Is there another nation more closely associated with beauty than Italy? It is, after all, the bel paese, the “beautiful country.” From Roman mosaics, Renaissance art, fashion, the language, to the landscape itself, to be in Italy is to be immersed in artistry and an almost innate sense of aesthetics. La bella figura — elegance above all else — is the one thing most Italians may actually agree upon.
Yet somehow, this concept that pervades nearly every aspect of society is often considered absent from the country’s other main unifying (and dividing) cultural force: football. It begs the question: how is a country synonymous with style and grace best known for a cynical approach to the beautiful game? And does is it really still deserve this reputation?
Italian football takes a lot of flak. It’s impossible to think of another league or national team that inspires such broad antipathy. The 2002/03 Champions League final between AC Milan and Juventus generally derided as the most boring since the competition’s inception. Common knowledge seems to hold that the Italian game is too defensive, slow and cautious to be entertaining. Mario Balotelli, who has played in Italy, England and France, seemed to speak for many when he decribed Serie A as “too tactical and a bit boring”.
It’s true that historically Calcio has leaned defensive, and it is still probably best known as the land of catenaccio and for the long list of great defenders it has produced over the years. Defending well has always been at the heart of Italian football, an approach that, in the modern game however, has come to be seen by many as outdated and ‘negative’. And while what makes a particular style exciting or not will always be subjective, this traditional Italian approach has not always been easy on the eye. Or at least certainly not as easy as the rest of the country is.
There is a running debate on how much a particular country’s cultural tendencies are reflected in their approach to sport, or indeed if they are at all. It’s clear that the globalization of the game means that styles and approaches mutate and cross borders much easier than they once did. Yet, when it comes to Italy specifically, is there something deeper at play, an essence that cuts far beneath any superficial characterization.
Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary Italian coach whose AC Milan sides from the late 80s/early 90s are regarded by some as the best (and most entertaining) of all-time — is often credited with introducing attacking football to the Serie A and describes how, when he began, “most of the attention was on the defensive phase…The attacking phase came down to the intelligence and common sense of the individual and the creativity of the No.10.”
For him, this went beyond the game itself: “Italy has a defensive culture, not just in football. For centuries, everybody invaded us.”
Italian history certainly is rife with invasions (both for and against), but, having lived and played in the country, it’s undeniable that there is something sacred about defending, something embedded and even codified in the language of the game. A clean sheet, for example, in Italian is a porta inviolata, a goal that has been kept ‘pure’ or ‘unviolated’.
Commentators will often describe a defender’s tackle or a goalkeeper’s save as an intervento provvidenziale, or ‘providential intervention’, while a player who clears the ball from in front of his own goal is said to ‘liberate’ (liberare) the penalty area. Finally, a team that wins a match away from home is hailed as having ‘stormed’ or ‘conquered’ (espugnare) their opponent’s stadium or even entire city. Interestingly, such heroic terminology associated with attacking or scoring goals seems non-existent.
For Sacchi, these seemingly ingrained themes endure. Now a television pundit, in 2015 he still had little decent to say about Italian football, claiming that it couldn’t even be called a “spectator sport” and wouldn’t be accepted in other countries due to the complete absence of any “aesthetic beauty”.
It’s easy to disagree with Sacchi in some instances, however in this case he does seem to have a good grasp of the general perception of the Italian game, at least as seen from abroad. But, history aside, does it deserve such a resounding indictment today?
Over the past five seasons, Serie A has averaged 2.63 goals a game, virtually the same number as the Premier League (2.62) and La Liga (2.65), who all trail the Bundesliga at 2.82. In the 2016/2017 season, Serie A was the highest scoring of these four leagues with 2.8 goals a game, while the Premier League — widely hailed as the most entertaining — has not topped the list in any of the five past years.
Further, Italian coaches — and presumably their tactics — have been incredibly sought after and successful abroad. In the last ten years, they have won a combined four Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues and one Ligue 1, Bundesliga and Europa League crown (to go along with nine Serie A titles). No English manager has won even one of these trophies during that time.
Despite all this, Serie A and Italian football have not managed to shed the image of being stuck in their own past. This is Italian football’s greatest cultural contradiction: in a country where presentation and appearances are paramount, Serie A is simply not well presented. To watch Serie A, at home or in person, is far too often to be visually transported back to that late 80s/early 90s of Sacchi’s recollection.
Some clubs are finally building new stadiums, but as a whole Italy still trails significantly behind the rest of the big leagues in Europe. In most cases attending a match means less legroom than an EasyJet flight, being far removed from the action and/or stuck behind Plexiglas with an awful sightline.
More importantly, these crumbling stadia mean games on television appear as bleak as they can feel in person. A match in Naples, for example, even one with more than 40,000 fans, can look deserted on screen. At a time when media rights dominate everything, this is the true aesthetic problem facing Italian football: visually, the unsightliness of what surrounds it often overshadows the game itself.
How is this possible? How can the home of the Coliseum and countless other breathtaking arenas and amphitheaters — the birthplace of linear perspective itself! — conceivably share the land with the Stadio San Paolo, Florence’s Artemio Franchi, Verona’s Bentegodi or even Rome’s Olimpico? How can a country where something as simple as a cappuccino or a plate of pasta can be a thing of indescribable beauty be so lacking when it comes to the outward image of the sport they love the most?
Serie A may never rival the Premier League or even La Liga in terms of popularity — due to finances and language barriers among other things — but there is no reason it can’t do a lot better at harnessing the mystique and grasp that Italy holds on the world’s collective consciousness. For centuries people have gone in search of beauty, inspiration and love but unfortunately have not often looked for it on the football pitch. Florence, Rome and Venice are among the most beloved and visited cities on the planet yet the international support for their football clubs is miniscule compared to teams from Liverpool and Manchester.
Italian football has had a lot to overcome in adapting to the modern, globalized game. For a long time the idea that ‘it’s not important to play well, it’s important to win’ could have served as the unofficial motto of the sport at all levels. Of course, nowadays, winning alone is no longer enough if it doesn’t come with a certain amount of style and flair, if it doesn’t help spread a club’s brand or identity. But the style of the game itself in Italy is changing, indeed has already changed. It’s time for everything around it to do the same.