The appointment of Fabio Capello as manager of the England national football team reminds me of this book, which contains some of the most intelligent writing about football I have come across.
Many of you, I'm sure, already have retorts on the tips of your tongues, such as "hardly a tough race to win" or, more simply, "so what?" It has to be admitted, even by a fan like me, that the beautiful game has not always attracted the most beautiful writing or the most incisive analysis. Moreover, maybe it doesn't deserve to do so. It is, after all, a transient phenomenon, at its best when played or watched rather than read about. And, for all the enthusiasm and interest it commands, it is profoundly unimportant.
Still, some of us do like to read about it, and we are not well served. The popular press, in Britain at least, is simplistic in its approach, to put it mildly. Even the "quality" press does not take it seriously, preferring to focus on controversy and scandal than on level-headed reportage. Football books, when they appear, tend to be ghost-written, sensationalised autobiographies, with little reflection about the wider issues in the game.
All of which made it a bit of a relief to find in the foreword to The Italian Job the following disclaimer: "This book is not an autobiography. There is no kiss-and-tell, no stories about what was said in a dressing room or on the pitch." Instead, what we are given is a informed analysis of the state of the game today - the roles of players, coaches and managers, owners, agents, fans, referees, sponsors, the footballing authorities and the media - together with some discussion of the game's interaction with society at large.
It concentrates on football in England and Italy, for the simple reason that these are the nations that the authors know best, but in doing so it loses little of its relevance, since they are also the world's two most important football markets. And, if the book's theme is to be accepted, they represent two contrasting extremes in approaches to the game. Apart from the authors' own intimate knowledge, the book draws on interviews with many of the game's leading figures and on extensive statistical research.
Given that The Italian Job is not an autobiography and has two co-authors, the fact that it is related in the first person by Gianluca Vialli may seem odd, but the device works well. Apart from having been an outstandingly successful footballer and, briefly, football manager, Vialli is a man of intellect and charm, as anyone who has heard him being interviewed will know. The experience that underlies the book is essentially his, and one suspects that it was also his personal prestige and contacts that secured the collaboration of so many high-profile interviewees in its preparation, people like Capello himself, Collina, Desailly, Eriksson, Ferguson, Lippi, Mauro, Mourinho, Platt, Poll, Taylor, Wenger and so on.
His co-author, Gabriele Marcotti, UK correspondent for Corriere dello Sport, has doubtless contributed much of the research, the organisation of the material and the professionalism of the writing, but it is essentially Vialli's book.
Incidentally, although both the authors are Italian by birth, the book is written in fluent, faultless and highly colloquial English. For style as much as for content, it is a pleasure to read.
What, then, of the content?
The authors' theme is the way in which the contrasting cultures of England and Italy have influenced the evolution of professional football in the two countries. Despite the "internationalisation" of the game in recent decades, with players and managers imbued with one culture being assimilated into the other - something of which Vialli himself is a prime example - they argue that the differences remain more salient than the similarities. In this, it is important to understand that the Italian archetype they have in mind is not the sunny, light-hearted model so dear to English holiday-makers' hearts, but something distinctly more worldly and cynical.
An example, on which much of the press coverage of the book has focussed, is the differing attitudes to "diving" - simulating having been fouled in order to gain an advantage - in the two countries. In Italy, as in many Latin countries, successful diving is considered clever by managers, players and fans alike: to be applauded in one's own side and grudgingly admired in one's opponents. In England, it is regarded as despicable: outrageous in opponents and embarrassing in one's own side, even if one is sometimes guiltily gratified by the outcome.
Is this just the result of stereotypical, old-fashioned English attitudes to fair play and sportsmanship? Yes and no, is Vialli's answer. Or rather: yes, but there's more to it than that. In his view such attitudes themselves exemplify diametrically opposed understandings of what sport is all about, beyond a shared recognition that only those with the necessary athletic aptitudes can participate at the highest level. In Italy, it's an industry, and those engaged in it compete by all means available, as they would in any other industry. Success goes to those who devise the most effective strategies and pursue them most ruthlessly. In England, he believes that, for all the commercialism now prevalent in sport, there is still an assumption that it's essentially fun and games, and that success will go to those who put in the most effort. In England, it's physical and boisterous. In Italy, it's cerebral and calculated.
The book examines how these contrasting attitudes affect all those involved in football.
