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Giancarlo Rinaldi On March - 22 - 2012

Italy versus England - The Never-Ending Story

It all began with Inter against Birmingham City in 1955 and ended, for the time being at least, in a battle at Stamford Bridge last week. In between, there have been more than 200 clashes which have formed one of the major storylines of European football. When Italian and English clubs go head to head, you can usually turn the controversy meter up full blast.

When you stack the stats up of their encounters in major competition, as analysts at rsssf.com have kindly done, it has been a remarkably balanced rivalry. Adding in this season’s results, the edge is with England - but only just. They now have 79 wins to Italy’s 71 with 51 drawn games. And even in terms of goals scored the difference is paper thin, despite Serie A’s reputation for a more defensive approach. Both nations have now topped 200 goals against each other - English outfits on 243 strikes to Italy’s 223.

As for the greatest protagonists for both nations, the figures do reserve some surprises. Juventus have met an English side most times with 15 wins, 12 draws and 15 defeats. Milan have a very similar record with 12 wins, 12 draws and 13 defeats and both Inter and Roma have, narrowly, endured more losses than victories. Indeed, the first side you come to in the all-time table with a positive record in encounters with teams from England is Fiorentina with a healthy five wins, one draw and two defeats. I knew I could crowbar that detail in somewhere.

On the English side, Manchester United have most triumphs - 17 wins, five draws and 13 defeats - but Arsenal’s record makes the most impressive reading really with 15 victories, nine draws and just seven losses. It was something of a shock to discover that Liverpool, so long a dominant force, have actually lost more often than they have won against Italian teams (eight wins to 10 losses, since you ask).

But, for me anyway, ties between the two countries have always been about more than mere statistics. For as long as I can remember, there has been an ebb and flow in the fortunes between them as they have struggled for continental supremacy. Other leagues, of course, have intervened but there has always been a special intensity to Anglo-Italian games.

I sometimes wonder if that is just purely from a personal stance. For a Scottish-Italian, no game carries more resonance, more please-win-at-all-costs tension than a clash with a side from south of the border. So many of my classmates supported sides in the old English First Division - mostly Liverpool and Manchester United - that I felt like an army of one, fighting the Serie A cause. Occasionally, in adult life, it seems like I have yet to lay down arms in that particular struggle.

For I grew up in a time when England held the upper hand. I had missed Milan becoming the first Italian side to win a European trophy, the great Inter team and Fiorentina’s Cup Winners’ Cup success. Instead, I witnessed a string of glory nights for the likes of Ipswich Town, Tottenham Hotspur, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Everton and, of course, the aforementioned Liverpool. It sometimes seemed like they only had to turn up in order to raise a trophy. The late 1970s and early 1980s was definitely a difficult time for a Calcio fan growing up in an era being dominated by the “inventors of the game”.

The simplified view of the tectonic shift that would move the European power base further south is centred on the tragedy of Heysel and subsequent ban for English sides. That clearly did their prospects no good, but there were already signs before that awful night that Serie A was staging a revival. The most significant move in that regard had been the lifting of a block on foreign player signings in Italy in 1980. It allowed the best footballers in the world to come pouring in and give an extra edge to the play of the nation’s club sides.

Undoubtedly, the removal of one of their main adversaries allowed Italian sides to prosper more easily. Indeed, there was a slightly hollow feeling to the early triumphs achieved while some giants of the European game stood on the sidelines. But, on their return, they found the landscape had changed significantly from the one they had left behind.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were an undoubted golden age for Italy’s club football. The first clash between the two nations after English clubs were readmitted saw Inter overturn a 2-0 away defeat to Aston Villa with a 3-0 triumph in the San Siro in 1990 in the UEFA Cup. A year later, Genoa produced a seismic victory by beating Liverpool, a club which once ruled Europe, both home and away in the same competition. Serie A, it was clear, boasted strength in depth.

But the wind would not be at Italian backs for long. English sides were soon ready to fight to reclaim their leading role and Arsenal’s victories over Torino and Parma en route to lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994 opened a more balanced time. Over the next decade or so, the two proud nations slugged it out in a string of epic battles across every major continental competition.

Then, as the money ran out in Serie A, it seemed to be siphoned almost directly into the relatively recently invented Premiership. Foreign owners willing to put fortunes into backing some of the most historic names in the game made for an almost irresistible force. Some of the defeats dished out to Italian teams still ring in the ears to this day. Lazio 0 Chelsea 4, Manchester United 7 Roma 1, Inter 1 Arsenal 5 and Fulham 4 Juventus 1 are thrashings which remain painful for fans of the sides which suffered them. England was most emphatically on top and, unlike Italian outfits who might ease up on an already defeated opponent, they were not afraid to put the boot in.

Yet the latest trend suggests that the gap may have narrowed once more between England and Italy. This season, more or less, honours have been even with Arsenal putting paid to Udinese’s Champions League dream and Chelsea’s thrilling comeback to eliminate Napoli counterbalanced by the Partenopei’s earlier success against Manchester City and Milan’s seat-of-the-pants survival against the Gunners in the same round of games. Every single one of those encounters was gripping in the extreme.

