Forza Italia, by Paddy Agnew <br/> Calcio: a history of Italian football, by John Foot

A national team with no defence
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The Independent Culture

This year's Italian football season closed with an operatic flourish that, even in the world's most theatrical football culture, was unprecedented. Juventus, the biggest, richest and most popular club, won its 29th title. Simultaneously, phone-tapping investigations provided the starkest evidence yet for common but unproven knowledge in Italy: the club's systematic involvement in match-fixing, doping and corruption of every kind.

The question is not so much why this had been happening, but how Juventus have got away with it for so long. The invisibility of systematic corruption is the challenge that faces any book on Italian football. First up is Paddy Agnew, long-time Rome correspondent whose monthly despatches in World Soccer have been barbed and wicked miniatures of the machinations of Italian football. At book length, however, his tone is muted and his own story treads the usual path of infatuation and infuriation. This is a distraction from the best parts, recounting scandal, disorder and corruption.

The real problem is a failure of intellectual nerve. In the introduction, he writes "obviously this book is in no sense an academic or sociological survey of Italian football". Lord forbid! No one believes that you can either sell such a book or make a case for such an approach. Yet on every page, sociological argument is screaming to get out.

When trying to account for the steady decline in the European performance of Italian teams in the 21st century, and the declining potency of Italian tactics and style, Agnew is irresistibly drawn to a comparison with the failing Italian economy, outflanked by more nimble competitors. As he acknowledges, this is a nation whose recent PM Silvio Berlusconi rose to prominence on the back of his ownership of AC Milan, named his political party after a football chant, and intervenes in debates about the national team and its manager.

While many of the sociological points smuggled into Agnew's book are plausible, his resistance to these questions leads him into cliché. Thus football's extraordinary social significance in Italy can be explained because it runs in the "nation's DNA". So what constitutes a football gene? How did they get there? But then if you are not going to address issues of power head on, this is where you end up.

John Foot's Calcio, by contrast, is unabashed in its academic leanings, yet he wears his learning lightly. Calcio is encyclopaedic in its coverage, thematic in its organisation and a trove of rare insights. Cities and clubs, players and managers, fans and directors, scandal and the media are all dealt with. Foot mixes analysis and story telling, admiration and admonition, in equal measure.

Both authors end on similar notes. Both rightly love Italy and Italian football and neither is naïve about its decline in quality and probity. On occasion both seem to have come close to ending the affair, but are hooked on their cruel mistress. They are also too polite, but they have personal investments in the country to consider. As a consequence neither can quite bring himself to deliver an unambiguous account of the forces that the Juve affair, and all the others, derive from.

I have no need to be polite so will take the liberty of saying what these books demonstrate: that Italy and Italian football are a disgrace. If the country were to apply now for EU membership it would be refused - its democratic credentials are so threadbare, its legal system so Byzantine and its economic and political elites so corrupt. Italy would be told to get in the queue with the Romanians and the Bulgarians.

The historical roots of the problem stretch back to the incomplete and fragmented creation of the nation state, the failure to come to terms with the legacy of fascism, the supine consumerism of mainstream civil society and - most recently - the shameless TV authoritarianism of Berlusconi and his gang.

The entire board of Juventus has now resigned; the team may be stripped of its title and demoted. One hopes that this will prove the Tagentopoli of Italian football - a judicial assault that breaks the old order apart and sweeps the decrepit elite from power. It is just as likely that they will be replaced, as the old political parties were, with new elites whose conduct is every bit as despicable as their predecessors'.

David Goldblatt's 'The Ball is Round: a global history of football' will be published by Viking in September

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