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Sport and Politics – an Italian art

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Italy at the 1934 World Cup

This is a little bit naughty but, having thoroughly enjoyed John’s wonderfully evocative post on Tuesday looking at the overlaps between sport and politics, I couldn’t resist coming in over the top with a contribution of my own adding something of an historical perspective…

I’ve actually been meaning to write this for a while now. I have a list of topics saved on my iPhone to choose from whenever I get writer’s block and can’t think of anything else to blog about but for some reason I have been staring at this one for years and passing it over every time.

Now is the time though, when the chattering classes are rumbling about John Key’s politicisation of the All Blacks following the naming of the Rugby World Cup squad, which took place at Parliament last week in the midst of fawning politicians of all stripes. It was almost as though New Zealanders saw this as something new. Politicians trying to use a sports team to make themselves popular? Surely not!

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It’s all old hat to Italians of course – Romans invented the concept of ‘bread and circuses’ and two Italian leaders of the past 100 years, Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi, seized the baton and took it to new heights.

Mussolini was, contrary to what some former Lazio, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton Athletic players might have you believe, a vicious dictator. He abolished democracy, introduced repressive laws and oppressed his opponents with brutal violence and murder. But while all this was taking place, football both benefited from and contributed towards fascism in Italy.

The victorious Italy team with dictator Benito Mussolini (back row, c)

Mussolini posing with gli Azzurri after they retained the World Cup in 1938

Simon Martin, in his book ‘Football and Fascism: The national game under Mussolini’, offers this succinct and useful explanation as to why the relationship between football and fascism was so important to all concerned:

“Essentially, this was the ultimate rationale behind the regime’s takeover of sport and it’s restructuring of calico; the acquisition of international respect from sporting success that it was hoped would develop a shared sense of national achievement, experience and identity… calico was a conduit for the subtle and psychological dissemination of the national myths, rituals and behaviours that were intended to accelerate the regeneration and nationalisation of the masses.”

It’s no accident that, under Mussolini, Serie A was born as the country’s first national league, and the national team won two World Cups and an Olympic Gold medal on his watch. Domestically, some think that he was a Roma fan. He wasn’t. In fact much of the evidence suggests he had no real personal interest in the game whatsoever, but he was nonetheless integral to the capital club’s formation. He liked to evoke the symbolism of ancient Rome and harness it to underline the myth of the superiority of the Italian race and he had a strong desire to glorify the city for propaganda purposes.

The problem was, on the football pitch, Rome was weak. Split into four small clubs – Lazio, Alba, Roman and Fortitudo – they could never hope to compete with the giants of the game in the North at the time such as Juventus, Torino, Bologna and Genoa. It was at the insistence of the regime that a merger occurred in order to address this problem. Only Lazio resisted – some say they got away with it because they were the true favourites of il Duce – but either way, in 1928, the other three Roman clubs combined to form what we now know as AS Roma.

Initially the team played in the purpose built Campo Testaccio in the working class South of the city before eventually moving to the Stadio Nazionale PNF (national stadium of the Fascist Party) where they won their first scudetto in 1942. Then it was on to our current home, the Stadio Olimpico, that still to this day bears the name of il Duce on the big Roman style obelisk outside the main gate.

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A fascist dictator can always be relied upon to overdo things somewat… But there are few such concerns when it comes to a good old fashioned populist billionaire who might have picked up a trick or two from history, but understands the need to be ever so slightly more subtle.

1994 CL w Berlusconi

Well, I did say ever so slightly…

Silvio Berlusconi is the master of the art of combining sport and politics with great success.

A cruise ship crooner come media mogul, his personal fortune was estimated to be in the region of 7.7 billion at last count. He has been Prime Minister of Italy three times under the banner of the political party he founded and named ‘Forza Italia’ – after the country’s most common football chant.

Forza-Italia-Berlusconi

A right wing conservative, Berlusconi recognised very early in his political career how powerful sport could be for his image. He purchased a football club with a traditional left leaning support base, AC MIlan, in 1986 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy and turned it into a PR dream for himself.

He started by appointing the coach who invented catenaccio, Arrigo Sacchi, and followed that up by bringing in the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard to bolster the playing staff. The result was that the club that Silvio built won Serie A just one season into his ownership and then followed that up with the European Cup the year after.

Seven scudetti and four Champions League trophies later and one thing is for absolute certain – When they have a bad year Mr Botox is nowhere to be seen. When they win something of course, there is Silvio holding it aloft cheesy grin and all… When they brought the Club World Cup home from Japan in 2007, who was it that emerged from the plane holding the trophy aloft??? Maldini? Pirlo? Nesta? Kaka? Inzaghi? Coach Ancelotti?

No prizes for guessing…

Which brings us onto Key… Maybe last week he was just doing what politicians do or maybe he’s learned from the best. But either way the myth that sport and politics don’t mix is exactly that – a myth.

P.S. for another interesting take on the All Black announcement, do read this from Giovanni Tiso: http://bat-bean-beam.blogspot.co.nz/2015/08/they-have-been-chosen.html – Very thought provoking indeed…

Categories: Azzurri

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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