Culture /

Il Calcio: The Italian Ball Game

“Because for Italians, the ball game is something they can’t do without, like pasta at the table.”

At my parents’ house I discovered a drawer full of old pocket radios. I then found an identical one when we emptied my grandmother’s house. I was reminded of them present in family photos, with that unintentionally vintage design, often surrounded by an engrossed group of people of all ages, hands cupped around their ears. I remembered afternoons in the mid-nineties when they were still used. As a child I used to take them with me on Sunday outings for the same reason everyone else took them: to follow the ball game.

Church, lunch, and the game are the three pillars upon which the Italian Sunday was built. Three clustered events spaced a few hours within each other: first duty, then necessity, and finally pleasure. Even if it does seem excessive calling it a pleasure, for all the times an afternoon defeat made our baked pasta go down the wrong way and along with it, the entire weekend.

Those radios often caused friction between couples, as men out for a walk were more taken by the broadcast than by their female companion. At least the radios never physically kept anyone from their families; otherwise Sunday would be spent at the stadium or at home in front of the television. Rita Pavone sang about it, scolding her companion for preferring football and leaving her alone; Dino Risi painfully portrayed it in his episodic movie, The Monsters, where in the episode What a Bad Life!, Vittorio Gassman plays a poor family man who spends what little he has to go to the stadium; Alberto Sordi reiterated this in the memorable scenes of The Husband and I know That You Know That I Know.

Because for Italians, the ball game is something they can’t do without, like pasta at the table. It doesn’t matter if it’s with pesto or ragù, as long as it’s there. The same can be said about football: whether at the stadiums of its origins or through the alternative of radio broadcasts, it has always been a fixture. Then came TV, keeping thousands of fans comfortable in their armchairs and slippers, opening the doors to sharing more time with loved ones, a custom strengthened specifically by the Azzurri national matches. Friends and entire families in front of a screen, ready to cheer and perhaps celebrate in the streets. Similarly, the European and World cups have always gifted unforgettable moments, for better or worse, even if only for the sake of following the great champions in their respective national teams. Paolo Sorrentino sweetly told us about it in The Hand of God, with the Schisa family captivated by Maradona’s Argentina, on the balconies of Naples.

The cult of the game does not have specific areas of competence, no typical geographical indication, like wine does, but it has always brought people together within its single large leather sphere. From North to South, from the countryside to the big cities, from the mountains to the sea. Those who could went to the stadium, up to the time it was more comfortable to watch matches on TV. Lunch was at home, then down to the bar, until the call of the family became too insistent to be ignored. At that point the pocket radio came in handy.

But like all cultural symbols, fans have had to deal with the progression of the sport’s economic sector growing disproportionately in just a few years. The first change was the match schedule: after more than half a century of Sunday afternoon starts, the delay was born. It was the 1993 of great changes, with Italy in political turmoil and television rights becoming a greater feature of the sport. It was the first upheaval of many. In February 2021 the first round of the Series A schedule was split between Friday afternoon and Monday evening, with no match played at the same time. For the older folks this was an outrage. Who knows what my grandparents would have said, used to arriving at Sunday dinner knowing the rankings were already updated. Obviously it was no longer possible to follow games on the radio minute by minute, as I did as a child. My parents were never big fans, but when we would go on our Sunday outings in the car, we listened to the live broadcast on the radio, which started immediately after the iconic theme song, A Taste of Honey, by Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass. And when we went for a walk, I had the trusty pocket radio with me. The excitement was palpable as the reports came from field to field, the format used then by the Rai network for live football events. The reporter was often interrupted by the jingle announcing a goal in another stadium. I clearly remember the sensation I felt seconds before the correspondent would give updates on the match; moments when I hoped news would be about my favorite team but – careful! – also in that moment the opposing team could have scored. I swayed on that swing between relief and disappointment each time, every Sunday.

In today’s connected world, the ball game now comes to us. Our grandparents would have gone mad, as well as our parents limited by pay-TV, if with a few taps on a screen they’d had access to live matches, able to watch them on the beach, at a wedding, on the road, anywhere. The new football times may be irritating, or may seem like an obstacle to sharing, but these new means actually allow for greater access. Of course, they take away a bit of the sentimentality, but watching matches is part of Italian culture, and a fragmented schedule will not undermine this tradition. After all, even church times have changed, and Sunday lunch is now often replaced by the American style brunch. Some things change over time, but the essence is the same. The peanuts at the stadium still taste as they did when my grandfather took my father in the early 1950s. And likewise when he then took me forty years later. Seeing the green lawn in person for the first time, seeming so immense while climbing the bleachers, will always be an emotion shared by children from all generations. The same as congregating in front of a screen with friends and family, cheering for a goal or consoling after a defeat. The radio broadcast continues to accompany us, especially in the car; and – if there’s no signal – to this day we still have the pluck to ask strangers “Who hit the goalpost?” like Paolo Fantozzi did in the iconic movie scene. Because that’s how we like it, and we can’t do without.

It is so beautiful then, to call it like they used to: the ball game “la partita di pallone”, a simpler and more common version of the “football match”. A name handed down from generation to generation and now so obvious that it has been permanently shortened to the “game”. It’s Sunday in Italy. If we’re going to see the game, it can only be football. So let’s arm ourselves with an internet connection, radio, TV, or head to the stadium, and let’s watch it with our favorite people.