Italy ignores its moment of history

Media apathy hurts the new recruit to European rugby's elite. By David Llewellyn in Rome
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The Independent Online

Rome has its religions: Catholicism, cars and football, although not necessarily in that order. And in this enclosed world there appears to be little room for rugby.

Rome has its religions: Catholicism, cars and football, although not necessarily in that order. And in this enclosed world there appears to be little room for rugby.

Indeed the Italian sporting and business world seems to have accorded rugby less esteem than is granted to the timorous pedestrians, who take their lives into their hands as they dart between the daily duels of testosterone-crazed drivers jostling for position in the crammed streets of the Eternal City.

The entry by the Azzurri of Italy into the closed, almost masonic, society of what was the Five Nations, is in danger of slipping unnoticed past the consciousness of Italian sports fans.

A brief tour of the City revealed just one banner, stretched across one of the quieter thoroughfares of northern Rome, proclaiming the start of the Six Nations and Italy's matches against Scotland, tomorrow, and England, on 18 March. A surf of Italy's eight terrestrial television channels throws up no advertisement imploring people to buy tickets; no programmes heralding the historic debut; no interviews with the rugby warriors.

More than one million Italians have been waiting up until two, three or four in the morning towitness the latest position in sailing's Louis Vuitton Cup and sports pages carry stories of the racing from Auckland by the yard. Yet when the Italian rugby team was announced 24 hours earlier than expected, Il Messaggero, Rome's top selling daily newspaper, yesterday gave the news a bare inch in its "Sport in short" column. The profile is not so much low as subterranean, consigned to the catacombs of sporting awareness.

True there has been one landmark event, but it is not something that will have rugby players and supporters clapping hands to foreheads in amazement, not unless they are philatelists or lawyers.

The decision to issue a special stamp commemorating the Six Nations has broken new legal ground. Previously Italian law prohibited the sale of items bearing the image or effigy of a living player, but on Saturday this 800 lire stamp will go on sale depicting the former Parma and Italian scrum-half Alessandro Ghini, who is very much alive, if no longer kicking rugby balls.

Despite the apparent indifference on the part of the media, Giancarlo Dondi, president of the Italian rugby federation remains optimistic for the future of the game in his country.

While acknowledging that their disappointing performance in last year's World Cup might have set them back a little, Dondi insists: "I believe we will have a boom in the game.

"Rugby is regarded very much as an élite sport in this country, played at university and at very exclusive clubs. But the federation has been addressing this problem and we are spreading the word in the schools and getting some good results. And there is a definite movement among the young away from soccer, they are looking for new sports, and we intend to make rugby one of those.

"It will come. In the not too distant future television will be showing match after match; sell-out games will be played in the great stadia in this country.

"At the moment the game is undervalued in Italy, but industry and commerce want to promote their products and their businesses not just here, but also abroad and rugby can become the vehicle for that."

However hopelessly optimistic that may sound, Dondi is no romantic. Having worked for a major steel production company in senior management, he decided a few years ago to set up on his own and achieved great success. He wants the same for his first love - rugby.

For him Saturday 5 February 2000 will take its place in Italian sporting chronicles, as the biggest in his country's rugby history. "It is the crystallisation of a lot of hard work," says Dondi, "which started in 1989.

"It is the most important day in our game. A new era is opening up for Italian rugby and I just hope that the rugby public takes this opportunity to share in the moment."

But he is not without his doubts. "I am apprehensive. Our debut in this tournament is hugely important. It is only human nature to worry on an occasion such as this, firstly for what will happen on the field of play.

"Secondly for what may happen off it. We are bound to make mistakes. The protocol is very strict. But any faux pas we do commit will be in good faith. We have nothing but respect for the Six Nations."

It has to be said that the apathy, which seems to have pervaded the public, has also touched the federation itself. There appeared to be no sense of urgency in the final few days leading up to the realisation of this long-cherished dream.

On Wednesday afternoon the federation's offices were, for the large part, empty; locked up seemingly for the rest of the winter. There was no hustle inside and no bustle outside the functional, two-storey building that crouches in the shadow of the imposing and undeniably impressive 90,000-seater Stadio Olimpico.

That is where Dondi would ultimately like to stage all Italy's rugby matches. It is truly one of the great stadiums of the world. The federation is currently debating whether to move England's match there, such has been the demand for tickets from overseas. Already some 20,000 have been sold for England's game compared with around 18,000 for the Scotland match at the smaller Stadio Flaminio, whose capacity is a more modest 25,000.

The federation expects a sizeable demand for tickets to the England game from the not insubstantial expatriate community in Rome and Tuscany and other major commercial and industrial centres in the country. It is not unreasonable given that there are 58 million people in this country.

Tomorrow 22 of them will begin jostling for room on a larger stage.