Blog Written by Russell Bedford (@alwaysred010)
Over recent years much has been said about the poor quality of the Italian league when it’s put next to its European counterparts of England, Spain and Germany. People have been quick to slate the quality of the football on show, the standard of stadiums and the lack of trophies won by Italian teams in European competition. What I feel they aren’t looking at though, is that it was the Italian game that led the way on most, if not of all, of these fronts.
When I first laid my eyes on anything remotely connected to calcio it was 1988, if I remember correctly, and it was a picture in the annual shoot featuring Ruud Gullit and Diego Maradona. I was awestruck. I didn’t feel it was possible to have two players of such high regard competing in my lifetime in the same competition, sure I was just 8 years old and hadn’t experienced much in world football, but these guys......in this one picture, they made me pay attention. The comment next to the photo had a brief mentioning of the players but focused on how ‘Italian football was the money laden league of world football where many millions of lira poured in’ and it was true.
No other league could really compete against force of nature that was Serie A. Teams were fielding world class players week in and week out. Trophies were being raised aloft almost every year by an Italian representative and the World Cup was being held there. What a way to showcase the beautiful stadiums of the top Italian clubs whilst also luring tourists to some of the world’s most fascinating cities! It was at the 1990 World Cup that I noticed fans in England had some considerable way to go in catching up with the Italians for showing true passion for the sport they love. Whilst English fans came across as the kind that just wanted to cause trouble, the Italians would ensure they were in the ground at the earliest opportunity so they could adorn their section of the ground with banners, flags and pictures that they hope would inspire their heros to victory. It showed a connection to the team that some nations were jealous of and some just ignored. The banners laced with poetic verse linking Vialli, Baggio, Maldini or Baresi to artists, composers or playwrights almost showed an arrogance but they were clever enough to show more intelligence than ego and therefore, I think true football fans away from our shores were being truly discovered for the first time.
When the small exodus of British players left the English league behind, Walker, Platt and Gazza, it helped encourage the British public to sit up and take note that there were other leagues outside of our shores. For years we had been told about Serie A and it’s qualities, but now we could see it for real. Players and teams that had been known of, yet barely seen, could now grace our screens each week and it was incredible. Partly due to this new exposure but also due to the more curious minds amongst football fans, the world of calcio was brought to the forefront of the football discussion and it was quickly becoming apparent that the game was a lifestyle on the peninsula rather than a hobby for a group of lads to get involved with. In the Italian media, newspapers were dedicated to sports with football being it’s main feature, TV shows on numerous channels gave extremely thorough kick by kick accounts of each game and discussion shows featured current and former pros voicing their opinions on every available aspect of the game. It didn’t just end there though, teams outside of the two main leagues in Italy were also given ample coverage.
It wasn’t and still isn’t unusual for TV crews to be filming games of teams competing in the regional amateur leagues, complete with press conferences for managers and players before and after the match. Now, for someone like me that was sucked into the calcio world, lower league teams fascinated me as they were treated by their fans, the media and their opposition as being just as important as a Juventus, Milan or Napoli. Ultras roamed the grounds of the smallest clubs and supported them until death, never being swayed by the bigger teams who may have only played a few miles down the road. Fast forward to today and what do you see in the UK? Sky Sports dedicating hours and hours and hours to as much of the Premier League as they can, magazines for pretty much every club in the Premiership and stadiums that accommodate numbers normally reserved for national team stadiums. It all happened in Italy first though.
I guess, the main point I want to shift across to the readers mindset is that back in the 80’s and 90’s the Italian game was doing what the British game is doing now but without the crazy TV revenues, ludicrous wages and commercial grip that the Premiership has, for want of a better word, forced upon the world’s population. The affection and passion created by the Italian game is genuine and is passed through generations, complete with romantic traditions and stories of legacies, whilst many in the UK will confess their undying love for their chosen team, much of it has only been developed in the past 20 years due to the vast sums of money injected into the game by Rupert Murdoch and his cohorts. To give it another perspective, ask yourself how many people now walk around your town in Man City, Chelsea or Man Utd gear and compare it to before the money came in. Then, pick any Italian city and you could see a Genoa shirt alongside a Novese shirt, a Castel di Sangro scarf alongside a Lazio flag. The tradition counts for more than the money in Italy and for me that is why it will always be the best league in the world regardless of on the pitch success.