“I don’t understand people who don’t read La Gazzetta dello Sport. Men, at least: I don’t understand them. I just don’t get it.”
— Sandro Veronesi, writer
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Italy. It took me a little longer to fall in love with football. You’d probably find it hard to believe if you met me today, but in 1988 I was quite indifferent about The Beautiful Game. That was the year I first visited il bel paese (I’d been to Sardinia five years earlier but that doesn’t count, as any Sardinian will tell you). Strolling with my parents through the streets of Florence, Rome and Venice, I was too preoccupied with gelato or the Colosseum or whether to blow all my lire on a die-cast scale model of a Ferrari 308 GTB to notice that I’d stumbled into soccer’s spiritual home. My only football-related memory of that summer is the replica shirts on display at market stalls outside the Uffizi, and being drawn to the azure blue of Napoli — not due to Maradona, but because the team’s jersey was emblazoned with the logo of my favourite chocolate bar.
I was lucky enough to return to Italy the following year, and the year after that, and the one after that, until the question as to where we’d spend our summer holidays was no longer asked. Meanwhile somewhere along the way a light-switch had been flicked and by the time the 1990 World Cup had started I was a borderline soccer obsessive. I don’t know how it happened. The transformation came almost overnight, like magic.
My family had made several Italian friends, and they all loved indulging me in conversations about Gary Lineker or Totò Schillaci. Some friends of ours had a house near the coast of northern Tuscany, not far from Massa-La Spezia. On our way back from the beach we’d often stop for a late afternoon drink at Bar Sport, a dusty little café located between a fork in the road and a railroad crossing. It was operated by a woman and her daughter, and was the kind of place where old men sat and drank aperitivi while kids in flip-flops played videogames in the back. It was here one sultry afternoon that I first came across a newspaper called La Gazzetta dello Sport. I probably first picked it up because it was printed on pale pink paper, something I considered to be most unusual. Once unfolded it covered the entire table, forcing others to lift up their drinks. Most interesting to me however, was that it appeared to be devoted solely to football.
Of course, as its name confirms la Gazzetta is technically a sports daily, but anyone who’s been to Italy knows that sport means 90% football and 10% everything else. That’s how it was for me too. I immediately became fascinated by this alluring and exotic publication, a pink-and-black window into the culture of calcio. It became my portal into a world – Italy, football, Italian football. I already knew I wanted it, and had now been presented with a chance to get to know it better.
Suddenly my visits to Bar Sport became less about liquid refreshment and more about whether or not Sampdoria were really going to sell Gianluca Vialli. My Italian at the time being limited to the usual first words (ciao, grazie, margherita, gelato), I was initially drawn not to the speculative articles but to the daily double-page spread highlighting the goings-on in Serie A’s summer transfer campaign. This section featured a complex table which detailed the players each team had already bought and sold, who they were still hoping to buy, and what the probable starting line-ups would be come the start of the new season.
Soon my first task upon entering a bar, any bar, was to scan for la Gazzetta, which usually lurked folded on the counter or at an empty table. At this point I still didn’t have the money or language skills to justify purchasing the paper for myself, and when the bar’s copy remained occupied I’d sit and fidget impatiently without touching my glass of acqua minerale. But quickly, out of a sheer desire to understand, I picked up the meanings of several words and began to grasp phrases in Italian, albeit most of them football terms and sporting jargon: acquisti, cessioni, trattative, probabile formazione…
Obviously, Italy in the summer is great for lounging poolside but as any Inter fan knows the game isn’t played under the ombrellone. La Gazzetta takes on much greater relevance once the season has begun and there’s some actual football to talk about. Monday’s issue traditionally sells the most copies, since it contains all the reportage and post-mortem of the weekend’s games. My Dad used to travel to Italy for work once or twice a year, and he began bringing Monday’s Gazzetta home for me. This is when I first became aware of le pagelle, the paper’s individual reviews and votes for each player’s performance after each match. According to common pagelle thought, a six is considered sufficiente. Several players have received a nine, but not even Platini, Maradona or Van Basten ever scored a perfect ten.
* * *In 1992 the British terrestrial network Channel 4 began televising live Serie A matches, a decision which initially coincided with the transfer of English stars Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Des Walker to Italian clubs. The show quickly transcended these players’ activities however and stuck around long after their Italian adventures had ended. A new legion of Italian soccer fans in the UK were rapidly converted by what was at the time universally considered “the best league in the world”. Particularly popular was the Saturday morning highlights show Gazzetta Football Italia whose host, the peerless James Richardson, would present an irreverent and informed perusal through the week’s football papers from an elegant piazza somewhere in Italy. When I wasn’t hatching a plan to steal Richardson’s job, I was delighted to have a slice of the Italian life I yearned for beamed into my living room.
