It is hard to believe that a quarter of a century has passed since a young English footballer called Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne joined Italian Serie A side Lazio from Tottenham Hotspur.
The Rome club spent £5.5 million securing the services of the 25-year-old, who had captivated Italian crowds at the 1990 World Cup with his skill and impudence. Such was the excitement surrounding the move, Channel 4 made the bold step of announcing that they would broadcast the 1992/93 Serie A campaign to households across the UK. The decision proved to be a masterstroke, and served as the catalyst for a love affair between the Italian game and a legion of UK-based fans, and the writing of a book I referred to as the Italian football ‘Bible’ in my youth.
The first season was a roaring success for Channel 4 and Chrysalis TV (who produced the coverage). A loyal audience of almost 4 million viewers tuned in to the weekly action, which included Gazza scoring a header in his first Rome derby in week eleven, and brought iconic stadiums such as Milan’s San Siro and Genoa’s Luigi Ferraris into the living rooms of UK viewers every Sunday. To build on the success of this initial campaign, Channel 4 were keen to produce a guide for people who might be watching Italian football for the first time.
Giancarlo Rinaldi, co-author of Football Italia: The Official Companion to the 1993/94 Seasonalongside Ray Della Pietra, a Channel 4 researcher, says it’s hard to believe that, back in 1992, there was very little football on television. The fact that the Italian game boasted many of the world’s greatest players (including the Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard at AC Milan) and with Italia ’90 memories still fresh, added to its allure for a football-hungry public.
“I think Italia ’90 won a lot of hearts in the UK with much of the country gripped by events in the Peninsula,” he told The Gentleman Ultra. “Coverage also kicked off – in my memory at least – with a few cracking games and what could have been better on a miserable Sunday afternoon than imagining yourself on the curva in Milan, Genoa, Rome or Naples? James Richardson, too, in Gazzetta Football Italia [the Saturday morning pre-cursor to the Sunday action] did a great job in selling the lifestyle of Italy and the storylines of Serie A.”
Giancarlo explains that his knowledge of the Italian game, combined with a little persistence, led to him landing the job of co-author of the Football Italia written guide. “At that time, I was running the fanzine Rigore! as well as contributing to other magazines – including the official Football Italia magazine – and was about to start a journalism course,” he recalls. “I think I plagued poor John Taylor – the producer of the TV shows and editor of the magazine – so much that he decided to give me a job to keep me quiet. Along with Channel 4 researcher Ray Della Pietra – a Pescara fan – we were commissioned to write the book for Virgin Publishing. It was a little ironic that the particular season the guide was for neither his team nor my own – Fiorentina – actually featured in the top division having both just been relegated.”
“With its own cast of heroes and villains, Italian football has
developed into a long-running soap opera”
The book itself is a treasure trove for Italian football aficionados. A foreword from Paul Gascoigne, in which he writes of calcio being a ‘completely different ball game’ to the football he was used to back in England, is followed by a potted history of the game in Italy, introducing readers to the big clubs, their key players – on and off the park – and the intense rivalries and fan culture that make the Italian game so special, and, at times, infamous. “With its own cast of heroes and villains, Italian football has developed into a long-running soap opera,” the book states. “Drama, love affairs, and scandal add to the glamour that has made calcio the Hollywood of football.”
An in-depth, month-by-month, 1992/93 season review explains Milan’s journey to clinching the Scudetto and the form that led to Brescia, Fiorentina, Ancona and Pescara being demoted to Serie B. In a season in which Giuseppe ‘Beppe’ Signori of Lazio finished top scorer with 26 goals, Italian clubs also had a major impact in Europe. Juventus won the UEFA Cup, crushing Borussia Dortmund 6-1 over two legs in the final, while Parma won the now defunct Cup Winners Cup, beating Royal Antwerp 3-1 in a final played at Wembley. In the European Cup, Milan lost out 1-0 to Marseille in the final.
The Italian football ‘bible’ also includes a club guide for the 1993/94 Serie A campaign. In addition to the top flight stalwarts, we get to learn more about Cremonese, Foggia, Piacenza and Reggiana. As a young reader, I remember being intrigued by Cremonese and their distinctive grey and red stripes. Interestingly, the Grigiorossi had, just that season, won the Anglo Italian Cup (also now defunct) by beating Derby County 3-1 at Wembley.
If this wasn’t enough, readers are also treated to a Chronicle of Italian football through the decades as well as a feature taking a look at some of the British players that have made the ‘Crossover’ to Italian football.
So, there was clearly plenty of material and research for Giancarlo and Ray to get stuck in to. “It was great fun writing and researching the book – I particularly enjoyed going back into the history of the game, something I still like to do,” Giancarlo says. “It was also a pleasure to work with Ray Della Pietra – he had a scrupulous eye for detail and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game.”
Giancarlo admits that, had it not been for a sharp-eyed editor, a few rogue ‘facts’ may also have appeared in the book. “I confess, we did try to trick our editor a couple of times by sticking fake facts into the book as we thought he did not know much about calcio and were getting frustrated by some of the corrections he suggested,” Giancarlo says. “Looking back, though, he had the patience of a saint really and he spotted what we naughty Italian schoolboys were up to.”
Being a journalist covering those halcyon days of Italian football would be a dream job for many of us, so it would be rude not to ask Giancarlo to share some of his most memorable moments. “Two of my favourite memories from that time are from matches I was lucky enough to attend,” he says.
One was going to Wembley to watch Italy beat England thanks to a Gianfranco Zola goal and having to hide my celebrations all the way back to my hotel room. Another was one of my first visits to the press box in Parma as a young reporter for their Cup Winners Cup semi-final with Benfica. Surrounded by colleagues from all of Italy’s top sporting publications they somehow missed which player had been sent off for the Portuguese side and one of them asked me who it was. I have never felt so relieved that I had actually been watching as I heard my information getting passed around the press box to so many major outlets.
Reminiscing about the 1990s is a regular pastime for many an Italian football fan, and plenty of people will argue that football on the Peninsula has slipped too far behind the game in England, Spain and Germany. It’s hard to think of a similar book to Giancarlo’s having the same impact in the present day, but, as the author states, a recovery may be on the horizon.
“I think there are some signs of a recovery in the Italian game with sides starting, slowly, to invest in their own stadia, make more of their ‘brand’ and trust young Italian players again,” he says. “Recent takeovers by big foreign owners – though not something I entirely welcome – could also pump much-needed money into Serie A. There is still a lot of work to be done to make the stadiums more welcoming, to cater better for fans and to ensure higher attendances at matches but there are some indications it may be on the way back. I am dubious it will ever enjoy quite the dominance it had back in the late 1980s and early 1990s but it can still get a seat back at the top table and win its fair share of continental trophies.”
Let’s hope Giancarlo is right. We have all enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, the journey!
Grazie Giancarlo for taking the time to speak to us and sharing some of your fantastic memories about the Football Italia era. For more infinite Italian football wisdom, follow Giancarlo on Twitter: @ginkers
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!’