Germaine Greer: Forget fiery, think finicky Latin

The cerebral, impassioned look of new England coach Fabio Capello has surprised many, but in our rush to greet him, the Brits expose how little we really understand about Italy
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The Independent Online

This sporting nation is on tiptoe waiting with bated breath for only the second Italian invasion in more than two millennia. This time the army numbers but five, Franco Baldini, Franco Tancredi, Italo Galbiati, Massimo Neri and their commander-in-chief Fabio Capello, who has taken the job that nobody wanted at a price that would make anybody want it. It will be the job of the new England manager and his four subalterns to transform the sow's ear of English football into a silk purse crammed with international trophies. In English Signor Capello's name is Mr Hair. There seems to be some confusion as to whether he can speak English. If he can't he won't answer to Mr Hair and the fans will have to learn some choice Italian if they are to succeed in tormenting him, which I reckon is not beyond their capabilities.

Though an Englishman will call Firenze Florence and Genova Genoa and mispronounce every ordinary Italian word he knows from addio to zabaglione, he will never mispronounce an Italian word that has anything to do with football. British football fans can even say "Serie A" correctly, and that's not easy for Italians. Sir Alex Ferguson says Capello can speak "perfectly good English", whatever that may mean. Arsne Wenger says he can't speak any English at all. We'll find out tomorrow who is right. (My money's on neither.)

The English like to think that Italian men are volatile, fiery and impulsive; in reality they are more likely to be stolid, pernickety and valetudinarian. They fuss about their livers, refuse to eat food that might overheat their digestion, and avoid grease and garlic. Capello looks like the kind of Italian man who takes out a clean handkerchief and dusts a seat before he sits on it. You can see his like in every neighbourhood trattoria, holding his wineglass up to the light before polishing it with his napkin, and checking to see that there are no water spots on the cutlery, before he orders a half portion of risotto in bianco.

A man who condemns men who wear socks so short that bits of bare leg can be seen when they cross their legs, as Capello has done, is a fusspot rather than a dictator. Everything about Capello is careful, from his exactly fitting shirt and just stripy enough tie to his expressionless face. His lip is not just zipped but clamped shut. In a thousand images his hair is nibbled to exactly the same length, not a millimetre too short or a millimetre too long, week in week out, so you can be sure he makes a weekly visit to the same barber who probably shaves him, removes blackheads and snips the hairs in his ears and nostrils as well. Years ago he let himself be photographed at home with long hair and wearing a hideously patterned chunky handknit. That's a mistake he won't be making again.

Capello comes from San Canzian d'Isonzo in Gorizia, one of the few parts of Italy where no tourist is ever seen. Until 1914 Gorizia wasn't even part of Italy. If Capello reminds you of Tito you might be on to something, because bits of Gorizia did end up inside Yugoslavia. There is not a single anything in San Canzian that is worth the detour, unless you count the kinds of Roman stone tablets and sarcophagi that can be seen in greater numbers almost anywhere else in Italy. As San Canzian lies on the pediplain of the Alps, on the flood plain of the Isonzo, it doesn't even boast a ski slope.

Whatever else Capello is used to, he is used to dull. The notion is gaining hold that he is high brow because he likes opera. One of the few things happening in San Canzian this week is an omaggio to Pavarotti. Only the English think that Verdi and Puccini are high brow. "Grand opera", as the English call it, is less intellectually challenging than football. There is some disquiet too about the fact that Capello collects art; apparently he owns a Kandinsky and a Chagall, but nobody seems to know which ones or where he keeps them. He definitely collects the work of Piero Pizzi Cannella, which is the kind of thing you would expect to find hanging on the walls of the only pretentious restaurant in San Canzian.

Before he has even got here, the British are reconstructing Capello to fit their own preconceptions of what Italians are. His every gesture, every moue, every shrug, will be interpreted and reinterpreted until something begins to emerge that we feel we can recognise. Capello will need all his Friulian stolidity if he is to survive such an unnerving excess of attention; he daren't even to catch an eye, anybody's eye. So far his mask has remained so rock like that we can hardly imagine him inspiring and inspiriting his spoilt players to defy injury and pull out all the stops, as he is said to do.

The best of Italian cannot survive transplantation to England. No matter what the Italian thing might be, within months of being naturalised in England it is unrecognisable. The best cooking in London is Italian, but so is the worst and there is far more of it. We have coffee bars on every street that offer drinks called espresso and cappuccino, but not one of them can make a proper caff ristretto, the concentrated espresso that is the basis of everything else. The coffee can come from anywhere; the roast is not Italian, and the whole experience is nothing like standing in a bar in San Canzian, sipping a proper cappuccino, and sniffing the genuine scent.

The British have been cooking pasta for 50 years and they still don't understand what they are trying to do. Spag bol English style is disgusting. The point of a spaghetti sauce is that it should ungere, that is, "anoint" the pasta; it should spread itself thinly along the entire surface of each piece of pasta. It should not be a few ounces of minced meat coddled in tomato sauce, which then has to be chased around the plate, rolled up with floppy pasta and forced on to a fork. The ragù which is the proper sauce for spaghetti is made by slowly simmering a marrowbone with fresh tomatoes and herbs; this gives the right consistency to marry with pasta strings. Other sauces are meant for different shapes, which is why they exist. You don't make fusilli alla bolognese because they are meant for lumpier sauces, with more vegetable content. If you are using odd bits of game, you soften them in butter, seethe them in red wine and spices and use them to season pappardelle. I am told there are parts of Italy where you might find spaghetti and meatballs; I can only say I have never been to any of them.

If Fabio Capello eats at the River Caf twice a day, he will soon be condemned as wildly extravagant and a shocking food snob, but nowhere else will he taste anything like what he grew up on, which is the best diet in Europe. The simplest dishes are unachievable in an English kitchen because the ingredients cannot be found. You can't make panzanella or pappa out of English bread. You can't make a caprese out of English tomatoes. We may have to get used to the sight of the England manager flying in every week with suitcases full of fresh vegetables and pane casereccio. Eating at the River Caf would be a cheaper alternative.

Capello is supposed to be an Anglophile, which probably means that he misunderstands the English as thoroughly as they misunderstand the Italians. Even if he can stomach the mess we make of lasagne, he may well be deeply put off to find that there are no bidets in our bathrooms. What would be worse would be if he decided that he could no more transform British prima donnas into a tight-knit Italian-style team than he could turn the British version of pizza into anything an Italian would consider edible. Which is why we must all link arms and shout, "Forza, Fabio!"

Further browsing: The website of the British Italian Society, a 60-year-old forum which aims to increase understanding between the two cultures