By Paddy Agnew
Ebury Press, 2007
June 2006 was a strange old month for Italy. As the Azzurri silenced their critics with a World Cup final win, their domestic game was brought to its knees by one of the biggest corruption scandals in football history. For resident reporter Paddy Agnew, this duality was neither new nor surprising; in fact, it formed the perfect conclusion to his update of this book. After all, June 2006 was the ultimate demonstration of Forza Italia’s overarching narrative: the conflicting elements within the national sport, and thus the nation. The ‘cynical skill, occasional artistry, careful organisation and inspired coaching behind the World Cup win in Germany’ at odds with the ‘duplicity, cunning, and attempted cheating that characterised Calciopoli’. Here lies the fascination of Italy.
It is with good reason that Forza Italia promotes football (calcio) as a ‘unique looking glass’ through which to examine Italy. The founding years of Serie A is the story of Mussolini and his legacy; the Maradona soap opera highlights the central, shadowy role of the Mafia; and the AC Milan glory years of Van Basten, Gullit, Maldini and Baresi help to explain Berlusconi’s controversial rise to power. Even the ‘deadly, upmarketedly serious’ reporting surrounding Sven-Göran Eriksson and his resignation from Lazio reflects a media culture that is (perhaps at times too) happy for the private to stay private. Each story presented reaffirms the fact that the two cannot be separated; ‘football is not so much Italy’s national sport as a virus woven into the DNA of the average Italian’. And the negative connotations of that word ‘virus’ often prove apt. Corruption, racism, sexism, cronyism and economic decline – all are present and correct in this well-curated sweep of a sport and a country. Yet thankfully Agnew remains a good-natured tour guide, full of open-eyed affection for the eccentric ways of his adopted homeland.
In the world of non-fiction writing, tone is always a tricky but crucial balancing act. Too personal and it becomes light-hearted travel writing; too political and it becomes weighty history. Agnew is clearly aware of these dangers; in his introduction, he rejects the notion of ‘an academic or sociological survey of Italian football’, calling Forza Italia instead ‘a personal reflection on 20 years of football-watching’. Well it is and it isn’t. Alongside the football, the early chapters cover his acclimatisation in Rome and subsequent relocation to the village of Trevignano, offering up the kind of quirky sketches found in Tim Parks’ writings on Verona. Agnew presents a country where it takes six weeks to bank a cheque but there’s a hierarchy of experts (espertos) in the local bar – ‘This was football, a serious business, and seats had to booked.’ A country where a wily rural builder called Bruno can buy ancient Roman steps for the price of ‘300,000 old lire, plus 20 fish.’
But as the book approaches the 21stcentury, these musings on Italian life fade away, replaced by an account of Italian football’s fall from grace, scandal by vicious scandal. We see its reputation tarnished by doping allegations, match-fixing, fan violence and the bribery of match and league officials. By 2006, Agnew explains, Italian football ‘like Italy itself, is stuck in a moment and does not know how to get out of it’. The detail in these chapters is impressive, the analysis insightful but on these subjects Forza Italia cannot, and should not, compete with John Foot’s nearly 700-page definitive history Calcio, unfortunately published in the same year. It’s the charm of Agnew’s own story that makes Forza Italia particularly compelling. With this in mind, perhaps its spirit would have been better served by a collection of articles, each passing from personal observations, through football, to address a larger, Italian issue.
As it is, sadly the football also gets lost amidst the minutiae of corruption. It comes as something of a shock to find the brilliantly pithy statement ‘Italian football…is different because, along with skill comes caution’ in the coda to the penultimate chapter, after lengthy discussions of everything but the beautiful game itself. Agnew’s nostalgia for the glamour of the late 1980s and early 1990s – a time when ‘the game’s subtle skills commanded respect and knowledgeable admiration and where you could watch football in some style’ – is reflected in the early impassioned portraits of Liam Brady and Maradona. But after the commendable defence of Pippo Inzaghi in Chapter 6, very few players are given more than cursory name checks. Totti, Del Piero, Ronaldo, Zidane? Unfortunately only mentioned with regards to their roles in scandal. Please excuse the cliché, but Forza Italia really is a book of two halves.