Simon Martin, author of Sport Italia, reveals his favourite Italian sporting moments of all time.
Earlier this month Simon Martin’s Sport Italia was awarded the Lord Aberdare Literary History Prize for 2012. Needless to say we are all delighted in the office, and to mark the occasion Simon has kindly taken the time to compile his favourite Italian sporting moments of all time – and yes, the 1982 World Cup makes the cut.
In 2006 the Sardinian Giovanni Pinna was abducted by bandits and a €300,000 ransom demanded for his release. After eight months and ten days of incarceration he escaped. Interviewed by police, the emaciated and bearded Pinna’s first questions were: ‘Who won the scudetto?’ and ‘were Cagliari relegated?’ Expressing deep concern for his family, having first been assured of the football results, Pinna reinforced the stereotypical image of a nation obsessed by sport.
Sport Italia had clearly been on his mind, but just what great moments might he have replayed on the human hard disk to while away the hours on that metaphorical desert island? What were Italy’s Botham’s Ashes, and 1966; who is its Roger Bannister and Eddie the Eagle; what are the triumphs and defeats, achievements and failures that make and bond the nation?
If only it were possible to witness the offence caused by the first cycling priests in the 1880s, as their cassocks lifted in the new found headwind of liberty. Sadly, we have only newspaper reports of the impact of the bicycle that the Vatican’s daily declared ‘a global transport anarchy’. Those British sailors, en-route to India, who stopped off at the port towns of Genoa, Livorno, Palermo and Naples and began impromptu kickabouts, press-ganging locals to make up the numbers, would have been quite a sight too. As would the affluent engineers, lawyers, doctors and artists who first swam competitively in Rome’s river Tiber, in 1893, to show-off their physiques and distinguish themselves from the growing masses. Or wrestler Giovanni Raicevich who, at just 16 years of age, celebrated becoming Austrian champion by brawling with Habsburg officials. Born in Trieste, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1881, he never disguised his Italian identity.
Dorando Pietri | London Olympics | 1908
With the sporting foundations laid, only one man can come first, sort of, in Sport Italia’s ‘great’ moments. His long baggy shorts, handkerchiefed-head and handlebar moustache added essential comedy to Italy’s first sporting sensation. One of the great ‘chokes’ in history, he is the Italian Devon Lock: Dorando Pietri. An outsider in the 1908 London Olympic marathon, behind the native-American Canadian Longboat who collapsed mid-race after gulping down a bottle of champagne, Pietri led from the 30 kilometre mark. Entering the stadium, he turned left rather than right, fell and was helped to his feet before taking ten minutes to stagger the last lap, before collapsing at the finishing tape where a portly, bow-tied Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle urged him on. Disqualified for the assistance received, he reportedly entered a coma, before miraculously returning the next day to a hero’s welcome: ‘no ancient Roman had known how to accept the laurels of victory better than Pietri’, proclaimed The Daily Mail.
The first of many glorious failures that Italians would celebrate, Mussolini preferred the winning taste of champagne although he would, of course, only have drunk Italian Prosecco, and in moderation. He also lauded Primo Carnera, Italy’s only heavyweight boxing champion. After knocking out Ernie Schaaf in 1933, who died a few days later, Carnera was celebrated by the regime as the new Fascist man it claimed to have created. But Primo Carnera enters the Pantheon for his bout with a kangaroo on the Naples dockside, in front of thousands of delirious fans. But it didn’t last, as Mussolini prepared to invade Ethiopia, the last thing he needed was his man battered by Joe Louis in 1935. Bang went Fascist notions of even slightly off-white supremacy.
Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali | Tour de France | 1948 and 1952
Immediate post-war Italy was dominated by one sport and two rivals: cyclists Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. Lauded for his success before the war, Bartali’s public image was one of a devout Catholic whose capacity for silent suffereing won him the moniker of the ‘iron man’. In contrast, Coppi was portrayed as a Socialist, Communist or infidel as a result of his post-war achievements. Arguably the greatest political exploitation of a sporting figure, in the chaos following the assassination attempt against the Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, the devout Catholic Bartali’s victory in the 1948 Tour de France was widely declared by the Catholic right as having saved Italy from Communist revolution. A tall order even for a talent like his, truth never got in the way of a good Italian story. The most enduring in Italian sporting history, was the borraccia – the bottle – passed between Bartali and Coppi at the 1952 Tour de France. The arguments still rage over who passed to who – which has never been proved either way – so strongly did both riders represent the stark division in Italian society, however untrue it was. In solitary confinement, it would provide sixty years of endless debate. But following Coppi’s trial for adultery in ultra-Catholic Italy, he was only really appreciated following his premature death in 1960.
Abebe Bikali | Rome Olympics | 1960
If Coppi and Bartali pedalled Italy into the new democratic dawn, it was an Ethiopian at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games that sealed its re-entry into the democratic world. Abebe Bikila was a member of Haile Selassie’s Imperial Army. He was also a highly talented marathon runner of no repute who drew sneers of derision from condescending ‘rivals’ (they’d liked to have been) who refused to believe that his reported marathon times were possible. They soon realised otherwise, as Bikila’s bare feet kissed the heavy cobble-stones of the ancient Roman Appian Way, before sealing the marathon gold medal under the Arch of Constantine. Twenty-five years after Mussolini’s forces had captured Addis Ababa in a vicious colonial conquest, Bikila seized Rome and the hearts of its citizens.
World Cup | 1982
If solitude makes you want to scream, there’s only one man to do it with: Marco Tardelli, in 1982. Probably the most iconic image in Italian sporting history, the World Cup win is dedicated to former resistance hero Sandro Pertini. Sat next to King Juan Carlos of Spain, this tiny octogenarian, the most loved president in Italy’s history, broke every rule in the diplomatic book as he waved his finger at German Chancellor Kohl and mocked him that the game was up. But even this wasn’t the iconic moment, this came when scolding team-coach Enzo Bearzot for playing a bad hand of cards on the presidential flight home, with Dino Zoff, Franco Causio and the apparently unimportant World Cup on the table infront of them.
One of the early signs of a leading political figure playing the ‘football card’, Italian sportsmen were increasingly sought by society’s movers and shakers. Marco Pantani was another, feted for his achievements and ‘clean’ approach to a dirty sport by prime minister Romano Prodi. As we later found out, things weren’t quite so spotless but, nonetheless, Marco remains a legend. His assault on the Col de Galibier, EPO-fuelled or otherwise, remains simply phenomenal.
Unfortunately, Silvio Berlusconi probably would view the desert island as little more than a new market for his media empire to penetrate. Hence, I’ll save him the job. No Desert Island Kicks would be complete without him. Clarence Seedorf must be proud then of the ex-cruise ship crooner’s purring of appreciation at the celebration of his twentieth year at Milan in 2006. ■
Simon Martin is the author of Sport Italia, which was awarded the Lord Aberdare Prize for Literary History 2012. A former West Ham Academy coach, turnstile operator, programme seller and park footballer, Simon is now an adopted Roman teaching at the American University of Rome.