Sport Italia – Simon Martin
Italian football is currently at crossroads. Having slipped down in the UEFA rankings in recent years, Italian football has lost its sheen of last two and half decades – a world cup win changed little in the way the game is run. However, it is not just Italian football which is at crisis – the entire nation faces challenges in multiple fields. Italy, which possesses one of the most unstable political systems among developed nations, is on the brink of bankruptcy. Under such circumstances Simon Martin’s “Sport Italia” is a timely and very significant publication. It speaks at lengths about Italian football, but it is not just about football. It takes a holistic view at the deeply rooted relationship between Italian society and sports – it talks about Italy.
Sport Italia takes a look at some of the most important and landmark moments in history of Italian sports and unravels the close relationship sport has with society and politics. The book takes a chronological look at Italian sports starting with systematic development of professional sports in mid 19th century to the first decade of 21st century.
Simon Martin opens the book with one of the most interesting chapters from the entire content. Titled as the Italian Factory, the opening chapter traces formation of modern Italy in late 19th century, the industrial boom experienced by Italy in second half of 19th century and how the working class became more and more involved with sports. Italy experienced a sharp growth rate of 2.8% per annum between 1896 and 1913, one of the highest in the world. The expansion of railways and motorcycle industries enabled a large number of Italians to commute to southern beaches and as the author puts it “…Italians discovered the beach”.
The modern version of football spread in Italy around the same time. Unsurprisingly like most other countries, it was the British soldiers who played a big part in popularizing the game. Encouraged by the soldiers, the Italians as well as members from neighbouring Switzerland and Austria took up the game. Intriguingly, there is a small connection between the spread of football in India and Italy. The British soldiers who stopped in Italy were actually travelling to and from India.
A romantic, though improbable notion can come out from this. Perhaps some of those British soldiers who inspired the “father of Indian football” Nagendraprasad Sarbadichari to take up the game also inspired the spread of football in Italy. The oldest football club in India, Mohun Bagan was set-up in 1889 while Genoa CFC, the Italian counterpart came up in 1893, around the same period. Gymnastics was the only “mass sports” in Italy at that time and gymnastics societies across the country played an important role in poularizing the game. Along with Genoa, the gym clubs from Turin, Udine and Ferrara took part in some of the earliest football tournaments in Italy.
Beside football Martin also talks at length about another national passion for Italy – cycling. There are multiple mentions and little anecdotes about the famous Giro D’Italia race. At a time when other sports were in their nascent stages, it was cycling that captured mass appeal in Italy with a massive 500,000 fans turning up in Turin for the final leg of the 1909 version. Martin draws out a fascinating section about Alfonsina Strada, the first woman to complete the 204 kilometer Giro D’Italia in 1924. Strada’s popularity rose to dizzy heights during the race, so much that race director Armando Cougnet personally took care of her hotel bills and accommodation. Strada finished the race 28 hours after the winner but still won hearts of thousands of Italians.
Any mention of cycling in the peninsula will be of course incomplete without the mention of Marco Pantani’s tragic but intriguing story. Winner of the Giro D’Italia in 1999, Pantani quickly rose to the top of his sport and became the toast of the nation. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi had a close association with Pantani, once again highlighting the close knit friendship between politics and sport in the country. Pantani’s fall was as fast and dramatic as his rise with doping allegations eventually ending his career. He was found dead in a hotel room in Rimini in 2004. Despite the tragic end Pantani remains a modern day sporting icon for Italy.
Martin outlines the deeply embedded relationship between Italian sports an politics in multiple places of the book – from Napoli owner Achille Lauro leveraging his investments in the club to keeping himself in power as the mayor of Naples to immensely popular ex-President Sandro Pertini who “became everyone’s grand dad” during the 1982 world cup. The chapter titled “ Political footballs in Berlusconia” traces the rise of one Italy’s most powerful man in last three decades. Berlusconi’s rise to power by systematic use of his media empire and AC Milan’s success seems all the more relevant in the light of his recent fall from grace.
In 1944, 42° Corpo dei Vigili del Fuoco della Spezia captured the Alta Italia Championship, while not considered as an official Scudetto Spezia did beat the likes of Torino (managed by Vittorio Pozzo and boasting Silvio Piola in its rank) to lift the title. In the final league match against Torino the Spezia coach fielded an extra defender between the last defender and goalkeeper – the earliest known case of Catenaccio. A very impressive feature of Sport Italia is the unending procession of colourful characters and incidents like these, that mirror the erratic Italian society to perfection.
Martin effortlessly talks about sportspersons from different backgrounds. Be it Primo Carnera, the first and only Italian boxer to hold the heavyweight title, who was initially projected as a poster boy and a prime example of Italian physical supremacy by the Mussolini regiment but discarded unceremoniously later after losing to a black opponent just before Il Duce launched his Abyssinia campaign. Or Trebisonda Valla, the first Italian woman to win a gold medal in Olympics and whose achievements in 1936 Berlin Games curiously didn’t find a mention in CONI’s official report. Another extremely intriguing section describes Perugia midfielder Paolo Sollier who was part of one of Italy’s most important far left revolutionary groups and had a clause in his contract to give out two free season tickets to “Daily Worker” newspaper for every goal he scores. Sport Italia is filled with scores of such small but absorbing anecdotes which adds another dimension to Martin’s serious research work.
Sport Italia is a must read if you are a fan of Italian football or Italy, as a country interests you. It also highlights the relationship sports has with social, political and economic conditions of a country. Simon Martin’s tone is neutral throughout the book and he rarely takes sides with a particular club or person. His language is crisp and a good sense of proportion ensures that the chapters never feel repetitive or “dragging”. This book is not just about football or sports; it is about a country where genius and chaos reigns side by side.
Simon Martin has also authored Football & Facism : The National Game under Mussolini