The subtitle of this book is “A journey to the heart of two footballing cultures”, and Gianluca Vialli, having grown up and played most of his career in Italy before ending it playing and then managing in England, is well placed to make the comparison (as indeed is his co-writer Gabriele Marcotti, the UK correspondent for Corriere dello Sport). He also interviewed many of the major figures in both countries, including managers, referees and former players.
The comparison is interesting and I suspect most of his diagnoses are right: for example, that the English are not so much tactically inept as completely uninterested, that we don’t treat it as a serious profession, that the specifically working class identity of football in Britain is a key part of why it has developed differently here, and that an unjustified sense of the superiority of English football has kept us from learning useful lessons from all those countries that win World Cups more often than we do.
If that makes it sound like he portrays the English as the village idiots of European football, well, it does feel like that at times. He finds enough negative things to say about Italian football culture, but it’s pretty clear which country he thinks produces better footballers. It’s not just the football itself, though; he has interesting things to say about the differences in the media, the fans, and the attitude to managers.
There is a perhaps inevitable tendency to lapse into presenting national stereotypes as though they were explanations; not just from Vialli, either, but from many of his interviewees. I think Vialli is generally careful to go beyond stereotypes to find more specific explanations, but there’s still a certain amount of ‘Latins are like x and northern Europeans are like y’ being bandied around. Here’s an example of the kind of thing I found questionable:
These are the kind of mental acrobatics many of us go through in Italy – quite the opposite of England. But then the English are off to war, blindly trusting their leader, while the Italians aren’t quite so sure…
‘Look, it’s in the blood of the English. It’s the almost military attitude with which they approach everything,’ says Wenger. ‘They do as they’re told, they follow orders, they do not question authority and they never give up, not even when they are three goals down and there are two minutes to go. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Every time there is a war, the English almost always win. The Italians on the other hand…
There was no need for Wenger to finish the sentence. I knew where he was going with it. And, admittedly, he has a point. As a nation, we are far less warlike than the English – not to mention the Germans – so our record in war is not quite as good as our record in football. The football-as-war analogy is popular in some coaching circles but in my opinion it is flawed. Football is a collaborative effort, it’s the synthesis of the individual and the collective: it’s not about blindly following orders.
I’m not going to argue with Wenger and Vialli’s practial experience of what it’s like to manage an English football team, but as it happens I’ve recently been reading The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith, which makes it clear that the British Army believes strongly in a devolved command structure, where soldiers lower down the command structure are given an objective but then have the responsibility of making their own decisions about the details of putting it into practice, and the flexibility to respond to events. Which means their training has to give them the kind of tactical and contextual knowledge that allows them to make those decisions. If you ever hear the Army talk about themselves, the key word they like to use is ‘professional’. In other words, the British Army’s approach to war is more like the Italian approach to football.
Which doesn’t tell us much about the chances of England winning the World Cup in my lifetime but might say something about the helpfulness of national stereotypes.