Sunday, February 24, 2013

Italian Football: A Chaos Theory

"Football is chaos" is one of my favourite summaries of the beautiful game. The origin of this somewhat abstract erudition is none other than radio station controller-bating Danny Baker, in what was a dismissal of experts of the game ("and all punditry is bogus").

It was one of Baker's customary declarations that football shouldn't get too far ahead of itself. Which, of course, it does.

Football is at its most chaotic in Italy. It is a chaotic interest in a frankly chaotic country. Today, that chaotic country goes to the polls in another chaotic election, one that may either return to the office of prime minister, the septuagenerian lothario, media magnate, hair-transplanting, tax-dodging, bunga-bunga partying Silvio Berlusconi.

His opponents in this election include a Jeff Lynn-haired comedian by the name of Beppe Grillo. You long for Beppe to be elected, as he would be a delightfully disruptive feature of those dire European summits, you know, those gatherings where the Germans arrive first, the French look flustered, the British would rather not be there at all, and whoever is running Italy that particular week turns up merely to look lasciviously at any skirt on parade. Beppe would be a laugh, and probably wouldn't do too much as general elections in Italy usually come every six months.

Berlusconi, in case you didn't know, is also the owner of AC Milan. Such is Milan's diligent support for the notion that football is chaos, it shares its stadium with its most hated rival, Internazionale. Imagine Celtic and Glasgow Rangers sharing Ibrox, and then double the intensity, treble the amount of gesticulation, and quadruple the noise.

Today Berlusconi's attention, short as it apparently is, will be split between his attempt to become Italian prime minister for the fourth time, and one of the most enduring fixtures in world football - Derby Della Madonnina, the Milan derby between Inter and Milan, Nerrazzuri and Rossoneri. This fixture alone - which takes place this very reason - is one of the reasons I love Italian football. Because it is mad, bad and dangerous to experience.

Italian football is probably or mostly or partially corrupt; yes, it involves players with amazingly bounteous hair in sharp contrast to the 'number-one-all-over' prevalent in the Premier League; and yes, it does involve the most outrageous feigning, diving of a quality the IOC should consider an additional aquatic discipline, and theatricality so ham Kevin Spacey could make a permanent season out of it at the Old Vic. There truly is no football league in the world with quite the same flamboyance about it.

Unfortunately, Serie A has lost some of its lustre in recent years. Like Italy itself - riven with economic woe and a corruption culture throughout public life that constantly threatens this once seat of modern civilisation - the Italian premier league has suffered two match-fixing scandals over the last decade. That, this last week, an associate of a Singaporean businessman currently  "helping with enquiries" about a global match-fixing ring was arrested in Milan may have come as little surprise.

Sleeze aside, Italian football has lost out to its western Mediterranean neighbour, Spain. Barcelona's recent dominance of the European game, coupled with its never-take-your-eyes-off-it rivalry with Real Madrid, plus insane sums of money sloshing about this somewhat impoverished country has made Spain the cool continental league; and coming up, somewhat alarmingly, in the popularity stakes is the German Bundesliga, with its annoyingly self-satisfied, proficient organisation and UEFA-friendly financial stability.

Italian football for me has always been more of an ideal. Des Lynam, Channel 4 and Paul Gascoigne are to blame. Entirely. First, there was Italia '90: another great, glorious English failure, with penalty misses galore and a teared-up Gazza losing it.

In 1990 football was in the doghouse. The bans on English clubs that had resulted from Heysel, plus the Hillsborough and Bradford disasters had made football the pariah of British sport. At middle class dinner parties, mere mention of an interest in footy would produce a reaction similar to admitting running a child slavery business.

On balance, the World Cup in 1990 in Italy was, on balance, one of the worst World Cups on records. Just where poor football. But with rose-tinted spectacles, we look back on it with the sound of Pavarotti wailing Nessun Dorma over the BBC's opening titles for its coverage, for England's brave Cockleshell Heroes struggling through to a semi-final showdown with [West] Germany (guess how that went…), for the 23-year-old Paul Gascoigne being England's most exciting player…before receiving that yellow card in the semi that would have ruled him out of the final, leaving the lad bawling his eyes out for all the world to see.

It was pure melodrama. Rubbish football though. Perhaps that depicted Italy at its best? The tournament provided Italian tourism with its greatest advertising campaign. Around every game, idyllic scenes of ornate fountains, piazzas and flare-lighting headcases dressed in head-to-toe Kappa were introducing football fans around the world to Italy's second biggest religion.

