The Italians call soccer “calcio” and worship the men’s national team, the Azzurri -- so called for their blue, blue jerseys. Its style of soccer, termed "catenaccio," entails scoring an early goal and then laying back with an impenetrable defense, seeking a 1-0 win. League games, including face-offs between the top pro squads in Serie A, bring out fierce fan support, with massive team flags waving, fan groups separated to prevent brawls, and steady yet flowery invective toward referees and players alike. Soccer matters in Italy, where the sport weaves itself deeply into the national psyche and players as handsome as Caravaggio paintings receive constant media attention.
Italy emerged victorious at four World Cups out of its 18 appearances, in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006 -- just behind Brazil’s five wins -- and won the Euro in 1968. Since its 5-3 World Cup final win in 2006 over France, the Azzurri have ranked between third and 14th in FIFA’s world rankings. The women’s national team qualified for the Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999, but failed to reach the semifinals.
Defenders win their share of fame in Italy, including outstanding keeper Gianluigi Buffon, fullback Fabio Cannavaro and defensive midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. The Azzurri’s Claudio Gentile famously shut down Argentina’s Diego Maradona in the 1982 World Cup with a series of hard fouls that led to FIFA rule changes. At the front of the pitch, Roberto Baggio, who poured in goals for Fiorentina and Juventus, and Alessandro del Piero, another Juventus icon, rank as two of the greatest Italian players. The Hall of Fame of Italian Soccer honors Baggio; AC Milan defenders Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi; Cagliari forward Gigi Riva; Dino Zoff, like Buffon a titan in goal; and AC Milan offensive midfielder Gianni Rivera. Among female players, hardworking Patrizia Panico looms as a top scorer, with a record 107 goals for the women’s national team; Carolina Morace shone at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in China in 1991, before being named head coach in 1999 of men’s team Viterbese.
Italy has three tiers of professional soccer, topped by Serie A and its 20 teams. Famous sides at the top of Serie A, which still attracts world-class players and coaches despite fierce competition from England and Spain, include Milan’s rivals Inter and AC Milan; Rome’s pair, Roma and Lazio; Juventus, headquartered in Turin; and Florence’s Fiorentina. Next come 22 teams in Serie B; 60 teams in Serie C, the third division; and thousands of amateur teams organized into hierarchical leagues.
History and Playing Style
Italy’s organizing body, the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1998. FIGC was formed in Turin, reflecting the wild popularity of soccer at the close of the 19th century in Italy’s big cities -- including Genoa, Rome, Palermo, Milan and Naples -- where expatriate Britons had brought the British version of the sport, which built on similar ball-kicking games of ancient vintage in Italy. In 1910, the Azzurri formed to represent Italy, and beat France in its debut game in Milan. In the modern era, Italy’s national teams found success with impeccable defense, launching counter-attacks in search of a goal or two to win low-scoring games often criticized as boring. Still, “catenaccio,” or the “door-bolt” strategy, wins favor among Italian league coaches and requires superb organization by the players.
Flopping, also called diving, marks Italian soccer particularly. “Drama has always been part of the Italian game,” notes Maryland-based soccer coach Wes Harvey, “with players exhibiting behavior that would seem unsporting in northern Europe. Everyone outside of Korea flops, but Italians and Italian expats in Uruguay and Argentina flop melodramatically.” Major cheating scandals have involved the top teams, adds Harvey, who attended World Cups in Italy, the U.S. and France, but “it’s important to note that Italy exposed the corruption and punished it.”
- Beyond the Pitch: Italian Football Terminology Guide
- MLS Soccer.com: All-Star: Know Your Calcio – Here's Your Guide to All the Basic Italian Soccer Terms
- FIFA.com: Italy: Ranking
- FIFA.com: FIFA Women's World Cup Final
- SportsMole: FIFA World Cup Countdown: Top 10 Italian Footballers of All Time
- Soccer Around the World: A Cultural Guide to the World's Favorite Sport; Charles Parrish, John Nauright
- Vivo Azzurro: Exclusive Interview with Patrizia Panico, a Legend of Italian Women’s Football
- Miracle of Castel di Sangro; Joe McGinnis
- The Washington Post: National Characteristics Do Not Explain Soccer Styles
- Slate: In Defense of Italy: Why You Should Love the Most-Hated Team in the World
- Photo Credit TongRo Images/TongRo Images/Getty Images
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