A football tradition that has lost itself.
If it is true that many Italians, at the end of the Qatari World Cup, welcomed the triumph of that Argentina so close to us in origins and culture, it is also true that the excessive revelry for a football success that – albeit glorious – does not it is ours that risks making us forget the current, but not of recent origins, decadence of Italian football. A descending parabola which, except for the triumphant high note of Wembley, has continued its downward trajectory since 2014; and a traditionally winning and competitive sporting tradition now a shadow of itself. Because beyond the results, beyond the many good players churned out in recent years, Italy has unfortunately become a nation incapable of producing talent.
Here it would be too easy to throw mud on the horrible performance of the Azzurri against North Macedonia, just as it would be easy to criticize the double challenge with Sweden and remember the fool remedied against Spain under the management of Giampiero Ventura. Not to mention the low quality level of the blue expedition to the Brazilian World Cup in 2014, that of Thiago Motta with the number 10 shirt (a shirt, which in the space of twenty years, has passed from the various Baggio, Signori, Zola, Del Piero, Totti to Franco Vazquez, Thiago Motta, Insigne, Berardi, Bernardeschi, Joao Pedro etc.). And perhaps we should also admit that even Mancini’s Italydespite its incredible exploits, it was a team poor in individual talent – represented above all by Verratti and by the serpentines of the inspired Church.
Thus remains the question of questions, with which one wonders where the talent actually ended up: that of the extraordinary number 10s, the great number 9s and the defenders who envied us all over the world. Many, in recent years, have asked the following question to insiders, have advanced interpretations and organized events to discuss more or less effective reforms, changes to regulations and other types of interventions. Among the most popular opinions, the one for which Italian football is lacking in terms of investments in young people and in the youth sectors; in particular, according to the modernist rhetoric mentioned above, one of the main gaps to be filled with foreign countries would be that of investments in sports facilities.
A seductive yet somewhat hasty thesis, as demonstrated by the numbers of annual investments for each club in the youth sectors by the major European championships: in Serie A each club spends an average of 4.6 million, very close to the 4.8 million of Ligue 1 and above the 3.8 of the Spanish Liga – the Premier with 6.5 unattainable. Also because, if the problem were really the crumbling structures and the little investment in the training of young players, how could we explain the continuous generational turnover of countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, socio-economic realities that certainly do not shine in terms of per capita GDP and funds in youth sectors, but capable of churning out football talent in a cyclical way?
Is it possible that a country like ours, endowed with a sporting tradition such as to produce champions for almost a century, has suddenly become unable to churn out high-level young footballers?
Because certainly one can and must speak, and we have done so several times, about gods perverse mechanisms of the youth sectors, which aim at everything except the development and expectation of talent. And yet a broader, generational discourse should also be made, which analyzes the changes in society and the new generations. Today, at the height of a decade of unbridled consumerism, of dissolution of the most direct social relationships, favored by the development of an alternative reality, the virtual one, many boysmainly teenagers they have lost the joy of playing football; the pleasure of challenging each other in the street, in parks and on suburban pitches, where you no longer see heel strikes, skinned knees and volleys.
It’s not trivial rhetoric steeped in nostalgia towards the times of endless games in the meadows or the “Germans” on the garage shutters in the courtyards, but a bitter fact that we should accept; on the other hand it is no coincidence that many great talents of the past have always claimed the importance of natural calcium, literally out of the box (whether it was on the street, in the park or at theoratory) for their human-football training. If we then wanted to go beyond the mere accusation leveled against technological progress, we could recognize in today’s adults a community that does everything to prevent kids from joining together and giving free rein to their passions. Just think of how little tolerance there is today for a ball hitting a wall or for the noise generated by a group of jubilant kids.
One of the great evils that afflicts Italian football today, then, is represented precisely by the lack of the road: the one that has always constituted the true baptism of fire of young aspiring footballers, a natural hierarchy that marked the first real selection between talented, gifted and less gifted. The dear old road has now been completely replaced by football schools, receptacle of pseudo-coaches subjected to the pressures of suffocating parents, obsessed with the (immediate) result, as well as too tied to theoretical concepts learned during the numerous refresher and training courses. And in this transition le football schools and the youth sectors have not been absolutely capable of cultivating the imagination and free expression of the boys, as well as of feeding individual technique.
THE foundations of the so-called talentwhich instead was slowly suffocated, caged, sacrificed.
