Calcio: A History of Italian Football by John Foot

All you need is a bit of behindology
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Fittingly, for a nation that has given the world the Renaissance, grand opera and Machiavelli, a history of Italian football reveals a beguiling mixture of the artistic, the overblown and the scheming. Unlike football played in Spain, Germany or France, say, Italian football possesses a uniquely seductive quality that often amounts to more than the sum of its parts. This is because, as Foot's admirable survey of the game makes clear, football in Italy is not as it is in other countries: this is a nation where the largest selling daily newspaper is dedicated almost entirely to football; where its former ruling party is named after a football chant; and where its former Prime Minister owns one of the league's most famous clubs. Football, it seems, is Italy, and Italy is football, and so, inevitably, a narrative about the game can't help but be a narrative about the country as a whole - its dynamics, its preoccupations, its outlook and its problems.

And that's where Foot encounters his first and most profound challenge. For the writer proposing to record a history of Italian football has to face a testing but fundamental fact: no one agrees on anything. Yes, there are statistics and records and results and league tables, but, as Foot points out, this is only half the story. Italy is a country where debate is ruled by dietrologia - literally "behindology" - an enduring speculation about the reality behind appearance, the "true" events that lie behind events. As valid for politics, the workings of the Mafia or for any given football game, dietrologia dominates footballing discourse and shapes the worldview of its aficionados. Controversies from as far back as 1925 continue to rage about "stolen" matches, fixed championships, and the alleged corruption of officials, chairman and players. In fact, each club, as part of its mythos, has at least one element of what is termed arbitraggio or "refereeage" - a particularly controversial decision that robbed them of a trophy or an important game. This is a country where nothing is taken at face value and where those stolid virtues that supposedly underpin the Anglo-Saxon game - respect for officials, a sense of fair play, losing with honour - are regarded at best with bemusement, at worst as frankly moronic.

In fact, one of the chief pleasures of the book is this encounter with a specialised vocabulary peculiar to the game in Italy. There are terms that are unfamiliar and untranslatable (although Foot thoughtfully provides a glossary) while others ("derby", "corner" and so on) illustrate eloquently the influence of Englishmen in the formation of Italian football. But despite its subtitle, Calcio is less a narrative history of the development of the game and more a survey or compendium that ranges over the enduring controversies, obsessions and recurring themes that have shaped Italian football in the past and continue to govern the game today.

Thus, after a brisk introductory chapter that sketches how football first arrived and was established in the country, there are sections on the game itself - the great playmakers, clubs and tactical thinkers that have dominated Italian football; famous incidents, examples of corruption, of violence off and on the pitch, and the enduringly controversial incidents that have marked the awarding of games and even whole championships. There is a particularly comic chapter on the many disastrous foreigners who have starred (if that's the right word) in the Italian game and which boasts three British players in its line up (an ineffective Ian Rush, a perpetually injured, drunk and belching Paul Gascoigne and the unfortunate Luther Blisset, whose uselessness was so legendary that his name, bizarrely, was later adopted by a group of avant-garde artists and pranksters). While one of the main strengths of the book is its thoroughness and its scope, there are times when the prose lapses into lifelessness. Sometimes it feels like within these 500 pages there are several shorter, leaner, sharper books struggling to get out.

Overwhelmingly however this is a work whose strengths far outweigh its faults and it ends, forebodingly, on a dark note. Most clubs in Italy teeter on the edge of insolvency and are technically bankrupt. Typically, for the Italian game, one footballing administrator, denying there was a problem, commented that "the irregularity of accounts is a matter of opinion". It was only an act steered through parliament by AC Milan proprietor and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sanctioning dubious tax-avoidance measures that staved off a wholesale bankruptcy in all but three of the clubs in Serie A (and practically all of the lower leagues). Sometimes it feels as if Italian football is staggering toward its end, overwhelmed by cynicism, scandal, violence and exhaustion. And yet the pageant continues: a carnival of colour, gesture and brilliance that should, by rights, collapse, but somehow rolls on: terrible, magnificent, and seemingly in defiance of the very laws of gravity itself.