Perhaps nothing has been more influential in determining the popular perception of the Italian game than furbizia, the art of guile. For it is no overstatement to say that Italians enjoy a reputation as the dirtiest players in the game and, dryly put, as cheaters. While it is certain that their guile has had to do with the establishment of this repute, furbizia actually has nothing to do with cheating. The two things can be distinguished by a very easy demarcation – ‘cheating’ means doing something which your adversary cannot do, or exploiting resources they have no access to. The corruption of referees, ‘fixing’ results, the use of drugs or illegal substances to boost performance are all examples of cheating. These have occurred in Serie A (as they have almost everywhere), though they have fortunately been kept well clear of the national side. The Azzurri shirt remains untarnished.
Furbizia is something very different. Firstly, it is something which takes place only and exclusively on the football pitch. The word ‘furbizia’ itself means guile, cunning or astuteness. It refers to a method which is often (and admittedly) rather sly, a not particularly by-the-book approach to the performative, tactical and psychological part of the game. Core to furbizia is that it is executed by means of stratagems which are available to all players on the pitch, not only to one team. What are these stratagems? Here are a few: tactical fouls, taking free kicks before the goalkeeper has finished positioning himself, time-wasting, physical or verbal provocation and all related psychological games, arguably even diving. These are all pretty common strategies in football, and they extend well beyond Italy. Thierry Henry was a master of shooting free-kicks while the goalkeeper was busy positioning the wall, and the last Ballon D’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, has an overbearing history as a diver. Yet no-one has such a pervasive and defining reputation for such actions as Italy. Consider, for instance, the ESPN Euro 2008 ad for Italy.
The reason why Italy has garnered such a reputation is that these allegations are, at least to some extent, legitimate. In fact, in its own ingenuity, the ESPN ad does more justice to Italian football than it probably meant to. Consider the closing slogan: ‘If winning is an art, Italians are the masters.’ The statement is not untrue – it is only insufficient. It is not winning, but football itself that is an art, in Italy – an art in the old sense of the word. It is not just a physical competition where there is a winner and a loser but a collective performance, a superior and cultivated trade where the final result must acknowledge and respect the dual identity of stage and backstage. In other football cultures, the incapacity or unwillingness to divorce the performative side of football from its raw emotional effects results in deplorable acts of violence or breakdown – see Wayne Rooney’s stomping on an adversary in 2006 World Cup and the subsequent red card, or, in the same tournament, the post-match brawl that broke out between the German and Argentinean teams. Italians, by contrast, are very much aware of what they do on-stage, as unwittingly captured by the narrative of the ESPN ad – see how the Italians manifest discontent and frustration individually, but relinquish it all to celebrate together as a team towards the end, as though musicians in the after-party following a concert. The stage and the backstage remain different concepts, in Italian football. If football is understood by means of its ambiguity and tribalism, as a conflict that unfolds on levels which transcend the purely physical and technical, then the reason behind Italy’s power in the sport lies in the conscious obliquity of their own performance. If football is understood as an art, then Italians are indeed the ‘masters.’
From such a dual vision of the sport evolved furbizia, that is to say, the quality of exploiting the ambivalent and nervous nature of the athletic conflict to one’s advantage. It differs from virtually all other techniques in a football match in that it is the only one which does not involve the ball. To most people watching a match, the game stops when the ball stops (by rolling out of play, beyond the keeper line or caught by an offside player). To Italians, those very pauses inbetween the taking of a corner or a foul are active fields of play, where specific moves and strategies are to be put in action. These strategies are read, recognized and evaluated by Italian commentators almost as seriously as the ones executed with the ball. Azzurri teams will use that time to argue heatedly with the referee, provoke their opponents – or, in the finest examples of furbizia, by destabilising the notions and understanding of in-play time itself. Consider the sly and brilliantly out-of-the-box corner kick taken by Roma against Milan two years ago (most recently re-proposed by Manchester United against Chelsea).
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One of the players nudges the ball into play, then pretends to let someone else take the corner, so that his team-mate is allowed to just take the sphere and storm into the box on his own. This is classic furbizia, a case of using rather than submitting to the limitations of playing time.
Furbizia does not break any rule in football – rather, it learns how to exploit them. Tactical fouls are standard practice for an Italian defender, a fact which is not irregular because the rules of football are not that you can’t foul – they are that you can’t foul and then keep on playing . An Italian defender will gladly trade a harmless free kick for a potentially dangerous run, so smart fouling is part of any Italian’s repertoire. They have the furbizia – here expressed as tactical vision – to use these to their advantage. Granted, it can be unpopular with supporters of the other teams, but it makes Italian defences incredibly effective (and, when combined with defensive duos as vertiginously talented as Maldini-Baresi or Cannavaro-Nesta, almost impenetrable). One may argue that this is ‘unfair’ towards the forwards. But forwards in Serie A have developed their own responses through furbizia – they have learned how to dive with such grace and realism that it counters tactical fouls and turns them into yellow cards or worse. When most people see a confrontation between a forward and a defender, it is normally seen as a contest decided by technique. To Italians, the confrontation has further depth. It is not only a measurement of skill, it is a duel of strategic cleverness, a tactical clash where the mental factor comes into play as much as the physical. In other words, it has a backstage.
As with all matters in sports, there are variations to how well all this can be performed. Anyone can provoke an adversary, but it takes real guile (real furbizia) to find the weakest links in the other team’s psychology, then wear them out and bite them until something or someone gives in – all without ever breaking a single rule in the book of football. Foreign spectators normally witness this peripheral offensive with a sense of outrage. Those who really understand Italian football, on the other hand, will see the finesse of the performance and the quality of its execution. A masterpiece was produced when midfielder Gennaro Gattuso was fouled by Germany’s Michael Ballack in the 2006 World Cup semi-final. Gattuso stood up immediately and squared up to the German, who – not to be intimidated by the shorter man – squared up to the Italian in return. Once Ballack’s aggressiveness had been pumped to boiling point, and without doing a single thing against the rules, Gattuso opened his arms and gave him an unexpected brotherly hug – for the benefit of the referee, among other things. Ballack, baffled, could do nothing but return the gesture. Finally, the Italian disengaged and left – with a firm and nonchalant tug to Ballack’s hair, who turned around with visible and barely withheld fury.
This exchange, which passed unperceived under the eyes of most viewers, is an incredibly well-executed example of starting up and escalating psychological tension, then relenting immediately before it explodes. Ballack, full of German endurance, withstood the pressure. Other, less impervious players cracked. The most famous case occurred in that same tournament.
Compare this to a similar incident which took place in the Euro 2004 Italy-Denmark match, where the perpetrator was the Italian Francesco Totti.
The incidents are similar in nature, yet – interestingly – they radically differ in their aftermaths. The French (and most of the international) public stood behind Zidane ubiquitously, seeing him as a victim of ‘dirty’ play and clamouring for the head of Italian defender Marco Materazzi (or, as Zidane’s mother would later express herself, for the man’s testicles). In Italy, on the other hand, Totti was crucified for falling to the provocations and has since held a dubious (and deserved) reputation with regards to his maturity. The difference is exemplary. The French thought that Zidane had been cheated into defeat, so they stood behind him to the point that the deliverer of the head-butt was made its victim. The Italians instead saw nothing illegitimate in the behaviour of the Danish, but they violently chastised their own champion for lacking the furbizia to face up to the situation (and falling prey to the furbizia of the Danish). Lack of furbizia, in Italy, is as serious as the lack of talent – because both are aspects of the same game.
In the general hysteria following the French defeat, defender William Gallas claimed that he wanted to ‘bash Materazzi’s face in,’ a statement which he followed with a pretty passionate rant against the Italians. It is ironic that Gallas should condemn Materazzi’s harsh expressions by giving in himself to some very harsh expressions, but a qualitative difference does subsist between the two. With Gallas, the words against Materazzi mark real hostility and venom. In Materazzi’s case, the insults to Zidane are uttered almost with nonchalance, not as an intra-game outburst of resentment but as a cynical part of the game itself.
All of this is not intended to ‘exculpate’ Materazzi. Those who resent his gesture and wish to see Zidane as the victim will keep doing so, and that is fine. But it is important to understand that his gesture was not a sign of frustration but a tactical, measured – almost military – attack on the weakest links in the French team. Whether Zidane deserves to ‘hold his head high’ after his head-butt or not, the fact remains that he has been outsmarted. Because he should have known that when Italians argue, they are not actually looking for a fight. Their own contest is going on backstage, and it remains invisible. Zidane played with his feet and lost with his brains. To the question of how do you stop Zidane, the Italians know the answer. For it is patent that Italians do not play football with their feet alone – they play football with their brains, with their hearts, with their hands, with their eyes. Playing football against an Italian means facing a guy who is bringing against you everything that he has got. The term used in Italian to indicate sport of a professional level is ‘agonistico’ – belonging to agony. Facing the Italians means agony – it means descending into the deepest bear-pit, walking onto the fiercest battle-ground, and facing the most ruthless opponents. Only the best of the best can walk out of this triumphant.
One may not like the Italian style of football, and that is of course perfectly legitimate. The Spanish, for example, cultivate the most academic football in Europe and are deeply resentful of all forms of football stepping out of bounds. The French claim to be resentful as well, though their own refinement of furbizia is second only to that of the Italians and the Portuguese. Ultimately, these differences come from two irreconcilable visions of the game. The Spanish style understands football as something like a fencing match, a rapid and meticulous art of noble origins where honour is the brand of valour. To the Italians, football is more like an ancient battle, a primal and inclement bronze-age scenario where survival rules over honour. Their hero is not stiff Sir Gawain but Ulysses, the conqueror by guile. This is how Italians see football – as a struggle made of sweat and dirt. The Germans understand this perhaps better than anyone else, and they alone tend to approach matches against Italy with a sense of undisguised exhilaration. They see their Southern competitors as the best test of their abilities – for, while the Italian philosophy consists in using absolutely everything that can be used against you, the German approach is that of resisting absolutely everything that can be thrown against them. This may be the reason why World Cup confrontations between these two forces have a history of being so epic – and why Ballack, unlike Zidane, perfectly resisted the furbizia of Gattuso.
The irony is that even nations who truly depreciate furbizia find that in a victory against Italy often lies their finest hour. In fact, when France and Spain defeated Italy in 1998, 2000 and 2008 respectively, it made for some of their most memorable victories in the tournament. Of course, this in no way helped the cause of furbizia among their publics – because furbizia operates at the margins rather than at the centre of the stage, in the nooks where the understanding of the game is blurred, it will always remain an elusive goddess, one seen too late and too briefly. Besides, even when furbizia yields her favours, she normally makes the rest of the world despise them. How could we build statues to a deity like that? At most, we may invoke her the way that Trojan warrior Aeneas calls his mother Venus – an equally intangible goddess – in Italy’s foundational epic, the Aeneid : ‘Why, you too, cruel as the rest? So often / you ridicule your son with your disguises! / Why can’t we clasp hands, / speak out, and tell the truth?’ We can not. Because furbizia means accepting the dual, ambivalent nature of football, not the monological law of the ‘truth.’ In their respect for such a melancholy, unstable reality, Italians will always represent an incredible adversary to any team. One may love them or one may hate them, but the Italians are so combative that they will give you a chance for the most valuable thing in the sport – a truly meaningful victory.