Aidan Smith: Catching up with catenaccio, as operated by Parker & Co
LIKE most Scots my first exposure to Italy, my all-new favourite Euro 2012 team come 7.45 tonight, was in 1967.
That was when eleven men from Greater Glasgow and its environs – all of them untanned, uncologned, unmoustachioed and at least one who played without his teeth – enacted what seemed like a revolution to beat the Latin love-gods of Inter Milan to the European Cup.
Celtic’s pulsating football was supposed to be the end for catenaccio. Selfishly, I had something to gain from the word hanging around a little longer – long enough for a schoolmaster to ask if anyone knew the meaning and for your correspondent, making possibly his only decisive contribution from the classroom floor, to squeak: “A tactictal system in football based on strong defence, sir.” But, after that, it was supposed to be arrivederci to joyless rearguard action, and a good thing too.
Except catenaccio never really went away. The Italian national team certainly never went away, enduring in subsequent World Cups. Inter made a comeback, winning the Champions League with only 30 per cent possession (catenaccio by any other name). Greece used it to win Euro 2004, Chelsea are reigning Champions Leaguers thanks to it, and now Italy come up against an England side with a system where Scott Parker-the-bus and his pals form themselves into two banks of four and try to bore the opposition into submission.
On Friday, then, I decided that, if I was going to support the Azzurri then I needed to get to know them. There was a time – the era of Serie A on Channel 4 – when most of us could have named Italy’s first-choice XI. These days it’s Spain’s. What to do? Buy my good Italo-Scot chum Simon a cappuccino and ingratiate myself.
“Italy at the last World Cup were viewed back in the old country as a disgrace,” said Simon, “and no one was expecting much of this team. But I’ve been really impressed with the coach, [Cesare] Prandelli, who’s a progressive, strong ethics, anti-bling, and, to remind them that football is a highly privileged existence, he’ll have been taking the players on tours of prisons.”
The blingiest in the squad is, of course, Mario Balotelli, perfectly capable of visiting jails by himself, even though these tend to be women’s jails and he lacks an official invite. But there’s a boldness to his daftness and a boldness throughout this Italy, not usually a word associated with those who wear that brilliant blue strip.
“There a boldness in Prandelli selecting the bam Balotelli at all and there’s a boldness in the coach promising to visit a Polish monastery if Italy beat Ireland then, at 3am, walking 20km to one,” added Simon. “And last season there was a boldness to Juventus signing Andrea Pirlo [below] after AC Milan decided he was too old, usually an indication that you must in fact be potted heid. Look at how he’s been playing.”
Great free-kick goal (similar to one against Scotland a couple of years ago), great assists for all of Italy’s other goals – great hair. Every representation of the Azzurri needs at least one player with the locks of whatever is Italian cinema’s equivalent of the matinee smoothie, but you can’t have too many.
Can you have too many psycho skinhead Roman-nosed radges in the style of Marco Materazzi? Prandelli doesn’t think so with at least three on call. Every Italy team should have someone who doesn’t look classically Italian and when once that was Toto Schillaci, now it’s Antonio Di Natale, who’s got something of Gerd Müller about him, even (bit parochial this, though Simon’s a Hibby too) Jimmy O’Rourke.
So can “our” boys do it?
“Italy don’t fear any of the big football nations,” said Simon, “Their problems invariably come against small fry.” Simon has a phrase for this. They “fancy their tattie”. Beware, though, rotten tomatoes (showered on the team in ’66 after World Cup humiliation by North Korea).
Who will England be? A big team or wee guys? Or more Italian than Italy? Simon smiles. “Copying our defence is one thing but it’s a fool’s game trying to take us on in the preoccupation with hair and associated products.”
One gel-squirting goal celebration does not make Wayne Rooney a debonair chap, added my friend, flicking a barnet you could almost call Pirlo-esque.
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