Since it will take some time for the footballing effects of the appointment of Fabio Capello as England manager to become apparent, it is currently most significant as a media event. In Italy, the news has been greeted with almost as many column inches as in England (or perhaps that should be column centimetres, for those of us not stuck in a ridiculous and vainglorious past).
Italian reaction to the appointment has been largely very positive: it is seen as a great feather in the cap of Italian football that England, still respected here as the home of the game, has turned to an Italian. (Whether the appointment of Sven Goran-Eriksson was a similar compliment to Swedish football is, however, another thing altogether; I somehow suspect that was also seen rather as a mark of the importance of Serie A).
And it’s not just about the appointment of an Italian manager to a foreign national side: it’s specifically England-related. While the actual style of play in England (and in the national side in particular) are often derided as wholly lacking in skill, nous, tactics or sophistication, the mystique of England and of the game’s origins remains considerable here. The history and tradition of the English game are respected and mildly envied; English attendance figures are cited with awe and astonishment; the historic stadiums are especially admired. Italians wax lyrical about the magic of Wembley as though they were auditioning for a job commentating on the FA Cup for ITV. The idea that England, home of football, has turned to an Italian, is major news indeed.
Now as any observer of the circus that is Italian football knows, the need to fill three major national sports dailies, as well as a host of lesser publications, means that there is a lot of coverage of a lot of non-stories. It is no coincidence that Italy is the spiritual home of transfer gossip: why, the calciomercato can be good for easily half the paper on a slow news day. Add to that daily half hour TV shows, and often more than 5 hours of programming on a Sunday, from Rai and Mediaset both, and factor in Sky Sports, and you will see how much time and space there is to fill.
So once the basics of the story have been covered, what else is there to say about the appointment? The UK media have followed their traditional path of trying to dig up scandal – your correspondent has received more than one email from UK types asking if I had any dirt I could dish – and “human interest” stories. Well, the dirt isn’t all that dirty – he’s not a fascist, sorry lads, just a small ‘c’ conservative and devout Catholic – and I’m not sure that Capello actually fulfils all the fundamental requirements of a human interest story, be he never so interesting. And of course that’s all old news over here.
Instead the Italian media has been slaverishly following… the UK media coverage. And this too is relatively traditional: Italians love to see (and moan about) how they are presented abroad. English fans delighted by appointment of Capello! English fans horrified by appointment of Capello! English fans impressed by Capello’s achievements in Italy! English fans hostile to Italian style of play! Continue until page 35. In particular, the tabloids are a source of endless fascination to the Italian press. There is, I think, a slight sense of anticipatory schadenfreude about the savaging which “i famosi tabloid britannici” are expected to dish out, at some stage, to a man for whom many Italian journalists would adore to do a tabloid-esque hatchet job but will never have the chance.
Much reported and repeated was Max Clifford’s column for the Times in which he gave Capello some largely tongue in cheek suggestions as to how best to manage the press, the public, and his PR. These included “Don’t read the papers” and “Keep a low profile” along with – to the amusement and delight of the watching Italian media – “Be yourself”. This is surely one of the most redundant pieces of advice offered since the beginning of recorded history. “The English are perhaps a little naïve if they think they need to tell Capello to be himself,” was the most moderate of assessments of this remark.
Meanwhile the front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport offers a whole section of reporting not only on Capello’s English adventure, but on UK reporting thereupon. You can, for instance, see their gallery of tabloid front page reactions to the appointment; read the latest daily round-up of UK press comment; and find links to no fewer than fifteen other stories about the media reaction. Comments on the actual appointment are relatively sparse and mostly boil down to: it’s a shitty job, and he’ll have his work cut out, but if anyone can do it, Fabio can. Which is not so very different from the UK reaction, come to think of it.
Now, I am not immune to the irony of this post, as a UK national, commenting on the Italian media commenting on the UK media… if an Italian friend would like to comment somewhere else on my thoughts here, in a short while we might be able to get the whole world to collapse in on itself in a self-reflexive implosion.
Nonetheless it’s been an interesting week here in this regard. The obsessive tracking of English reaction, the continual disparagement of the English team and of the available English coaches, the ceaseless assertion that this serves as an acknowledgement of, and tribute to, Italian football, seems to me indicative in fact of a considerable national anxiety. After four World Cups, why on earth would the Italians need to boast about the appointment of Capello? I mean, “better than Steve McClaren” is not the most flattering of epithets… it’s hardly synonymous with “all-time great of the game” is it? This day by day coverage reads to me like a desperate quest for approval. The pupil may have long outgrown the master, but for Italy, football remains fundamentally Made in England.
Tabloid hacks can pursue Vanda for more Italian gossip at Spangly Princess.