By the late 1960s, sport was increasingly featuring in political protests. On 14 December 1968, one week after students had protested against demonstrations of wealth outside Milan’s La Scala opera house, they did the same at the San Remo theatre prior to the world middleweight boxing title fight between the American Don Fullmer and Nino Benvenuti, a Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) party sympathizer. Fans gathered outside the theatre were pelted with rotten eggs and the local council attacked for having spent money on a boxing match rather than investing in community projects.
There was even change in the conservative institution of football. Attempts to forma players union dated back to 1917, with the formation of the Free Italian Football Union (Unione Libera Italiana del Calcio – ULIC). Effectively running its own national league and theoretically representing the working class, it was swallowed by the FIGC in 1926. With another attempt in 1945 quickly disappearing, players had to wait until 1968 for a true representative body.
Led by civil lawyer and former Vicenza and Bologna winger Sergio Campana, and fronted by Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera, the Italian Footballers Association (Associazione Italiana Calciatori – AIC), challenged how players had effectively become the property of their clubs, unable to refuse transfers and forced to accept contracts in which they had no say. Although the majority of its early members were well-off and protected by pension plans, insurance and personal injury schemes, the union demanded that footballers be treated like any ordinary employee. While strike action was impractical and would have alienated fans, its mere threat was enough to exert pressure, especially once the mass of poorer players began signing up.
A 1974 protest against their ‘slavery’ saw all Serie A teams come onto the field ten minutes late. Soon after, all players’ contracts were modernized to include pension rights and insurance schemes, while individuals were freed to decide where they wanted to play. Reinforcing the stereotype of footballers who cared for little other than their own private worlds, however, the AIA failed to engage with Italy’s wider problems. When Perugia's midfielder Paolo Sollier suggested the union take interest in the world of labour and the nation’s lack of development, the AIA merely affirmed the individual’s right to undertake personal initiatives.
An extreme-left sympathizer, Sollier’s proposal connected with the changing face of football supporters. As Il Calcio magazine’s 1968 survey of social class revealed, 57 per cent of fans now came from the lower middle class and below. According to Sergio Giuntini, the responses testified how;
“The usual customer of the stadiums in 1968 was now more likely the southern Neapolitan than the Milanese or Torinese of the rich, northern cities and clubs. That working-class mass (generally young, immigrant into the industrial north, with low professional skills) that would be the major protagonist of the class struggle from 1969–71.”
The mentality of fans also changed. The mass crowds that celebrated in the streets after Italy’s 1968 European Championship victory demonstrated little sense of nationalism. Following Italy’s 4-3 extra time defeat of Germany in the 1970 World Cup semi-final, the reaction was entirely different. The final whistle sparked an unforeseeable explosion of joy throughout the streets and piazzas of the peninsula. The rowdy scenes of celebration after the 1968 European Championship victory were repeated, but with a greater intensity and extent, in a climate of excitement in which public spaces became the houses of all and in which carnival-like intoxication suspended the rules of daily life. For many older Italians it brought back memories of the days at the end of the war.
Broadcast live from Mexico City, in Europe’s early hours, over 28 million Italians watched the game: ‘men, women, children, pensioners, the sick, prisoners, fans and the uninterested, intellectuals and illiterates, communists and fascists’.
The first 90 minutes were dull; Italy took an early lead and characteristically looked to defend it at all costs with a combination of catenaccio and time wasting. Germany’s equalizer, with less than a minute remaining, took the match into extra time, the bitter pill made harder to swallow by the goal scorer: AC Milan’s Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who had never scored in any of his 222 appearances for the club, from 1965 to 1974. ‘Hitchcock couldn’t have done better’, according to Il Giorno.
Extra-time proved completely different, the game swaying from one side to the other as Italy attacked in an unrecognizable, free-flowing, carefree style. In shaking off its regimented, disciplined, often cynical game plan, Nando Dalla Chiesa detected the promise of a better society in his novel based on the match: ‘In the half hour [of extra time] there were no more tactics, there were no longer strict positions on the field, there was no longer cynical wisdom. Suddenly, the rules of the past lost all of their power.’
With Italy leading 3-2, golden-boy Gianni Rivera made a defensive error that gifted the Germans parity, the ball passing between him and the post he was supposed to be defending. Straight from the restart, before any German player could touch the ball, Italy attacked and Rivera slotted home the winning goal. Reaching the final against Brazil or, more specifically, defeating Germany, was a cathartic moment.
During that night, more precisely in the thirty-two to thirty-three minutes between the goal of Schnellinger and the end of the second half of extra time, Italians discovered the nation. Behind the blue of Valcareggi’s boys they saw the flag. They united in a spontaneous leap. Where was the conflict between fathers and sons, between friends and friends, colleagues and colleagues, the middle class and workers? For sure it would be back, but later. That night it was as if history had taken a break, returning to the Italians what they were burning on their altars.
Despite Italy’s growing political violence, joyful millions poured onto the streets across the peninsula. An unexpected and unprecedented moment of unity, the spontaneous festivities transcended the result to celebrate Italy’s progress in the 25 years since the end of the war that had split the nation. As Arrigo Benedetti argued:
“There was another motive for the nocturnal rejoicing: in the end it seemed Italians felt authorized to not be sorry for, or even to not be ashamed of being born in this country… Finally, it seemed possible to turn the page and move on.”
Having lacked a guilt-free pretext, Italians threw the party they had wanted for years. Tricolours, club flags, sheets, shirts, banners fluttered from balconies and corteges of cars proceeded with their horns blaring, while other lines marched towards the monuments and the fountains, decorating them with Italian flags while some stripped off and took night-time swims worthy of Fellini.
In Milan, the capital of protest, target of the strategy of tension in the Piazza Fontana, the streets filled with an absolutely new type of demonstrator that launched an extraordinary and unforgettable night.
