Since the pioneering days of Italian football, it has been a driving force of the game. Barely a week goes by when the word is not emblazoned across the front pages of the nation’s sports pages. And already, before a ball has been kicked this year, the Serie A season promises to be full of it – Polemica.
A quick look at the dictionary gives you a superficial understanding of its meaning. A feminine noun translated, variously, as polemic, controversy, dispute, argument or squabble. All of those definitions contain an element of its significance but none quite encapsulate its complete football context. You need to explore the catacombs of calcio to understand its full, symbolic resonance.
I can’t speak for the times before my birth but back when I was a boy it was all about Juventus against the rest of Italy. The Bianconeri were dominant and a spinning wheel of fortune threw up their adversaries for each season’s bitter dispute. Torino, Fiorentina, Roma, Inter and Milan all tried to kick out the walking stick from under La Vecchia Signora at one stage or another. It rarely worked and that only stoked the flames of the latest controversy.
In years to come, Polemica would acquire a new flavour when it split across the seismic fault-line of the nation’s north-south divide. Milan and Napoli came to symbolise two sides of a country of contrasts. The sale of Berlusconi’s tears outside the San Paolo stadium was one of the more humorous elements of that dispute. There were, sadly, plenty of more sinister aspects to the insults traded between Lombardy and Campania.
More recently, of course, it was Juventus and Inter who locked horns in a feud which reached its venomous peak with THAT penalty not conceded for a foul on Ronaldo. Calciopoli saw Roma replace the Bianconeri as arch-adversaries for the Nerazzurri. And then, last season, there were all the claims and counterclaims of conspiracy between Milan and Juve as a spiteful side-order to their title tussle. They could teach those Shakespearean witches from Macbeth a thing or two about keeping a cauldron boiling.
The pot has already started simmering for this year with the yawn-inducing will-they/won’t-they third Scudetto star debate in Turin. A ban for Antonio Conte added another splash of spice. Then Napoli’s no-show petulance after Italian football’s poisoned showcase in China stirred things up even further. Mix in the none-too-subtle sniping at Milan between Max Allegri and the club’s hierarchy and matters have often threatened to get out of hand before a proper match has been played.
The trouble is, of course, that everyone has an interest in keeping the fuel tanks of these feuds topped up. The fans blame the manager if their team fails to produce. The Coach then points the finger at his President for a lack of investment or support. And the club owner, in turn, insinuates that dark forces are at work in the League to ensure his side cannot succeed. It is kick-the-cat syndrome in reverse.
The end result of Polemica, is that nobody trusts anyone and every big clash is more foul-tempered than a grappa drinker finding his favourite bottle is empty. It also provides everyone involved in football with a perfect excuse when their team loses a match, gets knocked out of a competition or does not deliver on its season’s targets. Simply hatch open a conspiracy theory and you are absolved of any blame. It is calcio’s answer to going to confession.
There is, in truth, no easy antidote or cure to the ailment that afflicts the Italian game – and others. If there is a solution, a part of it probably lies in the dash of humour seen in the best banners still dotted around the grounds of Serie A. They take the mickey out of an adversary without having to descend to the cruel and crass jibes which seem to have become the order of the day.
Is it so difficult, after all, to admit that – at least on the odd occasion – the best team won but it was not yours? In the heat of a match it might not be possible to achieve that balanced view but, afterwards, would a more measured analysis really be so difficult? Why not try it out this season, instead of falling back on the same old insults and excuses? I for one am willing to give it a try, even if I am well aware that it will probably never catch on.