Sport Italia: the Italian Love Affair with Sport

Sport Italia: the Italian Love Affair with Sport
Simon Martin
I B Tauris, 320pp, £22.50

On 17 June 1970, Italy's football team beat West Germany 4-3 in the World Cup semi-final. "In the 32 to 33 minutes between Schnellinger's goal and the end of . . . extra time, Italians discovered the nation," wrote the sociologist Nando dalla Chiesa. "Where was the conflict between fathers and sons, friends and friends, colleagues and colleagues, the middle class and workers? It would certainly be back . . . But later." That night millions of Italians, many of them waving tricolours, danced in the streets. The journalist Arrigo Benedetti observed: "At last it seemed that Italians felt authorised not to be sorry for, or even not to be ashamed of being born in this country."

Nowhere outside Italy does sport have such political salience. As Simon Martin recounts in this admirably thorough history, Italian leaders from Mussolini to Berlusconi have tried to use it to unite a fractured country. And yet the author also shows how Italian sport is the story of Italy's fractures.

John Foot's doorstopper Calcio: a History of Italian Football (2006) was a fine pioneering study, but Italian sport has mostly been neglected by academics. It has also by and large been neglected by the Italian left, always quick to dismiss sport as the new opium of the proletariat. To quote the Milanese socialist weekly La Battaglia Socialista in 1921: "'Healthy in mind, healthy in body' - everybody agrees. But 'sport' in the healthy body too often creates the brain of an imbecile." The Italian right - usually more astute about nationalism and popular pleasures - gave sport more respect. Mussolini, the "first sportsman", was often photographed skiing, fencing, swimming, preferably topless. Martin describes the "thin, formally dressed" Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss arriving in 1933 for a summit at the beach at Ostia, where Il Duce greeted him "dressed only in a pair of swimming trunks".

The Italian dictator realised that sport could be a short cut to national virility, especially for a people then self-conscious about their lack of both height and military triumphs. Often he conflated sportsmen with fascism's "new man". "Men that get a belly are certainly not the Fascist 'model'," he cautioned, though people who live in glass houses etc . . .

Mussolini saw sport as a route to worldwide glory and certainly a more reliable route than invading Abyssinia. He got lucky with his football team: in the 1930s Italy won two World Cups and one Olympic gold medal. With the help of sport, he tried to create Italy - not only when it played against other countries but every Sunday at home. In 1929, the Fascists set up a national football league, the Serie A, which still survives, despite unceasing scandal.

True, the league encourages conflict between cities: the Milanese against the Romans or the Turinese. Arguments about Juventus's past match-fixing have prompted scuffles in parliament. But the league also gave Italians a shared conversation, in the official national language, promoted throughout the land by the growing sports press. The Gazzetta dello Sport cheered Mussolini on. After his lynching it was offered for sale to the Socialist Party but, typically, the left said no. "The Church was wiser," Martin writes, "and the archbishopric of Milan snapped up the paper and its mass readership in 1945." Only in Italy.

Gazzetta is still thriving. As Foot wrote, in 1993, when Berlusconi decided to enter politics, his advisers concluded "that the only language that unites Italians was that to do with football". They had few other shared myths. Britons can fall back on the Second World War; Italians spent much of it fighting one another.

And so Berlusconi named his party Forza Italia after a football chant, announced his entry into politics by saying he was "taking the field" and promised to "make Italy like Milan", the football club that his money had turned into the European champion. Soccer helped make him Italy's most enduring ruler since Musso­lini. His only piece of bad luck was that in 2006, during his brief stint out of power, Italy won the World Cup.

“National sporting achievements . . . have provided Italy with some of its most solid moments of unity," Martin concludes. Yet his book is also a litany of Italian divisions. Even the national team has sometimes provoked sulking from the northern separatist Lega Nord party. At times it has preferred to play home matches outside the north. Before Italy's showdown with Slovakia at the last World Cup, the Lega's leader, Umberto Bossi, carped: "The national team? You'll see, they will get through the group because they will buy the match." As the daily newspaper Il Messaggero noted, Bossi's comment perfectly captured his view of Italy "in football as in life". In the event, he was wrong - Italy lost.

In this nation that isn't quite a nation, sport is seldom just sport. Martin's prose is sometimes stodgy, but he has written an important social history from an unexpected angle. It rightly suggests that the histories of other countries could be told through sport.

Simon Kuper's latest book is "The Football Men: Up Close With the Giants of the Modern Game" (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain