Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Sure-Footed History

Long-time readers of this blog will know of my fascination for the football culture in the most football-mad country on earth, Italy.

John Foot's Calcio - a history of Italian football attempts to condense that culture, and its antecedents, into one information-packed 500-page tome. On the whole, this aim is achieved very well.

Foot's decision to group his material thematically rather than chronologically is a little disconcerting at first, but it ultimately saves the book from monotony. The only problem is that his first chapter, after the obligatory coverage of the game's early history in Italy, deals with referees...and it is perhaps the poorest, most repetitive part of the book, besides being strangely misplaced.

Otherwise, his research is impressive, his prose crisp and readable, and his judgements apt. Throughout the book, it is hard to escape the theme of opaque accounting methods and offhand criminality in Italian club football, which Foot finally brings into the foreground in the hard-hitting final chapter. Yet he has plenty of time for the events on the field as well, explaining idioms of Italian football such as catenaccio, mediano and fantasista with solid clarity.

His depictions of players are also well-realised, although his catalogue of the great goalscorers in Italian history gets a little monotonous. Yet there are some fine portraits, not least that of the fallen idol of Torino, Gigi Meroni, a player I hadn't heard of until reading the book. Foot's account of the ultimate, sad irony of Meroni's story is worth repeating here:

As with all Torino stories, there was to be a final, weird twist to this tale. In 2000 Torino appointed a new president. He was a life-long Torino fan and had worked as a spokesman for FIAT. His name? Attilio Romero. The same Attilio "Tilli" Romero who had run over his idol - Gigi Meroni - in 1967. The club was now run by a man who had killed one of its most famous players, albeit by accident. This bizarre fact did not pass without comment. Some fans, unhappy at the performance of the team, took to shouting "murderer" at Romero.

There are one or two factual errors in the book (and some bizarre, almost random misspellings), while some aspects of the Italian story are passed by somewhat perfunctorily. In particular, the chapter on foreigners in the Italian game (which does, admittedly, contain some fascinating material) concentrates almost entirely on British imports, not mentioning the pioneering trio of Swedes who had such success with Milan in the fifties. Their story deserved at least a few paragraphs, I feel...along with those of Michel Platini, Michael Laudrup et al.

Although an air of pessimism is perceptible in many chapters, especially when Foot deals with Italian club football and its manifold insanities, he manages to capture some of the underlying beauty of calcio. His frequent (over-frequent, in all truth) quotations from the legendary journalist Gianni Brera serve to remind the reader that Italy has produced football literature of a very high calibre, consonant with the respect afforded to the game in Italy across a broad social spectrum.

And Foot's own contribution to the literature of the game, in the shape of Calcio, is worthy of respect.

I am a third of the way through.

A great read.

And the chapters on derbies...very prescient for the A-league.

That is, hurry up with a second team in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Interestingly, I would envisage Sydney becoming like Rome (inner city support for Sydney FC and outer or western support for the new team...and Melbourne like Turin or Milan....where the supporters are drawn from same geographic groups).
Despite having a fully blown disease-like obsession with the game the only book I've ever read on football is 'Fever Pitch'. I found that to be great at the start but it dragged towards the end.

Any suggestions for my first footballing book as an adult (never called myself that before, must be getting old)?
Peng, Hamish posted a useful list of football books on his blog a while ago...that might be a good place to start.
hi mike,

got a question. i have heard that juve is one of the best supported clubs across italy, but that their home city support isn`t so strong. is this true, and if so, why?

figured it might have been dealt with in the book.

...got a question. i have heard that juve is one of the best supported clubs across italy, but that their home city support isn`t so strong. is this true, and if so, why?

figured it might have been dealt with in the book....

Hi Clayton, sorry to get back to you so late on this one.

He does take some time out to explain it: apparently FIAT attracted huge numbers of southerners to their factories in Turin for employment, and FIAT being under the control of the Agnellis (the patrons of Juve), they naturally became Juve fans and often took their fandom back south with them, to their families.

That's an over-simplified version, but that's the gist.
Just thought I'd add my opinion here mikey to a minor part of your article......I think the notion of italy being a football mad country bar none is a widely held belief in the English speaking world, and perhaps about 40 years out of date. FWIW, and many local forumites will no doubt disagree, but I reckon Italy might be surpassed by England in the football mad stakes in Europe...and certainly by Argentina. But meh...
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