Italian Football, a Mirror of a Society in Crisis

John Foot

In the 1980s and 1990s, Italy’s Serie A was the world’s leading football league. But as financial interests asset-strip once-great clubs and the terraces become home to harshening racist abuse, Italian football no longer looks like such a “beautiful game.”

Nikolas Spalek (R) of Brescia celebrates with Mario Balotelli after scoring his team's third goal during the Serie A match between Brescia Calcio and US Lecce at Stadio Mario Rigamonti on December 14, 2019 in Brescia, Italy. Tullio M. Puglia / Getty

Interview by
Giacomo Gabbuti
Francesco Santimone

The year 2019 marked the ninetieth anniversary of Italy’s leading football championship, Serie A. Both a blessing and a curse for millions of fans around Italy and the world, this league is the sacrament of a “sort of fanatical civic religion.” Italians long dedicated their Sundays to Serie A above all else, before matches started spreading to weekdays at the TV schedulers’ behest.

But Italian football hasn’t always been what it is now. A particular change came with the Viareggio Charter of 1926, a foundational text that heralded both professionalization and the creation of Serie A. This document was driven by two forces that would almost immediately come to shape football in Italy — industry and politics.

This was first visible in the opening up of the transfer market for players. The late-1920s turn from amateur to professional football (on the news agenda again today, thanks to the development of the women’s game) allowed the owners of the big Northern clubs to strengthen their lineups without simply paying players under the table.

In this same period, political figures imposed their control over a sport that was already capturing mass attention — not least the main inspirer of the Viareggio Charter, Leandro Arpinati, a football federation (FIGC) and Olympic Committee (CONI) president who was also Blackshirt chief in Bologna and the city’s mayor under fascism. Together with the turn to professionalism, the charter brought about a single national championship, in harmony with the newly consolidated fascist regime’s nationalist rhetoric.

At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, Serie A was the world’s foremost football league, playing a decisive role in shaping the modern game. It has, however, lagged behind its foreign competitors in recent years, in particular England’s Premier League. For all that, it remains a fascinating if distorted mirror of Italian society, with all its hopes, contradictions, and suffering.

John Foot, author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football, is one of the leading historians of Italian society and popular culture. For the University of Bristol lecturer, it is “almost impossible to comprehend Italy without understanding football — and vice versa.” On the weekend that the Supercoppa Italiana final was contested in a Saudi stadium, Foot spoke to Giacomo Gabbuti and Francesco Santimone about how money, nationalism, and migration have crafted the national sport — and how football has itself shaped society.

Giacomo Gabbuti and Francesco Santimone

Let’s start from the beginning. It’s 110 years since the birth of the FIGC football federation. Its nationalist connotations were apparent even in its decision to call the game “calcio” — the only case worldwide where football authorities did not adopt a calque or translation of the English term (fútbol, fußball, etc.). This was a bid to create an “autarchic” pseudo-tradition in continuity with the calcio storico of sixteenth-century Florence. In 1909, the national team played its first game, and — amid a sharp dispute over the number of foreign players hired by clubs like Internazionale — it took to the field in an all-white kit, in homage to the all-Italian club Pro Vercelli. Today, the national team’s all-green Rinascimento kit has stirred controversy, in a break from the traditional sky-blue harking back to the Savoy monarchy abolished in 1946 (giving the team its name, the azzurri). Has the traditional embrace between nationalism and football been inverted — with the footballing world becoming aware of its role as a buffer to rising nationalist impulses?

John Foot

It’s difficult to say. I think we have seen a progressive “decoupling” of Italians from the national team in recent years. Among fans, we see the increasing power of club loyalties, especially to the big clubs — Juventus, Milan, Internazionale, and then Napoli and Roma — as opposed to the “azzurri.”

In the past, these loyalties tended to coexist quite successfully — club loyalties did not interfere too much with support for the national team and identity being expressed through the national team’s victories and performances. But there is some evidence that the power of the national team has waned in recent years — and the lack of qualification for the last World Cup did not cause too much trauma, at least on the surface.

However, the rise of extreme nationalism and the decline of regionalism — as expressed above all through Matteo Salvini’s national Lega movement — could have an interesting effect on the support for the national team. Again, it’s too early to tell. The next European championships will be the first test case of this relationship.

Politics, identity, and the national team have always been strongly linked in Italy — from fascism through to the way that president Sandro Pertini exploited the national team’s 1982 World Cup victory to reinforce his own myth. In some ways, (national) football was one of the places where it was always acceptable to wrap yourself in the flag — although after 1982, there was evidence that left-wing people had removed the Savoy monarchy’s symbol from old flags as they celebrated in squares and streets.

