Every now and then, especially in English-speaking circles dedicated to Serie A, an Italian term enters the football lingo and becomes part of common parlance. As an Italian, this is a phenomenon I am much more inclined to celebrate than deplore. New words enrich everyone's vocabulary and are often useful, exact, tactical descriptors.
At the same time - and inevitably - this linguistic cross-pollination is also the cause of a great deal of confusion, and at worst, it can promote a petulant form of snobbery. A few years ago, you could putatively tell the difference between people who 'got' Italian football versus those who didn't in terms of whether they knew the subtler meanings of the word fantasista. Later, the parole du jour became trequartista. Today, at a time when variants of the 4-3-3 are so profuse in Serie A, the term that keeps appearing in debates is mezzala.
An increasingly divisive and popular tag, the mezzala is described in terms that are getting more and more specialistic. It is, we are told, a new role, a product of the modern innovations in Serie A. The role of this player is variable: some believe he is a box-to-box midfielder with special duties, others argue that he must overlap with the winger, and a few provide detailed, convoluted explanations of the passing geometries that a player must engage in to belong to that exclusive Italian club.
Though I accept that Italian terms may assume a life of their own in English-speaking circles, these disagreements call for a little bit of clarification. All the more so because the Italian language is frequently invoked as a source of taxonomical legitimacy. Sentences often start with, 'But in Italian, the term means...' or 'What Italians originally meant by that word...', and so on.
So, let us try and clear the air a little, and hopefully make the term more accessible to everyone. Firstly, the spelling is mezzala or mezz'ala (both are equally acceptable), and not mezalla, mezala, mezza'la, mezzella, mezzalla, or mozzarella, most of which are misspellings I have seen with my own eyes. It is not necessary to capitalise it as Mezzala, any more than it is necessary to capitalise regista or terzino.
The term mezzala is a contraction of 'mezza ala', meaning 'half wing(er)'. The plural is admittedly tricky: the plural for the word 'ala' in Italian is 'ali', but the football vernacular turns it into mezzale (and not 'mezzali', even if this appears more logical).
Contrary to what is sometimes declaimed, there is nothing new or innovative about the use of the word mezzala. If anything, the term is quite primitive: back in the 1930s, when the standard football formation was the WM system, Italians had only two words to describe the role of the midfielder: the first was 'intermedio', describing the two players closest to the defence, and the other was mezz'ala (at the time always spelt with an apostrophe), referring to the two players closest to the offence.
The Italian word for a midfielder in general, which is 'centrocampista', is by comparison fairly young. It was coined only in the 1950s by the father of Italian football journalism, the legendary Gianni Brera. It was originally written as centro-campista, then without the hyphen from the 1960s onwards.
A slight but useful digression: the meaning of centrocampista was and remains very broad, and embraces a great variety of players. If someone proposed that, on account of their technical differences, Andrea Pirlo was a true centrocampista whilst Daniele De Rossi is not, that person should expect to be on the receiving end of some funny looks. This allows for a pertinent analogy, because for all of the bluster, the same should roughly be true of the mezzala.
It is helpful to draw a distinction between Italian football words which describe a position and those which describe a role. A 'trequartista' is primarily a position, specifically the central lines of the pitch at a height approximately between the midfield line and the opposition box. A 'fantasista' is a role, describing creative, technically gifted players who can invent offensive plays and moves on the fly. For obvious reasons, these two terms overlap, and in casual conversation they may be used interchangeably (within reason).
The term mezzala, in contemporary Italian, indicates a position in a three-man midfield. Thus, in a 4-3-3, the central spot in the midfield will usually be occupied by a playmaker (regista), flanked by two mezzale. If the simplicity of the definition feels anti-climactic, that's because it should: a mezzala is simply any midfielder playing on one of the two sides in a three-man midfield. It may alternatively be used to describe any central midfielder whose role is not specialised (someone flanking the playmaker in a four-man midfield, for instance).
The confusion in English-speaking circles stems from the fact that this descriptor for a position is frequently used as though it indicated a role. Thus, claiming that a mezzala can also be a mediano (or even a slightly decentered regista) is presented as a contradiction. The 'real' experts of Italian football, apparently, would never confuse these two terms so grossly.
But in truth, in the same way that a fantasista can also be a 'punta' (striker), and a trequartista can also be a box-to-box midfielder, likewise the term mezzala accommodates a variety of roles. In fact, as a position covering the whole range from central midfield to either of the wings, it is among the most flexible terms in the game, and it includes a very wide array of footballer-types, both offensive and defensive, both gritty and creative.
If someone wants to use the word mezzala to indicate something more specific in relation to a particular team or tactic, that's fine. Modern football is a sophisticated game, and a sophisticated language is sometimes necessary to describe it. What really doesn't work is using that word (or any other word) to validate alleged expertise, which is unfortunately what it is often employed for. This is only a form of presumption.
The trend we are seeing at work with the term mezzala is not a special case but a constant of football discourse, which is why the cautionary conclusion to this article is necessary. I mentioned other Italian terms that, at several points in time, became fashionable as the markers of a fictional football aristocracy. It is appropriate to close this article with the only one of these words that never falls out of fashion, that being catenaccio.
Very succinctly, the word catenaccio refers to a particular tactical system developed in Italy during the 1950s and 60s. In common parlance, both in Italy and abroad, the term is also synonymous with 'parking the bus', or defensive football of a particularly stale nature.
Periodically I come across someone in a football debate using the latter, more casual definition of catenaccio, only for someone else to perk up and claim that the real meaning of catenaccio is in fact a lot more complex, historically specific and subtle, and clearly the other person has no understanding of Italian football if s/he does not know such a basic distinction. But in reality, both definitions are completely acceptable, and using or even occasionally confusing one with the other is no indicator of anyone's level of understanding of Italian football.
Employing specialised/specialistic definitions of a word and then silencing other speakers for using a simpler, more common definition (as opposed to engaging with their actual arguments) is a rhetorical trick as old as the hills, and it is certainly not limited to football. You may witness instances of it almost any time you listen to a political debate.
A broader discussion of this fallacy goes beyond the scope of this article, but within our little circle of sports fans, you should keep an eye open for people explaining the term mezzala for you (or whatever next becomes fashionable: regista, seconda punta, fluidificante...). If you notice that their definition becomes particularly complex or convoluted, and if they attempt to dismiss your arguments on the grounds of you not being familiar with their specific definition, then the person you're dealing with is not an expert, only a charlatan.