Marcotti, Gabrielle and Vialli, Gianluca: The Italian Job

Introducing the book, the proposer said that – although he was indeed a Chelsea fan – he had chosen it because it was an unusually intelligent and thought–provoking book about football. It was very different from the standard “kiss and tell” fare. The book had been one of the nominations for Sports Book of the Year in 2006.

Vialli came from an affluent and educated Italian background. As Vialli noted, such a background was almost unheard of amongst English footballers. That footballers came exclusively from the working classes in England had important implications – such as the reluctance amongst English teams to consider tactics seriously, and their approach to training.

His whole approach was refreshing, for example in his empirical approach to issues. Rather than simply discuss the impact of climate on English versus Italian football, he examined the statistics, showing that the key difference is not in temperature or in rainfall, but in the wind.

The historian A. J. P. Taylor liked to begin lectures by saying that:

“As good historians we should not use generalisations about nationalities ……if it were not for the strange fact that they are all true”

Vialli was particularly interesting in similar vein as he wrestled to define the national/cultural/attitudinal differences between England and Italy in relation to football.

He identified that English managers were less intellectual because of their working class background. He put his finger on the English habit of selecting “celebrity” managers whose fame lay in their playing skill, not in their managerial qualifications and experience. Vialli recognised that he himself fell into this category when appointed at Chelsea – an appointment which had astonished Italians, but not English.

An interesting issue for the proposer – (and for the largely Scottish group he addressed, although it included some representation of both English and Italian interests) – was where Scottish managers fitted into this schema. Vialli treated Scottish managers in the Premiership as essentially English, but also notes that the number of “foreign managers” of the top English teams was even higher if the Scots such as Ferguson and Moyes were classified as foreign. But the proposer put forward for discussion the thesis that Scottish managers fell somewhere between the English and the Italian managers, as they came from a working class background that put more emphasis on thinking skills. This might explain their disproportionate success in England.

And there were all sorts of other interesting ideas and suggestions in the book, for example about the media and the rules.

While the book was written in an engaging way, what marked it out was the unusual range and depth of thought, and he invited the group to focus on the issues that were raised in the book.

And, in a manner totally unprecedented for the Monthly Book Group, the team pursued the proferred ball relentlessly, without pause for diversion or amusement, and not even playing the man instead of the ball. (Is there any subject other than football which would generate such sustained concentration and serious debate amongst Scots? Certainly not money, last month….)

The opening phase saw some pretty play around the book as a whole. “Tremendous, really interesting”. “One of these books that will forever change the way I see certain things”. Even for a non-football-fanatic (yes, there was one) the book had proved quite interesting, although frustrating in having an index but no contents section. However, kicking the ball back to the centre, it was a pity that his early empirical method deteriorated into assertion backed up by selective quotation. The second half of the book was weaker than the first, as he rushed to squeeze in extra topics.

Was the book aimed at England or Italy? We assumed England, as there was no evidence it had been published in Italy. And the subtext – disguised by Vialli’s tact and charm – was the question of why the English (particularly the English national team and English managers) were less successful than they expected to be. At the time of the meeting, the top eight clubs in the English Premiership were managed by managers who were not English.

Vialli’s co-author – Gabrielle Marcotti – was a journalist. Was his role simply that of polishing the ideas into prose, or were they in fact Marcotti’s ideas and research promoted with Vialli’s name? The introduction said they had done the research jointly, and – nutmeg! – if you had listened to the recent Times podcast with Vialli, it was clear that he had the intellect and ideas sufficient to have played the lead role in the book.

The next phase of play raged around the managers. One Hibs aficionado was less than convinced by the theory that experience was the key. There was a trade-off between the dynamism and energy of youth, and the experience of age. Bobby Williamson had fared badly at Hibs, while Alex Miller had done much better during his ten-year stay, but had stayed too long. (However, Miller had admittedly gone on to an important role as assistant at Liverpool). On the other hand, countered another fan of the green, John Collins might have had coaching qualifications, but was a “celebrity” appointment with no managerial experience, which compared badly with the managerial apprenticeship served by Paatalainen. And McLeish and Turnbull had both benefited from their managerial apprenticeships, as, classically, had Ferguson.

But – nowadays – Ferguson would never be left so long in place at Manchester when unsuccessful early on. And was Fergie really – as Vialli suggested – a man of reason and logic rather than passion, whereas paradoxically Wenger was a man of passion rather than reason? We weren’t too convinced, particularly when told the uncensored story –red card! – of why the boot had been thrown at Beckham. On the other hand, it was remarkable that Fergie had taken his coaching qualifications while a young player, and that the reason he gave for not taking press conferences in England was that he was never asked about tactics. And how polite Vialli was about the managers he interviewed. Could this modest and diplomatic person emerging from the pages really be Mourinho? Or was this more Italian tact…

Play now switched into the penalty box of national stereotypes. Given the stereotype of Italians as fun-loving but with a chaotic public sector, the book’s image of Italian footballers – obsessed with tactics, superbly organised, and finding no joy at all in football – was totally contrary to prejudice. Perhaps our stereotype was of the south, with Italians of the north different people? But the Mafia is another lethally efficient organisation…and do the wrong people get into government positions? Penalty!

There was general support for the view that the Scottish working class have more of an interest in ideas than their English counterparts, with the self-improvement tradition of the “lad o’pairts”, and the higher participation rate in universities. The English – two-footed tackle! – had a distinctively anti-intellectual tradition. Where else would you find a phrase such as “too clever by half”? This might indeed explain why Scottish managers adapted more easily than English to the study of tactics.

