England versus Italy: Head versus heart

Gianluca Vialli, who has had feet in both camps, contrasts the psyches of the game in England and Italy, and leaves Steve Tongue concluding that a blend of both cultures would offer footballing perfection

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National stereotypes can be dangerous things, and it has been hard to avoid them in the build-up to England's game with Italy today. Yet according to Gianluca Vialli, formerly of Sampodoria and Juventus, Chelsea and Watford, ''they often have a basis in truth", and when it comes to the two countries in question, Vialli is in a good position to assess the characteristics of football in each of them.

Indeed he spent almost three years doing just that for a fascinating book, "a journey to the heart of two great footballing cultures" based not just on his own experiences of 23 years in his homeland and seven here (four of them as a manager) but also including conversations with, among others, Sven Goran Eriksson, Jose Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Marcel Desailly and Ray Wilkins.

Admirably even-handed, Vialli's conclusions could be summed up in two words: "heart" for England, "head" for Italy. The best example quoted is of two boxers. Boxer A (England) is "aggressive and direct", and if he loses to a sucker punch in the final round after dominating the fight will live with defeat because he has given everything. Boxer B (Italy) is "congenitally insecure, terrified of defeat" and will therefore prepare to the umpteenth degree, then fight patiently, waiting for the one moment to catch his opponent's guard down and land the knockout blow. Should he be the one caught out in the last round while ahead on points, he will be mortified, for "the biggest crime of all is having the upper hand and letting it slip away".

In that context, it is worth noting that Italy have never lost a two-goal lead at a major tournament. At European Championships, they have won three times as many games as they have lost, despite averaging barely a goal per game. They are one of only four countries with a positive record against England (nine wins against seven), seven of the victories having come by 1-0 or 2-1. In modern times the superiority is even more pronounced - those nine wins, against only four defeats, have all come since 1950. The counter-punchers, these statistics say, have the measure of England's raging bull.

Vialli, an Anglophile who still lives in London, is non-judgmental about many of the contrasts he makes. After a rather fanciful metaphor comparing two women, a straightforward English rose who never holds back and a scheming, beautiful woman of Rome, he admits that as with the boxers, he cannot choose between them. It may be significant that what he praises about English football, apart from its essential honesty and whole-heartedness, tends to be external factors such as stadiums, marketing and governance; whereas Italy is superior in pure footballing matters such as preparation and scouting, fitness and training facilities. If the Italians are "obsessed" with tactics, he finds his adopted country and its footballers the opposite; it is ironic that six years after the book was published, suggesting the English addiction to 4-4-2 was gradually changing, Roy Hodgson has been sending out the national team in precisely that formation during Euro 2012.

Others are less neutral. The World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, with no experience of working in England but a man hugely admired by Ferguson, says of Italy: "We are the most tactically evolved nation in the world. In England they are convinced they are the masters of football. Football is XYZ and there is one proper way of doing it. Our brains are livelier, more capable of critical thinking. That's why we're more progressive, more open to change, to dialogue."

Players there question things far more, which is one reason Eriksson found life much easier in England. Wenger has a neat line about how English players, if told by the manager to run at a brick wall, would crash into it, brush themselves down and have another go (images of John Terry and Scott Parker inevitably spring to mind); whereas the continental player would suggest, "Why don't you show us how it's done first?" There are further fascinating contrasts in attitude summed up by the English notion that football is, in the end, only a game. Not in Italy it isn't. Vialli (right) contrasts the dressing room at Sampdoria or Juve, "dead silence, a church or a library, serious, joyless" with what he found at Stamford Bridge: "like a mobile disco, with music, laughter, jokes".

Then there is the Machiavellian influence in Italy of winning at all costs, at least when it matters. Being used to teams not over-exerting themselves against those in desperate need of points at the end of the season – believing it would be a favour owed and eventually repaid – he was astonished when Fulham, with nothing to play for on the last day of the season, condemned Norwich to relegation by beating them 6-0. In Serie A the match would have been an away banker, but with no sense of an actual fix, such as has often dogged Italy's domestic football just before some of the country's greatest triumphs – in 1982, 2006 and, conceivably, 2012.

Hodgson's honest yeomen –stereotyping again – have to kill that dream tonight. Whatever the outcome, a genuine fusion of the very best of English and Italian football would take an awful lot of beating.

The Two Tribes

What they say...

Brain and brawn

"[In England] they play with their heart, while we [Portugal and Italy] play with our brains." Jose Mourinho


"The Italian system teaches kids to protect themselves. The English system doesn't accept cheating is inevitable but condemns it. The notion of English 'fair play' is more than a cliché." Gianluca Vialli


"In Italy, coaching is seen as a profession that requires study and often an apprenticeship. In England it seems many view the ability to coach or manage as innate." Vialli


"English media take football less seriously than their counterparts in Italy. They see it as a 'bit of fun.'" Vialli


"The work ethic of the English is unbelievable. They hear a command and get on with it. In Italy, they are all ready to argue." Sven Goran Eriksson

Physical attributes

"English players tend to be less coordinated than foreign players, but have more endurance." Tony Colbert Arsenal fitness coach


"I only learned what it means to be a professional after I moved to Milan at the age of 27." Ray Wilkins


"People in Italy are more insulting, in England more abusive. But I would rather be called useless than corrupt." Graham Poll


"Italy has far more tactical variety. When a manager changes formations, he is seen as looking for solutions. In England he is a 'tinkerer'." Vialli


"Technique is far more of a priority in Italy than it has been in England." Vialli

Youth coaching

"In Italy it is about turning kids into the best possible footballers. In England it's about using sport to understand values such as teamwork and sportsmanship." Vialli

From The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti (Bantam Books)