Arguably it was the defeat of Italy’s wartime occupier that made it so particular. The peaceful revenge and collective joy extended into Germany, where the major cities were overtaken by those Italians who, less than 20 years earlier, had emigrated in humility and poverty. The Azzurri also embodied Italy’s changes, with the previous domination of players from northern teams slowly eroded by the growing strength of clubs south of Bologna. More incredible than Fiorentina’s league title win, in 1969, was that of Cagliari in 1970. A calico outpost that provided four players for that year’s World Cup squad, the presence of names from across the country encouraged the concept of true representation. Sharing their knowledge of previous hardships, in a golden period of economic growth, employment, consumption, democracy, peace and hope, Italians united in a sporadic outburst of national joy.
Behind the Azzurri there wasn’t this or that section of society, as in other sports… There wasn’t only well-off Italy, as in fencing, sailing or horse riding, nor that of the outcasts like boxing. There was Italy as it had grown in the previous decades, with all of its transformations, its passions, its structures. And this, because of the simple fact that all of Italy had played football in those decades. The easiest sport, the least expensive. Rags held together with a piece of string were enough to make a ball. Or newspapers soaked and crushed in the houses where papers were read. The street was as good as a field… even in the big cities. Thus, all of Italy had played football and its champions that night represented it in its entirety in its recent history.
With the Italian flag divested of its Fascist connotations, the celebration of a national success was permissible without offending the memory of the Resistance.
The first time since the demise of Fascism that Italy had witnessed nationalistic patriotism, some commentators were disturbed by what they saw. Writing in the weekly L’Espresso, Ennio Flaiano likened the mass celebrations to those following the conquest of Ethiopia under Fascism, while veteran journalist Indro Montanelli made a similar connection with the past:
“As a child I remember seeing with my own eyes those half-naked yobs that caused chaos in the cities with their noise, turning over cars and breaking windows: they were the squadristi of ’19 and ’20. The same faces. The same expressions. The same people.”
Contrary to appearances, the final exposed this newfound unity and identity as shallow and short-lived, which Il Mondo’s editorial deemed indicative of the country’s plight. ‘The Italians – we could conclude – are tired of frustrations to the extent that a sporting exploit is enough to re-ignite any hope. For sure they are looking for something to believe in: football this time; tomorrow, who knows.’
More graphically, Flannio described one psychologist’s take on the celebrations: a ‘preventative masturbation in the certain knowledge of coitus that would never happen’. Reverting to more traditional, defensive, tactics, Italy hung on for an hour before Brazil finally made its superiority count in one of the great World Cup displays. Despite Rivera’s decisive semi-final goal, coach Valcareggi’s decision to keep Mazzola in the starting eleven reopened the divisive national debate over the two.
The son of Valentino, Sandro Mazzola had special significance for the generation that had lived through Fascism, the war and Superga, his mere presence creating an almost genetic bond between the 1970 squad, the nation and its past. By contrast, Rivera’s place in the team was never secure, rarely considered to have been earned, and always seen to have come at somebody else’s expense. Heavily criticized for his style of play, character, timidity, and perceived conceit, having been central in the 1966 World Cup debacle, the national debate surrounding him was well stoked by 1970. Rivera and Mazzola were, according to Antonio Ghirelli: “the heroes of Christian Democrat, refined Italy, full of talent but of very very moderate effort”.
As if unable to resolve the issue but more likely in response to the demands of playing at high altitude, Valcareggi opted for a rotation system in which Mazzola played the first half before being replaced by Rivera. Having reached the final and avoided recriminations from the supporters of both, the inevitable argument exploded after the coach decided to introduce Rivera with only six minutes remaining, when all was lost. The most famous six minutes in Italian football, some declared the decision a public insult of the then world player of the year while others, such as Italy’s greatest football critic Gianni Brera, attacked the Milan midfielder.
Finally the coaches understood that Rivera’s contribution wasn’t enough, as and even more so than before. He played the passes that others had won: adorning them with dull moves that delayed play so much as to render in vain his attacking colleagues’ pursuit of space.
Demonstrating the ease with which sport could divide the nation, after the collective celebration following the victory over Germany, reaction to the defeat by Brazil indicated the unresolved issues and differences between two extreme camps in Italian society that were dragging the country into one of the darkest periods in its history. In fact, the celebrations were little more than a parenthesis, a pause, a lull in political and social combat prior to the even greater violence to come.
Despite Italy’s second place finish – the best since 1938 – on arriving at Rome’s Fiumicino airport the team again failed to avoid the tomatoes, as Brera recalled:
Instead of coming to celebrate a sensational success, the Azzurri and their leaders had to hide in an aircraft hanger to save themselves from lynching. Grotesque banners of disapproval were held up by those more used to publicly saying what they thought.
While the left had temporarily suspended its opposition to sport and celebrated the semi-final victory, its deep-rooted suspicions remained:
The fact that all the tricolour flags available have been pulled out and millions more have been made in a rush must not, however, delude whoever might like to speculate about a return to a certain rhetorical patriotism that has no sense today. Instead, it is important to understand the Italian enthusiasm for [football]. An enthusiasm which is, at the same time, a protest and a demand that sport might find its right place in the modern society that we are trying to create.
According to Paolo Sollier:
"The left’s relationship with the world of football was quite hypocritical. Many members were passionate about it, but they were ashamed of themselves. Having an interest in such a futile and lightweight thing as a match was seen as a sin, an acceptance of middle-class values, a betrayal of class spirit."
This article is an extract from Simon Martin’s outstanding book Sport Italia published by I.B. Tauris, which comes highly recommended.
If you’d like to but to buy a copy of Simon’s book, you can do so via Amazon.