Just mention two words to me and they will never fail in making me instantaneously beam and conjure up flashbacks of childhood. Two simple but incredibly efficacious words, “Football Italia”. From 1992 – 2002 Channel 4 had the greatest show on earth (joint with Eurogoals). Sundays had taken on a whole new dimension. You can stick your church, watching Garbriel Batistuta, Javier Zanetti, (Real) Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Ruben Sosa, Rui Costa, Beppe Signori and the gazillions of other class acts became my religion. It was worth wishing my life away waiting for Sunday. From checking the TV Times when it came through the door during the week to see if we were heading to Lecce, Cremona, Bergamo or Foggia in a few days’ time, to the main event on a Sunday, Football Italia never failed to give me a shot of much appreciated fitba induced fervour. Before the ninety minutes of joy that a Sunday afternoon would deliver, Saturday morning came, and we were treated to the antipasti. The warm-up act as it were. Complete highlights of the previous weekends action with a café, espressos and newspapers thrown in for good measure. This was of course the fantastic Gazzetta with James Richardson and his trusty pink La Gazzetta dello Sporto. Saturdays were no use without the double header of Transworld Sport proceeded by Gazzetta. Sublime viewing that has never been equalled since these halcyon days. Twenty-six long hours later it was the main event, taking a pew for Sunday afternoons offerings. Stadiums or “stadios” like San Siro, Bentegodi, Friulli, Tardini or Luigi Ferraris or wherever the game of the day was being hosted always made me wish I was in Italy. It was alien to me but in the best way possible. “Golazzo” or the incorrect “Gol accio” the titles proclaimed or even “Go Lazio” as others misheard it. Whenever it was yelled it never grew old.
This great, much loved and equally pined for institution on Channel 4 hit the screens in the same season as Sky started the ball rolling with the Premiership down south. Who knew in 1992 that this would turn out to be the obscene, overhyped, sordid, rapacious rubbish it is today? Serie A was better then, and Serie A is better now and that’s without forcefeeding viewers self proclaimed promulgation at every opportunity. In an age where foreign fitba on terrestrial telly consisted of occasional European games, World Cups and European Championships, this concept of weekly exotic fitba was marvellous, and we all have Paul Gascoigne to thank for it with his transfer to Lazio. We can also thank him for being rubbish and a liability in front of the bright lights and camera. What was Gazzas loss was fitba fans up and down the lands gain. Enter James and of course his pink paper. We were introduced to one of the best pundits the world has ever known. If ever there was a role for JR it was this role. He was three-parts knowledge, one-part witticism and one-part cool as fuck. However, the quality did not stop at him. Arguably one of the greatest fitba voices joined him on a Sunday. The late great Peter Brackley. A true star of the commentating world. In fact, great doesn’t do that guy near enough justice. The man was one of my favourite commentators over the years (along with Ian Darke) . His sidekicks weren’t too shabby either, with Joe “Meeeeeeelan” Jordan and the also sadly missed Ray Wilkins being the top second men ahead of the likes of Paul Elliot, Luther Blisset and Don Howe. Then there were the stadiums complete with the flares, the capo with the megaphone and the electric atmospheres generally. Then there were the bombs going off, or so my young child brain thought, or in real terms the bangers, the bloody bangers that would sometimes catch you off guard. There was the commentary box informing us of the nicknames, I Rossoneri, I Nerazzurri, I Biancocelest, I Giallorossi, La Viola which all turned out to be just colours but they sounded far more glamorous than The Dons, The Dee, The Pars, The Saints ever did. There was the unmistakeable gleaming head and abominable glare of Pierluigi Colina and the players with the prayer hands trying to stop the inevitable booking or talking to. The devious air bookings to get their opponents in hot water always struck as shitehousery but this was a different world. Another important detail, Lotto Stadios were well and truly on display every game. This leading to me having a couple of pairs during my own fitba career(Legendary footwear for the record). Then the actual fitba. I reeled off a heap earlier but the quality players on show was never ending, Hernan Crespo, Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Bucci, Alessandro Costacurta, Moreno Torricelli, Abel Balbo, Dino Baggio, Pietro Vierchowood, Ivan Zamorano, Alessandro Nesta, Nicola Berti, George Weah. That’s just the first names to come to mind in a few seconds. The football was ace, it eclipsed anything I had ever seen. The elegance, the flair, and the best players on earth doing battle when fitba still had a soul. But there was also the skulduggery that Italians have honed to perfection. What more could you want? As much as I loved supporting Aberdeen and heading to Pittodrie it was different game completely. From the extraordinary, skill and style laden greatness brought to us by Channel Four, I can’t shower enough glory or superlatives on it. It was just bloody sensational.
