Book Review: Sport Italia
Sport Italia by Simon Martin
Published by I. B. Tauris
August 2011, £22.50,
If anyone had any doubt about sport’s ability to warp society, Simon Martin’s sumptuous Sport Italia will leave them without arguments. A nation, remember, only since 1861; Italy has survived its first one and a half centuries by following the path described in Benedict Anderson’s influential book, Imagined Communities — and sport has played an integral part in that.
Witness the birth of the Giro d’Italia cycle race, launched by a newspaper in La Gazzetta dello Sport that has intervened on many occasions to reflect the interests of politicians, businessmen and lobbyists. Witness also the carefully constructed reputation Italy forged for itself as a motoring nation, both on the track and the autostrada.
Martin is the author of Football and Fascism and the inter war period naturally looms large in this account. The monuments of Foro Mussolini attest to that — and many still stand. It was a strident period of success for Italy, with two World Cups won — the number of foreign born players that helped them to victory conveniently forgotten by the heinous regime.
After the defeat of the far right, the country reverberated to a number of battles for souls. The old guard versus a resurgent Communist Party; the rapidly industrializing North versus the undeveloped South. On the individual level, these paradoxes were exemplified by two greats of cycling — the God fearing, upright Gino Bartali versus the ‘alternative’ Fausto Coppi. In truth, the two were closer in spirit than their proponents would ever have admitted.
The period bookended by two great showpiece events — the Rome Olympiad of 1960 and Italia 90 – was an initially turbulent one, with the actions of the Red Brigades and murder of Aldo Moro indicating a still buoyant extremism, but surprise World Cup victory in 1982 steadied the nave.
Ever since, there has been an apparent smoothing of Italian politics with the wily Giulio Andreotti, memorably portrayed in Paolo Sorrentino’s film Il Divo, serving the government in a number of roles and drawing on the experiences of more chaotic times. He presided over a gradual depoliticization of Italian life, a process brought to its natural conclusion by one Silvio Berlusconi.
Sport has been fundamental to this. The media magnate has stewarded the fortunes of Associazione Calcio Milan of course, but he has also ushered in a period of ‘footballization’ — an update of Marx’s opium of the people concept and the idea that apolitical distractions can allow corrupt governments to continue. It’s a marvellously well-argued and convincing thesis and one supported adroitly by Paolo Sollier in quotation — for sport and politics are utterly intertwined — and no more so than in the Temple of Silvio.
Martin’s insistence on portraying Italian sport against its drape of politics, culture, history and society is carried off with verve and skill as well as being meticulously researched and engagingly written. Later sections on betting, match fixing and racism do not obscure his obvious love for this spellbinding country — for Simon Martin has not only served us with a history of Italian sport, but a history of Italy itself.
Here is a link to an extract from the book at the I. B. Tauris blog.