Football: Italy throws open the floodgates: Goals are suddenly all the rage in the land where caution and negativity once ruled. Jasper Rees finds out why

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HAVE you ever wondered what catenaccio actually means? It is one of those foreign words, a bit like schadenfreude or biryani, that has sidled into English dictionaries by the back door. Users know what it refers to, but couldn't offer a literal translation. The term denigrates defensive football Italian-style. But its plain meaning is 'padlock'.

For years it seemed that someone had fastened the padlock on Italian football and thrown away the key. But something unforetold has happened this season. Serie A, the spiritual home of the 0-0 draw, has found the key and thrown away the padlock.

As Channel 4 prepared to transmit one live Italian League game a week, most people assumed that among the many attractions worth anticipating, the regular sight of goalkeepers scooping the ball out of their own net would not be one of them. Just how wrong can you be?

As the chart shows, the current goals-per-game average of 3.45 is a huge improvement on any other season in the recent history of Italian football. Only the 1949-50 average of 3.32 gets anywhere near in post-war years. Three Sundays ago, more goals - 48 of them - were scored on one Sunday afternoon in the 18-team top division than ever before. Amazingly the record was toppled not just before the final whistle, but a few minutes after half-time.

There must be a reason for this, and who better to ask than Dino Zoff, currently the Lazio coach, but formerly the man who made a habit of keeping clean sheets for Juventus and Italy. 'Because the forward lines are strong,' he says. 'It's partly because all the best players in the world have come to Italy. Also, perhaps, we're trying to play a bit more, and that consequently brings in more goals.'

Significantly, few of those best players in the world are defenders; the attack and midfield positions are beefed up by big-money imports but, with due deference to Des Walker, defences are almost exclusively Italian. That purchasing policy introduces a general imbalance in technical ability between scorers and stoppers which has never been more apparent than this season.

'At the moment defences are suffering a bit more,' says Giuseppe Signori, the Lazio striker who, alongside Marco van Basten, heads the goal chart with eight so far. He blames the change in the law. 'Goalkeepers can no longer pick up the ball from a back-pass and so strikers are at an advantage, and that's why there are so many goals.'

'An awful lot of it is to do with the pass-back rule,' agrees Liam Brady, the manager of Celtic, who spent most of the 1980s playing in Italy, the first two seasons with Zoff at Juventus. 'Defenders have had to change completely. What happens in Italy is that they drop off and they stay goal-side of the forwards. Apart from Milan they don't play in a line. They don't play zonal, and they used to get themselves out of trouble just by rolling the ball back to the goalkeeper. Now they're being put under pressure in areas that are very dangerous, towards the edge of their own box where they've dropped off to.'

Brady returned to Britain just as Arrigo Sacchi was bringing the best Dutch players to Milan to assist in his footballing revolution. 'Milan have got very quick defenders who take an awful lot of risks as regards the offside. When they found themselves playing offside and it wasn't given, they would race back to the ball and scramble it back to the goalkeeper somehow. That avenue really has been cut off.' Hence Milan's entertaining tendency, reminiscent of Brazil in 1970, to concede goals at one end (two a game so far), but score more at the other (four a game so far).

But the revolution was as much psychological as tactical. The back-pass rule, which because of the catenaccio connection has been so much more influential in Italy, does not explain the glut of goals scored from long distance and away from home. 'Time and again when I was playing there you would just face a wall of 10 players,' Brady recalls.

'You would get teams going away from home and just camping in their own half, but I don't see that happening too much this season. Sacchi at Milan and Cappello after him have started a trend that other people are not frightened to follow. The winning teams have always been fashion- makers.' All the championship- winning teams of the last few years, with the possible exception of Sampdoria, have principally relied on their foreigners - Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard at Milan; Matthaus, Klinsmann and Brehme at Internazionale; Maradona, Careca and Alemao at Napoli; and Platini and Boniek at Juventus.

If it's true, as Brady says, that 'the input by the foreign players who play the game to see who can score most goals has changed the Italian mentality considerably' then it is also true that the intense competition for the three foreigners' berths has made the imports even keener to excel. Gullit, Papin, Platt, Moller, Doll and Winter - none is sure of a place in the first team, even though they have all scored when granted the limelight.

With all these great names jostling to avoid a humiliating seat in the stand, there has never been a better time to be a leading Italian striker. Pity poor Roberto Baggio, then, who had never missed a penalty for Juventus until last Sunday and has now missed two in a row. For everyone else, it is open season, and for no one more than Signori. But with relegation and European places not yet an issue, he reckons it won't last. 'I think that as the games go by, we'll see the one-nils and the nil-nils again.' If even the country's leading scorer thinks so, then catenaccio may well be only faking dead.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: How the Scoring Rate has increased ----------------------------------------------------------------- Games Goals Ave 1972-73 240 449 1.87 1977-78 240 512 2.13 1982-83 240 505 2.1 1987-88 240 504 2.1 1991-92 306 695 2.27 1992-93 (to date) 53 183 3.45 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)