John Foot And The Thousand Nuances Of Italian Football

You can’t understand Italy without understanding football, and you can’t understand football without understanding Italy.

John Foot
Professor John Foot. Photo courtesy of John Foot.

After Italy’s Euro 2020 victory which brought worldwide attention to the country, we had a conversation with John Foot, author and professor of modern Italian history. At the beginning of the interview, he remarks the notion underlying his book on the history of Italian football, Calcio: “You can’t understand Italy without understanding football, and you can’t understand football without understanding Italy.”

Chatting on a hot summer evening from Siena and Bristol respectively, we explored Foot’s research work on Italy’s football history and its impact on Italian society and identity, in an attempt to undertand what it really means beyond the stereotypes of Catenaccio and lack of fair play.

This question was supposed to come at the end of the interview, but I cannot wait to hear your thoughts. How have you experienced the Euro 2020 final? I know that you are keen on Italian football, but being English it must have been a difficult game to watch.

It was a strange day, because I gave a lot of interviews, I wrote a newspaper article, I talked to Italian and English media. Then, with the game I found out that I have very divided loyalties, because I’m part Italian (my grandmother was half-Italian, my son is Italian, and I’ve lived in Italy for a long time), so I really didn’t know who I was going to support. Even during the game I wasn’t sure, but when Bonucci scored I jumped up to cheer, so I understood that I was supporting Italy. I think this is the effect that football has on me. When I’m in England I find the nationalism and the patriotism there quite difficult to digest, and I tend not to want England to win. Actually, when I was in Italy the same thing happened with the Italian media, so it was a kind of reaction, but I just love Italian football so much and I really wanted them to win. Also, I think that England didn’t play good football: they were efficient and difficult to beat, but not beautiful to watch. It would have been a shame if Italy lost in what has been a very dramatic final.  

In your book Calcio you talk about the relations between culture, politics and sports in Italy. You published the book in 2006, when the Azzurri won their last World Cup, so I was wondering what changed and what remained the same since 2006?

I wrote Calcio between 2002 and 2006: it’s quite a big book, a long piece of work. I was incredibly lucky that the book was published in early 2006 and that, the same year, Italy won the World Cup and the Calciopoli scandal broke out, making many issues covered in the book topical, namely the connection between politics, society, culture and football. The book starts out very boldly by saying that you can’t understand Italy without understanding football, and that you can’t understand football without understanding Italy. That’s a very strong statement that explains why I also wrote about politics, violence, the referees, and many other themes. It’s a 600-page book, but it could have been 1,000 pages. Since then, a version updated to about 2011 was published, but I think that there are a couple of major things that changed — the decline of Serie A in the first place. When I was writing the book maybe the decline had already started, but when I moved to Italy in the 1980s, the Serie A was the best and richest league in the world. I mean, there were Maradona and Platini, all the money was here, so the best players came here. Over time, Serie A was taken over by the Premier League and perhaps even by the Bundesliga, becoming a less important league. This decline continued not for the quality of football itself, which is still very good and tactically advanced, but for the relative lack money. The best players don’t come to Italy anymore and when they do it, they are old — see Ronaldo, who’s not at his peak. The second thing is that Juventus started winning every year and that became a problem for Italy because if one team always wins, it is at the expense of the whole league. I think it’s good news that Inter won this year, at least there is some competition. In terms of politics, well, one thing which needs to be pointed out is Berlusconi’s retirement. Berlusconi is a key figure in my book, because he’s both football politics, he is the archetype of someone who combined sporting relevance and political power, and that was an extraordinary thing to write about. He is no longer in charge, taking with himself that direct link between sports and politics. Today there are still some politicians who are interested in football, but that link, the ownership of the club, disappeared. That’s what changed in these amazing ten years.

Which Italian clubs best represent their local realities, and which ones instead represent the country’s diversity and national culture?

