09 December 2011

Football culture


There is no question whatsoever that football is Italy’s national obsession. Unlike the other countries covered by this blog, in Italy no other sport comes anywhere close to football both in terms of popularity, passion and impact on national culture.

And so, for instance, you find that rugby may be growing in popularity a bit (especially in the North-East of the country), volleyball is probably more widely played than anywhere else in Western Europe, and cycling is also quite an institution around the Alps.

None of them, however, can compete with football, not even one bit.

To start with, Italy boasts three daily newspapers almost exclusively dedicated to football (all other sports are relegated to the back pages). The most famous of all is La Gazzetta dello Sport, a paper traditionally printed on pink paper and a true national icon.

Within days of visiting Italy, you’ll clock that 99.9% of all bars in the country will have a fine selection of local newspapers freely available for their customers to peruse while sipping on coffee and stuffing their gob with a croissant – and La Gazzetta dello Sport is no doubt the most popular rag on display.
Alien to most Northern Europeans, you find that many Italians will keenly support one of the big three teams (Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan) as well as their local team. This means that many easily support two teams, i.e. Atalanta (from Bergamo) and AC Milan or Palermo as well as Juventus and so on, without finding this remotely unusual.

However, the exception to this rule are supporters hailing from other big cities, meaning that most Romans will offer their allegiance exclusively to either AS Rome or Lazio, Neapolitans solely to Napoli, and so on.

Italian football is definitely a source of national pride as it’s probably (with food and maybe fashion) the only area where Italy has consistently featured at the top of international tables.

Even the big match-fixing scandal of 2006 did little to tarnish the Italians’ love for the game, something you’d also notice straightaway from watching the country’s telly, especially if you consider the sheer amount of programmes obsessively dedicated to the dissection of everything calcio-related.

Again, whereas programmes like Match of the Day in the UK or Estudio Estadio in Spain will concentrate on highlights and a bit of commentary or what they call “analysis”, Italian football programmes will split hairs for hours about whether “that really was a penalty” or whether AC Milan should stick to a 4-4-2 formation rather than a 4-3-3 and so on.

This also translates into the way football features in everyday chinwags at work. You’ll marvel at the way workmates can spend hours passionately arguing over everything related to their team’s last Serie A game.

On to less pleasant levels, with such passion also comes an enormous amount of football-related violence, with the Italian ultras enjoying some seriously crap reputation around Europe. The number of casualties from crowd disturbances at Serie A games can easily compete with pre-1990s levels of football violence in the UK.

Unlike the UK, however, the national team hardly attract unsavoury elements as most Italian ultras are unable to put their differences aside when it comes to international football, meaning that neanderthalistic shite remains the sole preserve of club football.

Estadio San Mames, Bilbao

The Spaniards too are absolutely obsessed with football. In common with Italy, the country is host to a number of daily newspapers exclusively dedicated to “el futbol”. The most popular ones are Marca, Mundo Deportivo and AS and, unlike Italy or anywhere else, each of them will unequivocally throw their weight behind one of the big teams.

Walk into any Spanish bar and the counter will present you with a nice selection of football dailies to flick through while having breakfast.

The most important feature of Spanish football is the mental rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now, I’d known since I was a kid that the two kind of hated each other, but you won’t be able to appreciate the sheer depth of their mutual hatred until you move to the country and observe the way the whole thing unravels.

The Barca vs Real Madrid enmity runs way deeper than football, as there are tons of unresolved political, linguistic and nationalistic issues at stake. Even in the old days of the Franco dictatorship, for instance, supporting Barca was seen as the only way of pissing off the fascist regime and so on. The club’s slogan Mes Que un Club (Catalan for “More than just a club”) is indication of how much Barca matters to the whole issue of Catalan pride as well as local and linguistic identity.

Far from subsiding, the issue has actually flared up in recent years, with the mutual suspicion between Catalans and Madridistas translating into pure hatred each time the two clubs are pitched together. From pig's heads chucked at Luis Figo for betraying Barça in favour of Madrid to the recent antics of the attention-seeking prick going by the name of Jose Mourinho, the eternal rivalry is guaranteed to generate debates up and down the country.

As for the rest of Spain, you find that almost everyone supports either Barcelona or Real Madrid – in most cases as well as their local teams – meaning that, for example, it’s not uncommon to chat with someone who’d tell you they support both Barca and Sporting Gijon, or Oviedo and Real Madrid, and so on.

