It is fitting that the Nations League match between Italy and England will air on Channel 4 in the UK, as that is where the love affair with Calcio began on these isles back in 1992 and British players are at last returning to Serie A, writes Susy Campanale.
Rumour has it that Roma striker Tammy Abraham and Milan defender Fikayo Tomori will feature tonight against the players they know so well from their time in the Peninsula. Tomori has been a revelation for the Scudetto winners, while Abraham broke the record for most goals scored by an English player in a single Serie A season.
The cliché was that English players don’t travel well generally, but especially not in Italy, the land of tactics and technique compared to Spain’s joyful attacking bent and England’s non-stop physicality. Fortunately, we have moved beyond such limited views and see the results of cross-pollination of the sport in the improvement of all aspects of everyone’s game.
Among the major reasons for Channel 4 to purchase the rights to show Serie A in 1992 was the arrival of Paul Gascoigne at Lazio, the striker whose unpredictable antics both on and off the field made him pure box office. He wasn’t the only one, though, as David Platt and Des Walker were also playing in Italy at the time.
This was before the TV rights deals transformed the football landscape, as back then Italy was still the best league in the world, the richest and most successful, where all players wanted to test themselves out. It was also the only way football fans in the UK could watch live games for free on terrestrial television, as the Sky revolution was underway.
The nostalgia that many British fans still have for those shows is heart-warming, as it just takes the opening bars of the Football Italia theme song to get them giddy as schoolchildren even 30 years on. James Richardson brought a new style of presenting to sports broadcasting in this country, all cheeky puns, daft sketches with players and going through the headlines of exotic newspapers next to an ice cream big enough to feed an entire squad. Who can forget Attilio Lombardo doing the Lambada? He’ll be on the bench next to Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli as a member of his coaching staff at Molineux and still looks exactly the same 30 years on.
For first, second, third and more generation Italians in the UK, this programming was a gift from the Gods, we got to watch Calcio live every weekend and our football was treated as cool, even shedding that dreaded Catenaccio image, even though for some bizarre reason it continues to exist in some minds. It’s particularly ironic now, of course, with Roberto Mancini using attacking full-backs, midfielders and wingers, while Gareth Southgate’s tactics are so negative they’d make Fabio Capello proud.
If the EURO 2020 tournament didn’t do it, then perhaps this Nations League match can help change a few more British minds on what Italian football is about nowadays. Fresh young faces are coming through, hardly any of them who were at the European Championship last summer, and they bring that most crucial element that the Nazionale has always needed to succeed – being the underdogs. It’s not a major tournament, of course, and the pressure is, therefore very different, which hopefully ought to make for a more open and entertaining match.