Think of one word to describe Italian football. The words ‘boring’ or ‘defensive’ would spring to mind for many. But what if that stereotype was wrong? What if the defensive ‘catenaccio’ football Italian’s are so often accused of playing inspired one of the greatest collections of attacking talent on the planet.
A BRIEF CATENACCIO HISTORY LESSON
As with most stereotypes, there is some basis in fact here. Lauded as a tactical masterclass, the ‘catenaccio’ style of play was developed in the 1950s and ’60s by Helenio Herrera’s Inter team. Meaning ‘door bolt’, the system relies on a highly organised defence. Only the great Celtic ‘Lisbon Lions’ side were able to nullify this tactic as Inter became a dominant force. Playing defensive 5-3-2 wasn’t new, but Herrera’s tweaks allowed greater flexibility on the counter-attack. It created the now infamous Italian defensive role of the ‘libero’ or sweeper. Mopping up attacks behind the standard defensive line, with an extra licence to get on the ball. Think of the system more as a 1-4-3-2.
This strong identity, plus their strict non-foreigner rule that persisted through the Azzuri’s baron years of the ’60s and ’70s, only strengthened the view of aesthetically stodgy football. This was until Italy and Paolo Rossi won the World Cup in 1982. Only then did the authorities soften their stance on allowing non-Italians into Serie A.
Suddenly, the league was there for the taking. It’s hard to imagine in today’s money-driven era of football. Large clubs with wealth can stock-pile and cherry-pick the best talent from around the world. But, the allowance of non-domestic players created a much more balanced division.
CHANGING THE RULES
The subsequent ten-years saw no less than seven different winners of Italy’s top division. Juventus, Roma, Milan, Inter, Napoli, Hellas Verona, and Sampdoria. The last-three names on that list winning their inaugural scudettos in the process.
The introduction of some of the world’s best players was just the spark the division needed. Suddenly, Italy was the destination for any player wanting to prove their ability. Defensive catenaccio football became a challenge strikers were eager to conquer.
The headline signings of Zico and Maradona during the ’80s shook world football. Their destinations were even more remarkable. South America’s finest flair players, arriving at Udinese and Napoli respectively. With neither club having won any major honours of note previously, this is the equivalent of Messi and Neymar arriving at Bournemouth and Burnley.
Even previously travel-shy English players were Serie A bound. Some were more successful than others, think Ray Wilkins rather than Luther Blissett. Towards the end of this era, the money started to pump into English football. Dampening the enthusiasm of any aspiring British player to move abroad. But it did nothing to detract the English public from their love of Italian football. Born from the joy and near-success of Italia ’90 and Gazza’s transfer to the Italian capital.
THE ’90s EXPLOSION
Italian football continued to attract the brightest and best of talents throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s. From Laudrup to Gullit, Klinsmann to van Basten. The great and the good of world football were strutting their stuff in Italy. The restrictions on foreign players concentrated owners’ minds away from quantity and onto the quality of their imports. It had a levelling effect on Serie A, meaning anyone on their day could beat anyone. Of course, you still had ‘big’ teams and ‘small’ teams. But teams with astute scouting networks and an eye for talent could out-manoeuvre the fattest wallets.
This trend continued after the Bosman ruling was introduced in 1995. The ruling is famous for allowing players to move freely at the end of their contracts. It also European players free movement across the continent, removing the restrictions on non-Italian Europeans allowed in the league.
Suddenly, players from France, Germany, Holland and more flooded into the league. Like the influx of foreign players into the Premier League, they added a new dimension.
Whilst Inter, Milan and Juventus were fielding Ince, Boban and Sousa respectively, the smaller clubs continued to attract star players also. 1994 Ballon d’Or winner Hristo Stoichkov arrived at Parma, who just 5 years earlier was in the second division.
THE BEST FORM OF DEFENCE
Stellar names arrived to unpick defences from midfield and finish off flowing attacking moves. Still, the defence remained as important and revered in Italy as it had 20 years previous. That season, Milan won the scudetto scoring less than 2 goals per game, thanks to a defence that conceded just 24 goals in 34 matches. It’s worth noting, that Milan did not play ‘catenaccio football. Their dominance relied on one of the fiercest flat-back four defences ever assembled.
Those statistics would be remarkable in any era. But when considering the attacking talent on display, it highlights the respect that Italy still showed the art of defending. Maybe catenaccio wasn’t dead. When England had the defensive talents of Tony Adams, Carlton Palmer, and Martin Keown, Italy was producing Fabio Canavarro, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Players capable of still playing in the ‘libero’ style if needed. Defenders who could read the game better than anyone else on the pitch. They could make crunching tackles if needed but also take control of the ball at the back and set their team on the front foot.
Maldini summed it up best. “If I have to make a tackle, then I’ve already made a mistake.”
Throughout the ’90s, the attacking talent continued to flood into Serie A. When you ask someone of my age to think of Italian football, their minds will instantly go back to Saturday mornings in front of the TV. Eagerly watching fearsome goal-machines tear apart defences on Gazetta Football Italia. Average goals per game exploded from less than two per-game in the 1980s to consistently around the 2.7 mark in the late 1990s.
In 1998 alone, the league boasted; Ronaldo, Vieri, Del Piero, Inzaghi, Crespo, Bierhoff, Weah, Batistuta, Salas and Baggio amongst many, many others. A line up that strong is likely to never be repeated.
THE ’00s IMPLOSION
‘If something’s too good to be true, it probably is’. No saying is more apt at describing Serie A at the turn of the millennium. By 2001, eight of the top ten record transfer fees involved Italian clubs, with Italian clubs paying six of them. However, the money bankrolling these projects either soon dried up or was proved to be the result of some ‘creative accountancy’.
Clubs like Lazio and Parma would be facing bankruptcy. The domestic dominance of the likes of Juventus and Milan would soon be over thanks to corruption and greed as exposed in the calciopoli scandal.
The great players of the Serie A heyday either began to age and decline or sought new challenges. Larger paychecks in England and Spain tempted the next generation. Soon, Serie A disappeared from English TV screens.
STARRING ALVARO RECOBA AS THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS FUTURE
The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. So it proved to be for Italian football. Although thanks to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, it is showing signs of revival. It’s unlikely that it will ever reach those levels again, but should serve as a warning to the Premier League.
As the amount of money pouring into English football’s top-flight continues to increase to levels that would make Midas blush, it’s worth remembering that nothing can last forever, and that money and greed are the great corrupters.
Whilst I doubt that England will ever see the likes of calciopoli, the spectre of FFP and other sanctions continue to raise their head.
Still, as we sit and watch Chris Wood, Divock Origi and Oumar Niasse trying to convince us that they’re top-flight footballers, those of us of a certain age can look back fondly on our memories of the greatest array of attacking talent ever assembled. Accompanied by a knickerbocker glory and a cappuccino.