The blue and black stripes of Inter, the black and white of Juventus, the pale blue of Napoli and Sampdoria’s iconic blue with horizontal red, white and black bands across the midriff. What beautiful jerseys. Luckily, in the late 1980s and early 1990s – many would argue the high-point for Italian football kits – I had them all. Christmas visits were much anticipated when your aunt played professional football in Italy (one-club loyalty was clearly not a top priority for my 10-year-old self). Looking back, these then exotic strips and their mysterious sponsors – Buitoni and Fitgar were my personal favourites – were the starting point for my love of Italian football, or calcio, as the game is known on the Peninsula.
Sometimes it’s a special player, someone who can change the game in an instant with a moment of magic; sometimes it’s a special match, a last-minute winning goal when, half an hour earlier, your team were two goals behind; sometimes it’s a special tournament, memories of warm summer evenings, running home from the school bus to catch the Colombia v Cameroon kick-off. There are many ways folk fall in love with the beautiful game. Of course, Italian football is not always beautiful. Whole books have been written about calcio’s problems, from match fixing to bribery, from drug scandals to extreme violence at stadiums. However, it has also provided magical teams such as the Grande Torino, unforgettable moments like Maradona delivering Napoli’s first Scudetto in 1987 and, quite possibly, the most iconic international tournament of all time, World Cup Italia 90′.
Reminiscing about my own earliest memories of Italian football made me want to find out what led fellow calcio lovers to be drawn in.
Chris Lee, editor of the Outside Write blog, cites the dazzling skills of a quite brilliant Frenchman as the spark that ignited his passion. “My favourite player growing up was Michel Platini,” Chris says. “Although I have never liked Juventus, I did love the mid-80s French team that won the 1984 European Championships and should have got to the World Cup final of either ’82 or ’86. I learned the names of Italian clubs through my obsessive scanning of the Mexico ’86 Panini sticker album, which I completed (and still have).”
In the late 1980s, with Serie A hosting world class stars such as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Lothar Matthaus, the magic of Italian football was reaching as far afield as Trinidad and Tobago, the home of long-term calcio enthusiast Vijay Rahaman. “At the time, we had just one TV station, TTT (Trinidad and Tobago Television),” Vijay explains. “They showed Serie A, which, at the time, was the best football league in the world. I was around five/six years old when I started following sports and my heart just took to calcio.”
A video tape entitled ‘110 Goals Italia Style’ marked the beginning of James Evans’ calcio journey (a quick search on Amazon reveals this gem can be bought for £9.99). If repeated watching of 110 goals hadn’t fully piqued James’ calcio curiosity in 1989, a birthday present he received a year later had him hooked completely. “In 1990, for my 15th birthday, I was presented with Simon Inglis’ excellent book ‘The Football Grounds of Europe’, which described in great detail the stadia selected for the forthcoming World Cup, to be held in Italy,” James recalls fondly. “Serie A, evidently, was where it was at, and I bought into it completely.”
“What was it that drew me in?” For James it was a multitude of factors. “Could it have been the Brutalist modernism of Milan’s San Siro, or the Bauhaus-like geometry of the Comunale Luigi Ferraris in Genoa? Maybe the quality of the football itself: a walloped volley into the top corner from Ramon Diaz; Maradona’s left-footed free kicks, reliably curled beyond the goalkeeper’s reach; Roberto Baggio’s mazy runs. Or was it the football kits, manufactured by firms I’d never even heard of: Ennerre, Errea, ABM, Kappa? Yes, I think it might really have been those shirts; the deep purple of Fiorentina, the maroon of Torino, and the away shirt of Internazionale with its band of alternating blue and black rhomboids wrapped around the jersey’s trunk, and the sponsor’s name – biscuit manufacturer Misura – printed over the top.”
Quite simply, Italia ’90 was cool
For so many non-Italian fans of football on the Peninsula, the World Cup in 1990 was the catalyst for the calcio love affair. What made this World Cup so special and why is it still widely revered as one of the most influential tournaments of all time? Statisticians will tell you the action on the park didn’t back up the tournament’s cult status. Only 115 goals were scored in 52 games – an average of 2.2 goals per match – providing the impetus for the back-pass rule’s introduction by FIFA two years later. Both semi-finals (including the hosts’ agonising defeat by Argentina) were decided by penalty shoot-outs, while a single penalty, converted by Andreas Brehme, was all that separated the victorious West Germans from Argentina in the final at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
So, why all the fuss? Quite simply, Italia ’90 was cool. The stadiums, the music, the mascot (who couldn’t love Ciao?), the heroes and villains, the logos, the merchandise (the famous Coca-Cola mini football) – it was the beginning of a new era for football. People were fascinated by the stadiums in particular, with Milan’s San Siro, Genoa’s Luigi Ferraris and Bari’s San Nicola arguably the stand-out venues.
