The Football Italia love affair

Gazzetta Football Italia: now that was a television programme.

Although Channel 4’s live Italian matches were more than welcome it was the Saturday morning review and pre-cursor to Sunday’s action that really took the biscuit/ice cream, and has been sadly missed since disappearing from our screens too many years ago.

To this day, many folk still consider Italian football dull and uninteresting, often comparing it to a game of chess, which is untrue. I bet these detractors nonetheless tuned into – and enjoyed – Gazzetta every Saturday morning.

So, what made this show so special? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, its host, James Richardson, was, and arguably still is, coolness personified. Not only did Richardson have the enviable task of furnishing us with the latest football news, highlights and interviews from the peninsula, he got to do so while visiting some of the world’s most trendy cafés and bars, all the while being served up some of the most over-sized, luxurious ice creams you are ever likely to see.

Secondly, Channel 4 brought Fiorentina to a wider audience. While the UK coverage, beginning in the 1990s, coincided with the arrival of Paul Gascoigne in Italy, it was Fiorentina, rather than the Englishman’s club, Lazio, that won the hearts of many UK viewers. This, of course, was in no small part due to the fact that the Viola line was led by the quite magnificent Gabriel Batistuta – one of the best centre-forwards of a generation. Not only did the Argentinian hitman look like a lion, but he had the heart of one, too. Even in the home of Catenaccio, no defence in Italy was safe when Batigol was in town, and each of his goals (of which there were many) were followed by his trademark machine gun celebration.

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Read ‘Goal O’ The Times: Gabriel Batistuta vs. Napoli (1996)
Fiorentina’s cause was further enhanced to neutral viewers by their ever-trendy all-purple kit, which, during this era, had a number of ice-cool sponsors, including 7UP, Nintendo and Fila.

Off the park, our host James Richardson was regularly welcomed to the homes of Serie A’s top stars for interviews. This star treatment was not just dished out by the English players plying their trade in Italy, such as Gascoigne and Paul Ince. My own particular favourite was a chat Richardson enjoyed with AC Milan star Marco Simone, which took place in the striker’s pent-house flat, overlooking the bright lights of the Italian fashion capital’s city centre.

This was a good time to be involved in Italian football and Channel 4’s success was, perhaps, boosted by the fact that Serie A boasted the cream of football talent from across the globe, including Jean-Pierre Papin and Marco van Basten at Milan and the aforementioned Batistuta at Fiorentina. Add into the mix home-grown talent such as Gianluca Vialli, Giuseppe Signori and Paolo Maldini and you have all the raw ingredients for some compulsive viewing.

In the days before Sky TV’s explosion and the take-off of the first cheap flight, there was something mystical about seeing venues such as Milan and Inter’s San Siro, with its distinctive red roof and winding exterior pillars, and Genoa’s uniquely designed Stadio Luigi Ferraris, shared with city rivals, Sampdoria, come to life in your living room. Foreign football was, at this stage, very much a novelty for the UK viewer.

For many people in their late 20s and/or early 30s, World Cup Italia 90 provided their first clear memories of football. For these majestic (now dated) stadiums, and their elaborate – often downright dangerous – fan displays, to be brought to our screens added to the intrigue of Channel 4’s coverage.

Each weekly broadcast was preceded by a snappy ident, during which a football curled across the screen before hitting the Channel 4 logo, turning its multi-coloured stripes to the green, white and red of the Italian national flag. Simple but ingenious, and this is before getting to Gazzetta’s uber-cool opening title music.

​I once read an article in which James Richardson and his backroom team spoke of the immense difficulties involved in producing the Gazzetta show each week. Interviews and feature content were regularly completed with very little time to spare as producers battled to disentangle themselves from endless streams of Italian red tape, Italy being a country that can take bureaucracy to a whole different level from our own understanding of the word. You certainly wouldn’t guess this had been the case when viewing the end product each week, though.

Perhaps the yearning for Channel 4’s Italian football coverage is enhanced by the dearth of quality football coverage on offer from terrestrial television these days. One thing is for certain, however: Richardson and the team did a fine job.

Words by Martin Dunlop@Dunlop85

Martin’s passion for Italian football kicked off with the ‘Notti Magiche’ of Italia ’90 – from Toto Schillachi to Ciao, the mascot. He thinks the San Siro stadium is the finest building in the world!