In spite of the sheer hatred, the fact that there’s very little physical violence each time the two big teams play goes to show how peaceful Spanish people are on the whole.

On to another point, recent years have seen the Spanish national team achieving unprecedented levels of success (think of the double Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010) and the buzz surrounding la Roja each time they play is actually quite a joy to behold.

Less so, of course, in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, with demonstrations often taking place in town squares declaring that, for instance “Spain is not our national team”, each time they play. The irony, of course, being that the backbone of Barca FC is also that of Spain (think of players like Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Villa, Pique and so on).

Football aside, Spain is also incredibly successful at a wealth of other sports. The last five years have seen Spanish sportsmen triumphing practically everywhere from tennis (Rafa Nadal) to Formula one (Fernando Alonso) and from basketball (which is probably Spain’s second most popular sport) to cycling (with five out of the last six Tours de France won by a Spaniard).

Basically talk about sport with any taxi driver, people in bars or anyone in Spain and you’ll be guaranteed some serious small talk. A word of warning though: don’t expect any knowledge whatsoever of non-Spanish teams, or sportsmen, or anything happening outside Spanish soil. They really are totally Spain-centred.


Football is integral to English culture. Completely. Watching the Premier League or the FA Cup being shown on big screens in pubs is probably more English a notion than 5 o’clock tea or other trite stereotypes.

The English are also incredibly passionate about it, reaching levels that can easily give their Mediterranean counterparts a run for their money. If you haven’t yet, try and go to any Premier League or First Division game at some point in your life. You won’t forget the atmosphere, the enthusiasm as well as the excellent grounds up and down the country.

Across the whole of the UK though, you will also find that rugby features firmly as the country’s second most popular sport. In fact, most Welsh will actually tell you that rugby is their no.1 national treasure.

Third comes the soporific thing known as “cricket”, though in England that’s mostly (not all, I said mostly) the preserve of middle class and posh people and, like Marmite, people either love it or hate it. I absolutely fucking detest it and I think it should be banned for boring people to fuck.

Back to football and the buzz it causes in England, I am actually surprised that no multi-millionaire ever decided to set up a dedicated daily paper in the style of Italy, Spain or France. However, that may be explained by the gigantic football sections that populate the back pages of newspapers and, especially, tabloids.

And while football programmes on the telly are consistently more demure than in Spain and (especially) in Italy, the frenzy that surrounds Premier League players in terms of gossip is absolutely totally nuts.

This escalated particularly from the mid-90s on, a combination of the Premier League turning into a money-generating monster and the advent of David Beckham. Add the hysterical tabloids to the equation and you can understand why most people in England seem so terribly bothered by the amount of women shagged by the likes of Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney or Teddy Sheringham, Gazza Gascoigne and various others a generation ago.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to understand that for the tabloids all of the above presents yet more reasons to print more pictures of tits and more outraged headlines.

I maintain, this exists in a scale unimaginable in other countries. Sure, you’ll find that Spanish magazines may focus too on Iker Casillas’ celebrity girlfriend presenter, the Italians may be quite intrigued by AS Roma’s Francesco Totti marrying a television starlet, and the Germans are bemused by Lothar Matthäus’ penchant for young girls and so on.

Nevertheless, that is but a fragment of the daily hullabaloo caused each time one of England’s overpaid Premier League superstars arches an eyebrow or punches a bloke in a pub brawl (Steve Gerrard, anyone?).

The list of Premier League superstars caught red handed having affairs, or done for speeding, or grassed by prozzas, or breaking someone’s jaw would be enough material to write a whole encyclopedia. If anything, you can probably count on one hand those who have not been shamed committing a whole range of sins from drug-related to gambling to, mainly, sticking their knob in places they shouldn’t.

It does make you wonder whether Premier League stars are either worse-behaved than their counterparts elsewhere, or whether such is the media hysteria surrounding them that every single one of their misdemeanors is bound to be exposed within seconds.

Also very peculiar is the jingoistic (and often xenophobic) highs hit by the country each time a World Cup or international football is played.

Again, this self-inflicted sense of victimhood and feeling “under siege” is impossible to grasp anywhere else.

