Italian football under the microscope: Culture clash

In the second part of our series, Gianluca Vialli examines the remarkable differences between football in Italy and the game in England
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'The English do what they are told. In Italy we are not so sure'

There is a far greater respect for authority in England, whether it be the police, the "Do not litter" signs or the manager of a football team. This does not mean that English people are necessarily better behaved than Italians, just that they have a different sense of respect. Following on from this, it's perhaps not surprising that, in England, there is a more respect for another figure of authority: managers.

Arsène Wenger feels that English footballers have greater respect for their managers and are more likely to follow orders because they naturally feel a special bond with their boss. That bond is probably also nurtured by the fact that, in England, clubs are very slow to sack managers, whereas in Italy, chairman are trigger-happy.

"Here in England, you often hear an expression which I have never heard before: 'Do a job for the manager'," says Wenger. "Or you'll hear managers explaining a loss by the fact that the lads didn't follow him or the press questioning the players' commitment to the manager. It is taken as automatic that there must be a special bond there. Whenever something goes wrong, you rally around the manager to defend him. Whenever things are going right, the players give credit to the manager. This does not happen in other countries."

Indeed, I can think of another, even more obvious example; the way people react to substitutions. Obviously, no player enjoys being taken off the pitch, but in Italy we are often very quick to express our displeasure. You'll see a player ignore his manager as he walks off the pitch, or kick a water bottle, or go straight down into the tunnel or, in some cases, even have a right go at him.

I was on the receiving end of such a situation when I was managing Chelsea. And the player in question was hardly a hot-head, it was Gianfranco Zola. I remember substituting him in a game at Stamford Bridge and he was far from happy. He did not make a scene but he did walk out on the club. He went straight into the dressing-room, showered, changed and went home.

As the manager I couldn't stand for this because it showed a lack of respect for the group. Thankfully, Zola, being a professional and a team player, was probably the first to realise. The next day, at training, he immediately apologised to everyone. I'm sure he still felt that he was unfairly substituted, but he was big enough to realise that you don't walk out on your team-mates.

Wenger also mentions an example from the 2003-04 season, when Claudio Ranieri, the Chelsea manger, was often attacked and criticised by the press. By the spring everybody knew that, come what may, he would not be back the following year. Yet throughout the season most Chelsea players, particularly the English ones such as John Terry and Frank Lampard, defended him to the hilt, praising him at every occasion.

You certainly would not see such open, fully-fledged support for an embattled coach in Italy. This is not because in Italy we're horrible or ungrateful, it's just that we weigh our words differently. Obviously, you don't criticise your manager directly, because that would land you in trouble. But then neither can you say everything is wonderful, the gaffer is doing a fabulous job and the players are all behind him, as you might in England.

Why? For several reasons. First of all, if the team are doing poorly and you say something like that, people will assume that you are either lying or stupid. And it's not good to be seen as either in Italian football. Second, even if you genuinely believe the boss is blameless, you probably do not want to be too closely associated with him. If the team is under fire, the president may well sack him and you don't want to be seen as the "old boss's guy" when a replacement manager comes in.

These are the kind of mental acrobatics many of us go through in Italy. Quite the opposite of England, where such a question would be answered immediately unequivocally. But then the English are off to war, blindly trusting their leader, whereas the Italians aren't quite so sure. "Look, it's in the blood of the English, it's this almost military attitude with which they approach everything," says Wenger. "They do what they are told, they follow orders, they do not question authority and they never give up, not even when they are three goals down and there are two minutes to go. I don't think it's a coincidence, every time there is a war, the English almost always win. The Italians on the other hand..."

But blind, military-style obedience is a double-edged sword. It may have worked in the trenches during World War One and it may have helped Wenger when he first arrived at Highbury, but, sooner or later, it has to evolve in to something else, otherwise it becomes negative.