My family returned to Serriciolo, the town where I’d first picked up la Gazzetta, during the World Cup of 1994. The day we drove down through Switzerland Italy were playing Spain in the quarter-final. I remember because the man in the tollbooth was watching the match on a portable TV and told us the latest score as we exited the autostrada (“Uno-zero, Dino Baggio”). We watched an inspired Italian team dispose of Bulgaria in the semi-final at Bar Sport, where for the final against Romario’s Brazil they moved the TV outside into the car park and set up rows of seats for locals to come and watch. I sat wearing my blue Italy shirt holding a tricolore flag on a stick which I’d bought six years earlier in Siena. I felt a strong connection to the Azzurri — after all, the country had played as much a part in my football life as anywhere else. When Roberto Baggio’s penalty sailed over the bar into the southern California sky those feelings grew even deeper. Women and children were in tears, and powerless ragazzi began hurling plastic and wooden chairs over the fence and onto the train tracks out of sheer frustration. The next morning la Gazzetta had sold out at the local newspaper shop, so the woman who ran the bar gave me her copy as a souvenir. It was stapled, and the front page read “Poker Brasile”.
After high school I began studying Italian at university, and a couple of years later I embarked on a study abroad program in the northern Italian town of Pavia. I moved in with another student named Federico who as luck would have it was a fellow soccer nut, and an avid Milan fan. After our first weekend in the apartment together, he turned to me over breakfast. “It’s Monday,” he said. “Which means there’s something very important you have to do this morning.” “What’s that?” I asked, imagining some typically Italian bureaucratic nightmare I was unaware of, with long queues and unhelpful clerks. Federico’s eyes widened. “Buy la Gazzetta!”
I was delighted to have found a like mind with whom to share my passion for calcio, which had now become a full-blown obsession and a personal area of encyclopedic expertise. In Pavia I’d leave the house each morning with 3,000 lire: 1,500 for la Gazzetta and 1,500 for a coffee at the bar. I’d then come home and read the paper cover to cover at the kitchen table until lunchtime, when Federico and I would eat spaghetti or tortellini and discuss the day’s big stories.
Sometimes we’d even buy Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based rival to Milan’s Gazzetta. Italy actually has three sports dailies, although I considered Turin’s Tuttosport shameless in both its outlandish front page stories and clear bias towards Juventus. By now I had become fiercely loyal to la Gazzetta, or “la Rosea” as Federico sometimes called it. Both Tuttosport and Corriere are printed on plain off-white newspaper, and neither could entice me as la Gazzetta first had all those years ago.
I spent most weekends in Milan, either shopping or attending a game at San Siro, where la Gazzetta served as both half-time entertainment and a handy seat cushion. Whether on the train or at the stadium I soon realised that carrying la Gazzetta in Italy provided me with a sort of camouflage, a quick and easy prop for instantly fitting in. Just as I’d always been able to identify Italian paninari in London by their 501s and Invicta rucksacks, surely no-one would peg me as a tourist with la Gazzetta tucked under my arm.
Now fluent in Italian, I returned to Cambridge where I was able to continue reading la Gazzetta on a daily basis. Happily for me, more often than not it was the only newspaper left unread at the Italian coffee shop where I’d stop for a macchiato each afternoon. After graduation I moved back home where foreign newspapers are harder to come by. As I result I’d even resort to taking the twenty-minute train ride to the next big town to get my hands on Monday’s Gazzetta (on Tuesdays, since it always arrived a day late).
My future uncertain (apart from knowing I didn’t want to live in small-town England), I moved back to Italy with the hope of making some kind of life there. I had one or two work prospects and stayed with a family friend in the town of Borgo San Lorenzo, an hour north of Florence. Borgo was a quiet town — fortunately I knew a lot of people and was quickly introduced to more. I even began giving English lessons and Art History lectures at the local high school, where I learned that my favourite newspaper was a useful social tool with which to ingratiate myself to the local ragazzi, affording me minor celebrity status among under-25s in the Borgo San Lorenzo area. For hoards of small-town Tuscan teens I wasn’t just the English guy, I was the English guy that reads la Gazzetta and supports Fiorentina.
For work (and social life) purposes I moved to Florence, where I was one of thousands of foreigners, but still probably the only one with a folded Gazzetta permanently in his back pocket. By this time the paper had become such a part of my life that I even brought my copy with me when purchasing a bag at Emporio Armani, just to make sure it would fit snugly inside. The newsstand on the corner of Viale Matteotti was my first stop every morning; after a few weeks I no longer had to tell the guy which paper I wanted. He even saved the issues I’d missed when I went home for long weekends. We never chatted for longer than thirty seconds at a time, and subjects didn’t extend far beyond the plight of Fiorentina or the weather. Imagine his surprise when after several months he discovered I was English! Over a period of a couple of years I can recall not buying la Gazzetta on only a handful of occasions: once when I overslept, once when staying in the remote countryside and once after the most severe snowstorm to hit Florence since 1985. Not counting those rare exceptions I was never without it; just as Linus had his security blanket, I had my Gazzetta. It was quite literally la vie en rose.
