Football nations at war

”Italians lose wars as if they were football matches and football matches as if they were wars”, said Sir Winston Churchill. On matters of war and politics, he was most certainly an expert.

The fact is that ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, we have been luckier at calcio than at warfare. But now it seems that in addition to being Europe’s top military power, Britain is home to its dominant football clubs. Is this real glory?

Let us have a look at the Italian sides’ performances this season in the Champions League.

We had four at the beginning of the campaign. Lazio have been struggling for financial survival since Sergio Cragnotti, who bought the club for 100-billion lire in 1992, left in 2001. Their finances have much improved since then but they remain a decent, middle-of-the-league sort of side and really had no chance.

Milan are an old team full of old glories: a band of brothers, half old Italians such as Paolo Maldini and half young Brazilians such as Kaka and Pato. Everybody knew they only had the puff to play 10 games at full speed and that is what they did. Honour to Arsenal all the same.

Roma are a brilliant side, their 2-0 reverse against Manchester United on Tuesday notwithstanding. Their midfielders — Francesco Totti, Simone Perrotta, both of whom were missing that night, and Daniele de Rossi, all world champions — are outstanding. And they have Aquilani, whose shot resembles Gerrard’s in its strength and devastating accuracy.

But then come Internazionale, the key to Italy’s decline in Europe this season. They are the league champions, yet they field just one native player, Marco Materazzi, whose name is all too often associated with red cards (though not always deservedly so, as against Liverpool). And therein lies the story and the difference between the impact of foreign players on English football and on Italian.

I am convinced that the overwhelming presence of foreign players dilutes the natural, Italian style of rock-like defence and a strong sense of cohesion. There was a time when they were carrying off European Cups in the 1960s, when Inter had Giuliano Sarti, Tarcisio Burgnich, Giacinto Facchetti, Aristide Guarnieri and Armando Picchi as defenders and Sandro Mazzola and Mario Corso as forwards.

Today they have a wild bunch of international stars. The last time Inter played Liverpool before this season was in 1965. Mazzola still remembers the Reds’ fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone at Anfield. There the score was 3-1.

Before the second leg, at San Siro, Mazzola went up to the announcer’s box and gave him an old Louis Armstrong recording of When the Saints Go Marchin’ In. He said: ”At the end of the game, when we’ve won 3-0, I want you to put this on.” That was indeed the result. Could you imagine Zlatan Ibrahimovic doing the same thing now?

In stark contrast, the injection of foreign talent has worked to strengthen English clubs. Charismatic managers from France, Spain and Portugal have done nothing to tone down the natural aggression of the English style. But they have brought greater order and sparkle to the game — more of what we call geometrie.

Above all, it seems to me that foreigners in London, Manchester and Liverpool have diluted the famous off-the-pitch excesses of English sides. Arsenal, with no more than a couple of English players, may at first seem indistinguishable from Inter — a true expression of globalised football.

But there is a difference and it is not a negligible one. London is a truly globalised city and a hub for financial markets. It is an expression of your mentality — and that mentality is not the Italian one, which is perhaps why Inter’s foreign legion is less like a disciplined platoon than a band of mercenaries, ready to concede in adversity.

Is this the right year for one of the English big four? Roma seem too lightweight and elegant. The major obstacle would appear to be Barcelona but it is still four to one: four powerful English clubs versus one Spanish one.

The only risk could come from the English superiority complex. If I were in Chelsea’s dressing room ahead of the game with Fenerbahce, perhaps I’d have to remind the players of Churchill’s quip, if only to avoid a senseless, glorious charge like that of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Better to play an orderly game with the Turks. — Â

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