While soccer is still a growing sport here in America, it is a way of life in Italy and throughout Europe. One cannot really understand Italy or the Italians without an understanding of the role soccer plays in the country. I have followed the Italian soccer league since I was a little boy, watching games on TV with my father every weekend. This past fall I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Florence and experience the soccer culture in Italy firsthand.
The game was first brought to Italy from Britain during the 1880s. The oldest club is Genoa C.F.C., formed in 1893 and organized by British men. In a tradition passed down from the Brits, coaches are regularly addressed as ‘Mister’. In 1934, Italy was selected to host the second edition of the FIFA World Cup, held for the first time in Italy, a major political coup the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Gli Azzurri, the nickname of the national team for its blue jerseys, triumphed and won the tournament. As the 1938 World Cup was hosted in France, the Italian team was greeted with protests for their fascist ideology. While they were preparing for the Final, Mussolini sent a telegram to the team reading, “Vincere o morire!” meaning “Win or die!” After winning their second consecutive World Cup, the Italians would have to wait 44 years to be crowned world champions again.
Amidst a match fixing scandal back home, Italy arrived at the 1982 tournament with skepticism. Yet despite the odds, the Italian National Team played some very dramatic games, beating Argentina and favorites Brazil and West Germany in the final to win the competition. A famous photograph caught Italian President Sandro Pertini with two players and the coach playing cards on the plane along with the World Cup Trophy. And most recently, amidst another match fixing scandal, Italy lifted the World Cup Trophy in 2006. It is a major source of pride for Italians to be tied with Germany for the second most World Cups, only behind Brazil who has five.
The Italian soccer league, Serie A, is played from the last week of August to the last week of May but for all intents and purposes it is relevant all year round. Even during the summer, there are constant rumors about which players each team will both sign and sell. After what feels like a long, drawn out offseason, the whole peninsula is excited for the start of a new soccer campaign.
Whether it is a team tradition passed down from generation to generation or a team you started following because of certain players at a young age, every Italian has a favorite team, usually—but not always—their hometown team. Most people have an intense emotional connection to their teams, often at the expense of personal and familial relations [see Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby]. There are casual fans who occasionally watch their team and hope they do well. There are also the fans with a vested interest who watch every game and even usually attend at the stadium if possible. And then there are the die-hard fanatics, known as the ultras. They are notorious for their ultra-fanatical support, attending every game and sometimes resorting to violence. They often create spectacular choreographies for derbies and rivalry matches and often hold fanatical political views. These ‘ultras’ have considerable influence over the club they support. Quite often they will riot and protest when their club fails to perform well or they are upset at how the club is being run. About a year ago, the A.C. Milan Ultras protested against owner Silvio Berlusconi, pleading to #SaveACMilan.
When I attended the Rome derby in November, both the Roma and Lazio Ultras decided to protest against the newly proposed stadium safety and security restrictions by not attending the match. It was very strange for the stadium to be half empty for one of the most anticipated and passionate match-ups in the country. Five months later and the Ultras from both clubs are still protesting. And just a week ago, Palermo Ultras set off flares, which caused the match to be temporarily stopped by the referee on two occasions. Far too often have there been instances when these Ultra groups have gone too far, even resulting in the death of fans in some instances; the most recently case was Napoli fan Ciro Esposito who died from a gunshot in 2014 before a game against Roma.
The beautiful game also intrudes into daily life. While studying in Florence for three months, almost every day I would buy a copy of Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s most renowned sports newspaper notorious for its pink pages. Calcio, as Italians call ‘soccer’, would consistently be about 80% of the newspapers coverage. On Fridays I would hear chatter amongst the patrons at the café regarding the upcoming match for the hometown club, Fiorentina, on the weekend. And then on Mondays when I went to get my morning espresso, I would hear the same men discuss how the game went. These discussions are undertaken with just as much seriousness as political talk, if not more so.
Going to the stadium for a match is usually a cultural event. In Florence, fans start making their way to the stadium about two hours before kickoff. There are street vendors set up selling club merchandise, food and drinks. “Tailgating” and drinking beer before a sporting event is a foreign concept for Italians. People get a bite to eat, hang out with friends and family and then have an espresso or gelato. In fact, we have started to see a culture like this start to develop amongst some Major League Soccer clubs here in America.
Soccer is undeniably embedded into Italian culture as a significant symbol of the country. There have been many great books illustrating this, notably A Season with Verona by Tim Parks and Calcio: A History of Italian Footballby John Foot. If you visit Italy, you’ll be sure to notice the significance of soccer. Read the local newspaper, attend a game, cheer with the home fans and—win or lose—consider yourself an honorary Italian.