* * *The twenty-first century Gazzetta now cost one euro, and had begun to enhance its own legend with full-colour graphics, a glossy Saturday supplement called SportWeek, and limited edition DVDs celebrating the soccer’s former greats. One day I was stunned to see that the paper had turned green to promote the release of the movie Shrek 2. Inside I learned that when it was formed in 1896 la Gazzetta had originally been printed on green pages, before switching to pink three years later. Undoubtedly, its distinctive colour has helped it stand out from the competition, but also seep into the Italian consciousness as a beloved national institution, even among those who’ve never read it in their lives.
Though I never missed an issue, my life — both professional and personal — had become so busy that I rarely had time to open it. Some days I’d only get the chance to unfurl the morning’s Gazzetta after getting into bed at night; in extreme cases I’d reluctantly place it atop a growing stack of newspapers that had been saved for a later date. I began to question my motives for buying la Gazzetta every single day. Was it because I wanted to, or because I felt I had to? That pink newspaper had become such an everyday part of me I didn’t even think about it. It was a piece of my personality I had to maintain. No longer just a morning ritual, it had become a habit, and when I calculated how much I’d spent on it down the years I felt like a total idiot.
Giving up la Gazzetta in a World Cup year was always going to be tough, and let’s say that I failed miserably. In the summer of 2006 I watched every Italy match at the same café, where the paper sat carefully folded on my lucky table #5 during the Azzurri’s dramatic and unexpected road to glory. The celebrations lasted all night, and by dawn Piazza Duomo was a sea of green broken glass. At around 7 o’clock a truck pulled up and dumped bundles of newspapers onto the ground, each one featuring the same front page photo of a jubilant Fabio Cannavaro holding aloft the World Cup trophy. The truck driver cut open the package and handed me la Gazzetta: it was still warm, like the fresh bomboloni at Pasticceria Donnini.
Suddenly my unwavering devotion to La Gazzetta seemed less foolish. It had taught me more about Italian culture and history than any textbook, and it was precisely for moments like this that I’d read it with almost religious regularity for so many years. Italy’s fourth World Cup victory had come after years of hard luck and controversy — I wasn’t even Italian, but I felt like I’d earned it.
It’s easy to live in Italy, it’s much harder to stay there. Not because life isn’t pleasant — it’s rarely anything else, and therein lies the problem. I knew if I ever left la Gazzetta would be one of the three things I’d miss the most (panettone and Campari Soda are the other two). In New York I can still live like an Italian to an extent, except here few people want to talk about football, and a black-and-white version of la Gazzetta on darker pink paper now costs three dollars. Not long after I moved to America the paper underwent a radical transformation from broadsheet to tabloid format, a revamp which was accompanied by a high-budget television commercial and a guerilla advertising campaign in which pink confetti fell like snow onto Milan’s centro storico. The effect was like seeing a best friend who’d undergone an ill-conceived cosmetic procedure. In the last few years La Gazzetta has seen more changes at the top than Juventus since calciopoli, and each new director has tampered with both its appearance and philosophy. I ended my readership on principle (the exorbitant cost may have also had something to do with it) and instead began consulting gazzetta.it for my Serie A news. I’m the first to admit that a flickering LCD screen can’t beat crisp newsprint, but knowing that la Gazzetta was no longer the same made me miss it a lot less.
Last month I returned to Italy with work. It was my first time back since leaving Florence, and I was excited to indulge in old pleasures. It was a Saturday morning when I arrived at Malpensa airport, and I was already glancing through la Gazzetta with a coffee at the bar as my colleagues waited at the carousel for their luggage. Driving through the foggy plains of Lombardy — where a decade earlier I’d lived as a student — I began thinking about Italy, and how the country had shaped my adult life over the last two decades. I’ve certainly spent significantly more of my “grown-up” years there than I have in my own country. It’s where I got my first real job, where I first paid a bill or monthly rent, where I learned to make a devastating spaghetti carbonara, where I once shook hands with Paolo Maldini. I even met my wife there.
It occurred to me that the one constant through all of this has been pink soccer daily la Gazzetta dello Sport, to this day the only newspaper I’ve ever bought with any degree of frequency. Much has changed in the last twenty years — Italy certainly has, and in many ways so have I. But my love for that country and its calcio has never waned. Call it nostalgia or a simple passion for a certain modo di vivere, but whenever I wake up in Florence or Milan or Rome my first thoughts are always the same: Gazzetta, cappuccino, brioche — in that order.