Dear Room, Meet Elephant

The World Cup of Soccer is an unparalleled spectacle of international unity. A trend has developed, however, whereby Italian soccer fans have had to face antagonism from rival fans.

Nearly 2053 years after Julius Caesar defied German disbelief by constructing a precisely engineered bridge in just 10 days (to cross the Rhine), his Mediterranean descendants (Italians) continue to mock detractors with their incalculable resilience and enviable zest for both conquest and leisure.

The Germans of Caesar’s day, those nomads and furhoards, bear little resemblance, of course, to the stalwart Germans of today. But rivalry hasn’t missed a beat; and every two years, it is reignited through the spectacle of soccer.

It may seem frivolous, but the world soccer stage is as much a rehash of historical feuds as it is a demonstration of athleticism – and certain match-billings unfortunately tend to reveal in some their basest prejudices. Take Germany’s World Cup in 2006 for example. An online publication of a nationally-read magazine in Germany – Der Speigel – had this to say about Italians: “The Italian man, let’s call him Luigi… is a parasitic life form.
”Der Spiegel’s editors retracted the article after a backlash from their Italian community, but insisted the piece was meant as satire – not to be taken seriously. There is a line between parody and hate-speech. Referring to Italians as “oiled up and greasy,” and “parasitic forms of life” is a flagrant display of bigotry. Anyone in journalism and publishing knows the sting of words and, to publish something that can be construed as racial prejudice, suggests that the content may very well represent its readership. The elephant, it seems, is no longer in the room. It’s out, and stomping about. That the paper’s editors were willing to publish it – smack in the middle of a global event – is evidence enough.

The elephant, it appears, headed straight for Sep Blatter, FIFA President; the same FIFA President who conveniently fled the stadium just before Italy won its fourth World Cup Championship. Blatter’s effrontery didn’t go unnoticed, and when Italian media pounced on him, he had this to say: “History will say it was an error that the FIFA president did not award the Azzurri as world champions and, in effect, it was an error. I had already apologized to Italian officials right after the final.” Blatter’s justification: “I wanted to avoid creating an ugly scene because the Germans had shown they would whistle at the word FIFA.”

Considering that US President George W. Bush is greeted by throngs of protesters and potential assassination attempts wherever he travels, and still manages his duties, makes one assume that Blatter could have fought through the “boos” of some fickle fans – especially after eight years as FIFA President.

That wasn’t Blatter’s only blunder: while speaking of Italy’s second round victory over Australia with

Australian media, he protested: “I think there was too much cheating on the players’ [Italy’s] side. I agree with them and I would like to apologise to our fans in Australia. The Socceroos should have gone into the quarterfinals in place of Italy.”

– – –

The World Cup of Soccer, an epic sporting event, is an unparalleled spectacle of international unity; even more so than the Olympics, where the focus tends to be on individual performances. A trend has developed, however – a movement, even – whereby Italians have had to face a degree of antagonism from both neutrals and rival fans, from analysts and pundits, coaches and players, and now soccer federations and their presidents. There exists a stream of malignant envy and resentment toward Italians when it comes to soccer for reasons apparent, but hardly admitted.

Most non-Italians have called this the “Italian conspiracy theory.” Others, however, are less hesitant to acknowledge the elephant. Toronto photographer Jimmy Kalianiotis (of Greek descent) believes “there is a pervading disdain for Italians since their 1982 World Cup win. They were the first to fly the flag, the first to celebrate as a community, and the first least) to display patriotic pride in numbers.” Kalianiotis adds that “Italians set the bar. After ’82, every other race couldn’t wait to show them up!”

Can sport alone engender such ill-will? One can’t be certain. Could this resentment have its roots in history? Perhaps. Italy’s imperialist past could very well be the impetus, especially among its European neighbours. Confusing, however, is why someone might think that “Italy is the Mexico of Europe; nice to vacation in, but insignificant on the global scale.” This is a statement made by a Danish man (to a friend) while watching Italy play a Euro 2008 soccer match. His assertion, which undercuts the value of two entire races and nations, can be attributed to ignorance. Unfortunately, ignorance breeds prejudice.

Detractors of Italian soccer have often held that “Italians are arrogant” and “their style of soccer is boring.” Italian immigrant communities tend to be large and concentrated. With nearly half a million Italians living in the greater Toronto area alone, the numbers might seem overwhelming to other communities. I can not speak for Italians in Italy but, in either case, it would be unfathomable to expect so many people of the same feather, and of the same experience, to not unite in celebration.

If this constitutes as overbearing pride, then what is the standard for patriotic temperance? Toronto is a smorgasbord of ethnic communities: Greek, Portuguese, Chinese and Hispanic – to name but the most prominent. Married to a Uruguayan woman and having been exposed to Uruguayan pride first hand, I can attest to one indisputable truth: that every culture believes it is unique and superior to others in its own right. Uruguayans, a community of little more than 3500 in Toronto, are no less proud and protective of their heritage than any other community in the city.

The second charge is that Italian soccer is boring. “Italy has the look of a world champion, playing well enough to win when it counts, but never good enough to be really convincing,” said SCHMITTblog of the 2006 Italian team. In the 2006 tournament Italy scored a total 12 goals – a goal/match ratio of 1.8, second only to Germany, who scored 14. Eleven different Italian players scored goals – further proof that Italy was a team made up of attack-minded players. One would think that clinching a fourth world cup in the process is convincing enough that Italy’s game is second only to Brazil’s (who have five titles).

In 2006 Italian defenceman Alessandro Nesta struck back at the media’s criticism of the then “calciopoli” scandal: “We are indifferent to all this stuff, the words fly away with the wind. By now it has become a tradition to attack Italian football, and it seems to be in fashion. If everyone is attacking us, then it means they are afraid of us.” I tend to agree with his remarks. Unfortunately, another of his statements would eventually be proven wrong… “We only have one task. If you win, then the rest, being popular, will follow.”

In a utopian setting the World Cup can reinforce unity in a world of cultural differences. I hope to see that one day. Until then, baby-steps will have to do. My challenge to readers: the next time a soccer tournament rolls around, support a friend’s team along with yours. You’d be surprised at how much fun it can be.

Massimo Volpe is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 14.

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