Long before Italian soccer dominated the world in the late 1930’s, middle 1980s, and 2000s, the Italian nation was founded in the 1860s; guided by the warrior spirit of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the wit and diplomacy of Camille Cavour, and the nationalist fervor of exiled activist Giuseppe Mazzini.
Under the hands of these men, Italy had finally become more than a geographical reference in the Mediterranean. Throughout the 19th century, Italy struggled to find an identity; arguably one mired in North-South conflicts, years of foreign occupation, and a multitude of linguistic and dialectic barriers.
Quite remarkably, many of these impediments still exist today.
In the wake of the most recently polarizing Italian elections on March 4th 2018, the fact remains that not much nation building has taken place since Garibaldi unified “Il Bel Paese” in March 1861. Although Italian “Unification day” is in the near future, it promises to be lackluster, full of controversy, and one that is venerated by a sparse number of Italians. At this point, there is no clear majority in parliament (both the Chamber of Deputies and Senate), coalitions are being hypothesized, the nation is dealing with anti-immigrant sentiment, a fleeing youth, negative birthrates, non-performing bank loans, and mountains of debt surpassing domestic GDP over 100%. There is however a uniting factor in Italy, one that expresses a formidable history on the world stage and domestically, a sport considered a pillar to Italian foundations, Calcio.
Calcio Italiano, also referred to as soccer or football, has been a great escape for many who are currently weathering the storm of political uncertainly and upheaval. The world’s most popular sport has a proven history on the Italian peninsula, winning the FIFA World Cup four times, combined with individual club championships on eleven occasions, unsurprisingly scattered through fascinating times in history. A theme that remarkably exists is the juxtaposition between the beautiful game in Italy and modern Italian politics.
Recently since Italy’s World Cup victory in 2006, Italian soccer, and politics, has been on a free fall, shattering through any gains made on the world stage. With its introduction into the European single market, providing the country with the contentious Euro currency, Italy has endured a tumultuous eighteen years (specifically in the south of the country).
Calcio has also suffered during the almost two decades since the new millennium. From winning the most prized trophy in all of sports, to being eliminated in group play in World Cups 2010 and 2014, now most recently: two club championship final losses and failing to qualify for Russia’s tournament in summer 2018. Italy certainly has a relatable contemporary soccer history to the past six unfavorable Prime Ministers, various chameleon-like-party changing politicians, and those handfuls of cities that have held power and dictated significant decisions in past decades.
Teams like Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Roma and most recently, Napoli, have dominated the top of the Serie A. Although this may sound like a highly competitive and well-balanced league, Juventus has won the scudetto six seasons out of the past ten years… in a row. There remains certain significance to this, with the Italian political spectrum in turmoil and the country finally expressing frustration in the polls, the population has spoken in dissent towards the status quo of technocrats. Arguably, this is the case within the calcio world as well.
Juventus have had their most challenging opponent, Napoli (who represent more than just the city but the entire south), battle neck and neck through the entire 2017-18 campaign. Juventus represents the prosperous north of the country, which has shown years of triumph in business growth, education, and industry, while priding itself on the defense of its rich history.
Respectfully, Juventus also boasts a phenomenal defensive record, one that is steeped historically in achievement. Napoli in comparison, demonstrates the passion, romance, sexiness, flavor, and full embodiment of calcio and how it can control your senses and overtake emotions; somewhat like the cuisine many admire globally. Napoli has had numerous pundits and coaches say they have been playing the most attractive soccer in Europe this season; and it shows.
In spite of it being sport, “modern” calcio on the Italian peninsula has suffered tremendously, just like Italian politics domestically and globally. From cheating scandals, to failing on the international stages of Europe, and most recently, the world, classy and methodical calcio has failed to modernize and keep up with the ebb and flow of the game and its development into a quicker, high pressing, attack minded ninety minutes many drool over; think Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich. Politics have amazingly kept up with the same lack of progress and de-evolution. With three technocrats running the government over the past ten years (Monti, Letta, and currently Gentiloni), these gentlemen represent status quo and complacency- one that mirrors the success of Juventus and how other teams may have attempted to get close in the past but fall conveniently short when the challenges of long season prove too daunting.
