Football: Italy’s other religion

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Calcio (football) reigns supreme in Italian sport. There are no other contenders. Indeed, some people have suggested that Italians engage in two impassioned acts of worship on Sundays: the first at the chiesa (church), and the second at the San Siro, Allianz or Stadio Olimpico, the revered temples of AC Milan, Juventus and AS Roma.

For proof of the passion, just visit a newsstand. One of the best-selling newspapers in Italy is La Gazzetta dello Sport, a sports tabloid published daily and dedicated almost entirely to football. The game and its associated drama has long been a favourite topic for journalistic gossip, after-dinner discussion and political debate. Some even claim that the health of Italy’s collective psyche is indelibly linked to how the national team, the beloved Azzurri (the blues), is performing on the world stage.

The English may have invented football, the Germans draw larger attendances and the Spanish generate big bucks with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but nowhere is football’s emotion as intense as it is in Italy. It is a fervour that has produced to-die-for home-grown players such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro del Piero, and propelled the Azzurri to victory in four World Cups, more than any other team except Brazil.

Football was introduced to Italy by the British at the tail-end of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for locals to stamp their characteristic panache on the ‘beautiful game’. By the late 1930s, over a dozen teams were competing in an annual league known as Serie A, and the national side had taken home two out of three FIFA World Cups. Almost without realising it, the Italians had elevated football into a tactical art where elegant attacking skill was backed up by a ruthless watertight defence.

By the 1960s, Italian coaches such as Helenio Herrera had pioneered catenaccio, a tight man-marking system that employed the use of an extra free defender known as the libero or ‘sweeper’. The system was used to great effect by Internazionale (aka Inter Milan) as it rose to become the fi nest European team of the era.

Internazionale are one of the ‘seven sisters’ of Italian football. Their closest geographic rivals are AC Milan with whom they share a stadium, the San Siro (officially known as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza), the largest of its kind in Italy where up to 80,000 people crammed in to watch the 1934 and 1990 World Cups, as well as the 2016 Champions League Final. Other teams worth making an Italian football pilgrimage for are AS Roma and Lazio (both based in Rome), Napoli from the southern bastion of Naples, and Fiorentina from Florence. But, in terms of fan-base and legacy, all potential opposition is blown away by the mighty Vecchia Signora (Old Lady) from Turin, better known to the world and history as Juventus.

With 33 Italian league titles, and nine European crowns to its name, Juventus is one of the most successful teams in history. Iconic players who have donned the legendary bianconeri (black and white) shirt include such international greats as Zinedane Zidane, Paolo Rossi, Michel Platini and Paul Pogba. With a popularity that extends far beyond Italy, Juventus is said to have one of the largest fan-bases in the world – an estimated 70 million – and you’ll spot the black and white striped jerseys on everyone from market traders in Nigeria to tuk-tuk drivers in downtown Bangkok.

Juventus’ biggest rivals are its fellow citizens from Torino FC. Traditionally, Torino counts on a far greater number of fans in Turin itself, while Juventus’ massive haul is drawn from around the world. Hotly contested matches between the two clubs are known as the Derby della Mole.

In style-conscious Italy, it isn’t just the football matches that are important, it’s also the way they are played. Well-coiffured and self-aware Italian players prowl the field like Milanese models strutting the catwalk. In a nation that spawned Michelangelo, beauty is everything. There is no hoofing the ball in the air à la British Premier League. Instead, it is manoeuvred skilfully across the playing surface waiting for that all-important moment of divine inspiration which lights up many Italian games. Ironically, the genius is countered by another distinctly Italian football trait: guile. Serie A games are renowned for their fake play-acting and theatrical attempts to curry favour with the referee and it isn’t always pretty.

The guile went a stretch too far in 2006 when Juventus and four other Italian clubs were implicated in a match-fixing scandal known as Calciopoli that shook Italian football to its foundations.

Scandals aside, football in Italy remains a great cultural leveller. You’ll see plenty of flag-waving in the streets and squares of tourist cities on big game days when the result can – for better or worse – affect the public mood. Bank on far better service in Naples if local heroes Napoli have just won 4-0, but don’t expect too much sleep in Rome on nights when Lazio are playing local rivals, AS Roma.

In July 2006, an estimated 715 million people watched as Italy won the World Cup against France. In bars and businesses across the nation, life practically stopped for 120 minutes and only ecstatically restarted when native Roman Fabio Grosso slotted in the winning penalty. For unbiased observers watching from the sidelines, this highly charged moment seemed to epitomise the passion, emotion, energy and excitement of Italian football, a game of style and skill that, for all its associated baggage, is as closely reflective of the Italian personality as Puccini or pizza.

Seeing a game
Going to a football match in Italy, particularly to see a big team like Juventus or Internazionale, is a quintessential Italian experience as culturally immersive as eating pizza in Naples or taking a gondola in Venice. Tickets for games usually go on sale 10 to 14 days beforehand and can be purchased online, in club shops or at the stadium. The cheapest seats behind the goal generally cost around €30. Children are half-price. The best cities to see games are Turin, Milan and Rome, all of which support two Serie A teams. The season runs from mid-August to late May.

Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet’s Experience Italy, © 2018 Lonely Planet 

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