It is interesting that the new “sardine” movement [of square protests against Salvini] sings two songs during its demonstrations — the anti-fascist partisan anthem Bella Ciao and the national anthem, Fratelli d’Italia. In the past, Italians’ choice to “wrap themselves” in the flag around football has tended to be brief and did not mean that political divisions were eliminated overnight. Defeat also tended to lead to vicious polemics aimed at players, individuals, or managers — indeed, scapegoats were easy to find. And football remains a universal language used by politicians to communicate with the masses of fans.

Giacomo Gabbuti and Francesco Santimone

Foreigners have played an important role in Italian football, from the “great saints” of the manager’s bench (the Hungarians, the 1960s Internazionale manager Helenio Herrera, Nils Liedholm, and, more recently, José Mourinho) to the players themselves (from those of “Italian descent” assimilated for the greater glory of Italy, to the “not entirely Italian” second generations). Italian football perhaps provided a first insight into Italy’s problematic relationship with emigration, or at least those arriving from elsewhere. The “brain drain” of Italian managers going to seek their fortunes abroad is a rather more recent phenomenon, and perhaps a short-lived one. Can we use Serie A to follow the history of Italy’s relationship with emigration? And what does this tell us?

John Foot

Migration and identity are often understood and expressed through sport, and since its formation, football has been the most powerful vector of divisions and integrations over these identities and movements. Think of the way Southern Italian players in the years of the “great internal migration” of the 1960s and 1970s [with almost 10 million Italians moving between regions] represented some of the most important teams of that epoch.

Italian football has globalized, like many other football systems. When the pressing game took over Italian football in the “Sacchi era,” many No. 10s left to ply their trade elsewhere — Gianfranco Zola, Benito Carbone, and Paolo Di Canio, for example. In recent years, the relative financial decline of Serie A has led to certain nationalities becoming prominent in Italy’s football system — such as players from Poland.

Racism on the terraces was more or less absent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it became widespread as political racism spread in the mid-to-late 1990s and beyond. The authorities have not been able to stamp it out within the stadiums — in part because of the power of the ultras [hardcore fans often associated with hooliganism], in part because of a lack of political will, in part because of a lack of understanding of what racism is, in part because of the complete lack of any representatives from immigrant communities within the power structures of the game and in wider society as a whole.

Mario Balotelli is emblematic of all this. Born and raised in Italy (for most of his life with Italian adopted parents) he was the first truly global black Italian superstar. He was also the most insulted player in Italian history, and the victim of racism on an almost daily basis. Often, this racism was denied — it was claimed that it wasn’t racism at all.

This denial continues. Those at the top of Italian society and those who run Italian football have no sense of what racism is and how to fight it. Meanwhile, Salvini’s Lega pumps out and provokes anti-immigrant propaganda from its many social media platforms. The recent “anti-racist” campaign in Serie A, using monkeys in its campaign materials (!), was the latest and perhaps most grotesque example of this.

Giacomo Gabbuti and Francesco Santimone

Public order is another key expression of the relationship between politics and football. Italian football has forever been marked by violent episodes, even if they are sometimes described in overly sensationalist tones. As your book tells us, the first such incidents were recorded in 1905, and they intensified in the period of World War I, before they became attached to politics true and proper with the “red days” of popular revolt in Viareggio following one match in 1920, amid the wider strike wave of the biennio rosso. In particular, fascism’s “authoritarian turn” brought football into close connection with repression. The first championship final after the murder of Socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti in 1925 was played behind closed doors, after clashes and exchanges of gunfire, and the final clampdown on political freedoms came the following year after the failed assassination attempt against Benito Mussolini in Bologna, which took place on the day of the inauguration of the Littoriale stadium. Indeed, Antonio Gramsci was arrested just a few days later. Today the “security” measures first tested on football fans are being applied to protests. Seen from the outside, is the “exception” here Italian football stadium culture itself, or the repressive practices of a far from “liberal” state?

John Foot

Certainly, Italy’s stadiums are caged places, highly securitized spaces, with the fans locked in and seen as dangerous. The state sees football as a public order problem. The other side of this situation are the ultras — once upon a time a kind of social movement, but now largely an expression of organized crime and far-right political violence.

The ultras feed off the security-conscious stadium and the football system in their death embrace with the clubs — as they make money from illegal ticket sales, drugs, and threatening the clubs themselves. There are exceptions to this rule — see Tobias Jones’s recent work on the Cosenza ultras — but the model is authoritarian, hierarchical, and anything but inclusive.

