With Italy coming to Craven Cottage at the end of this month, Liam Curry caught up with Paul Heaton, formerly of The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, to talk about his long-standing love of Serie A and the Azzurri.
Image: Paul Heaton pictured with former Parma, Roma and Fiorentina defender Gianluca Signorini
When did you first become interested in Serie A?
My brothers and I had a long standing interest in the International game that stemmed from my Dad's fascination in foreign football. By the 1982 World Cup I had more of an interest in the German, Italian and Spanish teams than I did the English one. In November 1988 my band [The Beautiful South] decided to record our debut record in Milan. I went to watch Milan-Lecce, Milan-Inter and Inter-Juve whilst we were recording. From then on I became a real fan of the Italian game.
In the 1980s Inter became your second team after Sheffield United. What are your memories from these times? Long train journeys?
That same season I went on some extraordinary trips to follow Inter. Fiorentina away by train, Roma away by train, Juve away by train and a couple of others. I'd combine the trips with a bit of songwriting, by taking a pen and pad and also by travelling alone.
What was the most memorable away journey that you made following the Nerazzurri?
Probably the Roma one. It took me 30 hours there and 30 back, with changes in London, Paris, Switzerland and Torino I think. They won 3-0 with goals from Diaz, Serena and Matthaus. The atmosphere and ‘coreografia’ at the Olympic Stadium was fantastic with the old Commando Ultra Curva Sud holding signs thanking the smog that was cursing Milan at the time.
What were the differences you saw between British and Italian fan culture at the time?
There were many differences. The main ones were that the Italian fans would prepare a massive display of flags or held up cards/messages for kick-off time. That has only really crept into the English game fairly recently. Alongside this, many of the Ultra groups had a strange, backwards looking fixation with the English skinhead/mod subculture. Inter Skins, Bologna Mods and Juve's Arrancia Meccanica [Clockwork Orange] to name just a few, deliberately aped English fashion from the 1960s/1970s.
Were there any particular players from that period playing for Inter or in Serie A in general that were particular favourites?
I was extremely fortunate to see some of the greats of Italian football. Giants like Altobelli at Juve, Conti and Giannini at Roma, Baresi, Donadoni at Milan. My personal favourites at Inter were Aldo Serena and Riccardo Ferri. If Serena won them the title with his goals, you also have to consider the players that Ferri and the Inter defence stopped them that season. Going to Napoli and getting a 0-0 draw against the likes of Maradona, Careca and Carnevale, playing the Milan of Van Basten, Gullit and the underrated Pietro Paolo Virdis twice, and not conceding - those were the other reasons behind the Scudetto going to Inter.
If you had to pick one player from that Inter team as your idol, who would it be?
Aldo Serena - il bomber di Montebelluna. Strange because I've always had an unhealthy obsession with defenders.
You also have a soft spot Lecce, a team that yo-yo between Serie A and B, and have watched non-League Italian football. How did Lecce’s style compare to Inter’s? Was the match day experience different?
At the time it was common practise for the lower Serie A teams to go to grounds like San Siro and defend for 90 minutes. Lecce were no different to that and even seemed to take pride in it. Currently it seems quite fashionable for a side to go away and sneak a result with just 25 per cent possesion. Back then - before the back pass rule, before tackles from behind were ruled out - it was an Italian art and an absolute joy to watch. The match day experience of a Lecce-Bari derby is not so different to the other Italian derbies just on a slightly smaller scale.
How did your appearance as a co-commentator on Channel 4’s Football Italia come about? What was it like working with James Richardson?
I just appeared the once and James Richardson and Paul Elliot were lovely.
What did you make of James Richardson? He’s gone on to become a cult figure for fans of Italian football in Britain.
Yeah he clearly immersed himself in his work which led to a great knowledge and a proper fans’ view of the game and culture
Do you have any favourite mementos from your travels in Italy?
I have several photos of myself with some of the players of the time [Vialli, Maradona, Serena etc] which I value highly.
Image: Paul Heaton pictured with then Sampdoria forward Gianluca Vialli
What was it like meeting those players? As someone who is famous himself, does it take away the allure?
It was very exciting. I remember catching a plane back from Cagliari to Milan after the pre World Cup Italy-Argentina friendly and the whole of the Italian squad were on the flight. I had Zenga, Serena and Berti sat across from me, Elkjaar and Brian Glanville behind me and then Maradona, Caniggia and the rest of the Argentinean squad sauntered on. I just thought, if this plane crashes I won't even be a footnote.
Are you still a keen observer of Italian football? Have you watched the current Italian team?
I don't often travel to games but yes I still follow. The last time I went to see the national side though was the 1-1 draw in the 2006 World Cup against the U.S. I'm aware of all the players and their abilities. I probably rate Insigne and De Sciglio as the best of the new crop but as Italy have shown before, World Cups are often a time when the older players come to fruition. In the heat and humidity of Brazil I think the form of an experienced technical player like Montolivo will be the most crucial to the campaign.
How do you rate Serie A and the Italian national team now?
During what could best be described as the Golden Era, the Italian clubs were able to buy the most expensive forwards and midfielders from around the world and they would be pitted against undoubtedly the greatest defenders in the world. That made it a very special league. Those of us who marvel about the wonders of the Premier League simply have no understanding of the ingredients necessary to match that. Obviously Serie A no longer has that financial power to bring in the very best but you cannot claim a league to be the best because of unpredictable defending, eccentric managerial decisions and baseball high scores. I feel it will only be a matter of time and money before Serie A becomes number one again. As for the national team, each generation produces a new and exciting group but I do feel this current crop lack a Baresi, Cannavaro or Nesta.
What do you think are Italy’s chances in Brazil this summer?
I would be surprised if they didn't make at least the quarter-finals but with the right draw could make the semis.
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott play the London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on May 27.
What Have We Become  is the new album from Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott, released May 19
Italy vs. Republic of Ireland
On Saturday May 31, 7.45pm, Italy take on a Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane led Republic of Ireland.
In a match that will certainly be of interest to England fans, with the Azzurri being Roy Hodgson’s first opponents in Brazil, Cesare Prandelli can select from big-names, including Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano.
Tickets are on sale now, priced from £25 adults and £10 juniors, and can be purchased here .
Alternatively, you can be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to the game. Just visit Football Italia’s official Facebook page  for details on how to enter our competition.