Lionel Messi, the star of FC Barcelona and the man widely considered to be the best soccer player in the world, is stepping up to the penalty spot. He stares down the goalkeeper for a moment, takes a few steps back and then slams his left foot into the ball, sending it predictably perfectly into the corner of the goal. 1-0.
He is playing against my favorite team, AC Milan, in the Champions League, a tournament for the best clubs in European soccer. I’m watching the match alone in Frist, because I do not know anybody else who cares about it. When the ball flies into the back of the net, I have nobody with whom to share my very real pain.
My first soccer decision was not popular. I became a fan of Milan one afternoon when I couldn’t find anything to watch on TV except a Confederations Cup soccer match between Italy and the USA. I hadn’t been overly invested in the sport before, but when I saw Andrea Pirlo spin on his heels to escape a defender and play a perfect assist to Giuseppe Rossi, I realized that it had a potential for beauty that I hadn’t appreciated up to that point. The players who impressed me most that day were Pirlo himself and his feisty midfield comrade Gennaro Gattuso. I loved their partnership of opposites, with Pirlo dictating play through elegant passes and Gattuso tenaciously covering every inch of grass in his quest to halt the US team by any means necessary. Citizen of the modern world that I am, I Googled them both and felt a strange happiness that they were teammates at Milan too. An allegiance was born.
At home in England, I have many friends who are big soccer fans, and they were puzzled and even occasionally annoyed by my choice to follow an Italian team rather than a club from the English Premier League. It was suggested that I was doing it in an attempt to be contrary or exotic, or more frustratingly that I didn’t actually care about the sport, just the athletic Italian men taking part in it. I have been told countless times that Italy’s soccer league, Serie A, is vastly inferior to those of England or Spain, and that I must be crazy for enjoying the boring, defensive games it produces.
I’m not crazy, and I’m not in denial either. I know that matches in Serie A often feature fewer goals than those in other leagues (although the extent to which this is true is overrated) and that defending is given higher prestige and priority in Italy than in many other countries. Unlike most people, though, I love that. I love to see a well-organized back line marshalling attacking players with such impressive tactical awareness that the opposing team cannot even get close to the goal, let alone take a hopeful shot towards it. I love an expertly executed sliding tackle, the kind where no matter how enthusiastically the striker tries to throw himself to the ground it is clear that the action was fair.
I even have a slightly guilty love for what in Italy they call furbizia: a personal quality that roughly translates to craftiness. This term is used to describe the barely legal methods of defending which are rife across Europe but especially in Italy, with subtle psychological or physical provocation the most notable example. In the 2006 World Cup final, for instance, the Italian defender Marco Materazzi muttered inflammatory words to the French player Zinedine Zidane, supposedly referencing the latter’s family members. Zidane responded by headbutting Materazzi in the chest, a gesture that earned him a red card and probably contributed to France’s eventual defeat. This is classic furbizia. Materazzi did not break any rules in exploiting his opponent’s temper but was nevertheless able to provoke a great result for the Italian team without the ball even being in play. A similar incident took place when Italy came up against Germany in the semi-final of the same tournament. The German midfielder Michael Ballack committed a foul against Gattuso, who immediately stood up as though he were looking for a fight. Ballack responded in kind, so the two were face to face with tensions very high. Suddenly, out of nowhere but in full sight of the referee, Gattuso pulled the other player into a bear hug, which of course could not be rejected without accusations of a desperate lack of sportsmanship. When the Italian eventually broke away, he casually but firmly tugged Ballack’s hair and wandered off, leaving the German player even more furious than before.
These tactics may seem unfair and inappropriate, but they are fascinating in the way they continue the psychological game when play appears to have paused. Many Italian fans consider furbizia an essential part of soccer, because even when the ball is stationary there are advantages to be gained, and a true master of the sport should be able to grasp those through cunning and ingenuity. It is clearly not the only necessary element. The soccer star should also have fantasia, the ability to create something magical out of the tiniest moment, but furbizia is still not to be neglected. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this concept has developed in the same nation that produced the iconic schemer Niccolo Machiavelli, an advocate of playing “the fox” and recognising when a situation necessitates “evil courses” of action.
No other leagues use furbizia like Serie A does. In England, for example, things are generally much more straightforward. Hostility is rarely one-sided and it’s far less common to see a player provoke another with the sole aim of sparking a reaction. To illustrate again with the 2006 World Cup: when Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney stamped on Ricardo Carvalho, the Portuguese player’s teammate Cristiano Ronaldo protested furiously to the referee and Rooney was sent off. The English press targeted their fury substantially more on Ronaldo’s protests and subsequent wink to his team than on Rooney’s violence. Ronaldo’s apparent sneakiness was seen as the worse crime. But in Italy, such sneakiness would likely have been accepted as furbizia.
I understand that furbizia is not for everyone. It is very valid to argue that matches should be won by the most talented team rather than by the craftiest. For me, though, it is a talent that simply adds another entertaining aspect to an already exciting sport. Few soccer moments have made me happier than when former Milan player Pippo Inzaghi escaped punishment for a very obvious push on Madrid’s Xabi Alonso by leaping away and waving his hands in desperately indignant claims of innocence. It was ridiculous and audacious and not something you would want to see in every game, but in small doses this mischief only enhances my appreciation.
This is one of the main reasons I enjoy Serie A so much, and why I will sit on my own in Frist in front of a jumpy pixelated stream even when Milan are playing horribly and losing. I am always aware that at any moment a player on the Italian team could find his inner Machiavelli and liven everything up a little.