Civil Games: How the sport of soccer reflects the state of Italian nationalism

by John FOOT

When a number of intellectuals were asked, in the 1990s, what it was that held Italians together, a fair number cited the national soccer team. When Italy play in international tournaments, Italian flags – normally so rare – suddenly spring up on windowsills and on rooftops. In Naples in 2002 I witnessed an enormous Italian flag – which had been paid for by a door-to-door collection – being hung across a small urban street. Within days, Italy were out, and the flag came down. In a young and regionally divided nation, soccer has formed a powerful glue around which national identity has been able to form. La Nazionale – the national team – has always inspired classic nationalist sentiments, flag-waving, celebration and discussion. Italians are united when Italia is playing, at least in their support for the team itself.

The party that followed the 1982 World Cup victory is remembered as a joyous moment of collective celebration. That match still holds the record for an Italian TV transmission, with 32 million viewers, while 17 million Italians watched the celebrated 1970 semi-final, a figure that almost doubled to 28 million for the final. This support has rarely been seen as a political issue, and has rarely divided Italians into left and right factions. It is quite normal for extreme left and extreme right-wing Italians to be united in their backing of la nazionale.

Not all Italians agree. At times, the national team has been booed, and antinational feeling increased in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of regionalism in the north. Italy were greeted with hostility when they played in Verona in the 1990s, and again in Florence in the same decade. Leaders of the regionalist Northern Leagues openly declared their hostility to the national team, saying that they would back any team against them. The reaction to this has sometimes been a festival of nationalism, as with the world cup qualifier in Milan in November 1993 (when the Lega was at the height of its influence) replete with thousands of flags. ‘For one night’, wrote the centre-left La Repubblica, “la nazionale reunited Italy” (1).  With the right-wing domination of Italian stadiums in the 1990s, the singing of the national anthem by fans before or during league matches – sometimes complete with fascist salutes – became commonplace. Nationalism had made inroads into groups of the most fanatical spectators.

Unlike England Italy has never had travelling national team supporters. Italy play all over the country, as a matter of policy, and fans watch them when they come to town. At international tournaments, there have never been organized national fan groups (and consequently no hooligan problem). There were no national ultrà. In the early 1990s, however, a small organised group of right-wing fans began to follow la nazionale both abroad and within Italy, complete with extremist slogans and stiff-arm salutes. Their presence sometimes led to tension with other Italian fans, and clashes were seen in 1991 at Parma and in 2005 (during a match against Scotland) in Milan (2).

T he national sentiments of Italy’s players have often been called into question. A long and frequently hilarious debate dragged on throughout the 1980s concerning the singing of the national anthem before games. Why were the players not belting out the anthem? One explanation was simple. They didn’t know the words. In fact, many Italians don’t – as the lyrics are so difficult (3). Soon, the players began to get their act together, learning the whole thing from start to finish.

Whether this made them more “nationalist” is open to doubt. Once again, however, the question of national identity in Italy – as it had been so often throughout Italian history – was played out around symbols and superstructures. The core of Italian national sporting identity only really awoke – and then only very briefly – during world cups: once every four years.

Specific soccer matches involving Italy have become part of her national history, and identity, and memory. These range from epic victories – the 4-3 semi-final against West Germany in 1970, the victories against Brazil and West Germany again in 1982, and against Germany (again!) and France in 2006 – to even more epic defeats – for example in 1970 (the final), 1986, 1990 and 2010. Some of these games have inspired books, films and innumerable newspaper articles; and can be told and re-told, in detail, by almost any fan you meet.

But soccer is also a source of regional identity, and of division. With the rise of the regionalist Lega Nord in the 1980s, a party hostile to the south that frequently referred to southerners in racist terms, regionalist sentiments proliferated on the terraces. The Lega often called for Italy to be separated into northern and southern nations, and attacked the very basis of the nation-state. In 1993, Milan fans displayed a banner which read “Garibaldi infamone” (Garibaldi, who had united Italy, was a disgrace) and southerners were attacked for not being “Italian”. Northern fans depicted the south as a hostile land, inhabited by thieves and Mafiosi, which was not a worthy part of the Italian nation. Hence the “Welcome to Italy” banner displayed by Verona’s curva (at home to Napoli) in 1985, or references to dirty and smelly southerners, to “Those with Cholera” or even “Earthquakers”. Milan-Roma games were especially tense. Roma fans loved to sing, to the tune of Il sole mio  – “I have only one dream/Milan in flames”. Milan’s fans replied with irony: “Milan in flames? And where will you work?” In recent years, in an increasingly divided society and nation, the national team has begun to lose its grip over Italian national consciousness.

In the 2010 world cup a party which was in government – the Lega Nord – openly supported the teams playing Italy, and cheered when Italy lost. They even have their own team – Padania. Are we seeing the decline of a great national passion, and final victory of individual club fan identity and regional identity, over that of the nation? Only time will tell.


(1) “Milano tricolore”, La Repubblica, 18.11.1993.

(2) See

(3) Here, for example, is the first verse: Fratelli d’Italia L’Italia s’è desta, Dell’elmo di Scipio S’è cinta la testa. Dov’è la Vittoria? Le porga la chioma, Ché schiava di Roma Iddio la creò. Stringiamci a coorte Siam pronti alla morte L’Italia chiamò.

About the Author

john foot

John Foot is Professor of Modern Italian History in the Department of Italian, UCL. His recent publications include Calcio. A History of Italian Football, Harper, 2007 (published in the US as Winning at all Costs, Nation Books), Italy’s Divided Memory, Palgrave, 2009 and Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, Bloomsbury, 2011 (to be published in the US in September 2011).