Understanding ‘Football’ in Italy

A.S. Roma fans at soccer match, Rome, Italy
"Support Rome, or you get no food in this house."
By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

Stepping down a quiet side street in Florence with my friends Roberto and Manfredo, we stop outside a café filled with men crowded around a TV, watching soccer — "football," to the rest of the world. Roberto says, "For Italy in the 1960s, opium was the religion of the masses…Marx got it backward. But today, it is football."

Manfredo agrees, adding, "I read it in the newspaper, a cardinal said, 'Football is the religion of Italy.' Sunday is the only day for the family in Italy. And we spend it around the TV, watching football."

And it's a violent religion. In Italy, the 1970s were a time of political violence — fighting on the streets and in universities. By the 1980s, the political agenda of the '70s had been accomplished and the fighting moved to the stadium. Rather than political assassinations, headlines reported football violence: "Roman fan kills Lazio supporter with flare gun."

Stepping into the plain, unglamorous, smoky room, Roberto whispers, "The press stirs up the violence. You have your Bill Clinton Sexygate. We have Footballgate. We play the game Sunday. Then we talk about it Monday to Saturday. The biggest newspaper in Italy is only for sport...for football."

Manfredo says, "And the biggest-selling edition in history was the day Italy won the World Cup...1982. Yes, football is big in Italy. We have no choice. My father said, 'Support Rome, or you get no food in this house.'"

Italian soccer players make millions and are treated like movie stars. The paparazzi stalk them, they appear on talk shows, and little kids everywhere pretend to score the winning goal just like them. Every week, Italian fans place their national, regional, and personal pride on the backs of these athletes. It's a cliché that remains true: In a Europe at peace, the football field is the new battleground.

Roberto, whose hometown, Siena, is famous for the brutal horse race called the Palio, says, "There are no rules in the Palio. It is the most violent game in Europe...in the most peaceful city in Italy. In Siena, we have no crime...no drugs...just the Palio. People with anger only wait for the day."

Manfredo says, "And peaceful Siena has the most violent stadium in its league."

Roberto admits, "Inside of every Sienese, there is a piece of our republic. We lost our republic but the medieval anger survives. It is in our blood."

The football team captain is the equivalent of a medieval military leader. Fans arrive at the match wearing team colors and take their seat in the home or visiting section — each stadium keeps them strictly segregated. The match lasts 90 minutes, plus a 15-minute break between halves. Through the entire game, true fans remain standing, waving flags, singing team songs, yelling insults at the opposition, and drinking to excess (you can buy alcohol there or bring your own). European fans don't applaud their opponents' good play. They're the enemy.

In the US, sports may be more violent on the field, but not in the seats. In Italy, simply being in the stadium can be dangerous.

The problem is also pan-European, and each country tends to blame someone else for the worst cases of drunken hooliganism. (In truth, the fervent Italian fans are rarely responsible for the most egregious events.) Local governments have learned that while they cannot stop violence, they can regulate it. Football matches usually require a large police presence and lots of clean-up afterward. After the game, the fans linger to cheer their team, then drive through the city streets honking horns to celebrate.

Italian Football Leagues

It seems that on almost any given night of the year, there's yet another "absolutely crucial" football match in Italy. That's because the only way to feed fans' insatiable appetite for the game is to run the sport year-round, with different leagues that play their seasons concurrently, staggering the different playoffs and finals throughout the year.

Italy's top domestic league is known as Serie A. It's comprised of professional football clubs (the for-profit teams like those in America's NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball). Italy's national team is called La Squadra Azzura ("The Blue Team," named for the uniforms). It plays against other countries' national teams in international, Olympic-style competitions. The best Italian players play both for their professional club, and for the national team.

Serie A football clubs are usually based in a major city (e.g., AS Roma, AC Milan, or Juventus of Turin), and employ the best players money can buy. For example, AS Roma fields well-known players not just from Italy, but also from Brazil, France, Nigeria, and many other countries. The Serie A season normally runs from September to May, as clubs from around Italy play each other — usually on Sundays — for the league title (known as the scudetto). While the Serie A season is going on, the top four Italian teams are also playing in the Champions League, which pits the best teams from a host of other domestic European leagues (England, France, Spain) hoping to emerge as Europe's top club.

Besides the Serie A football clubs, smaller Italian cities have their own clubs, which compete in Serie B, C, and so on. Each year, a handful of the best "B" clubs get promoted to the "A" league (cue celebrations in the streets)...while the worst of the "A" clubs get demoted to the "B" league (cue weeping and gnashing of teeth). Promotion to Serie A is a big deal in small-town Italy, but in reality, the upper echelon of Italian soccer is dominated by a handful of elite teams — Roma, Milan, Juventus — based in big-market, big-money cities.

In addition to its professional football clubs, Italy also fields a national team that takes on other countries. Only Italians can play on it, so whenever they play, national pride is on the line. The team competes in two huge international tournaments: the World Cup (the most important, held every 4 years) and the European Championships (a.k.a. the "Euro Cup," or simply the "Euro," held every 4 years). Both of these tournaments involve two years of matches (usually on weeknights) just to qualify for, and culminate in a final game watched by millions and millions of fans.

With so many different leagues and tournaments (World Cup, Champions League, European Championships, Serie A) — each requiring months of qualifying rounds — scheduling can be a nightmare. A normal week for a particularly in-demand player is exhausting just to list: On Sunday, he plays for AS Roma against AC Milan in an "absolutely crucial" Italian league match. On Wednesday, he switches jerseys and joins Italy's national squad for a World Cup–qualifying match, against France (and against one of his AS Roma teammates). A few days later, he returns to his club team in Rome to face Real Madrid in a Champions League match watched by all of Italy and Spain. Then it's time to suit up for La Squadra Azzura again for a "friendly" ( exhibition match), against a visiting squad from Brazil — and another of his AS Roma teammates. Whew!

Gene Openshaw is the co-author of several Rick Steves guidebooks.