1-7: Italy: Football, Fascism, and the World Cup

 
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john foot

“We have made Italy; now we have to make Italians,” Massimo d’Azeglio famously stated. Has football made Italians? And how do the country’s anxieties play out on the pitch? Goldblatt talks with historian John Foot about Italian football and its relationship to politics — from Mussolini’s use of the sport as a tool of fascism, to Silvio Berlusconi bringing Italy to the top of the football world, to current anxieties about immigration and national identity — and the failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.

About the guest
John Foot is a professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Bristol. He is the author of several books published in both English and Italian, including a widely acclaimed history of Italian football, Calcio. Foot writes regularly for The Guardian, the TLS, the LRB and many other publications. Outside of academia, he’s interested in football (Arsenal, Plymouth Argyle and Inter), Cricket (Middlesex CCC), cycling and wine, and lives with his family in Bristol. He’s on Twitter at: @footymac.

 

words from the host

The best coffee in the world of football is available, without question, in Italy. One of the many pleasures of attending the Milan derby was being able to buy a perfect and fearsome espresso from a van outside the San Siro, for just a single euro. Compare that to the three quid you pay for scalding hot water and instant coffee in England. Drinking it gave me a last chance to flip through the sheet of sports papers I had brought with me; above all, the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport, one of Italy’s best selling papers of any kind.

Alongside adamantine defence and top notch coffee, Italy has a long and distinguished tradition of sports writing, especially about football. Since the 1930s, journalists have helped create and refine the complex but precise technical language that Italy possesses for describing player positions, formations, and tactics, and there is a rich body of literature on football history, biography, and individual clubs.

However, as with much Italian writing, very little of it gets translated. My Italian stretches to ordering that espresso and skimming  the match reports, but for something more serious I have had to rely on a group of mainly English male writers, all of whom have, for one reason or another, fallen in love with Italy and Italian football. Here are six titles worth your time.


Calcio: A History of Italian Football by John Foot

Comprehensive and commanding, Calcio, written by my guest this week, takes one through the whole history of Italian football, by way of fascism, scandal, catenaccio, urban identities, and ultras.  

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss

The late American journalist, captivated by Italy and its football, spent a season with the tiny Serie B team, and had his heart broken. Intimate, funny and perceptive.

Football and Fascism by Simon Martin

Martin’s account of the fascist regime's relationship to football is easily the most comprehensive and detailed read available to us, and his account of the stadium architecture of the era is superb.

The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

Part memoir of his experience living in Italy, part critical essays on the country’s toxic politics and institutional sclerosis. Jones finds plenty of time to explore both topics through the world of Italian football. His recent writing on Juve’s ultras and their relationship to organised crime is excellent too. 

A Season with Verona by Tim Parks

Parks, a novelist and long-term resident of Verona, has written a lot on the minutiae of Italian everyday life, but nothing comes close to his account of a season following Serie A side Hellas Verona, home and away. His travels with the hardcore ultras and the wild course of the season make it unputdownable. As Parks himself put it, “Nothing I’ve written has turned out more different than I had expected; funnier, more complicated, more unpredictable, and above all, more exciting.” 


There isn’t much directly on football or AC Milan, but for a short read that absolutely nails the phenomenon, take a look at the short and sharp Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony by Paul Ginsborg.

 

 

episode gallery

 The 1934 Italian team carries their manager, Vittorio Pozzo, after beating Czechoslovakia in the World Cup final in Rome.  Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

The 1934 Italian team carries their manager, Vittorio Pozzo, after beating Czechoslovakia in the World Cup final in Rome. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

 Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian Prime Minister and owner of AC Milan from 1986-2017, celebrates the team's 1994 win in the Europa League.  Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images

Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian Prime Minister and owner of AC Milan from 1986-2017, celebrates the team's 1994 win in the Europa League. Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images

 Paolo Rossi celebrates a goal over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup. Italy went on to win the tournament that year.  Photo by Steve Powell/ALLSPORT

Paolo Rossi celebrates a goal over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup. Italy went on to win the tournament that year. Photo by Steve Powell/ALLSPORT

 Bruno Conti kisses Italy's 1982 World Cup trophy on his flight home from Spain with then-president of the Italian Republic, Sandro Pertini. 

Bruno Conti kisses Italy's 1982 World Cup trophy on his flight home from Spain with then-president of the Italian Republic, Sandro Pertini. 

 Silvio Berlusconi and the players of AC Milan celebrate winning the 2011 Berlusconi Trophy match between AC Milan and Juventus FC.  Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Silvio Berlusconi and the players of AC Milan celebrate winning the 2011 Berlusconi Trophy match between AC Milan and Juventus FC. Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

 The Italian team performing the fascist salute before the 1934 World Cup Final in Rome, Italy.  Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Italian team performing the fascist salute before the 1934 World Cup Final in Rome, Italy. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 Paolo Rossi shields the ball from Brazil during a 1982 World Cup match.  Photo by Getty Images

Paolo Rossi shields the ball from Brazil during a 1982 World Cup match. Photo by Getty Images

 English fans fight rival supporters at a football match in Turin during a European Nations Cup Competition in 1980.  Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

English fans fight rival supporters at a football match in Turin during a European Nations Cup Competition in 1980. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Jordan Bailey