On the back of it, there was a minor invasion of Serie A from within England's Italia 90 squad: Gazza joined Lazio, David Platt moved to Juventus and, later, Sampdoria where Des Walker had been since 1992, and in 1995, Paul Ince left Manchester United to join Inter. Like a Checkpoint Charlie spy-swap, Italian players came in the other direction. Glenn Hoddle's continental revolution at Chelsea brought in Gianfranco Zola and the European Cup-winning Juventus skipper, Gianluca Vialli. All of a sudden, footballers were eschewing tacky nightclubs for fashionable Italian restaurants in Knightsbridge.

For the rest of us it was clear that Italy and its football had something intrinsically cool to latch on to. It was bloke and girlfriend-friendly and by the mid-90s, there was a distinct Italianate atmosphere around the game: British men were, all of a sudden, wearing tan brogues and matching belts with their dark blue suits. The V-neck sweater - previously the preserve of your dad and panelists on Question of Sport - were finding their way onto young men to be worn under the aforementioned navy suit.

However, ultimate credit for making Italian football - and Italy itself - socially acceptable should not lie with any actual footballer. No, hats must darken the skies for one James Richardson.

While the BBC, ITV and the nascent Sky were fighting it out for TV rights to the brand new Premier League in 1992, Channel 4 - the station that had brought American Football and the SuperBowl to a bewildered Britain - took over the rights to Serie A coverage in the UK from the defunct BSB, which Sky had 'merged' with.

Knowing that the league held British interest, and with the post-Italia 90 storia d'amore still intact, it made a Sunday afternoon 'destination' for the dishless footy fan. 90 minutes of weekly Italian league chaos and a lot of coloured smoke. Channel 4's Football Italia strand also included a Saturday morning magazine, Gazzetta Football Italia.

Occupying a slot other channels reserved for corny kids jokes and puppets, it was hosted by Richardson, then a young, apparently Italian-fluent English journalist who gave the impression that he was simply living the dream.

Presenting each edition from some piazza somewhere, a steaming cappuccino and some form of towering Italian dessert delicacy in front of him, Richardson ran a wry tour through the week's Italian media, pointing out melodramatic headlines about the latest Serie A manager under threat or which player was heading for a lucrative contract in the English Premier League.

Gazzetta was required viewing, not least of which for Richardson's decidedly un-sports presenter-like delivery (closer in dry humour to John Peel's Top Of The Pops stints than Elton Welsby and other perma-smurking, cliche-ridden football hosts).

"It probably helped that I didn't grow up watching a lot of football television," Richardson told online football magazine When Saturday Comes. "I don't get off massively on Saint & Greavsie, for example. So there wasn't much danger of me falling into that trap. When I did my first week's work out here, I was told to do a screen test, doing whatever felt most natural. So I stood there on a terrace above Genoa, my arms going like windmills, and started talking and walking. I don't know why, but I find my mouth moves better if the rest of my limbs are going in conjunction. I'd have been in real trouble if they'd said, 'No, don't do it like that.' That's all I could have done, really - either that or else be very, very stilted."

Richardson's knowledgeability of Italian football and his skill at not taking it all too seriously became required viewing from 1992 until 2002. Shopping trips, DIY projects and other Saturday morning male pursuits were put on hold while chaps tuned in for Channel 4's unique take on Italian life, taken through the prism of la calcio.

What did for Gazetta, however, was the economic collapse of Italian football itself. As global television grew bored of the Italian game, and the major clubs themselves - including the two Milan teams, Lazio and Roma, Parma and Fiorentina - all found themselves earning less as a result, Gazetta and Richardson found themselves bouncing from Channel 4 to the backwaters of satellite television, where Football Italia had begun.

Milan go into tonight's Derby Della Madonnina on the back of that remarkable - and unexpected - midweek win over Barcelona in the Champions League. To add to the spice of an already spicy tie,  Inter sit just a point behind them in Serie A with Lazio and goal difference separating them.

Whatever the state of Italian football, this is still a top-four clash, with bragging rights amongst the Milanese as much the prize as a shot at winning a scudetto. But, perhaps, only in Italy could this match be taking place on the same day as an Italian parliamentary election, and one in which the most controversial of candidates is also the owner of one of the two teams playing tonight in the San Siro Stadium. And that is why football is chaos, and Italian football, a brand of chaos all on its own.

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