Giovanni Vaglini was a fitness coach at Juventus I brought to Watford when I was manager. He soon noticed a difference in attitudes. "The English were undoubtedly obedient and attentive to everything I asked," he says. "In England, nobody, not a single player ever said 'no' to me or even did a single exercise at less than 100 per cent. That was undoubtedly good. What was less gratifying was that nobody had the courage or humility to ask me anything about any of the fitness exercises we were doing. They had no interest in establishing any kind of dialogue with me or trying to understand what I did.For someone like me, who came from a club like Juventus, it was quite a shock. It was like going back to elementary school after having worked at university."

Vaglini worked in what is now the Championship. But the experience of Sven Goran Eriksson was not dissimilar. "Well, I've worked with the very best, so I don't know exactly what is going on at club level," he says. "But the sense of sacrifice and work ethic of the English is simply unbelievable, extraordinary. There is never any kind of discussion, they hear a command and they get on with it. In Italy, no, they are all ready to argue. 'Why are we doing this? Shouldn't we be doing that?' Maybe it's a Latin thing..."


'English players do not want to think football'

In Italy, every training session is equally important. That is what is drilled into us from an early age. It's like a job, one which you have to take seriously. To us, the notion that if you train well you will perform well on a match day is obvious, it's automatic. In England, it's a different story. Don't take my word for it, just ask Jose Mourinho.

"If I don't tell the players that it is compulsory to stretch after training, they'll finish the session with shooting practice or kick-abouts," he says. "Why? Because shooting is what puts the ball in the net and putting the ball in the net is what matters. I have players, and I'm talking about some of my very best players, who think they can play another 90 minutes, just as hard.

"When I was still at Porto, I came to London to watch Chelsea and ran into Gus Poyet, who said to me, 'If you come here, you will have a big problem. You want to think football, but [the English players] do not want to think football.' I never forgot his words because when I started pre-season training a few months later, that is exactly what I felt. Fortunately, I had some great allies in some of the foreign players like Claude Makelele.

"In Italy, they are very good at teaching you how to play good football and how to be a much better footballer," says Marcel Desailly. "In England, they teach you the right values, but, in terms of technique and tactics, well... I could see it myself when I compared what the youth team players at Milan and Chelsea did. At Milan, they trained exactly the same way the first team did. At Chelsea, they'd take two laps around the pitch, throw on bibs and off they'd go for full-pitch scrimmage. Every single day."


'In Italy I met footballers who grew up wealthy. In England, there are no sons of bankers'

In England, football was traditionally a working-class sport, whereas elsewhere it cut across all social classes. "In Italy and France I met footballers who were born poor and others who grew up wealthy," says Desailly, "the social extraction varies immensely. In England, there are no sons of doctors or lawyers or bankers. They were all working class. I think it's because football in Italy or France is seen differently. In those countries if a family has a son who is a professional footballer, it's something to be proud of. On the other hand, in England, if you're son is a footballer... well, I won't go as far as to say that it's a reason to be ashamed, but for many it's a sign that the parents have somehow failed."

I had the same experience. With the exception of a few regional pockets of popularity, rugby and cricket have traditionally been sports of the privileged classes in England, whereas football has belonged to the working classes. There was probably a bit of snobbery, as if these sports were pure while football was somehow common and soiled.

This may explain why there is more moralising going on in England whenever negative football stories surface. Whether it's a player signing £100,000-a-week contract or footballers misbehaving on tour or verbally abusing referees, it seems many are quick to compare football to rugby or cricket. This is usually followed by a resounding condemnation of football and the fact that it's not as "pure" as other sports. This does not tend to happen in Italy.


'If you cheat in England you have no chance of being admired'

English kids, traditionally, are not taught you can get to the top by cheating. Italians are. When I was growing up, I was not encouraged to take a dive, yet I picked up things in subtle ways. Back then many did not view those tricks for what they are, cheating. They were seen as clever, or as we say in Italy, furbo.

