It’s the early to mid-nineties, a Sunday afternoon, I’m sat cross-legged with muddy knees in front of Mum & Dad’s small Hitachi TV – the smell of Sunday roast is drifting through the house. I’m just back from playing for my boys team and I’ve been drawn to the living room by a TV theme tune that provoked the same excited smile in me then, that it does even now.
“Campionato, di Calcio, Italiano…“ And then, what so many of us thought for years was “Go Lazio!” but was, in actual fact, “Golaco!”
Football Italia was, once a week, like a window to another footballing world. A galaxy of stars – a collection of world-class talent the like of which we’ll probably never see again in one single league. It was like discovering a kind of footballing paradise that you got a weekly peek at – something that had a real mystique and romance about it. Discovering the player’s names, learning about the stadiums, hearing the roar of the San Paolo, admiring the beauty of San Siro, the vastness of The Olimpico – not to mention marvelling at the tifosi.
I, like so many others, was hooked, and it’s never really left me. For me Italian football evokes a sense of wonderment and romanticism, the beautiful kits, elaborate club crests, the terminology, even just the nick-names of the teams feel grandiose. Rossoneri may just mean ‘red-and-blacks’, Nerazzurri may just mean ‘black-and-blues’, but the kid in me still wonders at the different language and culture – in fact, as a young boy growing up in north-west of England, Football Italia was an important cultural eye-opener, and it led to an interest and fondness for Italian football that I’ve retained to this day, even though the quality of the league, whilst still fantastic, is no longer at the level it was back in the 90s.
Back then many people picked an Italian team to support – I never did – and I’m glad about that. I’ve always just enjoyed the league as a whole and I love having that neutral stand-point where I can stand back and watch, fascinated by Italian football culture. The deep sense of suspicion, particularly when it comes to referees, the specific fan rivalries that go way beyond geography, or a mutual thirst for success. These things go deep, really deep, and it’s so much more complicated and detailed than almost all the rivalries that exist in England.
Ask a Fiorentina fan, for example, why they can’t stand Juventus and they’ll recount many specific events – Liam Brady and Roberto Baggio being just a couple – and it’s the long memories of Italian football fans that lead to so many great rivalries, which then produce such a great sense of occasion when the clubs meet. It means that every week you almost always have one or two fixtures which are hugely significant, even if there isn’t always a great deal riding on the specific results. These aren’t one off games, they are the latest instalment in age-old rivalries – and I love that about Italian football.
Being such a fan of Serie A, I can’t tell you how much of a joy it is to commentate on the league. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover all the biggest rivalries in Italy, and I appreciate and savour every single one. Each game will have its short-term relevance, but you’re always so conscious of the history of each rivalry too – both these things have their relevance, both help to heighten the senses, both make it matter. So when people say, “yeah but Serie A isn’t what it once was”, that’s almost irrelevant to me and many others. This is still Juventus v Inter, or Lazio v Roma, or Genoa v Sampdoria – when I’m long gone, these will still be huge games, regardless of the league position either team occupies in that moment. All this generates a level of fanaticism and interest that goes beyond anything I’ve known, even in English football. I’ve always said that in doing research for commentaries, the level of media interest, opinion, supporter scrutiny and column inches dedicated to covering the biggest Italian clubs is, in my experience, unparalleled.
Another thing I admire about Italian football is probably, in part, down to a difference to English football I noticed as a young lad back in the 90s. The way the game was played wasn’t quite the same. Yes, it was football, the same ball, the same size pitches etc, but it seemed more thought out, less frantic, more deliberate. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the hectic nature of English football, but I can also appreciate a different way of doing things - and Italian football remains the most tactical league in Europe. Back in the Football Italia days it was undeniably more defensive, and slower paced – nowadays Serie A, generally speaking, is much more open and expansive in style – there are many more goals and chances – yet the league has still retained an emphasis on tactics and in-game coaching that sets it apart from the other top European leagues. I find myself intrigued by the next move of coaches like Conte or Inzaghi, almost as much as what’s happening on the pitch.
This all feeds in to the deep-thinking that seems to cover all aspects of Italian footballing culture - yet, ironically, it is a moment of complete spontaneity, a release of raw emotion that, for me, sums up so much of my love for the game. Marco Tardelli’s goal-celebration from the 1982 World Cup final is an image I have on my office wall. It just says ‘football’ to me, and perfectly captures the passion that keeps us all coming back for more. Football Italia didn’t come until a decade later, and we can now watch many games from all the major European leagues every week - but for me, and thousands of others who got our first glimpse of Serie A on Sunday afternoons in the 90s, Italian football will always retain a special and unique sense of wonderment.