To this day, Stephen Graham loves reflecting on the Notti Magiche and sent in a picture of his pre- tournament bible – Orbis’ ‘World Cup ’90 The Complete Collection’. “I remember digesting every page,” Stephen says. “This is the only World Cup which I remember everything about – from where each game was played to how long Thomas Skuhravy’s mullet was. It was just an amazing time and something I just don’t get tired of talking or reading about.”
Although on study leave during the summer of 1990, Simon Smith had more important things on his mind than exams. “I managed to watch the whole tournament from start to finish, pretty much not missing a match,” he says. “I remember the excitement of seeing the San Siro for the opening game between Argentina and Cameroon on that June afternoon and instantly being in awe of the stadium and the theatre of the tournament. Seeing matches every day from Naples, Rome, Florence and Genoa was just incredible.” Although more than generous in his sharing of Italia ’90 memories, Simon didn’t offer any comment on his 1990 exams results.
Trinidad and Tobago narrowly missed out on a place at Italia ’90 (falling at the final hurdle to the USA) but Vijay Rahaman had no problems finding a team to adopt for the World Cup. “Like many, my love for Serie A translated to the international game and I became a supporter of Gli Azzurri at Italia ’90,” he says. “I did not miss a game and I was sure they were going to win. Unfortunately, as we know, they lost to Argentina in a penalty shoot-out. Three things stuck out for me from that tournament: Roberto Baggio, Toto Schillaci and Walter Zenga’s mistake in the semi-final when he came off his line to meet a cross he was never going to get to. Since then, my love for Serie A and Italian football has just grown.”
Steve Halliwell took things to a whole different level, however. Steve had an Italia ’90 car! To celebrate their home World Cup, Italian car manufacturer FIAT produced a limited-edition Italia ’90 Fiat Panda. Complete with Ciao logos on the seats, Italian tricolore trim and football hubcaps, the Italia ’90 Panda was a football enthusiast’s ultimate show-off item. Unfortunately, Steve’s two daughters weren’t football enthusiasts, it would seem. “Both teenage daughters were always cringing when being picked up or dropped off at school to the point of getting out hundreds of yards outside the gates, even in the rain,” he recalls. Although gaining full marks in aesthetics, Steve remembers the Panda’s start-up process being anything but graceful. “You had to know when to use the choke to coax the 750cc sewing machine-esque engine into life; car-jackers wouldn’t have stood a chance with it,” he says. “With the inefficient brakes and troublesome choke, my daughters never did learn to drive in Panda but they did come to appreciate the vehicle for all its quirkiness.
“After 16 years and requiring extensive welding and brake repairs, and the fact that we needed a bigger car, Italia Panda was eventually purchased by a young female from Scotland after seeing my advert on eBay. One Sunday morning it was towed north over the border never to be heard of again.”
Are you the young female from Scotland? If so, how is Italia ’90 Panda getting on now?
The Gazzetta generation
Two years on from Italia 90, Wayne Edge recalls Parma lifting the Coppa Italia in their distinctive gialloblu kit. “I fell in love with this seemingly far away league, its players and its style” Wayne says. “The stadiums were incredible and the fans’ support was unlike English support.” In the early 90s, Wayne’s calcio diet was restricted to books and magazines. This was soon to change, however, with the arrival on UK screens of one of the most iconic sports programmes in history. “When Gazzetta Football Italia came along it allowed me to see regularly what I could only read about – this was huge for me,” he says. “To this day, James Richardson is a hero of mine for being the host of the programme and being part of my love affair with Italy as a country, the culture, and especially calcio. Being a Juventus supporter I was able to see Trapattoni’s team in the amazing Danone home kit week after week with Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli.”
