Paolo Di Canio & English Football’s Enduring Fixation With The Italian Game

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Sunderland’s love affair with Paolo Di Canio has seen initial hesitation on the part of the former give way to increasing affection. Doubts over the Italian’s personal beliefs and lack of top-flight managerial experience have diminished with the team’s improvement on the pitch.

The revitalized Black Cats won bragging rights in the Tyne-Wear derby, before the Italian led them to a win over Everton that has increased their chances of Premier League survival. This unlikely relationship between the tempestuous, yet highly astute Di Canio and his newly acquainted Mackem brethren is sure to be a passionate one right until the end.

Di Canio in many ways represents the stereotypically fiery Italian persona, and has transfixed English football audiences from his playing days at Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham United and Charlton Athletic, right up until more recently with his first foray into management at Swindon Town.

The 44-year-old’s return to the British Isles in 2011 further re-established one of the more prominent connections between his adopted home and the calcio culture that has so captivated its English equivalent in recent decades.

Italia ’90 was when England’s romantic association with the Italian game truly began blossoming. The theme song for BBC Television’s coverage of that summer’s World Cup was Luciano Pavarotti’s majestic rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’—this emotive aria quickly became ingrained in the national psyche, associated as it was with images of the tournament’s stars like Paul Gascoigne and Salvatore Schillaci.

Gascoigne had impressed the host nation too, and joined Lazio in 1992. Capitalizing on a growing interest in Serie A, one of England’s other main broadcasters, Channel 4, swooped to buy television rights for what was back then, easily world football’s best league.

With the newly formed English Premier League in the early stages of establishing itself on satellite television, this free alternative made the most of lingering interest from the previous World Cup. For a time, audiences in their millions were tuning into watch the likes of Gazza, Roberto Baggio, Giuseppe Signori, Paolo Maldini and Gabriel Batistuta in the distinctive strips of their great clubs.

England’s view of Italian soccer had not always been such a cheery one.

Football had been introduced to Italy by British expatriates and visitors at the turn of the previous century, but had soon transcended these origins to establish a clear and successful identity of its own—one that would become well familiar with its English equivalent as a result of frequent encounters down the years.

The infamous ‘Battle of Highbury’ in November 1934—only the second international meeting between the two countries—was one of the earliest, with England beating that year’s FIFA World Cup winners 3-2. Football’s founding nation (who had chosen not to enter the tournament) still held notions of superiority over the sport's other emerging countries, and their victory in this violent contest only strengthened this misguided belief.

Several more encounters on the international stage would take place over the following decades, with the advent of European club competition establishing a greater rivalry established between two of the sport’s traditional powers. It increasingly allowing fans of both countries a chance to see first-hand the other’s great clubs, as well develop a greater understanding of unfamiliar tactics and styles (like catenaccio) in a time prior to comprehensive television coverage.

Notable, ensuing meetings would include Liverpool’s controversial European Cup semifinal loss to Internazionale in 1965, the second-leg of which saw contentious decisions go the Milanese side’s way (much to the ire of Bill Shankly). Tottenham Hotspur would fare better on Italian soil in the inaugural UEFA Cup in 1972, defeating AC Milan on their way to eventually winning the tournament.

Putting such highs and lows into perspective was the Heysel tragedy of 1985, when thirty-nine Juventus supporters were killed in crowd disturbances preceding their European Cup final with Liverpool.

England’s growing fascination with Italian football in the 1990s would do little to fully heal or prevent future hostilities between the two country’s football fans. The former broadening their horizons was a positive development nonetheless, one that has enhanced considerably the collective IQ of the English footballing public.

Players that had caught the imagination in Channel 4’s airing of Serie A were soon heading into the Premier League, as well as others capitalizing on the English game's increasing fixation with Italian talent.

The Chelsea trio of Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola were among the first to successfully make the transition (following the lead at Stamford Bridge of fellow Serie A alum Ruud Gullit). Joining them were Di Canio and others like Gianluca Festa, Alessandro Pistone and Carlo Cudicini in making similarly sustained impacts.

Fabrizio Ravanelli and Benito Carbone were among those who shone relatively briefly, while others like Pierluigi Casiraghi and Attilio Lombardo did not fare so well.

The lasting legacy of these trailblazers may not be in the compatriots who followed them (when Mario Balotelli is the most successful of the last decade you know the competition has not been great), but in their own continuing contribution to the English game as coaches.

Vialli’s semi-successful spell as manager of Chelsea paved the way for established coaches like Claudio Ranieri and Fabio Capello to try their luck in England. Even with the varying success of those two, their impact was telling enough that the idea of Italian coaches and what they might offer still held appeal.

Di Matteo and Roberto Mancini (who briefly was at Leicester City) have both won major honors coaching Chelsea and Manchester City respectively. Zola is doing well at Watford following a difficult spell as West Ham boss, while as already discussed; Di Canio is making waves too.

The basis of the relationship between English and Italian football people is essentially this: both love football. So long as that remains the case, expect to see the latter welcomed in England for a while to come.

By Thomas Cooper