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

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.