What is to be done? It’s difficult to say. Nobody has an answer, and the constant arrests of fans seem to make no difference. The ultra model survives within the highly controlled world of “modern football” — an anachronism in some ways, but also a model much copied by many other fans across the world — as David Goldblatt shows in his The Age of Football. Meanwhile, the Italian state continues to run the football system in a way that is little short of disastrous — presiding over a long-term decline since the glory days of the 1990s. The success of the Italian women’s football team at the last World Cup provides us with hope that the women’s game will finally get the resources and recognition it deserves — and that girls will be encouraged to play the game at the grassroots (as is happening in the United Kingdom with incredible speed). But I wouldn’t hold out too much hope. The renewal that seemed possible around the time of the calciopoli [a 2006 corruption scandal concerning the choice of referees] has been suffocated.

Giacomo Gabbuti and Francesco Santimone

At the same time as Indian steel giant ArcelorMittal is engaged in a traumatic tug-of-war with the Italian government over the future of the former Ilva plant in Taranto, the Daily Mail reports that Qatar’s wealthy Al-Thani family are interested in buying up Napoli — the last “great club” still in the hands of an “old-school” Italian owner. In just the last few years, Internazionale has become Thai and then Chinese; AC Milan, Roma, Bologna, and Fiorentina have passed into “American” hands, while Juventus — since 2016, legally Dutch — could see its historic link with FIAT broken, as this latter is merged with and bought up by PSA. This trend — following the English premiership’s tendency toward an ever more internationalized league, pointing toward a European Superleague — has increasingly made Serie B the “championship for Italians.” But what do these takeovers tell us about Italy’s economic decline, and its role in the global economy?

John Foot

Italian football tended to dominate the world when its economy was strong — in the 1960s (with Milan as a major global football city) and in the 1980s with the second boom and the arrival of a pioneer (politically, economically, culturally, in sport), namely Silvio Berlusconi.

The 1990 World Cup in Italy seemed to herald a new era of glamour and sport — labeled “Made in Italy” — with design, architecture, music, and tradition fusing together perfectly. But this was a false dawn, for the basis of the economy was fragile, as was that of the football system. Dozens of teams went bankrupt — and the finances were fake.

The arrival of foreign ownership has not heralded a return to a global status akin to that of the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, the “old lady” [Juventus] — still owned by the Agnelli family, of old industrial stock — has continued to dominate. It has won Serie A after Serie A title, attracting some true international stars to Italian soil, including an aging but still occasionally mesmerizing superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Like the country itself, Italian football still has centers of excellence (training systems and manager specialization, for example). But it is going through a long and difficult crisis. And as with Italy’s “crisis,” it’s been going on so long that the word itself is becoming meaningless.

Giacomo Gabbuti and Francesco Santimone

Looking at the map at the beginning of your book, we see that Serie A today resembles a country marked by crisis, stagnation, and inequality between social classes, regions, and generations. The South has disappeared from the top division, with many great clubs now down in Serie C; holding on rather better are the big cities and what remains of the productive North (with four teams from Emilia in Serie A). As football financializes and Juventus takes advantage of tax exemptions to place all its chips on Ronaldo, Europe’s most garlanded club (AC Milan) is buried in endless crisis; hot on its heels are Chinese capital and a few hard-working areas (Atalanta) forced to sell up and keep down costs. The great clubs of central-southern Italy are forced either to risky and frenetic trading (Roma) or to wage deflation (Napoli) — they’re even repressing strikes among their own players. But a few sporadic strong performances in the Champions’ League and the return of great managers and players — as well as the national team’s Rinascimento kit — have made some excited about a supposed turning point. Where is the truth in all this — and what should we expect next from Serie A, and from Italy?

John Foot

Serie A is still a brilliant championship to watch. It still has that combination of sophisticated tactics, high-class defending, and crumbling but fascinating stadiums. Stereotypes linked to catenaccio [defensive play focused on “locking down” the opposition, associated with low-scoring matches] are ridiculous, and are only used by those who don’t watch Italian football.

But Italian football is quite difficult to watch. The TV rights have been badly handled. In this way, Serie A has been marginalized over time. Somebody else has to win. A championship where only Juventus ever triumph is not a healthy place, for anyone, not even for Juventus itself. Atalanta provide some hope, and Inter are competitive at last. But Milan and Napoli seem to be in long-run decline, and there is no sign of a return for Milan to the glories of the Berlusconi era.

As for Italy, the future doesn’t appear bright. It has a political system that simply doesn’t work anymore, and — waiting in the wings — a confident and intelligent right-wing movement. This movement is ready to take power, and to use that power to foment further anger and run a permanent election campaign against migrants and “do-gooders.”

Moreover, Italy hasn’t produced a truly world-class star since Andrea Pirlo retired. There are many good players coming through, but nobody of the class of that previous generation. The brain drain has taken its toll, even in the world of football. The future is unwritten, but further decline appears somewhat — sadly — inevitable.