Their failures (for this scenario lets say Inter and AC Milan) resemble the crushing contemporary defeats the Partito Democratico (PD) and Forza Italia (FI), once domestic strongholds of Italian politics (and the calcio world), with eyes turning towards a more revolutionary approach and one that exudes “qualcosa di nuovo” (something new). Think, a party founded by a comedian and run by a gentleman behind the confines of a computer screen; Il Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) led by Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Caseleggio, this unique circumstance: Napoli.
Italian champions Juventus have a knack for soaking up pressure and delivering when the time is right, similar to the back room deal making, handshaking, and public outings with other European/world leaders but, on the pitch. The Juventus success model is prided upon a stout defense of northern business practices and values (the car company FIAT is a prime example); ones that tend to build confidence among other world leadership and investors that Italy will be just fine.
Well, things aren’t as elegant as its grandiose façade; the tribulations run deep and its decaying classical foundations are uprooted and chipped away when brought to a grander, more prestigious stage. In two of the past three seasons, Juventus have lost to Spanish rivals who’ve “had their number”, in the finals of the most prestigious tournament behind the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League. Losing to Real Madrid and Barcelona is comparable to Italy being shafted by Germany and France at the core of the Eurozone negotiations table; Italy are certainly on the periphery and remain competitive but can never break through and penetrate the glass ceiling set above them.
The country boasts a history rife with political corruption (Berlusconi scandals), conflicts, and challenges that hinder any progress on the continent’s governmental and bureaucratic platform. The European Union and Eurozone agenda are building steam and growing once again after navigating dangerous Greek debt, waves of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and Brexit; while Italy selects populist parties (argued by some to be Fascist) to hold a large number of seats in parliament. These very politicians wooed voters by putting “Italy First”, sound familiar?
Politics aside, calcio perhaps has revolutionized itself with the advent of a team still revering one of its biblical messiahs from nearly thirty years ago, Napoli and Maradona. ¬Napoli and M5S have intriguing contrasts; both are revolutionary in their approach to either Italian politics or calcio.
Besides their discontent for the established success of Juventus and the north in general, Napoli has implemented a system of play that is high tempo, riddled with intricate passes and movements, and boasts a potent, rather impressive scoring record. Individual players such as winger Lorenzo Insigne represent hope and guaranteed success but have been shut down by the old guard of calcio. Insigne fascinatingly personifies Italian youth under 25: itching to break out of their shell, glaring with confidence, energy and enthusiasm, yet stuck and misguided (dare I say Il Moviemento Cinque Stelle’s Luigi Di Maio?).
Arguably the most talented and creative Italian player in this decade, older and more “seasoned” coaches have seen fit to employ veterans over young talents like Insigne; therefore representing a political disconnect with the youth so many feel intensely about. This may not be the case at the domestic level where Insigne thrives and performs admirably but, more so the struggling Nazionale, recently guided by obsolete leadership that bowed out of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup by losing to a clearly weaker adversary on paper in Sweden. These archaic ways of coaching and guiding a country are clearly the unchanged political agendas of contemporary Italian politics, until now.
By redesigning antiquated Italian politics and Calcio Italiano with revolutionary digital political platforms, fresh faces, and innovative agendas and practices, Italy is at a crossroads of its future. What truly is the unifying factor Garibaldi, Cavour, and Mazzini struggled to glue together? Can Italian politics and calcio embody new-fangled Italian values that pride itself on youth, proper investment and upward mobility rather than status quo, corruption, prehistoric tactics, and complacency? By electing a hung parliament currently trying to piece together a government, Italy has once again shown its divisive, contentious colors and they aren’t the ones of champions in black, white, blue, or red.