From constant WWII references to anything offensive that can be thrown about and used for a cheap headline, the country’s tabloids love egging people on against whichever team are pitched against England.

And let’s not even start on the countless tabloids’ stories about “people not allowed to fly the flag of St George”, or “young mothers refused entry on buses because they’re wearing the England top” and similar stuff. All – invariably – lies, and all in line with the above mention victim-like right-wing mentality that fuels the country’s tabloid press with clockwork regularity.

this is not always innocent. Witness the riots and public disturbances that followed, for instance, England’s defeat at Euro 96, partly explained by the goading at the hand of certain tabloids and their campaigns of jingoistic hostility. One case in particular really shows the depths plunged by certain UK press.

After England’s controversial Euro 2004 exit against Portugal, the Sun unleashed a hate campaign against Swiss referee Urs Meier. "Urs hole" and "idiot ref", the tabloid headlined, showing a remarkable display of finesse and then asking readers to "let rip" and send him emails.

This was followed over the weekend by false reports in the Daily Mail and the Sun, revealing that Mr Meier had left his wife for referee Nicole Petignat. The papers published details of where he lived and worked.
The Sun followed this up by sticking a huge St George flag outside his home in northern Switzerland. By then Mr Meier had already closed his office and left his home.

When the number of death threats reached intolerable levels, putting his family at direct danger, Mr Meier had no option but to throw in the towel. "Going after my family, digging into my private life - that's totally unacceptable", said the ref as he explained why he quit, "I'm not afraid for my own life, but I am afraid of what might happen to my loved ones."

One final word about that very English combo of booze and football. Just prior to each Euro or World Cup the British press invariably report business tycoons rubbing their hands as they get ready to cash up. Were it not for its deeply irritating undertones, the extent to which big booze/lager conglomerates are behind the marketing of the whole event would be an interesting phenomenon to analyse.

Indeed, when it's World Cup or European Championship time, 9 TV ads out of 10 are football related and each pub sports 10-ft-high banners trying to haul you in to shell your wages on Carslberg because…the connection is quite hard to pin down…that would turn you into a true “footie” buff - and a patriot, lest we forget.

A population of obsessive drinkers brainwashed into knocking back even more alcohol while they absorb images of Eng-er-land at the World Cup. Some of the ads are especially pathetic: “YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU”…the old war-time rhetoric: Britain needs you, coz football is a war, and the populace must support it by handing over as much money as they can to the Carlsbergs and Carlings of this world.


Football is also of huge importance in Germany. After all, the country’s national team are amongst the most successful in football history as they regularly reach at least the semi-finals every time there’s a major tournament.

Formula One, however, is probably a potential contender for “number one” national sport, a fact certainly helped by the major success enjoyed in the last fifteen years by both Michael Schumacher and, more recently, Sebastian Vettel. Other sports more popular than in England, Spain and Italy are handball and hockey.

Back to football, Germans will generally tend to place their allegiance with their local team. One thing you’ll find in common with most non-Bavarian Germans is the sheer aversion for the country’s most successful club, Bayern Munich, often detested on the grounds of their arrogance and the perceived rivalry between the Bavarians’ and the rest of the country.

The latter, perhaps, almost as difficult (though nowhere near as fucked up) as the relationship between England and Scotland or Spain and Catalonia.

As for passion, Germany isn’t the most peaceful of places. This is especially true in certain grounds in the former DDR, some of which can really feel like a shite throwback from 1970s football neanderthalism. And so bananas chucked on the pitch and various other medieval practices can still be witnessed on a regular basis (i.e. Hansa Rostock).

Germany is also home to one of the very few “alternative” sets of organised supporters in Europe. St Pauli, one of Hamburg’s two major teams, are known as the only team supported by punks, anarchists, feminists, hippies and various other people you wouldn’t normally associate with football terraces (interesting link here, courtesy of The Celtic Network).

On to another level, many German fans will strike you for their incredible knowledge of foreign and international football. This will feel even more impressive if you’ve just come in from Spain, a land where so many struggle to name a single non-Spanish team or player and remarks like “Manchester Utd are from London” will make you piss yourself with striking regularity.

Well, not in Germany. The way so many people can spell out Premier League, Liga or Serie A facts will blow you away. Quite in line with the outward-looking bunch that most 21st century Germans tend to be.

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