I have written about the lifelong love affair with Dutch fitba recently, well as you may be able to tell the Italian game is right up there in changing the way I viewed the sport as a loon. Serie A was home to every superstar in the world at the time, due to a bit of one up man ship by rich owners desperate to land the Scudetto and I worshipped it. I can’t say I worship it these days as it was childhood exuberance that made me fanatical in yesteryear, but it is one of three countries fitba I follow with great interest these days. Calcio along with the Netherlands , and obviously all elements of the Scottish game float my boat. Although it has been part of my life since the day I started watching, it is not as intertwined as the Dutch is with my life but it is not far off.
As with The Netherlands things have morphed somewhat as I have gotten older and gained more freedom. However in the beginning ,early Sunday afternoons for parts of the 90s were almost ritualistic. A normal Sunday would see me play in the morning have my lunch then go for a kick about in the “railway park” with my cousin. When I say kick about, I really mean, I was in goals and he rifled shots at me for two hours. But it was great. From there we would head back for kick off at my Grandmas house, pour a glass of Bon Accord Cola and sit and watch the fitba on the box marveling at what was unfolding. The phone ringing towards the evening was always commonplace, with my mum on the other end telling me that my tea was ready. Didn’t she know? Or was she just doing it to annoy me? To be fair though the conversation usually ended with “ok I’ll keep it warm” . At full time I would sprint around the corner to my house gutted that school was approaching but more so that I had to wait a week until the next instalment. Would it be Pavel Nedved, Faustino Asprilla, Paolo Negro, Roberto Mancini or Enrico Chiesa next week. I’ll say it again, Sundays were tremendous.
Being young I had to pick a team like most kids do and that was Parma. The reason being Luca Bucci. Although being a centre half as a player I always had a thing for keepers, and he was the man in my eyes. Fast, a bit erratic, committed and for a short guy could get about his goal. Looking back, he was unlucky to not be capped more, but it was a golden age for Italian keepers with Gianluca Pagliuca, Luca Marchegiani, Francesco Toldo, Walter Zenga, Angelo Peruzzi and many more kicking about during his career. Italy is renowned for defending but has another country ever had such a golden era for men between the sticks? Although Parma were “my team”, I still wanted all teams to do well in Europe. Getting Sky at the house allowed me to gain more access as Eurosport used to show European games. I always wanted the Italians to win no matter who the opponent, barring Ajax, (see Inane Ramblings #8.) There was also one other occasion I had an aversion to an Italian side in Europe………….
After my first ever experience of live European fitba around a month earlier, a comfortable 4-0 victory over Valur of Iceland and 7-0 on aggregate. The Dons came out the hat to face Turins famous old club, Il Toro, La Granata or Torino FC to give them their real name. A undoubtedly valiant effort in Piedmont, losing 3-2 left the fans in good spirit for the second leg. This coming after being in dreamland when up 2-0 in twenty four minutes through Mixu Paatelianen and Eoin Jess. A wee collapse saw the hosts take the lead and the win with two minutes to go at Stadio Delle Alpi but there were many positives to take. With two away goals the Dons would have surely fancied their chances at a rocking Pittodrie. What a night it was too. With being in the Merkland Road End with my Dad and brother we were very close to the Torino fans housed in the Main Stand. I still say they are the best fans I have seen in Aberdeen to this day. Chanting as opposed to singing was new to me in my fledgling live football career. It was intimidating to my nine year old self. A megaphone was hoped for, I was not left disappointed by the travelling Italians on that front. Home and away fans were swapping scarves, something that was entirely uncharted to me. The crash of light up in my eye line when a flare was thrown on the pitch right in front of us was something to behold. I still remember the waft of burning potassium to this day. I have seen plenty now but this was the inaugural event and one I have never forgotten. This match also brought my first ever sight of a pitch invader who was after the refs blood until Paul Kane wiped him out. The game was exciting viewing and as any Dons fan knows Lee Richardson gave us hope when howitzered home a thunderscorcher early door to put us in the lead overall. Unfortunately though, Benito Carbone was excellent and had a hand in both Torino goals (Fortunato and Silenzi). This taking the tie to 5-3 which inevitable led to the Italians doing what they know best. Shutting up shop. The Euro dream was over for the season but that Torino support was an eye opener and in later years I find myself going back to that night in my head. I irrefutable see that night as a catalyst for my football sojourns these days.
