs

HAVANA (AP) — Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologized to Cuba on Tuesday for his country’s having allowed the CIA to train exiles in the Central American country for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

“Today I want to ask Cuba’s forgiveness for having offered our country, our territory, to prepare an invasion of Cuba,” Colom said during a speech at the University of Havana. “It wasn’t us, but it was our territory.”

He added that he wished to apologize “as president and head of state, and as commander in chief of the Guatemalan army.”

About 1,500 Cuban exiles trained under CIA guidance in Guatemala before invading the island beginning April 17, 1961, in an unsuccessful bid to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist government.

The invasion ended after less than three days, with about 100 invaders killed and more than 1,000 captured by Cuban forces.

Colom, whose government is considered center-leftist, said he was asking Cuba’s forgiveness as “a sign of solidarity and that times are changing,” and to “reaffirm my idea that Latin America is changing.”

Trained by the CIA in the rural Guatemalan province of Retalhuleu at the height of the Cold War, an invasion force known as the 2506 Brigade, comprising mostly Miami-area Cuban exiles, was determined to overthrow Castro’s government — which had brought the Soviet bloc closer than ever to the continental United States by seizing power in Cuba 28 months before.

The invading forces landed at Playa Larga at the innermost part of the Bay of Pigs, on the southern coast of central Cuba. The fighting later moved south, to Playa Giron, where Castro’s forces triumphed after less than 72 hours of fighting, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy failed to provide air support.

Colom said Tuesday that “Cuba deserves its own destiny, a destiny that you all built with this revolution of 50 years.”

“Defend it,” he said, referring to the guerrilla uprising that brought Castro to power on Jan. 1, 1959. “Defend it like you have always done.”

Like Cubans, Guatemalans harbor a deep resentment toward the United States for past violence. The CIA helped topple the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and Washington backed a series of hardline military and civilian governments during that country’s 36-year civil war, in which 200,000 Guatemalans died or disappeared before peace accords were signed in December 1996.

During a visit to Guatemala in March 1999, President Bill Clinton said any U.S. support given to military forces or intelligence units that engaged in “violent and widespread repression” was wrong. “And the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

During Colom’s state visit to Havana, he awarded his country’s highest honor to Castro, though it was unclear if he would meet with the ailing, 82-year-old former president, who has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

The Guatemalan president’s was the latest in a string of recent visits to Havana by regional leaders, including Panama’s Martin Torrijos and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

Fidel Castro, who ceded power to his younger brother Raul about a year ago, met with two other visiting Latin American presidents, Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet. Photographs of him with each of the presidents were later released by their respective governments, and a series of photos featuring Castro and Bachelet appeared in Cuba’s communist newspaper Granma on Tuesday.

Cuba launches own Linux variant to counter U.S.

By Esteban Israel

HAVANA, Feb 11 (Reuters) – Cuba launched its own variant of the Linux computer operating system this week in the latest front of the communist island’s battle against what it views as U.S. hegemony.

The Cuban variant, called Nova, was introduced at a Havana computer conference on “technological sovereignty” and is central to the Cuban government’s desire to replace the Microsoft software running most of the island’s computers.

The government views the use of Microsoft systems, developed by U.S.-based Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O), as a potential threat because it says U.S. security agencies have access to Microsoft codes.

Also, the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the island makes it difficult for Cubans to get Microsoft software legally and to update it.

“Getting greater control over the informatic process is an important issue,” said Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes, who heads a commission pushing Cuba’s migration to free software.

Cuba, which is 90 miles (144 km) from Florida, has been resisting U.S. domination in one form or another since Fidel Castro took over Cuba in a 1959 revolution.

Younger brother Raul Castro replaced the ailing 82-year-old leader last year, but the U.S.-Cuba conflict goes on, now in the world of software.

According to Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba’s University of Information Sciences, about 20 percent of computers in Cuba, where computer sales to the public began only last year, are currently using Linux.

Nova is Cuba’s own configuration of Linux and bundles various applications of the operating system.

Rodriguez said several government ministries and the Cuban university system have made the switch to Linux but there has been resistance from government companies concerned about its compatibility with their specialized applications.

“I would like to think that in five years our country will have more than 50 percent migrated (to Linux),” he said.

Unlike Microsoft, Linux is free and has open access that allows users to modify its code to fit their needs.

“Private software can have black holes and malicious codes that one doesn’t know about,” Rodriguez said. “That doesn’t happen with free software.”

Apart from security concerns, free software better suits Cuba’s world view, he said.

“The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty.” (Editing by Jeff Franks and Bill Trott) –Reuters

Buena Vista bassist – Cachaito dies

HAVANA (AFP) — Celebrated bass player Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez — famed for his work with Buena Vista Social Club — died on Monday, sources told AFP.

The 76-year-old had suffered complications following a prostate operation, group members and an associate producer told AFP.

“They operated on his prostate ten days ago, he came out fine, but later there were complications, I am not sure exactly what,” band mate Amado Valdes told AFP.

The musician, who was the nephew of legendary bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, died “in a Havana hospital, unfortunately he had various health problems,” according to Freddy Fernandez, an associate producer of the group.

“It is an irreplaceable loss for Cuban music, he is the last remaining member of the bass playing dynasty,” Valdes added.

It also another blow for the Buena Vista Social Club following the loss of Francisco Repilado — better known as Compay Segundo, the pianist Ruben Gonzalez in 2003 and singer Ibrahim Ferrer in 2005. Another band member, “Pio” Leyva, died in 2006.

“It is a great loss for the group and for Cuban music because he was a superb bassist and a brilliant band mate. He was an excellent person and the quality of his music was, honestly, unparalleled,” said Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, the group’s trumpeter.

Created in 1996, Buena Vista Social Club reunited veteran Cuban musicians some of whom had slipped into obscurity.

It quickly became one of the most celebrated Cuban music projects in the last 50 years after giving birth to the Buena Vista Social Club album and a documentary of the same name. Made by German film maker Wim Wenders it was nominated for an Oscar in 2000.