When Ian Rush was asked to explain his failure to score goals for Juventus he replied that being in Italy was like being in a foreign country. And this rather happily summed up the attitude of at least fifty per cent of the British soccer stars who had taken the Italian plunge. In the words of Enzo Bearzot, the former Italian national team manager, Brits were notorious for ‘i fallimenti, le fughe, i litigi, le sbronze’–in other words, for reneging on contracts and for being quarrelsome and boozy. Not that liquor was a problem for Ian Rush: one of his chief gripes was that no one in Italy stocked his favourite brand of tea-biscuit.
Strange as it now seems, there are strong historical links between the football clubs of England and Italy. Genoa–the oldest Italian club–was started in 1893 by British immigrant workers and was originally called the Genoa Cricket and Athletic Club. The Italians were not allowed to join. They did turn up, though, to watch this peculiar new English game that used ‘a ball as yet unseen in Italy, pumped full of air and kicked with the feet’–and they liked what they saw. They liked it very much. Within five years an Italian League was founded, with teams from Genoa, Milan and Turin, and some promising inter-city rivalries took root.
It was not long before every self-respecting Italian town had to have its own soccer club. If you wanted to be a mayor, or just an average big-shot, you were well-advised to look to the fortunes of your local side. The League’s First Division grew so huge–at one point it had sixty-four members–that there was no chance of getting through the fixture list within a single season. In the 1910s, the structure was rationalized into something like its present shape–with promotion and relegation between small divisions– by the now-legendary Vittorio Pozzo. In 1929, Pozzo became national team manager and stayed in that post for twenty years. By the time he retired Italy was Europe’s most admired footballing nation.