It’s easy to criticize the Italian game. I’d imagine, to those who’ve never had any emotional investment in football in the peninsula, it’s simple to look down upon it as corrupt; as living off its 90s reputation with delusions of grandeur.
But, as with most things, to fully embrace and understand the wonder of calcio, it can’t be taken too seriously. From the overtly Juventus-friendly referees, to Delio Rossi assaulting Adem Ljajić on the touchline, or late Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone selling Antonio Cassano after he failed to turn up to a dinner, it provides pantomime, villains and all, like no other top European division.
The rivalries and the friendships and the passions they entail provide constant entertainment and amusement for Serie A’s fans. Almost certainly relating to Italy’s divided, provincial past, there is a territorialism and local attachment which makes every matchday about much more than twenty-two men kicking a football around: pride is at stake.
When combined with the famously tempestuous national psyche, and you have a recipe for madness - and that’s just the fans.
There are, of course, also the events on matchday. It was, after all, these which initially drew me in, and which continue to keep me watching ardently. It wasn’t Pavel Nedvěd, Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero which first had me watching calcio. Rather it was the sheer colour – both literal, and metaphorical – of the occasion.
The pink of Palermo, purple of Fiorentina, the yellow and blue stripes of Parma – who I slowly have grown to support – and their choreographed, flag-bearing ultras was quite different to what I had ever seen elsewhere. Tuning in to watch an early Sunday kick-off, with the players’ shadows cast long, and their shirts rippling as a gentle wind cooled the brilliant morning sun, it was a footballing utopia.
The stadia remain some of the most interesting things about football in Italy, in their varied structures and the ways in which they somehow always manage to reflect the character of their constituent clubs, from the regal, expansive Artemio Franchi in Florence to the quaint, boxy Ennio Tardini in Parma. The southern madness is captured equally well by the vast domes of Palermo and Napoli, the former of which is jammed up against a rugged rock face, and the latter lying in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
In some ways, it will be a shame when these classic stadia are all gone, as their clubs move out to Juventus-type grounds, which, while an economic and atmospheric necessity, will lose some of the spirit and characterful eccentricity and individualism of Serie A. But, that’s a discussion for another day.
Aside from the stadia, there was the players themselves. They weren’t all workmanlike, box-to-box artists. Be it Totti, boasting a touch to rival Dimitar Berbatov, or Andrea Pirlo whose vision and execution was outstanding, it was a league filled with players who made football look effortlessly easy.
It is a trend which, contrary to popular opinion, hasn’t slowed over the years. It is true, that no longer is Serie A at the height of European football. It is true, that some of the greatest talents to learn their trade in Italy in recent years, be it Javier Pastore, Marco Verratti, Fabio Borini or others, have been attracted elsewhere.
But, that has meant that Serie A is too often dismissed as a league which is no longer attractive to talented young players; one that many choose to stay away from. In reality, it isn’t the case. Many of the clubs boast excellent scouting systems, which have ensured that they can get a step ahead of many other foreign clubs.
Serie A’s current economic status has been mentioned as a factor behind the recent rise of exciting young talent plying their trade in Italy. Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy is one of the division’s top scorers, his teammate; Mattia De Sciglio is already pushing for a first-team spot. Paul Pogba has bucked the general trend and moved into Italy from Manchester United, finding regular football for the Bianconeri.
Obviously, many young players do now move on. But, even those left behind play in a fashion which I find appealing. Technically excellent and tactically drilled, Italy is a nation obsessed by numbers and formations, and player positions. It’s not uncommon to open La Gazzetta, and find diagrams of the tactical and selection options available to a certain coach.
Luciano Spalletti (strikerless 4-2-3-1), Gian Piero Gasperini (3-4-3), Zdeněk Zeman (4-3-3), Max Allegri (4-3-1-2), Antonio Conte (3-5-2); some of the most successful coaches who have all achieved with their notable and wildly differing systems. For me, Serie A opened up a whole new world of tactics; a new way of analysing and understanding the mechanics of football.
This is clearly more geeky than romantic, but that shouldn’t fool you. The romance of Serie A was what initially captivated me, and the strange characters that Italy seems to create and attract are what keep me sometimes bewildered, usually amused and always entertained. Combine that with a good standard of play and it is still the same footballing utopia as when I first watched.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @sargeant_j