A grassroots Italian football transformed into an industry (poorly managed, moreover), into an intensive breeding of players who are treated as numbers by coaches eager for a career, decidedly national particularism, and by prosecutors who flutter like vultures to ensure the “talent” before the others. Anyone who knows a minimum of the youth sectors of professional teams knows very well which reality they are referring to. A world striving for the result, the goal rather than the path, and which then does everything to make young players who arrived in the Primavera or even at the Allievi Nazionali (today under 16) superstars, in the obsessive search for the new phenomenon to be fed to the media and public opinion.
This can also be seen in the interrupted growth of many players, apparently very keen and then stunned by a world which, between social media, spectacularization and the first notoriety, makes them feel they have already arrived without making them understand the value and importance of sacrifice. Concepts that Cristiano Ronaldo expressed a couple of months ago, taking (also) the label of boomer and nostalgic, and which however are fundamental in the development of a footballer – who knows where the Portuguese would have arrived, as he himself admitted, without that Manchester United dressing room and the “best examples” he was able to draw inspiration from, from which he was able to “learn”.
«The new generations, new technologies distract them. They don’t listen, it goes in one way and out the other. They hear one thing and in two minutes they’ve already forgotten it, and they do what they think is best. They are not even able to copy the best examples in front of them».
Famous is the example of youth of Francesco Tottiamong the greatest champions that Italian football has ever produced: a youth lived between the close markings of Carlo Mazzone, the managers of the Roma youth sector and his mother Fiorella, all committed to ensuring that the boy did not lose his way between vices and the temptations of a too bewitching world for a young man gifted with so much talent; a way that first seduces you, then spoils you and finally abandons you. The comparison with many young players of today, many of whom are actually wealthy, could be merciless.
Just as the historians and ancient philosophers of the time, Greeks and Latins, wrote that well-being slowly weakens clubs, so the transformation of football has decreased the spirit of sacrifice of young Italian footballers, making them less enterprising and willing to do anything once they took their first steps in big football. And also more vulnerable to the temptations of a world which – much more than before, with the help of the media and public opinion – already makes them feel elected when they are still teenagers, or just twenty years old. Delicate years in which the personality, the man and therefore the footballer is formed, and in which talent is not enough.
We could give dozens of examples, as well as talk about those great managers – Milan and Juve above all – who followed the youngsters even off the pitch and pushed them to start a family as soon as possible to have stability (a bit like the Barella model, who at 24 was already married with three children). People like Galliani, who even at the AC Milan Junior Camps, in front of children from all over Italy, he repeated always: “To become a footballer you will have to go through a difficult path and many sacrifices». Because for a young footballer, especially these days, it’s very easy to believe he is arrivedand get lost even before you’ve done it.
To conclude, net of all possible examinations, solutions and interpretations, the problem is profound and rooted.
And Italian football has taken a dangerous path that will hardly lead to a change of course without an awareness on the part of the institutional bodies and the community in general. In conclusion every culture has its roots, its own way of expressing itself and manifesting itself. We Italians will never reason and act like cold Nordic calculators, we will never have the mentality and attitude of the English in our hearts, capable of producing in vitro footballers in the luxurious and ultra-modern sports centers they have at their disposal.
Our phenomena, if they come back to manifest themselves, will continue to respect the Latin-Mediterranean tradition which sees them being born and growing up in parks, in town streets or in the suburbs of cities, where they will be free to score a bicycle kick and fall back onto the asphalt, or to dream of the national team’s number 10 shirt. It is no coincidence that the last two most talented internationals to have worn the number 10, Cassano and Insigne, despite all their character and physical limitations, grew up playing on the street; and that in general the purest talents continue, around the world, to come from the suburbs, from the potreros, from the banlieu; from pitches and often improvised existential conditions.
We will start having the champions and champions again, words excessively abused nowadays due to sensationalist and too hasty media (think of the latest headlines on Gnonto after a couple of good games), when our young players will once again have the Tottis, the Cannavaros, the Buffons, the Del Pieros and the Baggios were sporty – for some it is already like this, think of Barella themselves, whose reference was Riva, and Tonali, whose idol was Gattuso -, when they will return to dream of the World Cup more than anything else and they will stop emulating the players from Men and Women lent to the world of football. Because, as written several times, the players come first the men: so it has always been and so, despite the changes in society and the new generations, it will always be.
Cover photo from the Italian national team, via Twitter