England versus Italy is hardly a tournament classic, considering the last time the two teams met in competition was at the 1990 world cup when Italy beat England on penalties in the ‘illustrious’ 3rd place play off. That the two nations have not clashed more is odd, seeing as both countries qualify for the majority of tournaments and often get to the knock out stages. Alas it is not one of the great international matches to rival Germany v Holland or Brazil v Argentina. However in footballing terms England and Italy have a rich history that extends beyond the British names that the clubs retain from their early history.
In domestic football Italy and England have rich histories. One has to look only as far back as this year’s match between AC Milan and Arsenal to see the classics that can be produced from clubs from the two countries, with Arsenal coming agonisingly close to taking the Rossoneri to extra time having been beaten 4-0 at the San Siro just a week earlier.
Further back there was the great Champions League semi-final between Manchester United and Juventus in 1999, where again an English team looked to be heading home for sure when they went down 3-1 on aggregate against the Turin team before Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole remarkably shot them into the final (setting up an even more remarkable finale in that game). This was a Juventus side that boasted the likes of Davids, Zidane, Deschamps, Conte and Inzaghi but still United prevailed. If we are to take Britain as a whole then another great match up with the Italians was the 1967 fixture between Jock Stein’s Celtic (later nicknamed the Lisbon Lions) and Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan team (the one known throughout Italy as Grande Inter). Herrara’s Internazionale side is often credited with creating the incredibly defensive catenaccio that became synonymous with Italian football, and in some quarters still is. Yet still the British team managed to prevail. This and the other matches described typifies what James Richardson recently described as ‘Spirito Britanico’ or British Spirit, the idea that there is a British spirit that carries teams above their technical ability to beat technically superior teams. Italians love of the game that was brought to them by the British has now in fact extended to a term to describe how British teams can overcome inferiority.
This and the other matches described typifies what James Richardson recently described as ‘Spirito Britanico’ or British Spirit
While British players don’t have historically the greatest record playing abroad, (Jonathon Woodgate at Madrid or Darius Vassell at Ankaragücü spring to mind) there have been a number of successful British players in Italy. Welshman John Charles is held in such high regard at Juventus from his period playing for the Old Lady in the late 50’s and early 60’s that in 1997 he was voted the greatest ever foreign player to play for the club, not bad considering some of the greats of world football he was up against. Charles was the top scorer in his first season in Turin and came 3rd in the Ballon d’Or in 1959. Gerry Hitchens, another Welshman was also well received in Italian football. Playing throughout the 60’s Hitchens turned out for Inter Milan , Torino, Atalanta and Cagliari, winning the league title at Inter and performing well in cup competitions for both Torino and Cagliari.
Even more recently there have been memorable British players in Italy. Englishman Luther Blissett went to AC Milan off the back of being the European Golden Boot winner, but in his one season at Milan he was legendarily poor, with some Milan fans speculating that Blissett’s brother had been sent instead. His name lived on in Italian culture to such a degree that militants and writers adopted it as a collective term as a form of anonymity. As John Foot puts it in his fantastic work on Italian football Calcio; ‘Some players are so bad they are hated. Some are so bad they are forgotten. And some are so bad that they are loved, talked about, treasured. Luther Blissett…falls into the latter category…’
Paul Gascoigne would be memorable wherever he played but during his stint at Lazio he will be remembered for the right reasons as well as the wrong. Arriving with an astronomically high (at the time) transfer fee of £5.5 million he is widely considered to have been a flop in Italy. Ruined by Gazza’s perennial nemeses – injury, the media and himself – yet he is remembered for scoring an 89th minute equalising header against arch rivals Roma which had fans embracing him as he celebrated. Soon after this he scored a brilliant goal against Pescara by beating four players before slotting it past the keeper. There are further, more interesting, stories about Gazza off the pitch but as a representative of Britain in Italy I shan’t recount them here (although for those interested one story does include the quote ‘Your daughter…big tits’). Italians may have repaid the favour of an entertaining – but ultimately frustrating – talent in the form of Mario Balotelli, but time will tell if he goes the same way as the bidoni Gascoigne.
One story involving Gazza does include the quote ‘Your daughter…big tits’
Of course perhaps the biggest uniting factor between English and Italian fans is the grief shared by Juventus and Liverpool fans over the tragedy of Heysel. If one scours the internet there are still messages of support between the two fans, some of which are truly touching. There are other relationships between fans which are sourer. Manchester United and Roma fans do not get on as any United fan who attended the 2009 Champions League final in Rome can attest to.
While England against Italy is not a classic international match, Italy and England is a classic footballing relationship which should be embraced.
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