There are matters of the heart that words fail to describe. The strings that send the cardiac organ into playing tunes and notes no instrument can pirate are found in very few things that have no bound; like the lady whose blink leaves you breathless, or the care and patience of a mother. But above all, and beyond magic and hobbits, there is the beautiful world of Calcio. Whether it be the tactical discipline enshrined in the syntax of Catenacchio, or the contempt with which some Italians view English football, there is always a scene or two in this wonderfully wrought masterpiece of sport entertainment that no other culture could match. Calcio, after all, is the single yarn that weaves into the very fabric that is the Italian culture. It is difficult to admire one without acknowledging the other. And like the exploits of the Roman nation, the Shakespeare-esque love that gripped our hearts had moments of brutal pain and inexplicable misery. Heads dropped, while friends were shunned, seeking solace from the blissful memories that were once the norm. And these memories, they were, that lulled us to sleep, feeding us with fantasies of the glorious sights and graceful art that painted our faces with the blush of a young crash.
For those of us whose juvenescence coincided with the explosions of Baggio, Totti and Del Piero, Serie A was by far the lady of choice. Fairest of them all, wearing a curve both ravishing and lecherous. Tall and elegant she stood, her braids flowing in the breeze to reveal a smooth and dimpled cheek. Unblinking, the coal in her eyes danced with enticement. Such was the pull of the talents of the game. The trickery, skill and incredible scores made by these celebrated professionals, counted among the very best of the world game. Despite the Catenacchio tendencies attributed to Italian football, these players, among a host of others, swayed audiences and divided opinions for their out of the norm artistry. We had little regard for the tactics that did or did not exist. Only players nutmegging opposition, curling free kicks, or celebrating scores existed in our world of football. Thence, our times were spent in the reverence of such kings and jewels of their era. While the girls whiled away in their girly games, we ran the length of clayed earth, mimicking a Del Piero curler, a Baggio dribble, and only stopping shot of trying out Totti’s petulance.
Rather ironic it would seem; loving Italian football for aspects that were only remotely Italian. For even when such players were applauded for their artistry with the round leather in ages past, so were they mocked and disparaged for their lack of catenacchio characteristics. But for the insistence of Angelo Moratti, Helenio Herrera would have sold ‘he with a Divine left foot’ ten times over. Mario Corso it was, the tricky left-sided attacker with an unusual touch of flair, who was never endearing to his manager, a catenacchio disciple. Carrying a right foot that was titled a ‘crutch’ for its inefficacy in play, Corso was either magnificent or he was terrible. According to legends, he only used his right to get onto a train. Despite his brilliance that was from another epoch, it was his near ‘uselessness’ without the ball that earned him scorn from many. Corso could ‘hide in the grass’ when the team was defending it was said, and he hardly ran or closed down opposition. Same was said in reference to Gianni Rivera. Without doubt one of the finest fantasisti the game has witnessed, the Genius was at the heart of Milan’s successes in his days. Every other player’s job was to win the ball, then give it to Rivera. Yet, it was his documented aversion to physical effort that earned him the nickname, Abatino – little priest. Such players that were only loved half-heartedly, we worshipped and made them lords. The heralds of defensive play did not exist for us. The Maldinis, Baresis, Nestas, Cafus, and their ilk were hardly recognized. In our world of poetic football players, there was hardly space for tough tacklers. Davids could throw his ‘pitbull’ tag into the Red Sea for all we cared. ‘Water Carriers’ and Medianos were simply what their names implied – destroyers of beautiful football. They were the anti-Christ by our definition, and they reeked of evil with every tackle. And yet, it was Italian football we adored!
Buoyed by the migration of family members to the Italian peninsula, the appreciation we showed for such heroes extended to the national team. Even with Brazil and France annexing the world championships, our adoration for the Azzurri never swayed. And as we followed the Italian national team almost as much as we did the older Ayew brothers, their rivals became our rivals, and their games brought the same level of enthusiasm. Ghana and Nigeria have been eternal rivals since before dinosaurs. The feeling is natural for some people. There is no love lost between the two sets of fans. When Italy faced the Super Eagles in USA, Amunike’s opener was treated with the contempt that it evoked. It was not a fellow West African nation locking horns with a European one. No! It was a group of Super Chickens threatening to embarrass a familial friend. But, with pain and torment looking destined to follow, a ‘Divine’ occurrence favoured my soul. The Divine Ponytail, one of the two Baggios for the side, struck twice to send my sworn enemy home. Yipee! The cry was a delight. And in 2002, I found myself cheering on Senegal in Japan-Korea. That time, you would not have been wrong if you attributed that to the disappointment Italy suffered at the hands of Les Bleus in 1998 and 2000. France was a sworn adversary, even more than Senegal was a brotherly nation. The sight of Diop sliding home the winner left a glee so palpable, it was thick enough to spread on a slice of bread. Today, of course I know better!
By the time Juventus lost to AC Milan at old Trafford in 2003, newer faces had emerged to cement the love we had for the game. Not even the Azzurri’s poor showing in Japan-Korea could change the chemistry of affection. Zizou had been adored, as had the ‘real’ Ronaldo, Sheva, and the Czech Fury. Bobo Vieri too, as well as Batigol and Crespo. The defeat of the mighty Real Madrid by Juventus en route the final that year represented a significant achievement. For me, it did not matter that Juve lost the final. Rather, the fact that three Italian teams had made it to the last four was victory enough. At the time when I only knew of Juventus, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester United and AC Milan, the sight of two Italian clubs, managed by Italian coaches, left me in awe of such experts who knew no wrong.