~ The players ~
The book's title - The Italian Job - is not just a pun on the film of the same name, but an observation that to Italian footballers the game is a job, not just first and foremost a job, but entirely so. Vialli draws on his own experience to illustrate that those who are talent-spotted are taught from very early on - about the age of twelve - that learning to play football is to be regarded as an apprenticeship rather than a pastime. The training such youngsters undergo is professional in its nature, and the ethos is the importance of winning by whatever means are necessary.
Among those quoted in support of this thesis is José Mourinho: "You go to see the Italian Under-16 team and you can see a little Maldini running around the pitch, never smiling, just tackling and being disciplined. No tricks, he just plays to win. If he has to cheat, he cheats. If he has to kick the ball into the crowd, he kicks the ball into the crowd." The innate skills are there, and indeed are honed by sophisticated training, but the exercise of them is always subordinated to the end of securing the right result.
This helps to explain both the tactical discipline of Italian football and its somewhat joyless character. Vialli describes the introspection and intensity of Italian dressing-rooms, in contrast to the horseplay that takes place in English ones, and quotes Capello as saying "In Italy....it's almost as if we don't like being footballers." But perhaps it also helps to explain much of Italy's success in major international tournaments such as the World Cup.
~ The managers and coaches ~
Italy pioneered the coaching of coaches, and a formal coaching qualification has long (since 1958) been a prerequisite for managing a club in the Italian league. There is also a tradition of managers learning their trade in the lower leagues before taking up the reins at a major club.
In England, distinguished players, especially former captains or senior players assumed to have leadership qualities, have traditionally found it easy to be adopted as managers or coaches at major clubs with no theoretical training in the job at all. Vialli, at Chelsea, was a case in point; "like an eighteen-year-old being given the keys to a Ferrari", he quotes a commenter as saying at the time. This practice is changing, but not very quickly (note Gareth Southgate's appointment at Middlesborough this summer) and there is a widespread assumption that a player so metamorphosed will always be able to catch up with obtaining his qualifications later, as a matter of form.
The reason for this divergence in practice is, Vialli suggests, a difference in perception in the role of the manager. In England, it is assumed to be primarily a matter of leadership, of commanding respect from players who can be expected to put in more effort for a manager they admire. In Italy, it is assumed to be a matter of exercising specific skills as well as in man management. The skills are those of analysing the game, devising tactics to counteract the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of particular opponents, selecting the players best equipped to carry out those tactics and schooling them in how to do so.
In England, managers - especially foreign managers - who frequently change teamsheets and tactics are often accused of "tinkering". Surely, say the critics, they must know their best eleven and most effective pattern of play, so why don't they stick with them? In practice, there is probably a balance to be struck between confusing one's opponents with well-planned variations and confusing one's own players with excessive tinkering. Perhaps too, it is easier to elicit tactical adaptability from Italian players, who have been trained from an early age to think about the game, than from English players, who have been encouraged simply to go out and give their all.
There are many aspects of this debate that are arguable more than one way, but Vialli and Marcotti quote some impressive statistics that show the Italian approach as being the more effective. For example, they can find many examples of foreign (Spanish, Portuguese and French as well as Italian) managers winning major trophies with English teams, but only one (Sir Bobby Robson) of an English manager winning major trophies with a foreign team.
~ The Fans ~
All fans everywhere love success, and would rather support a winning team than a losing one. But in Britain there is a culture of loyalty in the face of adversity, in supporting one's team through thick and thin, irrespective of results. "Win or Lose, up the Blues" was a traditional rallying-cry at Chelsea when the latter result was at least as commonplace as the former; and I remember standing at the Shed End one dark day in the late 70s, losing at home 0-3 to Oldham, when the fans were reduced to chanting "Loyal Supporters" for want of anything positive to applaud on the pitch. Emotional involvement is paramount.
In Italy, it is accepted that fans, with the possible exception of a few die-hard 'Ultras', will become disillusioned and desert in the face of serial failure. As paying customers, it is their prerogative to withhold their custom from suppliers who disappoint. There is emotional involvement, but it is not given unconditionally.
Fans in Italy and England appreciate different things. In Italy, they applaud effectiveness and success. No one minds seeing their team grind out a 1-0 win by means of a dive-won penalty supplemented by negative tactics and time-wasting, an approach that tends to irritate even the most devoted of English supporters. In England, they applaud effort and entertainment. An inept performer will still be cheered provided he runs tirelessly and tackles bravely, as will a team that succumbs valiantly while throwing everything into attack, an approach that Italians would dismiss as naïve.
