An Awkward Relationship: The English Perception of Italian Calcio

In Front Page, The Breakdown by Aaron WestLeave a Comment

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Wherever you live (unless you’re tucked away in some remote region), sports, and especially football, will most likely be a presence within your life. Even if you resent the nature of competitive football, at some point you’ll be likely to find yourself cheering for your very own national team as they strive to take on something hugely symbolic like the World Cup. Tribalism, (or attaching yourself to ones colours) is deeply infectious. It taps into a sense of identity, a belonging; you share this feeling and entitlement of supporting something with other people which can bring out such intense emotions. Nonetheless, such tribalism can also lead to spitefulness when it comes to media and fan viewpoints on certain teams. I write this from the perspective of a British-born citizen with an Italian father and English mother.

Being bi-cultural and having spent most of my life frequenting Italy, I can happily identify with both Italian and English cultural traits. I’m also writing from the perspective of being a supporter of the Azzurri and Italian football when it competes within the European competitions. This article is inspired by the dejection I felt when I saw Italy and England tied together within the same group in the World Cup last summer. I was happy to feel that Italy gave itself a good representation when the two counties last met in the European Championships for 2012; the Pirlo Panenka is something that was really well regarded within the media and fan zones, and Pirlo himself became somewhat of a household name. Yet,  when England were drawn within the same group as Italy in Rio, I knew the English media were due another round of delivering Italian stereotypes which would make anyone with some sense of international football wince.

You see, since the success of the Premier League as a global and footballing force there’s been a sense of smug satisfaction within England at what can be achieved on the global stage. Just think about it: England as a footballing nation haven’t won a major international trophy since 1966, and that was just the one occasion. Since then, they’ve mostly been a disappointment. The “golden generation” under Sven Goran Eriksson failed to achieve much and resulted in being knocked out within successive quarter finals. Only Bobby Robson’s England in 1990 were close to a World Cup win before being knocked out at Italia 1990 at the semi-finals stage. Fact is, international success hasn’t been something that’s graced England as a nation within football, yet the media are happy to often brandish the country as equals alongside the competitors for the trophies on offer. That’s not to say you should be defeatist, and in recent times there has been a sense of realisation at how average a nation they are now, but the World Cup in Brazil upturned that rationale.

Before the tournament, Italy were branded as an “ageing squad” – the same old cliché trotted out in many tournaments before. This time it did have some validity as a few of the main of the stalwarts within the squad, Pirlo and Buffon were in their mid 30s. However it was not highlighted that many of the squad were young and dynamic prospects, projected to be the future of Italian football.

Furthermore, back in 2006, pundits like former Celtic boss Martin O’Neill would often sneer at the star players within the squad; simply take this exchange between former English legend Gary Lineker and O’Neill in a pre-match discussion as an example:

Gary Lineker:So Martin, what do you make of (Andrea) Pirlo?”

Martin O’Neill:Not much at all actually.

This is the quality of infuriating and uninformed punditry that infiltrates the national consciousness and it was a description of a player who would go onto win a World Cup and Champion’s League within that very year. Again, back in 2010 for the World Cup, Martin Keown who had a spot as a commentator for the Italy vs Paraguay game took glee in Italy struggling, and was incessant in brandishing the likes of De Rossi as a “thuggish” player. Transpose that type of player into the English national team, and De Rossi would be lauded as someone comparable to Steven Gerrard who would be commended for his tenacity and “passion”.  The issue here is not confided to the stark nature of spiteful punditry but is also observable within the newspapers as well. The Sunday Mirror are happy to play on stereotypical cliches as many media analysts will boil down to the fact that Italy are defensive, Catenaccio, slow, boring -to-watch, focus on the counter-attack…you know the drill. Nevertheless, reverse these stereotypes into the English way of playing and many will observe how “determined” and “resolute” England’s play was.  Rather than being an impartial institution of news delivery, what we receive is a biased, condescending and mocking display of favouritism in lieu of passionate but neutral displays of coverage.

Fact is, since the days of Channel 4’s Football Italia which was hosted by the notorious Calcio lover, James Richardson, there’s been a sense of a superiority complex which has seeped into the national awareness. If Italy were to have lost to England in Rio during World Cup 2014, the jibes, taunts and smugness from my peers and many other posters throughout the media would’ve been off the charts. Obviously I speak from a position of pride, but because the coverage of Italy within this country is so stereotypical and biased already, losing would’ve amplified that feeling of how far Italy have sunk since that golden age of the 90s, leading into the early 00s.

Building on this, it’s commonplace to hear Premier League fans comment on the boring and defensive play that’s within the league of Serie A. However, any regular (or even) occasional viewer of Serie A can tell you many of these issues are simply not valid anymore. Whilst Serie A teams do focus on tactics more than intensity, the league definitely offers a thrilling, skilful set of displays that can really entertain (as evidenced by the multiple 5+ goal scorelines on a regular basis), often more so than the overblown “Super Sundays” that are heavily driven with advertisements by Sky Sports within the UK.

Italy as a footballing nation and Serie A itself are showing signs of growth and introspective improvement that was necessary after the travesty of Calciopoli and the like. The global image of Italy as a footballing country and Serie A was tarnished and that has partly fed to the stereotypes that teams like Juventus will “cheat” and bully their way to victory. It’s good to see teams like A.S. Roma go away to Manchester City and be more than their equals on the field, but also having the likes of Carlos Tavecchio as the head of FIGC abolishes much of the good work that’s being seen within the league. Stereotypes and the negative viewpoint on Italian football within the UK will surely always be prevalent, but as long as the league keeps the momentum of the good work it’s doing, then hopefully it should reap some of the respect that it deserves and has lost in recent decades.

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About the Author

Aaron West