Although mesmerised by the skills of Michel Platini in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the introduction of James Richardson’s Saturday morning Channel 4 show and Sunday’s live match action that Chris Lee became fully engrossed with Italian football. “It seemed so exotic, so different, and we already knew, thanks chiefly to Milan and Inter in Europe – that Italian clubs were the best,” he said. “I opted for Fiorentina due to the kit, the art deco stadium, Rui Costa galloping effortlessly down the left (most underrated player in history, anyone?) and – of course – Batistuta upfront.” As Chris highlights, prior to the introduction of Gazzetta Football Italia – brought about by Paul Gascoigne’s move to Lazio in 1992 – many UK-based Italian football fans knew about the success of the Milan clubs and Juventus. However, Richardson and his team enlightened newcomers to the goings on at clubs like Parma, Fiorentina, Foggia and Cremonese (complete with their red and grey striped shirts). To most football followers, ‘Super Sunday’ is synonymous with SKY Sport’s weekly English Premiership extravaganza, but for me the term will always be more suited to watching Bryan Roy racing down the wing at Foggia’s Stadio Pino Zaccheria.
Everything stops for calcio
When it comes to dissecting football, there are few countries that analyse and break the game down the way it is deconstructed in Italy. Hours of television coverage is devoted to analysing offside and penalty decisions. One show is even called ‘il Processo’ (the trial), putting the referee and his assistants ‘in the dock’ for their behaviour at the weekend. Similar ‘trials’ are conducted in bars up and down the country at great volume and length. It was during a family holiday to Positano, from his home in the USA, that Scott M Callahan discovered the special place reserved for calcio in an Italian’s daily routine.
“I was in Positano with my family staying at a hotel where the owner told us that dinner would resume after Italy played and that everything in town would stop for the game,” Scott recalls. Luckily for Scott, the owner stayed true to his word and he witnessed a moment that has lived long in the memory. The match in question was the Euro 2000 semi-final between Italy and the Netherlands. Scott’s ‘moment’ arrived when Francesco Totti stepped up to take Italy’s third spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out. “I watched the King of Rome chip Van der Sar and that cucchiaio was it for me,” he says. “I began watching Roma, following each game to see Totti create art with his feet. I loved how he created, I loved how he adapted, I loved how he played the beautiful game. For some, it was Ronaldo’s finishing and step-overs, for others it was Maldini’s sliding tackles or Buffon’s one-handed saves. But for me, it was the loyalty Totti showed to the shirt and how he bled giallorossi.”
‘Order and decorum has evaporated’
As a football fan, there are few greater highs than arriving at a new stadium for the first time. The tops of the stands appear above apartment blocks, the street vendors increase in volume along with fan displays and the buzz of anticipation. You may be lucky enough to be attending a midweek game under the magic of the football floodlight. For Rob Francis, the first live match-day experience in Italy arrived in Bergamo in 2006. “I am standing in the rain. There is no cover. It’s a Saturday in April, and at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia there’s a scrum around the ticket office. All order and decorum has evaporated, now there are just lots of bodies in a scrum around a tiny window behind which an old lady is taking money (cash only!) and handing over tickets. There’s a big game tonight – Atalanta are playing local rivals Brescia. Whoever wins will be almost certain of getting promoted to Serie A. But this is far from fist class organisation. Welcome to Italy!”
Rob’s adventure continued when he finally got hold of a ticket. “My ticket eventually acquired, I stand on one of two crumbling terraces behind the goals and watch Atalanta see off Brescia 2-0. After the game, hordes of scooters head off into the Bergamo night, a buzzing that rings in the ears for at least an hour. The overwhelming sentiment – experienced since then at many other stadia across Italy – is how much this means to the local populace, not just the ultras, but to ‘normal fans’ male and female, the old guys who’ve been going since the 60s, and the kids who are learning to watch football in real life rather than on TV.”
It’s been a pleasure to share folks’ calcio memories, and special mention has to go to Steve Halliwell and his Italia ’90 Panda. Hopefully, however, this is just part one. If the above nostalgia has set you off on your own trip down memory lane, let’s hear from you. Did you delay your traditional Sunday roast so you could watch Beppe Signori find the top corner once again? Or maybe you preferred a Gianluca Pagliuca ‘camera’ save? Perhaps you also had an Italian football themed car? Let’s get the pallone rolling on part two.
Words by Martin Dunlop: @Dunlop85
Grazie to everyone who shared their memories and passion