Monday, April 16, 2007

Book Review: Italia Calcio

In this review I shall briefly consider three books about Italian football; all three books are written by men who came to Italy from other countries to observe the game with foreign eyes, and the three men stayed in Italy for various lengths of time. All three books are readily available to American readers, and despite some flaws, all are worthy of the attention of fans of football.

Te oldest of the three books is The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro by noted American author Joe McGinniss. Miracle is about how McGinniss falls in love with soccer following the 1994 World Cup and then becomes entranced by the story of the team from the tiny town of Castel di Sangro, a town so small that its football team really should only be playing in a league like the Italian C2. (For American readers, think, say, single-A minor league baseball.) However, through talent, luck, and sheer determination, the Castel di Sangro team, through the promotion and relegation system used the world over, rises all the way to Series B, one step from Series A, the highest in Italy and one of the best in the world. That this little team rose so far is the miracle of the book’s title, and thus McGinniss spends a year in the town chronicling how the club will do when playing the big boys.

Much of the book is very appealing; McGinniss paints a vivid picture of football life in Italy, and especially the lives of the players, who he clearly comes to adore. He also does a fine job of describing just how important football is in Italy, and how the tiny town comes to a stop whenever the teams play. By the end of the book you feel as if you are part of the small town, and you too want to root for Castel di Sangro. (Unfortunately, in the years since, the squad has been relegated back to a lower level.)

However, much of the book grates. McGinniss paints pictures of some of the residents of the town that can only be little more than caricatures. The older woman who feeds the team, for instance, is described as the stereotypical Italian mother found in every movie ever made about Italians; every woman is as sensuous as a heroine from a Fellini film, and the team’s owner, while no doubt a Mafioso, is described as a poor-man’s impersonation of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. At times these stereotypes are so blatant that they lead the reader to think, for just a moment, that the author was never really there; that he found all of characters in the cinema.

The end of the book is quite well known to football fans. McGinniss discovers that the team he has grown to love has thrown a game at the behest of their owner. McGinniss’ moral indignation at his former running buddies is hard to understate, and it is painful to realize how long McGinniss has integrated himself in this culture while failing completely to understand it. Still, the book is of great interest in the details, both small and large, and the theme of corruption is one that will return again in the other two books under consideration and also in the world of Italian football at large.

Tobias Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy almost does not qualify for this review at all, since it is not really a book about football. (It has one chapter exclusively on the beautiful game, while other chapters mention the author’s burdgening obsession.) The book concerns the author’s decision to move to Italy and his ponderances of the fascinating people who make up his everyday world.

Dark Heart of Italy is full of Jones’ nuanced observations of the character of Italians. On one hand, he notes that a kinder, warmer, gentler people cannot be found anywhere; but he also notes that these same people have embraced radical and violent forms of fascism and communism, and have also led the way in moments of obscene football violence. Jones argues that this is a result of the nature of modern Italian society, where unjust actions occur every day. Jones points out (as it is well known) that the big shots of Italy can do anything without repercussions. It is as if justice simply does not apply to them. But the saddest and most damming stories are of how little effect the concept of justice has in the everyday world, where people commit crimes daily, be it pick-pocketing or tax evasion, without consequence because the powers that be care not to stop them. That turns Italy into a deeply flawed country, one epitomized by AC Milan owner (as well as sometimes-Prime Minister) Silvio Berlusconi, a suave politician and almost certainly a crook. This corruption is also epitomized by the Italian people, argues Jones, who are glorious as individuals, but as a collective country seem content to let their country go strait to hell.

Jones also believes this has repercussions on the football field, where he notes that certain clubs seem to frequently get breaks from referees that other clubs simply don’t. The fact that he essentially predicted the Moggiopoly scandal in print years before it happened is impressive enough; the fact that he used the scandals as a metaphor for all that is wrong with beautiful Italy makes the book required reading for fans of Italian soccer.

The most recent book considered (and the best overall view of Italian soccer) is Paddy Agnew’s Forza Italia: A Journey in Search of Italy and its Football. This book would be of interest even without the football connection. After years of serving as an editor for an Irish newspaper, Agnew and his wife decided to pull up stakes and move to Italy to start over, even though they could not speak the language and knew no one in the country. Remarkably, Agnew became a noted Italian football journalist and raised a small family living near Rome.

There are many interesting little vignettes in the book, including Agnew’s interactions with greats like Diego Maradona and Liam Brady. There is a fascinating chapter on hooligan violence (which eerily presages many of the awful events in Italy this year) a thought-provoking piece on then-Lazio coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, and a justly admired mini-biography of Ettore Gandini, who, Moonlight Graham-like (for you Field of Dreams fans out there) played all of seven minutes in Series A.

This book ends, however, as Jones did, in tales of corruption. Here Agnew specifically tells the tale of Juventus, how they illegally drugged-up their players, and how rumors abounded that they cheated to win games. Agnew was proved right only a few months later, but this book can just be added to the pile of three very different but very interesting books. Taken together, they collectively suggest that as beautiful as Italian football is, it can never match the sheer ugliness of what can happen off the pitch.

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