Italy v England – An Absent Footballing Rivlary
Understanding a football rivalry is contingent on understanding the cultures involved. There are more than just old games, dates and scores to be counted. Leaving aside the precedents between two teams, there is always the question of how their players and supporters understand the game of football, and this goes straight to their regional background.
In the case of Italy and England, it is less a matter of understanding their rivalry as understanding its absence. In part it’s a simple lack of history. There have been very few interesting games between these two teams, and most of them were friendlies (their only World Cup encounter was in 1990, and it was a depressing match for the third place). To another extent, though, the two teams do not see each other as rivals – despite both possessing an extraordinary, almost overbearing football history – simply because they are too different.
This is a concept that is not at all easy to understand for the passer-by, but that can be much more readily grasped by someone with a strong understanding of both the English and the Italian cultures. We shall draw one easy case-study in this article by exploring how the differences between Italy and England in terms of football philosophies are reflected in an aspect of their cultural sphere – specifically, we shall contrast and compare these two nations in terms of their drinking cultures.
It is a truism to say that the English football and drinking culture are connected. The most popular place to see a football match in England is the pub (stadia aside), which is also the ordinary resort to drink beer. The events following a victory of the English national aside almost invariably come with a great deal of drinking, in direct proportion to the magnitude of the victory (a triumph comes close to causing riots).
This tradition is not unique to the English. The Germans, for instance, cultivate it with comparable gusto, and there is a certain degree of communication between the rival supporters of the two teams, a sort of inebriated understanding over the cups that transcends their opposition of barricades. (It is interesting to draw a parallel with other cultures that fuse – and confuse – inebriation with football, but not by means of spirits. The Brazilians, in particular, are clearly ‘drunk’ with something else when they celebrate, but here we are abandoning our topic).
The Italians, for their own part, do not connect drinking with football at all. Even when celebrating, they do not give in to Bacchanalia. This could be explained by the fact that victories, in Italy, are never a black and white matter, but are always shadowed by interpretation and metatextuality. The meaning of a football victory, in Italy, is a refraction of a greater (and invariably mysterious) moral design, one which has repercussions in the discourses of politics, ethics and history. It would not be ‘Italian’ to get drunk during a victory (usual exceptions acknowledged and dismissed) because it would be too dangerous not to be lucid at such a crucial moment. To Italians, the only connection that a beer can draw with anything else is with pizza (traditionally, the two things come in a tandem in pizzerias). How could the English communicate with such people in any way?
The English drinking culture is based primarily around beer, with neighbouring cultures providing a permanently welcome spin in the form of specialised spirits (above all others the Scotch, with scotch). The Italian tradition, by contrast, is based on wine. Once again, the difference in taste finds a correspondence in the respective rivalries – see how Italy and France glare at each other. Most importantly, it stresses their difficulty in communicating. Beer is a drink that lets the drinker build his/her own experience, socially grounded but arguably an end in itself. A fresh beer in a morning of March needs no explanations, and answers every question.
Similarly English football is an atom of tranquillity that exists suspended from all the rest, allowing its followers to withdraw from the world and enjoy a Saturday afternoon that is detached from the turmoils of the rest of the week. Note the most important parallel between the beer and the football culture – that it simply ceases to make sense if it is involved in other forms of experience (like, say, the user’s job or studies). And it generally eschews sophistication. A beer is enjoyed for its simplicity as much as a football game is enjoyed for its self-contained and largely inconsequential story, despite the enormous variety and variables involved in both cultures.
Wine, of course, is something completely different. It is a door onto new worlds that never stops opening. It is best used to accompany a meal, and it is most valuable the more it is unfixed and changing in flavour as each morsel of food affects your palate. The last half-century has witnessed a proliferation of wine in the American style (strong, cloying, pleasant and dull), but to drink an original Piedmontese barolo is not to indulge oneself with a flavour, the way you would do with lemonade or coke. It is to take a journey.
True wine is often unpleasant, requiring experience and ingenuity to be appreciated (and enough openness to understand this contradiction), but it is globally unmatched for its subtlety and elusiveness. And so is Italian football.
The difficulty of understanding Italian football often derives from a failure to perceive its connections with Italian culture as a whole. The ‘dirty play’ of the Italians is an expression of what they call furbizia, a sly type of cleverness that is understood by inhabitants of the peninsula to permeate their national identity. The expression ‘fatti furbo’ means wisen up, but it is usually expressed as a subtle encouragement to use unorthodox means to achieve one’s objectives (if this sounds Machiavellian, that’s because Machiavelli was Italian).
When Italians play beautiful, it is never with the baroque manners of the Brazilians, but always with subtlety, employing gestures that are never an end of themselves, but are invariably a form of connecting with the lower strata of the game, the more brutish and apparently ugly sides of football. And there is not a single aspect of the Italian game, or their football world in general, that could not be reconnected to their culture as a whole.
Like beer, English football is attractive because it exhausts and justifies itself in its own isolated turn of the wheel. It consumes itself as we consume it. Like wine, Italian football is at heart referential, never fully understood or explained, always subsisting under a shadow thrown by a shadow. These two nations have no football rivalry not because this Euro 2012 match is the first important game they’ve ever played, the first one where something is truly at stake. Or at least that’s not the whole story. They have no rivalry because they have no common grounds whereupon such a rivalry may be built. Would you cheer with a pint of Worthingtons to a man holding a glass of Recioto di Soave? Probably not, but it’s going to happen this Sunday, and the tavern is bound to get hot.