The end of that season saw a Scotland free USA ’94 . Diana Ross made a raging arse of her opening ceremony antics, but as the tournament wore on she was not the only one. My picks for the tournament Italy (unsurprisingly enough) got off to a rotten start when Glaswegian Ray Houghton inspired a Republic of Ireland win at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. But it was a mere blip. Norway were sent packing 1-0 again at Giants Stadium , this despite the loss of Pagliuca to a red card early doors. A 1-1 draw with Mexico in Washington was enough to see the Azzuri through to the last sixteen versus Nigeria. The African nation were dispatched 2-1 with a Roberto Baggio extra time winner in Foxborough. 2-1 again was the score as was the destination of Foxboroughs Foxboro Stadium for the quarter final with European counterparts Spain. The win coming after Dino and Roberto Baggio were on target. After watching Bulgaria beat Germany in the quarters(possibly my favourite WC game of all time) I thought Italy might struggle but that man again, talisman Roberto Baggio was on hand with a double to sink the eastern Europeans booking an Italian influx into Pasadena against the mighty Brazil. I remember being in the park playing World Cuppy with my mates and arguing who was going to win. I was the only Azzuri backer. Same goes with my brother, there were a few arguments with him on the topic too. As it turned out I was full of shite and should have listened to everyone. After a dour 120 minutes, the man of the tournament Baggio, as we all know stuck his penalty into the Exosphere leaving Tafferel, Romario, Bebeto and co dancing around the Rose Bowl pitch as the Divine Ponytail clearly wished the Californian ground would swallow him.
The fascination continued with Football Italia in the coming years, watching the Scudetto staying in the north, to-ing and fro-ing between the heavyweights of Juventus and AC Milan (three and two respectively) .My favourite seasons however was at the start of the new millennium when Sven Goran Eriksson led a superb Lazio, stacked full of superstars like Nesta, Pancaro, Veron, Salas, Mihaijlovic, Mancini to their first title since 1974. This coming on the final day with a win over Reggina while Juventus went down 1-0 to Perugia in bizarre circumstances. A freak storm hit the Perugia area only holding up proceedings for eighty two minutes. This while the rest of Italy was basking in summer sunshine. This meant Juve had to play out their game knowing they had to win or they would lose the title. This going on while the Lazio players and fans sat and waited jitterily in the Olimpico glued to their transistors. Alessandro Calorie made sure the title was heading to the capital for the first time since 1983 when Lazios eternal enemy Roma secured the Scudetto. That season was good and the following was just as enjoyable when a Gabriel Batistuta inspired Roma kept the league trophy in Rome for a second consecutive season. Again this was a close run affair going to the final day again where Juventus this time could do nothing about losing out. With Roma comfortably beating Parma at home 3-1 with goals from Totti, Montella and Batistuta (how is that for a strike force),the Bianconeris defeat of Atalanta was in the end futile. One moment that still sticks out to this day involves my favourite foreign player ever Batistuta . When he inevitably scored against old side Fiorentina. He didn’t celebrate it but instead ran to the Viola fans who he looked to apologise to. It was rumoured at the time he was telling them he was sold against his will . It was for the better as he succeeded in winning his only Serie A title in his career. Something he most likely would not have done in Florence. Did I enjoy these early millennial seasons more as it was different names being etched on the trophy. Was it because I had watched either AC Milan or Juventus snaffle up every title between them for the preceding seven years? Possibly. It was a shame it was not Parma.
