Gianni Mura, the greatest Italian sports journalist of our times, started his long career at the age of 19. The Gazzetta dello Sport (la vecchia Gazza, as he would later refer to it) offered him a job in probation in 1964, fresh out of high school, and thereby formed a journalistic partnership that those who work in this trade now view as legendary.
Casual aficionados may be forgiven for confusing Gianni Mura with his mentor, Gianni Brera. The similarly-named reporters were the Da Vinci and Michelangelo of our sports journalism. The latter had started his work when football, and most professional sports in Italy, was still in its infancy. He not only narrated the birth and rise of the sport, but literally invented much of the language we use to describe it.
Mura, 26 years his junior, was less of a neologist, but his way of speaking about football has become embedded in our national subconscious. To this day, I don't think there is a better way of understanding Italy's football culture than to read his articles.
Partly this had to do with his interest in the way that sports ramify into the rest of society down to its subcutaneous tissue. His chronicles of the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France rendered not just the cycling, but the Italian and French countryside of the 1960s and 70s, the wines, the sunshine, the old trees. So much about his re-evocations was about the word, and so little about the image: today, in the age of Instagram and YouTube, his style seems as old-fashioned as the settings he describes.
But another part of Mura's significance has to do with a term that is seldom used in our field: epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the limits of knowledge. Italians, as one of the world's great football nations, enjoy an old reputation as people who 'know' or 'understand' football.
In fact, one of the most characteristic attributes of our football culture is that knowledge of the game tends to be considered at best partial, at worst illusory. Nobody has represented this outlook better than Mura.
When he wrote about football, old Gianni was terse and unromantic. He provided the facts and laced them with his opinions – a brief sentence or two, never more, and always with the tone of a man who knows his limits, who does not consider his opinion to be any better than that of the person sitting next to him.
He was reluctant to discuss episodes in great detail, not because he didn't think that details were important, but because he saw them as essentially impossible to capture and to exhaust. His bizarrely beautiful cynicism did not prove a good match for football's mutation into the glittering, globalised form it holds today, and his presence remained anchored to the written page, a privilege for locals and connoisseurs.
The problem was, perhaps, that the football he had come to know and serve was not changing, but dying. The athletes he grew up with began to wizen and fall, and it was his job to write of their passing. Nowhere was his melancholy better expressed than in his tribute to the late Inter captain Giacinto Facchetti, written in 2006, to this day one of the most heart-stopping works of journalism I have ever read:
“I must bear in mind that, along with the lovers of football whom you never betrayed, you will be mourned by the crocodiles, the rats, the fakers, the swindlers, the dealers, the sharks, the chameleons, the thieves, the cheats, all those who reduced football to what it is today – those who wouldn't have dared show their faces outside back in our times, and who now are the sole arbiters of law and morals. I will pretend not to hear them, my captain, this is the only honour I still have the power to do you.”
In his final two decades of work, Mura had found joy in narrating those social realities of football that didn't make it into the press. The lives of forgotten, impoverished former champions, but also games in the lowest leagues, where footballers more closely resembled the sort of person he used to write about.
Football today is more than a sport. It is an unkillable, interconnected titan that will survive the Coronavirus as it will our every little tragedy, but Italian football of the sort that made this nation famous just died together with its last master of the typewriter. Mourning will be left to those of us who have lived it, and, as of now, have nobody left to tell it.
Image via La Repubblica