Little regard was accorded the few who could not make it in the best league by our count. As such, Thierry Henry would always remain a flop on Italian soil. He made zero impact in the league, having to be rescued by Le Professeur and the weaker English league. Of course he would go to within touching distance of being awarded the Ballon’D’or. He would go on to lead the Gunners on a couple of shameful defeat of Italian opposition. He would be fashioned into one of the deadliest attackers in the modern game; with the pace of a deer, the strength of a horse, the instincts of a predator, and the accolades know no bounds. Yet, in the face of hard facts, the French striker was only as good as Jonathan Zebina, and miles behind David Trezegol. Ridiculous it appears, but not as funny as the Hand of Frog. A man birthed in the back seat of a FIAT 500 knows little appreciation for a Cadillac.
Zola, though, was the ‘little’ exception. He made Calcio proud with his efforts abroad, and would continue to count among one of the very best, even in our books. MaraZola, he that was smaller than Maradona, would return to Serie A for one last hurrah. He was not alone.
Beckham’s decision to join Serie A in 2009 would appeal to a part of me like honey did to the taste buds. Arguably the most celebrated footballer on earth, even if it was for non-footballing reasons, his decision added voice to the greatness of Serie A. It did not matter that an old man had joined the country of old men, where the game was slower and less competitive. His choice was that of a man born noble; a privileged characteristic of Calcio heroes. But when he finally opted for the flush of Paris, it was obvious he knew little of the goodly things that were plentiful in Italy; like the women, football, the weather, food, and well, the women! Celebrating a league was always going to be a subjective business, but anyone who did not love Serie A knew little of football, I mused. Would you not admire the play of Chess? as was my description of Italian football. What is it with the horse race that goes on in England, or the Salsa football in Spain that leaves champions like Cannavaro look totally out of their depth? Barcelona and Manchester would go on to contest the final that year in the Champions League. Yet, it was Mourinho’s success a year later, that would put a lid on the fear that was threatening to rupture my heart apart. He beat Barcelona and Chelsea in the process. Yeah, In their faces! that part of me spat.
So that success in Madrid by Mourinho, with Inter, would earn him a piece of the respect that was reserved for Italian tacticians. I mean, anyone could win back-to-back European titles with lowly Avellino in FIFA 12. There is not much that goes into it, except perhaps, restarting any game you lost. His beloved Chelsea, after all, was kept under the watchful eyes of Italians. Luca Vialli won a few titles with the Fulham-based club, before the Tinker Man added the final touch for the arrival of the Special One. Yes, the final piece that was Frank Lampard. Only an Italian has such sight for pure gems. After his failure to lead the expensively assembled side to the Holy Grail, it would take another Italian to put the smiles on the faces of the fans. Roberto Di Matteo it was, who would lead the club to success in Europe’s elite competition. Catenacchio, even in its attenuated form as that shown under RDM, is as efficient a system as there is. There is a reason they call it the ‘Padlock’.
Despite all his ills, including his ravenous appetite for media attention, the Portuguese is definitely one with many successes. His CV is dotted with trophies and records that few can boast of. He stands nowhere near the likes of the silver-haired Trap, the unsmiling square-faced Fabio, and the very likeable cigar-puffing Lippi. But of the managers of the day, quite few compare to him. It is this achievement that endears him to his fans. And in Spain, and more so in England, they include women and children who fill the stadia to sing his graces. Not so very much, when it comes to Italy!
The sad state of Italian stadia has only been brought to the fore with the successful modernization of the English ones since Hillsborough. Where stands were converted to seats in the British world, the realm of Italian support sees a command of hardcore fans behind goal posts, leading and revelling in chants and insults. Their taunts, when they were not aimed at opposing players, sliced through and made bare, the obvious regional discrimination that exists in unified Italy. A message to Napoli fans involves only a depiction of mountain Vesuvius. They need not include the colossal volcano spitting smoke and fire in their wish of misery for the Neapolitans.
My fair lady, though, is not all bitchy and spiteful. There is more to her than meets the eye. The choreographic displays the fans showcase make for an exciting sight. Their ability to organise and effect beautiful gestures is one feature that is lacking in other worlds. Not to mention the mammoth-sized banners that spell out which character on the pitch or absent was lordly, and which deserved the sack. Thus, images of players and managers were erected by these organised fan groups, which gave those of us at a comfortable distance behind our sets, an amazing and yet, frightening insight into the world of Italian Ultràs. Exercising their inalienable ‘union’ rights, they could decide to go on strike, criticize the commercialization of the sport, or save their voices the worry. Instead, they would unfold a banner directed at Inter players which read: “We don’t know how to insult you any more.”
The epithets that are dished out to players in Italy add to the intrigue that is already plentiful. Batigol, Trezegol, The Duck, The White Feather, The Phenonmenon, The Real Phenomenon, Il Pintirucchio, are but the few that are chanted along Serie A terraces. Sweeping the disgraceful scandals under the carpet, my fairest lady has only a scattering of faults. These past few nights have been bitingly cold, having had to make do with a rather disappointing Arsenal-Chelsea encounter. My faithful butt needs a warm and night-long embrace. This weekend, my heart throb returns. I think I will be feeling lucky, if you catch my meaning! 😉