Monday April 22 2013
What makes a game great?

The greatest games in Italian football history? Giancarlo Rinaldi picks 20 in his new e-book which is out now!

What is the greatest game you have ever seen? It is a straightforward question and, for some, it might be simple enough to answer. For myself, however, it always feels a little more complicated to come up with a response.

It is not, before you suggest it, because I am ancient and have so many matches in my memory banks. The first encounters I can genuinely claim to recall date back to the late 1970s and since then, I reckon, I have maybe watched an average of two or three games a week. That maybe makes about 5,000 clashes in total. It is not such a huge amount for a genuine football fan.

The majority have been watched on television, via satellite or – more recently – internet stream. A significant minority, however, I have witnessed in the flesh. The two experiences are so different as to seem almost separate sports entirely. The former allows more analysis and examination, the latter a much more immersive and visceral affair.

But in these thousands of 90-minute bundles very few, in truth, stick out in the mind. Most of them are pretty run-of-the-mill encounters with little in the way of outstanding action or memorable moments. It is precisely for that reason that the really great matches are something to be cherished and mulled over like a good malt whisky.

What makes a game genuinely deserve to be described as great? In these days of 24-hour sports news and social media, we tend to look at things through a pretty narrow window. The greatest team, greatest player and greatest match are often ones which we have witnessed relatively recently. A sense of historical perspective is often kicked over the grandstand like an old-school defender clearing his lines.

That, I believe, is a grave mistake. The nostalgic often falls into the trap of thinking everything was better in the past while the modern fan dismisses anything which happened much more than five minutes ago. In truth, all eras have something to recommend them and trying to weigh up their respective qualities is something which I have always enjoyed while at the same time recognising it is almost impossible.

Do goals make a game great? You might be inclined to think so but then along comes a clash like Italy v Germany at the 2006 World Cup. It went without goals for the regulation 90 minutes and much of extra-time and yet was never anything less than gripping. A classic in every sense.

Perhaps, then, the quality of players involved is an essential ingredient. And yet one of the best games I have ever seen live was a Queen of the South versus Aberdeen encounter at the semi-final stage of the Scottish Cup. With respect to both teams involved, there were few world-beaters on display that day. But it is a game I will never forget.

Maybe, then, the importance of the clash is the key. However, anyone who has watched most World Cup and Champions League or European Cup Finals would probably tell you otherwise. Sometimes the value of the prize at stake can seem to stifle the elements we look for in the very best matches.

Indeed, if you look for a secret formula behind the greatest games, you will probably search in vain. It is precisely because they cannot be predicted – no matter what teams, players or rewards are involved – that they are so special. Football’s governing bodies would no doubt love to be able to stage-manage such affairs. For the genuine fans, however, we are glad they remain as elusive and unpredictable as Jimmy Johnstone in his prime.

Italian football has been lucky to enjoy more than its fair share of such encounters. The Azzurri and Serie A sides seem to do drama better than most. In a land where deciding the venue for lunch can feel like an epic piece of theatre, it is perhaps not so surprising.

I have been fortunate, I think, to have fallen for Calcio just as it was about to embark on something of a golden age. The 1970s had seen its sides singularly fail to impress in Europe but the fall of the ban on foreign players in 1980 saw some of the world’s finest talent head to the peninsula. With big budgets, huge crowds and great tactical innovation, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a fine time to follow the game. In the UK, Channel 4 and Football Italia magazine could hardly have hoped for a better product to sell to the masses, starved of much televised football.

It is that era which I go to most when looking to find the finest matches. They form the backbone of my e-book which is out now, 20 Great Italian Games. They tell the story of clashes I have witnessed – and some I did not – which have written the history of Serie A. It is a tale of passion, skill and intense emotion.

I hope I have captured some encounters that readers might remember fondly too. Or, for those too young to have seen the games, my aim was to provide a bit of historical background. Contrary to what some people might have you believe, football did not start with Sky TV.

No doubt I have missed some great games out, these were personal picks but I could easily have selected 20 completely different fixtures. I’m on Twitter – @ginkers – and open to suggestions on other matches which I might try to capture in future. The debate over what makes a memorable football tie is one which always runs into the small hours of the morning when the dinner table is left littered with empty glasses and coffee cups. I would like to think 20 Great Italian Games can help fuel that talk for a few years to come.

Buy 20 Great Italian Games right now