That’s a really good question, although a difficult one. I think you have the big three, Juventus, Inter, Milan. And obviously, they have fans in Turin and Milan, but deep down they are national teams. You can go to Sicily, you can go to Sardinia, you can go to Apulia, and even to Rome, and you’ll find Milan, Juventus and Inter fans. In the book I tell the story of when I was on holiday in a tiny town in the Sicilian inland, a long way from Turin. There were Juventus Milan and Inter fan clubs, but no Palermo clubs. So I think that those three teams have both local and national dimensions, while all the other teams don’t. Of course, there’s emigration and immigration, and you’ll find Napoli fans everywhere because Neapolitans move. But Napoli fans are mostly based in Naples, Roma fans are mostly based in Rome, and they reflect their local reality much more powerfully than Juve, Milan and Inter. Then, you have provincial teams like Sassuolo, a tiny place that, coming from nowhere, became very successful and managed to create an interesting business model. That’s the Italian provincial power. Italy doesn’t have a Paris or a London, but it has its own provincial power. Sassuolo is an interesting example, but you also had Chievo in the top division for many years. I mean, where is Chievo even from? Most people don’t know it, but they’ve been in Serie A for a long time together with their fans. These football teams are such an important part of the local culture, even if they are not winning. They remain a really important part of people’s lives and, while a lot of these teams have gone through terrible times — bankruptcy, Serie D and Serie C, they always come back and remain important. They should be preserved as a part of the Italian identity, but unfortunately I don’t think that enough is being done to consider football clubs as a patrimonio culturale (cultural heritage).

This comment brings us to the next question about how those provincial teams are represented in the National team, with players coming from realities like Atalanta or Sassuolo, and also to what you were saying about identity and nationalism. Obviously, the Nazionale reflects a sort of national identity in both positive and negative ways, so what role does it play in a political context of surging nationalism? This applies to Italy but also to England, as you were mentioning earlier.

The national football teams are extraordinary magnets for the expression of national identity. During World Cups, European Championships and even friendly matches, they are ways in which people reaffirm their attachment to the country. I think it was Eric Hobsbawm who said that eleven players on a pitch are much more powerful than flags and anthems — and of course these things are connected. Italy has this fragmented national history, with very powerful regionalism and city identities, but when the national team plays, many of those are thrown off — maybe not all of them, but many of them. And if you look at some moments like the 1982 World Cup final, these are the biggest episodes of collective activity in Italian history. That night, the whole of the Italian nation was glued to the TV with a 95% audience share: nothing can beat this, everybody watching the same program, that team lifting the World Cup, and nothing can come close to Pertini’s iconic enthusiasm, not even Garibaldi or Mazzini. So it’s very important, but it’s temporary, in the sense that when things go wrong, or when the team loses, blame games and fragmentation start. So Chiellini can be a leader and an Italian hero when they win, but when they lose he quickly becomes a Juventino, as most people — Interisti, Milanisti and all the others — hate Juventus fans. However, when the National team plays, they become loved, but there’s always an inner conflict. So this is a temporary thing, it doesn’t last, it’s just a moment. Let’s look at England. The last three weeks have been amazing. People have talked about nothing else, it’s been an amazing time to live through. But there have been divisions over politics, over race, over Brexit, over COVID. And now that the team has lost these have emerged very powerfully in the form of racism, of criticism directed to the players, of Johnson. So this national identity is very fragile and other identities like club identities, regional identities, political identities can quickly re-emerge.

You were mentioning the 1982 World Cup which President Pertini used to improve his popularity. Do you think that Italy’s victory in the Euro 2020 can be instrumentalized by politicians? And do you think that we will have a Pertini ‘card-game moment’, with politicians exploiting a sporting success for their own public image?

They will try. I think that politicians will try to do so because they obviously want to be associated with a winning team. Salvini will try, Renzi will try, the left will try, and we have seen a lot of posts and tweets. Mattarella was there, he’s been photographed doing a sort of ‘mezzo-Pertini’. I think that Pretini’s presence during the 1982 victory was geniale. It wasn’t spontaneous, it was a fantastic and incredible piece of self-association with the victory. The camera zoomed on him during the game, becaming a sort of 12th player — something that Mattarella did not do. But I think they will all try, as they are trying in England as well. However, I’m not sure that anybody will succeed in the ‘card-game moment’. You know, Pertini was on the same plane with the team and he came off with the trophy. Mattarella didn’t do this, as he’s much more modest. I don’t think the power of that Pertini moment can be repeated. On the other hand, in 1938 Mussolini took the photo with the team and the cup: he could easily use propaganda since Italy was in a dictatorship — it is much more difficult in a democracy.

