Football Italiano talks to John Foot

Football Italiano has been privileged enough to be able to ask John Foot, author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football about his opinion on the Italian game, his book and why he is, like so many of us, captivated by the Italian game.

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Calcio: A History of Italian football is one of many books that John Foot has written about Italian football and Italy as a whole. Presenter and journalist James Richardson gave the book a glowing review, stating that: “John Foot’s book is a must-read for anyone curious about the sport, for it never treats calcio as just a game. While English football stories take place largely on the pitch, in Italy the onfield action represents only the tip of a very large and very murky iceberg – what’s off field is often the real story. Foot (professor of modern Italian history at University College London) paints the complete picture of the forces behind the game, from the Ultras burning scooters on the tiers of the San Siro, to Silvio Berlusconi, propelled to power on a blueprint borrowed from the beautiful game, to the players themselves.”

Football Italiano: Since the introduction of the Premier League, English football could be accused of losing much of its atmosphere, along with the “true” football fan. Does the all-seater stadium, family football and a business/corporate approach kill the atmosphere that is still seen in Serie A?

John Foot: Yes, of course it does. But it is also true that British stadiums are much safer, more comfortable, better for families, women and other groups and much better at raising money than Italy’s dangerous, dirty stadiums with nasty bars and disgusting toilets and often without seats. I think Italy’s system needs radical change. Often the atmosphere is violent, racist and unpleasant.

The Ultrà culture is still a major part of Italian football. Is this misunderstood outside of Italy?

To some extent yes. There is confusion with hooligans, which is a very different phenomenon, but there are Ultrà in many other countries (often based on the Italian model) like France, Spain, Argentina, and Egypt. Perhaps only the British game has never had Ultrà. In my opinion the Ultrà have far too much power and need to be curtailed, inside and outside of the stadiums.

Last season saw Inter win the Champions League. Do you think this a revival for the big Italian teams to reassert their dominance in Europe after the Calciopoli scandal?

Not really. It was a special case thanks to Inter’s financial power, José Mourinho and Massimo Moratti’s persistence. None of the other Italian teams did very well (and there were few Italian players in the Inter team) either in the Champions League or in the Europa League.

What do you think went wrong for the Azzurri in the World Cup? Should Marcello Lippi have fielded a much younger side?

Lippi should not have been managing the side. It was never going to work. He selected the wrong side – too many of the old guard, no Antonio Cassano or Mario Balotelli for personal reasons – but Italy were unlucky with injuries to key players like Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo. The Azzurri will be back – Cesare Prandelli is a very good Coach.

When researching your book were you surprised by how much emotion is still felt about Superga from the Torino fans?

Yes, it is still very important to them, but they live in the past, which is difficult for the current team. It is an extraordinary case of civil religion based around football.

The Ultrà were the main focus of chapter ten, did you meet many groups whilst researching and how did they come across – as violent thugs or organised fans?

They are not violent thugs, although some of them enjoy the violence. Many are extremely intelligent. They adhere to what they call an Ultrà culture. But they are also businessmen, with a ready made market for their products – tickets, thrills, drugs, power.

Other than James Richard Spensley and Herbert Kilpin, would you say that Benito Mussolini was one of the biggest influences in Italian football prior to 1934?

Yes, throughout the 1930s fascism promoted football, built up the national team, constructed stadiums and invested in Coaches. This made football into a mass, national sport (alongside FIAT and Juventus). Fascism modernised football.

James Richardson gave your book a glowing review. Gazzetta Football Italia (which he hosted for Channel 4) and Italia 90 were my introduction to Italian football, what was your introduction to Calcio?

I loved the Channel 4 coverage, but I really became an Italian football fan when I moved to Milan in 1988. I was a frequent visitor to San Siro, where the great Milan team were playing. Diego Maradona was still playing in Serie A, and you still had Roberto Baggio and others. It was a fantastic league.

When researching Calciopoli, were there any details you omitted from your book due the level of scandal?

I had to be very careful about lawyers and the Italian legal system is byzantine to say the least. Do not forget that the trial is still going on and that Luciano Moggi has, as yet, been convicted only of minor offences. Sporting justice is very different to criminal justice.

Could a team ever win the title again as Napoli amazingly did in the 1980s with one man leading them to the Scudetto?

I doubt it, unless an investor arrives like Roman Abramovich. The big teams have an iron grip on things, and this does not look like changing in the near future.

Who in your opinion has been the best player in Serie A in the last 10 years?

Can I have three?

Gigi Buffon (who spent a year in Serie B), Francesco Totti and Javier Zanetti.

Is Giuseppe Meazza the greatest Italian player of all time?

Yes, from what I have read I think he was. But you need to put Gianni Rivera and Valentino Mazzola into the mix as well.

Rivera or Mazzola?

Rivera. Elegance personified.

Your opinion on Gianni Brera (journalist).

A poet who invented a new language for talking about football.

Inter vs Milan or Roma vs Lazio – which do you think is the most passionate derby in Italy in recent years, or is there another derby that you think showcases the passion of Calcio more?

Rome is the most passionate place, but unfortunately football there is enveloped in a culture of violence and there have been countless stabbings. Milan can lay a good claim to being one of the world’s football capitals. A city of one million people with two world-class football teams – I cannot think of anywhere like it.

In your opinion, why does the average Italian not turn out to fill the stadiums in Serie A in comparison to England and Germany?

Nasty stadiums, too much football on TV, violence, over-zealous security, horrible toilets.

Who do you believe is the best British player to grace the field in Serie A?

John Charles.

Who is your team?

Inter. Just to be clear, I started supporting them in 1989. They did not win the title again until 2007. I did not jump on the bandwagon.

What is your favourite memory of Calcio?

Fiorentina versus Napoli – Baggio and Maradona on the same field, sun setting over the mountains above the stadium. Careca scored a free-kick and we were sitting right behind it. I will never forget it.

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