The World Cup started on Thursday, but for the English and the Italians it began on Saturday night. I always enjoy a bit of friendly rivalry before a match. This photograph, “Italy v England Spot the Difference” currently doing the rounds on the internet, supposedly highlights the cultural and sporting differences between the two sides.
|The FA/Getty Images-Tullio M. Puglia, Getty Images
Grey, orderly figures in poorly fitted, cheap suits, standardised haircuts, disciplined but conformist and lacking individuality versus Italy’s elegance, sunglassed cool, Pirlo’s retro 70s style chic, creative and louche but maybe an excessive amount of individualism for a national side? Italy’s coach Prandelli reportedly said that none of the English players would make his squad. Fighting talk, (except he was expressing more a contentment with his own team rather than a slight against the English players) but maybe he was talking about the style stakes?
Despite my traditional pessimism before the match, I was in the square at midnight Rome time ready for the torture to begin. Except that it didn’t. After five minutes, I (along with the Italians I was with) thought that England had scored. I was jubilant. They were despondent. As Russell Brand tweeted, “Let’s not get too excited but Sterling is the new Maradona”. Could it be true?
No, it wasn’t a goal. But at least a very near miss. Surely it was a fluke? But then it continued. This England team were attacking, passing a ball and looking like they had come with a purpose. However, the Italians know this passing game too well to be overawed by young pups giving it a good go. My Italian friends said their team were ‘troppo macchinosi’, too intricate, not direct enough. Isn’t that how the Italians play? I asked. For England who traditionally struggle to keep possession, this type of play seems like a miracle to us. Maybe not high speed end-to-end action, but enviable and impressive nevertheless.
Italians become more Italian when watching the football. I thought I was depressive watching England play, but this is something else. Why make one comment when you can repeat it, each time more loudly to whoever has the misfortune to be listening. The manager has organised the team badly, the formation is all wrong, the defence is weak, they are too slow, they gave England too much space, Balotelli as the lone striker has no support and is lazy, he is arrogant and they didn’t like his hair. A man of extremes, Balotelli is not universally liked. Except when he is. There were an array of people wearing his shirt and as many who were extremely critical. But then he scored and all was suddenly forgotten.
Despite all the angst of course, a victory for Italy. A draw would have rewarded a braver, more enjoyable English performance than I have seen in a long time. England could and should build on this glorious defeat. I went home happy. The Italians might complain, but perhaps their standards are too high? Italy play well in tournaments. Italy were, and are the better, more quality side. The first match won, cue singing, dancing and flag waving in the piazza. One rather miserable American (overheard in response to the horns blaring through the streets) complained, “Shut the fuck up! You’ve only won one game, not the whole World Cup!” Killjoy. Doesn’t he know, this is Italy and you can never bet against them?