Another side to the Scottish working class tradition which might be helpful in this context was the propensity to argument and dissent, or discussion as Scots would see it, and to challenging received wisdom (such as four-four-two) The English perceived this as personal in a way the Scots did not. This difference in attitude to debate on could be seen simply by going into pubs on different sides of the border, where in England conversation would be uncontroversial but any Scottish pub would be full of heated dispute about ideas. So, yes, – goal! – we agreed with the proposer that Scottish football managers were more intellectual than their English counterparts.

Perhaps that argumentative trait was also associated with the Scottish propensity to invent, just endorsed by a comparative study of universities. But, added one disputatiously, Scots had not been particularly individualistic or challenging in the military context. And the English were more confident in speaking at meetings.

Were skill levels going up or down? 40 years ago, the Scottish team could boast the skills of players such as Johnstone, Law and Baxter, but there was nobody comparable now. Was this skill gap because of the loss of the freedom to play in the street and the park, that had developed the “tanner ba” skills? Or was it competition from other pastimes, or poor training? On the other hand, most of the Scottish teams with great flair players in the past had underachieved because of a lack of team organisation. The Germans were the example of a team with little flair but great organisation, which thus overachieved.

One of our number (displaying a particularly analytical bent – could there be Italian influence?) had been sufficiently intrigued by Vialli’s quadrilaterals for evaluating players to attempt some himself. The scores are reproduced below (the Blogger software not accepting the graphs!) The scores are out of 20 for technique (T), and out of 10 for each of intelligence (I), athleticism (A) and “balls” (B):

Rooney – T 17; I 8; A 8; B 9

Ronaldhino – T 18; I 8; A 5; B 7

Paatalainen – T 10; I 9; A 7; B 9

Vialli’s point about the lack of tactical awareness in England was well borne out by the English media. They could not appreciate a tactical battle, and dismissed such games – for example the recent Chelsea/Spurs Carling Cup Final – as “boring”. Even journalists in the “quality” press would seek to demonstrate their superior literary skills, not their tactical awareness, in what they wrote. In the build-up to a game such as that night’s Falkirk/Hibernian match, the press would write up some personal interest story in terms of childish clichés. They would not focus on the key tactical issue of the formation that the Hibs midfield might play to counter the superior physical strength of Falkirk. A team such as Hibs would benefit from a more intelligent press, and more serious scrutiny. It was not easy for journalists, though, as the number of journalists had remained constant in recent years while their output had had to increase.

On the other hand, the growth of fans’ websites meant more serious tactical analysis was getting an airing. This paralleled Vialli’s point that fans – when represented through trusts on football boards – acted more sensibly than most directors on financial matters. Indeed one of the many refreshing aspects of the book was the way he empathised with – and analysed – the fans’ viewpoint. He deplored the reduction in attendances in Italy, which he convincingly attributed to unwise policies on televising matches. We noted some Italian attendances were extraordinarily low, compared say to the big attendances in Germany.

Vialli was also particularly interesting on how the role of public authorities in stadium-building in Italy had been damaging to fans’ interests. For example the authorities insisted on multi-use stadia with running tracks which wrecked the atmosphere, and focussed on how the stadium looked externally, instead of how it functioned for the football spectator. This was a healthy counterblast to the British accepted wisdom that the Italian tradition of local authorities owning football grounds was superior.

 Vialli correctly noted that the English Premiership, backed by television, had now become the most commercially successful in the world, and thus attracted the best players. However, he did not analyse why that was so – given that for a while first the Italian then the Spanish leagues had held that position – or consider if it would continue. Was it possible that the English tradition he identified – with its excitement, the emphasis on the game’s narrative rather than tactics, the emphasis on effort and never-say-die heroics rather than skill and percentage calls – was a key factor in this? Or was it post-Thatcherite superior skill in selling the product? It was particularly intriguing how he identified that English teams with a foreign manager and no English players still felt themselves being sucked into the English culture of play.

 We also debated why English teams had so often in recent years fallen at the last hurdle in the Champions’ league. Was it, as widely argued, exhaustion after their over-full season? Or was it that they did not have sufficient tactical guile when examined at the highest level? Vialli’s point about the Italian reverence for tactics compared to British passion was only too cruelly illustrated by the way an overly pumped up Scotland had fallen at the last hurdle to a coolly efficient Italy at Hampden in Euro 2008.

 Yet another stimulating aspect of the book was his analysis of the distribution of television money in England and Italy, and the way it had helped concentrate success in a small number of top clubs. If he had looked at Scotland, he would have seen an even more starkly skewed distribution of TV money, and an even smaller number of clubs with a realistic chance of winning the league. But there was an issue he did not bring out, which was that of interdependence. The top clubs did not seem to recognise that they were dependent on the other clubs for their success, and that their greed in the distribution of gate and TV money might imperil rather than enhance their own success.

 And so the MBG team kicked on, weaving with consummate artistry between topic, insight and prejudice. With the ball of relevance firmly glued to their boots, they paused only briefly to take in the news of Hibs 2-0 victory v Falkirk, and attribute it to a more tactically aware manager, and diverted from football only once – to the inaugural Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket. Cricket – “that game for Indians invented in England” – irrelevant? Not at all – the huge sums of cash being paid to buy up top players for the Indian league was also being characterised as an omen for the future of football by the Manchester United fanzine published a week later.

 They were just getting stuck into the Rooney v Ronaldo debate (effort v skill? But Man U never lost when Rooney played….) when your scribe finally had to feign a wrist injury to bring the match to an end. Small knots of players emerged blinking into the Edinburgh dawn, arguing about (sorry, discussing) the wisdom of appointing an Italian as England manager, the real intentions of Romanov, the use of video evidence, undue influence on referees…..