Italian football also brought some superb moments on the eye. Far too many to note infact. But there are a few that stick out. The best place to start is with George Weah . A sunny San Siro, Sunday 8th September,1996. Verona have a corner, the cross in is over hit and evades a cluster of sixteen players in the box. For some reason the forward is strangely positioned, marking nobody and as good as in no man’s land. The ball is taken down perfectly and gracefully by Liberian legend Weah’s right foot at the far side of the eighteen yarder. With that delightful touch he is immediately on his way striding like a gazelle starting his one man rampage. He made to halfway where skipped through two simultaneous challenges in the centre circle while throwing a little pirouette into the equation , he knocked the ball one side of the next on coming defender while nipping round the other side. Forty yards are between him and goal, he reaches the box, looks up and with defenders closing he slots past keeper with thirteen yards to spare. The African had scaled the pitch in sixteen seconds and scored one of the greatest goals of all time. I still remember turning to my cousin and asking him “what the fuck have we just seen”. We knew we had just witnessed something astonishing. Something that will be talked about in years to come(twenty four years later I write). Poetry in motion. To be honest there were various chances to clear Weah’s clock in the move but it didn’t happen and instead football fans the world over were left drooling. Another great goal that sticks in memory is Milans Zvonomir Boban against Leece. I am pretty sure this wasn’t televised. So I must have seen it on Gazzetta. Anyway the Croat took the ball down at the apex of the box on the right, but manages a couple of keepy ups on his right foot. Each juggle deceived a different defender. He then let the ball bounce and swapped feet and unleashed a ferocious effort from eighteen yards with his left foot. A somewhat forgotten worldie. I mentioned earlier the legend that is Gabriel Omar Batistuta. Not only did I warm to him immensely over the years. I can also safely say he has scored two of the greatest goals I have ever seen. Both away from Serie A and both on English soil. In 2000 La Viola visited Old Trafford in the Champions League and Batistuta silenced the crowd in a truly fantastic manner. After receiving the ball from Rui Costa he left Jaap Stam looking quite the fool with a fabulous touch past him which set him up to let fly with a scud missile that Mark Bosnich could only hear whizz past him as it bent into his net. “A speed of light strike” according to commentator Clive Tyldesley which was entirely appropriate for one of Europes great goals. The other came at Wembley v Arsenal. I’m positive this is my favourite goal of all time. Its more than just the finish, the whole build up was a delight to watch. The goal starts with Aldo Firicano showing Patrick Viera up for the fake hardman he was. This coming when the Frenchman pulled out of a challenge after losing possession due to a poor touch and common place lackadaisical effort to retrieve it. The ball broke to Danielle Adani who between himself, Angelo Di Livio and Rui Costa sent Jorg Heinrich on his bike to make his way forty yards up the pitch and almost tangling Tony Adams up onto his arse in the process. As this is happening a clever Rui Costa dash took Keown and Vivas out the game leaving a free Batigol up against an isolated Winterburn. Heinrich found the Argentinian and the rest is European football history. After a quick two touches past the left back as if he wasn’t there, Batistuta from an acute angle won it for Fiorentina with a devastating effort past Seaman. One of the best teams in the “best league” in the world dismantled with ease in fifteen seconds. The greatest all round goal ever. It’s definitely up there with Paul Kane’s* goal at Ibrox for Aberdeen. Those are just a few awesome moments. Other honourable mentions go to Lazio’s Mathias Almeyda’s forty yard volley v Parma in ’99, Youri Djorkaeff and his overhead kick v Roma for Inter in 1997.Staying with Inter there was Uruguayan Alvaro Recoba and his double v Brescia made up of a forty yard scorcher and thirty five yard free kick. This possibly also in ’97. But as far as games go. Back to 1999/2000 season is the only place to go. The incredible Lazio 4 v 4 AC Milan at the Olimpico. YouTube it, and you won’t be disappointed. Its magic and one of the finest games I have been lucky enough to watch. A boa-fide classic fitba match. Two OGs, a Shevchenko hatrick, a Salas double and Veron being magestic. Truly outstanding stuff. I am sure if I sat longer I could write a book on magical moments from the Italian game but that will do for now as the next chapter of my Italian love affair is the best bit. A chapter that like that marvellous 4-4 in the Stadio Olimpico began in that very ground……..
*I write a story on Italian fitba and manage to mention Paul Kane on two occasions. I never expected that.