When an opponent won a penalty against us by diving, the attitude among coaches wasn't to condemn him for cheating but to point the finger at our own defenders for allowing it to happen. "He was clever," we were told. "He tricked you and the referee". We were engaging in football realpolitik. Machiavelli famously argued that "the end justifies the means." Would he have a problem with diving to win a penalty. Not if you were not caught.

But as Mourinho points out, in England the hatred for gamesmanship is so strong that many foreign players who used to dive change after arriving. "If you cheat you have no chance of being admired," says Mourinho, "even your own supporters will dislike you.

"In Portugal I can create big problems for referees. Here I can't do a thing. If I were in Portugal, and a referee gave decisions which cost us points, I would say 'that referee has something against us' so the next time he referees us he is under pressure. In England, I can't do that because nobody remembers who he is, nobody wants to talk about him.

"If I were a referee I am 100 per cent sure I would rather work in England than Italy," says Eriksson. "This country is fantastic for referees. Nobody questions their decisions and, most of all, nobody questions their honesty."

"I wish I could always say good things about what happens in my country but sometimes you have to admit that things are better elsewhere," says Pierluigi Collina, the Italian who officiated at the 2002 World Cup final. "I'm talking in terms of football culture, not society as a whole. If you're talking about society as a whole, well, I don't think Italy has anything to learn from England."


'It amazes me. Foreigners fighting with English spirit'

"To me, attacking football happens when Makelele gets the ball and passes it to the central defender who passes it to the right-back who comes forward and judges the situation," says Mourinho. "If he can do something he passes forward or runs with the ball, if not he gives it back to Makelele who builds the attack again. That is attacking football. In England attacking football is giving the ball to Makelele and having him hit it forward no matter what, even if everybody is marked."

"It's the biggest difference between Italy and England," says Eriksson. "When you are 15 minutes to go and 1-0 up, in Italy you do your sums and you figure it is best to hang on and defend. In England you keep attacking, as intensely and furiously as before, The fans won't accept anything else."

It's one of the things which struck me personally when I arrived at Chelsea in 1996. After 15 years in Italy I thought I had consolidated my way of playing football. Instead I found myself immediately caught up in the English spirit. And I saw my team-mates, many of whom were foreign, equally infected with the "English style".

"To me it is still one of things which amazes me most year after year, seeing teams of foreigners going out there and fighting with the same spirit and intensity as the English players," says Wenger.

"I can't love Portuguese football 100 per cent any more," says Mourinho, "and I don't think you can love Italian football 100 per cent, Luca. That's because of what we have seen here. English football changes you."


'If I want to sign Kolo Touré I can'

Arsène Wenger is able to choose the players he wants and shape them into a side playing football he wants. His position is antithetical to the long established norm in Italy and France, where the chairman and sporting director choose and buy the players. A good manager in that context is the one who can perform best with the players bought for him.

"I am very lucky because at any other club I would be having to make compromises constantly," Wenger says. "I know how things work. Chairmen and sporting directors feel the need to sign big names, players to satisfy the media and the fans... Here at Arsenal if I want to buy Kolo Touré I can do it. The risk is entirely mine, I am the only one who faces the consequences if it doesn't work out."

While this set-up works well for Wenger at Arsenal, Marcello Lippi, for one, is sceptical about how it would function elsewhere. "Wenger is true to himself and his system," he says. "He plays a certain way and he buys players who fit into that vision of football. I like the way he actively chooses the players himself. But in the rest of the world, it's all different. And I don't think most clubs would allow him to work that way, choosing players according to his own vision of the game. Because the simple truth is that if you have the chance to sign a good young player at the right price or maybe a superstar on a free transfer, you'll do it even if perhaps it does not fit into your system or your style of play. You worry afterwards about how to fit him into your team.

"At least, that's our philosophy in Italy," he adds. "And I think we train coaches to be good at doing just that, being flexible with players and formations so that you can succeed with whatever you have at hand."

This is an edited extract from 'The Italian Job', by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti, published by Bantam Press, hardback, £17.99.

Proceeds to the charity Fondazione Vialli e Mauro.