Speaking of divisions and what a football team can do to unite a whole country, we have European national teams becoming more and more diverse due to their demographics — see England, France, and even Switzerland. Instead, Italy doesn’t have that level of diversity or representation probably because of its more recent history of immigration. Do you think that this will change in the future? And what do you think about the Italian Football Federation’s decision not to support the Black Lives Matter movement?

I think that the Italian Federation didn’t cover themselves with glory in this tournament. They had no real understanding of what has been going on throughout the year in the Premier League, with most British and foreign players taking the knee. The Italian Serie A and the Federation did not seem to understand that. In a certain sense it very interesting to see, I found it really fascinating, and I’d really like to know more about those players who took the knee. I haven’t read much about this, but I’d really like to know why, for example, Bernardeschi did it. That was a really interesting moment because it was the only team that divided on such a matter. Then, they’ve decided they wouldn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement, but also that they would take the knee if the other team did it, as I’m glad they did against Belgium and then in the final. I don’t think they necessarily knew why they were doing it, which is good. This is not surprising though, because for a very long time there have been big problems with racism even at the top of the Italian Football Federation. Some of the presidents have not been particularly modern in their attitudes, but racism is very present in all stadiums and among players. This is a long-term problem in Italian football which is not being dealt with. The other thing I’d say about the future of a multicultural team is that we have the very revealing example of Balotelli. He became a sort of national hero in 2014 thanks to his solid performance at the European Championship, and then boom, scapegoat, capro espiatorio, he was quickly blamed when things started to go wrong. Mancini called him when he first took over the Azzurri, although he isn’t at that level now. It was a political gesture — a really nice one — but merely symbolic. I think it’s a shame that there are no black players in this team because there could have been some in the squad. But if you ask me, I think it will happen in the future, as there are black players coming through, so they will have to be included. Yet, the Federation will feel compelled to sort out racist behavior in the Italian sport only when a true anti-racist culture emerges in Italy. In England we have massive division over this, a huge debate over the knee — it’s a cultural and political war. I think that Gareth Southgate, to his credit, has generally handled the situation very well. In the final, however, the players who missed the penalties were coincidentally black, so they got a lot of abuse. When I saw the black players come out to take the penalties I was really worried, as I knew this could happen. Everyone is criticizing Southgate for allowing the 19-year-old Saka to take the penalty, and I think that was very unfair, but of course not because he’s black: he shouldn’t have been given that responsibility at that age.

You have seen the role football has played in Italian society: you were mentioning 1982 as the conventional end of political terrorism in Italy, while the World Cup is often portrayed as a decisive element of resurgence and strengthened unity of the country. Do you think that this European Cup could play a similar role following the pandemic, like a sort of sporting but also social resurgence in Italy?

In the context of the pandemic, this achievement is really significant because you’ve had a national trauma that isolated and scared people. And this is precisely the reason why this tournament has been so intense in England as well as in Italy. In this context, Italy’s victory — or even their performance, if they hadn’t won — didn’t necessarily matter at the beginning, because nobody expected them to play well as they did. They showed this beautiful football that very few expected, as most people don’t watch the qualifying games. Players like Spinazzola were just spectacular to watch. That brought joy, unity and happiness in a difficult situation. I don’t think that politically speaking this victory will have the same impact as that of 1982, not even identity-wise. In some ways, the globalized world we live in has dissipated some of that impact. The 1982 victory was unique because there was no internet, no social media, no cable TV, so there was only one way of engaging with the game. Nowadays, everybody’s got their own way of understanding, of interpreting and of discussing football. It will never be like it used to be. Yet, it has been important, especially for the context in which this tournament was played. The resurgence story of the Italian team from the missed World Cup qualification to victory in just three years is very important. There would be a lot to say also about the cross-regional unity in the squad. You have the Neapolitan group who played together in Pescara, the Tuscans, and so on. There are lots of interesting elements to analyze, but I don’t think that 2021 will be a new 1982.

In conclusion, can you reveal us which Italian team you support?

My Italian team is Inter — I tell this story in the preface of my book — but my real team (I think you can only really have one team) is Arsenal.

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