The beauty of these matches is that there are still some distinctive elements in how the two countries like to play their football. Napoli’s first leg win over Chelsea had all the rapier-like attacking precision you would expect of a Serie A side. In the return match, the will-to-win, aerial power and physical presence of the London side was just a little too much for Walter Mazzarri’s men to handle. Even Milan’s attempts to throw away a four goal cushion against Arsenal could be seen in this context. Italian teams, it seems, do not do well when they kick off a match thinking they have already got the job done. While their English counterparts will rarely give up on the most seemingly hopeless task - as Liverpool’s heroics in Istanbul in 2005 most dramatically underlined.

Sometimes, I have heard it said, that Calcio fans are too sensitive about these matches, too quick to go on the defensive against criticism of their sides. And, to be fair, most intelligent media outlets in the UK have left the stereotypes and cheap shots behind. However, there is still a rump of lazy and quite-widely-heard voices who have not moved with the times. It is their comments which irk us most and, personally, drag me back to dark days when there was little or no hope of converting anyone to the attractions of the Italian game. When you have heard a pundit say it would be better for the World Cup to go to Hell than go to Italy, it is not an easy thing to forget. It sometimes feels like Catenaccio was a “crime” which had no end to its sentence.

But, ultimately, it is these different viewpoints that give the game its flavour. Much better to have England and Italy approaching the game in their own manner than serving up some bland, homogenised product which the sport sometimes seems in danger of becoming. These two great adversaries have served up some of Europe’s most entrancing matches this year and that shows no signs of ending any time soon. Indeed, there is even an outside shot that Chelsea and Milan might meet in a Champions League semi-final later this year. And I, for one, would not be complaining if they did.

  • Russ Contini

    Ciao Giancarlo, what a pleasure to stumble upon your blog, I’ve seen you blog on the Football Italia website before i think? I’m an English-Italian based in Leeds and I’m always on the lookout for Serie A content on the web and great to hear from people who have had similarly tortured upbringings, defending the name of Calcio on British shores! while I agree most intelligent outlets have turned away from the stereotyping, unfortunately the vast majority of British football fans take their opinions from the tabloids, Sky and ITV, who continue to paint us as dirty cheats who play negative football, foul, dive and fix games. Even after the recent victories for Milan and Napoli, every excuse under the sun was trotted out, before the second legs and the “told you so’s” began. I have yet to find an Englishman with even a remote grasp of what Calciopoli actually was and what it involved. Of course this is worse for me as a Juventini (Sorry, i was born into it I can’t help it!) who was introduced to football in the late 80′s. England was considered to be the best and even the fact that Juve had beaten Liverpool at Heysel “doesn’t count, because Liverpool weren’t playing” this is hard to take when you are 8!

    I saw Juve and Italy as a whole reclaim dominance over the following years but the barrage of insults never subsided, British fans would never accept anyone was better than or even comparable to them no matter how many victories we had. I always thought things would get better but how much would I give now to go back to those halcyon days? when we would swat Man Utd aside like an annoying fly, on a year in, year out basis. In 1999 I honestly felt the 3-2 reverse in the UCL semis was the most humiliating thing that had ever happened, (I’ve still not heard the end of it from some Utd fans) or ever could happen, but that would prove to be a massive watershed for Calcio as a whole and we never quite recovered our strength since. A few more years of toil prevailed before 2006 rolled around and the magnificent victory for the Azzuri felt like a vindication of my entire life up until that point! as I screamed at the top of my lungs in sheer delirium with my family dancing around with me, it all seemed worth it, finally it was our time, but you know what happened next. We barely had time to enjoy it before the rug was pulled from underneath us. The ultimate humiliation, and provision of enough bullets for us to be shot down again and again until the end of time. I doubt Italy will ever live this down in my lifetime, people are too stubborn. My personal feeling is that all football is corrupt to some extent (like anything in society involving a lot of money) it is just done in different ways by different people. I accepted that Juve had done bad things and resigned myself to the deserved punishment, I would never claim that we were innocent, that is until more facts started to emerge and suggested we were no more guilty than any other of the big teams, and evidence was carefully selected for submission by people with a clear vested interest in Inter and even the rules and punishments were carefully adjusted in the preceding months to allow the sentences which were handed down. The revelations by people like Christian Vieri were jaw dropping.

    I’ll maintain till the day I die that the trial was biased and that all the teams are as guilty as each other, in Italy , England, Spain or anywhere else you care to mention, and we will get Moratti and Guido Rossi et al back one day, mark my words. The question I would like to ask you is how do you feel the guilty teams and Italian football as a whole can put this behind them and change the image we have abroad? How did you feel when you realised Fiorentina were involved? The betting scandal which followed is possibly worse in my view if actual matched were influenced. Is this going to come out in other countries too? and should we be commended as a nation for doing something about it rather than covering up, as surely must be the case in other countries? Would love to read a blog from you along these lines.

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