The Crises in Italian Football and Politics

By Sebastiano Sali

Italy is widely renowned as one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Among the many reasons for this is the colourful world that surrounds football, with all its social traditions and customs. This is a world that can count many fans outside the Boot itself, like Tim Parks, the most famous Englishman who put his interest for Italian football into a book. However, the current temperature of Italian football is way below zero: it is frozen, like a dead body. Whether this has anything to do with global warming or the Berlusconi government, who knows? 

However, for only the second time in one hundred years footballers in the Boot have gone on strike.  

The first round of the famous Serie A was postponed and there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. Officially the footballers’ union and the Italian football federation have not been able to reach an agreement on the three year long footballers’ national collective contract. According to the footballers, the federation has not kept a promise made in late December 2010 over some contract details. According to the federation, the players refuse to pay the recent tax introduced in the Berlusconi government’s mid-summer budgetary bill, the (in)famous “Contribution of Solidarity” for annual salaries above €90,000.

Solidarity is a word that has often been spoken by politicians during the current times of economic, social and environmental crisis that we are living in. The biggest and most famous example was Greece, saved from default in the name of the European spirit of solidarity. Another much smaller example concerns boots and shin-pads, corners and offsides. (Do not try to tell Italians that footballing problems are less serious than Greek bankruptcy!) With such a description foreigners’ ears may feel that the author is writing about the classical Italian comedy, waiting for Totò or that Alberto Sordi may suddenly come out and tell us it is all just a joke. Instead the story looks more like a Greek tragedy, but without the mastery of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides.

It is true that not all footballers are stars like Ibrahimovic, Eto’o or Cavani, earning billions of euros every year for running after a ball while wearing shorts. But it is nonetheless a truism that none of them, from those in the top clubs to reserves in the lower divisions, has ever done a double shift in a coalmine. Besides, all the privileges that footballers enjoy in Italy - although they swear they are not striking to defend them, are a symptom of sickness throughout the entire system of football, from presidents to players, from the clubs to the federation. The footballers’ union spokesperson, former AS Roma and Italian international midfielder Damiano Tommasi, has strongly defended the willingness of the players to pay the new tax, and thus to make their contribution to the solidarity of the motherland.  Yet at the same time Tommasi claims that the terms of a collective contract, which state that all players’ salaries must be neat, that is tax exempt, must be adhered to.  The paradox of this situation lies in the ante-fact that this very formula was introduced by the then President of Serie A, AC Milan’s CEO  Adriano Galliani (Yes, conflict of interests does not apply only to politics in Italy, or perhaps football is not only sport but this is another story). Today the same clubs in Serie A, Galliani’s AC Milan included, do not want to pay the “Contribution of Solidarity” on the footballers’ behalf. So what happens from here?

As many are aware, Italy is a land of football managers and of prime ministers. On the beach, in bars and in markets people are divided between the rights of the, nevertheless privileged, working class of footballers against the rich and greedy tycoons (the minority); and against the richest stars of football that do not want to give a nickel to those who are suffering badly from the crisis (the majority).  What is the truth? Who is right and who is wrong?

As usual in Italy everyone is right in some measure, but everyone is wrong at the same time. The reality is that Italy is a land of paradoxes and absurdity. Italian GDP is leading to recession, the rise of national debt is unstoppable, the unemployment rate is exploding and the spread is reaching peaks higher than the Himalayas.  On top of all these concerns, the government is trying to draft the third budgetary bill since 15 August.  “Panem et Circensis”, “Bread and Games” as the ancient Romans used to say. Or “Smoke gets in your eyes” in the words of a more recent song. Whatever the metaphor, the majority of the Italian people have been talking for a long time about the football strike instead of the condition of the country, much to the government’s joy. Smoke in their eyes though. But if the bread is still going to be there for a while (hopefully), the entertainment is already over. At least for now. If the show will be finished by the time that the smoke is gone, perhaps then Italians will understand that what is happening to their country is more important than their football league. In the meantime, what remains of Berlusconi’s Italy is the sun, the sea and the food, as he said few years ago in front of the European Parliament. Football is another matter.


Sebastiano Sali is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies Department - King’s College London. He researches on identity and foreign policy in AKP’s Turkey where he was Visiting Researcher at the M.E.T.U. of Ankara.


15 September 2011