Watching a football match in Italy, you would never guess that this country might win the World Cup on Sunday. Often the dilapidated stadium is half-empty and many of those who do turn up throw firecrackers, chant racist abuse or speculate whether the match was fixed. Just before or after Sunday’s Italy-France final in Berlin, a sports tribunal in Rome is expected to decide whether four leading Italian clubs systematically influenced referees.
A lawyer for Juventus, Italy’s most popular club, says a punitive relegation to the second division would be “acceptable”.
Even a world championship cannot cure Italian football, let alone Italian society. Football rarely changes anything. But it can be a lens on society. Many of Italian football’s problems are the problems of Italy.
Twenty years ago the Italian game was beautiful. The world’s best footballers, playing on sunny Sunday afternoons in stadiums as peaceful as family restaurants, drew Europe’s largest crowds: an average of nearly 40,000 a game in the mid-1980s. Last season’s figure was just over half that, decimated by problems in the stadiums and the league’s predictability: nowadays the big clubs almost always win. Italy’s increasingly chubby children began deserting football for wrestling or the cult of the motorcyclist Valentino Rossi. Italy’s stricken clubs now owe the state hundreds of millions of euros.
This spring it emerged that the league was possibly as crooked as conspiracy theorists had imagined. Italians who had spent their lives studying Gazzetta dello Sport in bars felt deceived. The calciopoli (football corruption) scandal echoes the political tangentopoli (bribes) scandal of the early 1990s and recent business scandals led by the food group Parmalat. Three new books on Italian football* – by Paddy Agnew, John Foot and Birgit Schönau – make the connections. “Italian football is a cynical world,” wrote the British historian Mr Foot even before calciopoli, “where fair play is rare and often actually frowned upon…This is not the fault of the current crop of players, managers or presidents, but the historical and cultural product of a world-view that permeates Italian institutions of all kinds.”
Amid Italy’s corruption and divisions, the national team was often a consolation, a symbol of excellence. Mr Agnew cites the “cliché” that “Italians only really assume a national identity when the Azzurri (blues) line up”. The most-watched television programme in Italian history was the country’s victory in the 1982 World Cup final. This weekend national flags hang from many windows. Yet even the Azzurri could not always unify. When Italy met Argentina in impoverished Naples at the 1990 World Cup, some Neapolitans supported the Argentina of their hero Diego Maradona, rather than the Italy that, said Maradona, treated them “like dirt”. Later, writes Mr Foot, “leaders of the regionalist Northern Leagues declared hostility to the national team, saying they would back any team against them”.
Silvio Berlusconi became another divisive force. In 1994 he became prime minister with a party called Forza Italia (Go Italy), his attempt to borrow the team’s aura. The fact that Mr Berlusconi was voted out of office in April makes it easier for some leftwingers to support Italy on Sunday. If he is unlucky, his club, AC Milan, will be relegated by the tribunal on the day his rival Romano Prodi, the prime minister, may see Italy crowned world champions in Berlin.
Many marvel at the team’s ability to perform in spite of the scandal. Most play for the clubs threatened with relegation. Yet their excellent performances are unsurprising. These professionals ignore outside influences. Like football teams before them, they use external threats to build team spirit. Italy’s last world championship, in 1982, likewise followed a betting scandal. Their hero that summer, Paolo Rossi, finished serving his two-year suspension only just before the tournament.
When a country wins a World Cup, its politicians often pontificate that if the nation can unite like the team, all problems will be solved. “The day 25m Argentinians aim for the same goal, Argentina will be a winner a thousand times over,” Martinez de Hoy, the country’s finance minister, said after Argentina’s victory in 1978. When France triumphed with a multi-racial team 20 years later, politicians said this would help integration. In fact a World Cup fades like a dream. Argentina’s economic slide continued. France’s banlieues rioted last autumn, their inhabitants’ lives unchanged by football victories.
But a World Cup does build the sense of nation. Those flag-waving millions are enacting modern Europe’s main ritual of nationhood. The Cup encourages the Italians and French to consider themselves Italians and French rather than European. It thus damages the European Union. And in Italy, this tournament has confirmed the national ability to muddle through regardless of scandals.
* Forza Italia: A Journey in Search of Italy and its Football, Paddy Agnew, Ebury Press; Calcio: A History of Italian Football, John Foot, Fourth Estate; Calcio: Die Italiener und ihr Fussball, Birgit Schönau, Kiepenheuer & Witsch
The writer is an FT sports columnist