~ The Media ~
Every market ends up with the media it deserves, so we can't blame British media for the triviality of their football coverage. The focus, apart from highly dramatised accounts of the games themselves, tends to be on personalities, and especially controversy, disputes and rivalries. In serious newspapers, there is a condescending, tongue-in-cheek tone to much of this, which Vialli and Marcotti ascribe to lingering class connotations; football still being regarded, in comparison to cricket or rugby for example, as a game for the working classes.
In Italy the game has no such class connotations (and as an interesting aside, Vialli notes that a much higher proportion of Italian professionals come, as he did, from prosperous middle-class backgrounds than is the case in England), and the reportage of it in the media is much more analytical and much less sensational. There is less focus on personalities and more on statistics and tactics.
Once again, the different approaches reflect different cultures, but they also have their own effect in determining how managers and players respond to the media coverage to which they are subjected, and thereby serve to perpetuate the differences in approach.
~ Referees ~
Would it be simplistic to note that the main input on refereeing came, on the Italian side, from Pierluigi Collina, universally respected for his authority and professionalism, and on the English side from Graham Poll, sent home for an extraordinary lapse in one of last year's World Cup games?
Yes, of course, it would. Italian refereeing is certainly not without its foibles, as recent scandals have shown. It's still a telling contrast, though.
~ The business side ~
The Italian Job was published before the latest Italian match-fixing scandal surfaced, but Vialli and Marcotti anticipate it by citing earlier scandals and displaying knowledgeable unease about the way football dealings are conducted in their home country. Perhaps it is the reverse side of the more calculating, less "sporting", approach to sport, or just of a more flexible Italian understanding of business ethics generally. Far from being shocked, the Italian reaction tends to be a shrugged "what do you expect?"
Such a reaction would less likely if such a scandal were to surface in England, though English football is certainly not without its seamier aspects, particularly in relation to the role of agents and the practice of "bunging" (in effect, bribing club officials to facilitate a transfer).
The authors produce much interesting evidence (anecdotal, statistical and in the form of quotations from leading figures) on this and other controversial aspects of the game (hooliganism, for example), which enables them to draw further interesting distinctions between the two countries.
~ Conclusion ~
The thesis put forward by Vialli and Marcotti is plausible and persuasively presented. In this short review I have only been able to describe a few of its major strands. There are many other sub-themes and diversions that add to the overall interest of the book. It is not always convincing, but it is always readable and thought-provoking.
If it is not always convincing, it is in my view because the divergence that Vialli and Marcotti are at such pains to describe is already being bridged, primarily by English football adapting to methods introduced by foreign - including Italian - managers and players. Ironically, if their book has any influence in the professional game, it can only be to accelerate that convergence and nullify their thesis.
Engaging though it is to read, by the end of the book, the sense of "so what?" begins to surface. Yes, we know the two cultures are different, and the differences are entertainingly described, but beyond observing their existence and effect, Vialli and Marcotti don't manage to persuade the reader that they are of any great significance. Ultimately what shines through - perhaps, ironically again, as a result of the very intelligence with which the book is written - is the profound unimportance of football.
The Italian Job is published in the UK by Transworld Publishers, a division of Random House, ISBN 9780593055762. The hardback cover price is £17.99, the paperback edition £7.99, but you can find both cheaper on the internet.
If you're interested in football, I would definitely recommend this book to you. You'll enjoy the read. If you're not interested in football, but have somehow managed to persevere nonetheless to the end of this review, many thanks. It would be good to think that someone of your exceptional stamina might find it worth persevering with this lively, well-written book as well, and might even end up interested in football. But, if I'm honest, I doubt that it's quite that persuasive.
It would certainly be useful background reading for Fabio Capello, but I expect he's read it already. Let's hope he can bring a bit of Italian success to England.
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, August 2006
Football lies at the heart of popular culture in both England and Italy. It is played, watched, written about and talked to death by millions virtually every day of the year. But, how do the characteristics of England and Italy affect the game in these two footballing nations? Do the national stereotypes of Italians as passionate, stylish lotharios and the English as cold-hearted eccentrics still hold true when they kick a ball around? In The Italian Job, for the first time, a footballer of the first rank, Gianluca Vialli, in conjunction with sportswriter and broadcaster Gabriele Marcotti, tackles this debate head on. Uniquely positioned across both the English and the Italian games, they provide a fascinating and highly controversial commentary on where football is now and where it's headed. And they have invited some of the biggest names in the sport to join in their discussion. Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi, amongst others, add their not inconsiderable weight to the highest-profile symposium on football ever convened. Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti explore every aspect of football, be it tactical and technical or cultural and sociological. Stuffed full of controversial opinions and gripping revelations, The Italian Job takes you on a journey to the very heart of two of the world's great footballing cultures.