It’s fair to say that recent times have not been the best of times for Italian football. The national team had a woeful World Cup this summer and Serie A’s finest have not looked so great in European competition in the last few years. The biggest transfers these days seem to involve Spanish or English clubs (or Bayern Munich). When was the last time a Galactico signed for an Italian team?
And yet I can’t help it: I love Italian football and I always will.
The origins of this love are easy to trace. The Italia ’90 World Cup took place when I was 9 years old. It’s the first world cup I can remember, and I remember it vividly (even Scotland were there, failing with the particular brand of gallant ineptitude that we have made our own over the years. None of us will ever forget that Costa Rica game).
To a nine year old football obsessive living in a small village in Fife, everything about Italia ’90 seemed so utterly spectacular. It was pure spectacle. The stadiums were beautiful, triumphs of design and unmistakably Italian. They were state of the art then but sadly many have seen little investment since and their former glories are now distinctly faded.
Pavarotti’s World Cup anthem made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and while, looking back, the tournament did not always produce the best quality football, there was something operatic about it. I was mesmerised. Baggio blossomed on the world stage and Salvatore Schillaci scored goals with a look in his eyes that suggested his life depended on it. I had a top with Baggio 10 on the back.
The Italians lost an emotion soaked semi final in Naples to Argentina and the Germans won a semi final shoot-out against England. That was a game that didn’t exactly lack emotion either – Gazza’s tears remains an iconic image. Waddle’s penalty, I presume, remains in orbit. Just as it was all getting a bit too emotional, the German’s won a depressingly dull final with a late penalty.
Two years after the World Cup my love affair with Italian football was sealed for ever when Channel 4 began broadcasting Football Italia on Sunday afternoons. Gascoigne had just signed for Lazio and the channel decided that the time was right to bring live Italian football to British TV screens (a note for younger readers: in 1992 I only had access to 4 TV channels. Now that I have access to about 400 I can’t honestly say that there’s much more on that I want to watch).
The first live match was broadcast on 6 September 1992: Sampdoria v Lazio. I think the score was 3-3. The game was brilliant, intense, and dramatic. At the time Serie A was the best league in the world and the football was technically sophisticated, tactically complex and almost geometrically precise.
Some of my friends concluded that this mix was boring (the philistines) and it was a label that was often attached to Italian football in the UK and I suspect still is. For me though, it is simply beautiful. Italy is without doubt the most beautiful country in the world – when you have the cities of Venice, Rome and Florence it’s not really a contest. Italy has such respect for the aesthetic and it seems to me that this applies to their football as well.
I’ve only been to two Serie A games: Roma – Juventus in 2009 and AC Milan – Roma in 2010. I loved both. Going to the stadium feels like going to a performance, it’s no wonder that the San Siro is known as La Scala del Calcio.
In Italy, football really is something very close to religion. Italians may well be tempted to dispense with the penultimate word of the name of this blog. Some of the glamour has faded from Italian football but I think the most beautiful essence of the game still resides there, an essence I discovered on cold wet Sunday afternoons thanks to Channel 4.
My dream back then was to be a footballer and play in Italy. That dream alas didn’t quite work out. The back-up dream was James Richardson’s job, surely just about the best in the world. I best get back to practising my Italian: difensore, allenatore, centro campista, tifosi, capocannoniere …