Football

Italian magic is too much for England

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Pirlo is a different class. (©GettyImages)
Pirlo is a different class. (©GettyImages).

So its Italy v England, an event the sporting gods have gifted us only on rare occasion.

Whilst Italians consider the “classic” encounters to be with their equals in World Cup glory, Germany and Brazil, the contest with the inventors of the game is always cherished.

For myself, Sunday is a can't-move event in the agenda. Whilst a proud Scot, I've always maintained a special relationship with the Fratelli d’Italia in the blue for various family and football reasons.

In the days of my childhood, live football on TV was rare, and the big international games offered always the excitement of the new, and unexpected. Remember seeing the exotic yellow of Brazil in grainy images, and having to learn the names of the players as you went along? How good is that guy Gerson?

Now, they all play here in Europe, and as in many things in life, the age of innocence has passed. Says the guy with a full set of Esso coins for the 70 World Cup!

In my experience, people develop interests and passions normally by chance, like when you hear Bowie’s Life on Mars for the first time. So in 1976, by the chance of them playing England, I remember seeing my first glimpse of Giancarlo Antognoni playing in a game ultimately dominated by Franco Causio.

But I was used to great wingers, having seen a few special ones play in Glasgow! Antognoni, was to me the one a bit different. I was hooked to that type of player. I met him later, and as often happens, wasn't that impressed by the man.

But he introduced to me, and epitomised, a brand of football I still love. Different to the current Spanish variation on the passing theme, Italy doesn't do possession just for the sake of it. They realise that the opposition side

is at its weakest when they lose the ball, and 3 or 4 quick passes at that point puts you in. But you need vision. And great technique.

Stir for 90 minutes, add copious amounts of class and ruthlessness, and there you have it.

Italy beat England that night to secure qualification for the World Cup held two years later in Argentina. They dominated the same England side that had beaten Scotland 5-1 a year before on a sunny day at Wembley.

Beattie, Bell, Keegan, Channon - a great generation of English talent, that would fail to qualify for two World Cups.

And then you look at their side today. The extraordinary marketing success of the Premier League aside, are we sure that English football has gone forward? Its almost 50 years since a British team reached a final.

Antognoni comes from the Tuscan region of Italy, where I had spent many summers as a child in the family home in the hills above Lucca. I had noticed even in the games with the locals at 12 that the admired skills in football in Barga were not those I knew from the playing fields of Paisley.

Nobody punted or headed the ball, and few ran with the ball. You kept your head high and you passed into space. The ball seldom lost contact with the grass. Antognoni had on several occasions refused offers to leave his beloved Fiorentina for the medals and riches of the North. He never did, and he is to this day a hero in Florence.

He won little in the viola shirt, but to see him that day in Barcelona in 1982, inspiring Italy to victory over Brazil, in the greatest game I think there ever was, is his footballing legacy. Champion of the world, beating Brazil, Argentina and Germany on the way.

And since him, Ive enjoyed this bluest of footballing bloodlines, continued by "il principe" Giuseppe Giannini, and the majestic Andrea Pirlo, I have continued my love for that version of football played in Italy; elegant, head-high, and feet kissed by God.

The central midfield "regista" is its deeper lying version, or No. 10 in the advanced role of Rivera, Baggio, Mancini, Zola, Totti. Here they call it merely “talento”.

Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, and often overly pragmatic, but in many ways hypnotic to see how the school of Italian football embraces both Chiellini and Pirlo without embarrassment. And how defenders are given often the highest respect of all. Scirea, Baresi, Maldini, Nesta.

I don't expect what I would selfishly consider philistines to ever appreciate the italian “calciatore”, branded lazily by them as defensive and cynical. I've reached an age where I don't even try to debate it. I dont care. I mean, I continually meet people in the UK, and even Manchester, who don't realise just how splendid a player was Roberto Mancini.

They say he wears his scarf well, and is a good manager. They never saw him play. Mancini was Kenny Dalglish. With a better haircut.

In the land of Machiavelli, it is very surprising that Italy have significantly underachieved in meeting their objectives over the years, mainly as a consequence of that unfathomable and masochistic mentality of considering 1-0 as sufficient.

Seldom do Italy start a game in defence. As Spain saw, Italy can outplay and out-pass the lot of them. When it suits. But they often finish the match scrambling to hold a lead in games that could easily have been killed. Its a flaw, a weakness. It's been costly, especially when, as the stand-out side in Italia 90.

But it's like Michelangelo being marked down for having his unpleasant and condescending demeanor! Who cares, look at the work. Oh I forget, six world cup finals and four titles are in there somewhere as well.

Anyway, we all have our passions. And Sunday will be special. Whilst the loss of Chiellini is a major blow, I fully expect Italy to win comfortably on Sunday.

This English side, the worst, truly, that I can ever remember, has no-one like Pirlo, or even De Rossi. And Lescott, I suspect, will be fully exposed.

But the Italians respect England, for a quality they don't have. Never say die. A lesson last taught in Istanbul when Liverpool overcame Milan from 3-0. Gerrard was there. So was Pirlo.

Jotting down these thoughts, on the top theatre and its finest actors on the world stage, is in stark juxtaposition to the parochial detritus offered without mercy by the Scottish scene these days.

Whilst we all must admit to some element of schadenfreude, it's chilling to observe how the body football in Scotland is reduced to a undignified car-boot sale, and vote-buying from the latest opportunist. Some in Celtic strips.

As someone wiser than me once said: The greatest gift a man has is to know when to leave the scene. Few have it. As someone who resigned after having 10 out of 12 members support him, I truly find it tough to understand Campbell, particularly in this moment.

Ive known him as an honourable man, to quote Mark Anthony. But both as a recipient of an EBT himself, and as the club’s long-standing and respected representative in charge of player contract registration, does he really think he shouldn't take responsibility, even if he was oblivious?

Maybe I'm wrong! I'm still asked for comment on events back home. I usually decline. As I am aware to not be “simpatico” to many there.

But I was asked recently how people overseas would react if Rangers are merely let back into the SPL without commensurate punishment. It's difficult to not reply without sounding disrespectful. But the sad fact is that outside Scotland, no-one cares. Even in England.

Shame, when you consider the standing of Scottish football in the late sixties thru to the generation of Souness, Hansen and Archibald.

One last thought though: The Italian national side is built almost exclusively on the current Juventus team, like in 1982. A Juventus crowned Champions this year after a Dantesque purgatory of 6 years following demotion to the lower leagues for corruption. (A constant in Italy).

They have concentrated on doing their time, feeding on the energy generated from the siege mentality they created, nurturing Italian talent, regaining respect, and rebuilding the old Juve style of Gianni Agnelli and Platini.

There is a lesson in there for someone.

Roger Mitchell is the ex-CEO of the Scottish Premier League, and former TV journalist for Sky Sports on Italian Football in the early 90s.

Topics:
Internationals
Football
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