Its the most watched sport around the world. From the shores of Brazil to the planes of South Africa up to the island of Great Britain, everyone loves football. But there may not be a single one more than Italy. You would be hard pressed to find a country as crazy about the sport as the boot of Europe. In fact, over 4 million people play the sport in Italy each year.
It is not a surprise that soccer/football/calcio is the biggest sport in Italy. It is the biggest sport on the planet, after all, and Italy being one of Europe’s largest countries should, based on population, be fairly good at the sport. Yet, year after year, Italy produces some of the best players in the world, with some of the best players of all time, and some of the most championships out of any country on the planet. The sport has simply transcended sports, and become a way of life for Italians. More so than many other countries in the nearby vicinity. But this is all very well known. Yet, when considering the social climate of the country during the rise of football around the world, it is impressive that they were able to become so dominant so early. It is even more impressive when considering the different cultures that made up Italy during its unification.
When Italy first unified in the mid 19th century, it was hardly unified at all. Rather, it was a group of cities and regions who collectively agreed to follow the same government. The result of this was that there was no specific Italian culture, rather there was a Florentine culture, a Sicilian culture, a Neapolitan culture, etc. In fact, these dialects are prevalent even to this day. The result was that the unified Italy was not so unified within itself. There was no such thing as being Italian, because that could mean something different to another Italian. There were many attempts to create a more unified culture, such as the attempt to standardize the language. Most of these attempts, though, were not as successful as they would have hoped. Fast forward to Football, like so many other things, was an invention of the British and found its way to Italy during the industrial revolution. It was first popular mainly in the north, where the factory men took a liking to the sport “because they associated it with British industrial and financial power”. The sport did not become popular in the country until Benito Mussolini. Upon taking over the country during the mid 20s, Mussolini overhauled the Italian football system. He believed, and was correct, that sporting achievements would create a sense of patriotism in the country. To do this, he helped to create the Serie A, which is still the biggest league in all of Italy. He also helped to grow the sport to the point that Italy was able to win the 1936 world cup.
The sport has become so ingrained in Italian culture that it is a part of everyday life in Italy. Everyone in the country has a team they support. Everyone grew up kicking around a ball. The names of Baggio, Buffon, Maldini, and Pirlo are household names in every part of Italy. Almost every Italian, no matter where in the country they grew up, can name these men like they were family. The sport made it to Italy just after Italian unification. Even before the country was speaking the same language, they were all speaking the same game. Football. Soccer. Calcio. Every Italian has their favorite team, and likely bleeds the colors of that team. While questions were arising of whether the unified Italy would work, especially post world war 1, football continued to spread throughout the country.
The ties between culture and football may be due to the fact that many Italians culture are their football club’s culture. For example, ultras are extremely prevalent throughout Italy. The definition of an ultra is someone who is a fanatic fan for their respective team. The idea of football ultras began in Italy during the 60s as a way for Italians to show both their politics and support of clubs. Fans of clubs are usually split around the city, so many fans have similar political beliefs. This sometimes makes its way into soccer, and ends up being how ultras were started. Now, ultras are usually represented by the most passionate and hardcore of fans, not just for the politics that they used to be involved in. Since the 60s, though, ultra popularity in Italy has remained steady and high. Most of the large Italian teams have dedicated ultras who will travel all around the country to watch their team play. The point is, though, that having identified so strongly with these soccer teams means that these people are also, therefore, identifying with Italian culture. Ultras being so prevalent throughout the country goes to show just how football crazy the nation is. Football has simply transcended just being football in Italy, which is why ultras have become so popular throughout the country. It should be stated that normal fans do not join ultras, as they travel around the country in support of their team. Yet, Italian ultras still remain some of the most popular in the entire world.
Yet, there is only one thing that these fans care more about than their clubs: their national team. For many Italians, there would be no greater honor than getting to put on the famous blue uniform that has brought their nation both great joy, and great heartbreak. Italy has won the world cup 4 times(second most) and European Championship 2 times(second most), bringing honor and glory to their country, and to themselves. Every two years, the entire country is able to rally together and support 11 players who represent every single Italian. And they do. With a population of around 58 million, over 18 million TVs were on to watch the European Championship final in 2020.It would certainly be difficult to find an Italian who did not watch that game.
Football and Italian culture have become one in the same. Football was prevalent while the modern Italian culture was being formed, so it has transcended just being a sport for most Italians and has become a way of life. When you identify so strongly with a team, whether it be club or national, you have become apart of that teams culture. When that team has become prevalent throughout the town or city, and even country that it resides in, it is now apart of Italian culture. While the success is the cherry on top, the beautiful game has been, is, and always will be an integral part of what being an Italian is, and what it means.