In Defense of Italy: Why You Should Love the Most-Hated Team in the World

The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.
June 24 2014 9:41 AM

In Defense of Italy: Why You Should Love the Most-Hated Team in the World

Italian national team
How could anyone hate these guys?

Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

If Italian soccer were a face, it would best be described as punchable. The dull, defensive style of play. The preening, I’ll-steal-your-girlfriend look of the players. The diving—ugh, the diving. It’s all just so easy to hate. They’re the villain from every inspirational sports movie, and they all ride Vespas and eat gelato. 

Except, here’s the thing: Italy gets a bad rap. Well, mostly.  And the parts of Italy’s rotten public image that do hold up to scrutiny—midfielder/wizard Andrea Pirlo does look like he’d steal your girlfriend—are hardly enough to make them the Most-Hated Team in the World. 

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Let’s start with hateable quality No. 1: the Italian style of play. For much of Italy’s success-filled history in international competition, they haven’t exactly been fun to watch. They play methodically, sometimes painfully so and have been reliant on the bedrock of their national program—defense—for six decades now. In theory, this is not only boring, it’s also gutless, entirely lacking the gusto of, say, Spain’s offensive-minded tiki-taka.

But as Italian history professor John Foot points out on the website The Conversation, there’s a big difference between “defensive soccer” and being “good at defending.” Catenaccio—Italy’s tactical system, which calls for rock-solid defense and a reliable counterattack—is the latter. 

Italy doesn’t rely on defense for the sake of playing it safe, and they haven’t found a way to cheat the system à la the New Jersey Devils’ trademark neutral zone trap. They simply believe that defense wins championships, because it has quite literally won them championships. So, don’t hate the Italians because they’re good at keeping the other team from scoring. Is it somehow more lovable or beautiful to let in a lot of goals?

The Italians, too, are getting a bit more offensive-minded under manager Cesare Prandelli. As Deadspin’s Eric Morgan notes, “Prandelli's Italy, at its best, allows players the freedom to express themselves.” OK, occasionally giving the players a sliver of freedom doesn’t mean the Azzurri have transformed into Johan Cruyff’s improvisational Dutch teams of the 1970s. But this is no longer a defense-only squad.

Italy’s traditional reliance on defense, though, has led to the adoption of their most notorious, and most hateable, quality: the diving.

As Foot explains, Italians “always saw the tactical foul as a necessity—as part of the game, just like goals and assists.” Thus the flopping on even the slightest touch, which admittedly is not a great look for the Italians.

Italy’s reputation here is warranted. But for better or worse, diving is a part of the game. And it’s a part of the game that—like an NBA player trying to draw a charge or an NFL receiver begging for pass interference—rewards those who practice it better than others.

So basically, don’t hate the player(s), hate the game. And if that doesn’t convince you, then consider the fact that—at least through two games—the Italians are not even close to the World Cup’s worst offenders in the diving department. The Brazilians, Germans, and Ivorians all deserve awards for outstanding achievement in the field of flopping. They may have even surpassed the masters. Prandelli’s team, again, has changed for the better here, albeit slightly. And perhaps only temporarily—now that the stakes are high, we might see Italians start tripping all over themselves. But let’s give them a few points for good behavior thus far.

Now, onto the players. Sure, they dress like this for their team picture and I wouldn’t trust any of them with my sister. But these dudes—specifically Pirlo and Mario Balotelli—can play.

That duo is as good and as fun to watch as any other pair in the tournament. Pirlo is a magician with the ball, a player who commands the pitch at 35 years old despite showing little interest in locomotion. His set pieces are second to none, he’s a threat to score from long range, and he has a gravitas that makes it hard to take your eyes off him no matter where he is.

Balotelli is a freakish talent and an unpredictable character, a player who can turn the game in a second, for good or for ill. He can set the pitch ablaze with his amazing strikes. He can also set his mansion ablaze with fireworks. He makes things, uh, interesting. Nobody could possibly accuse the Azzurri of being boring when this guy is on the field.

In the final analysis, good soccer is good soccer, and that’s what Italy plays. You’re well within your rights to hate them, but why would you want to? They’re smart, they have flair, and they have Pirlo. What else could you want? And if you're absolutely desperate for someone to hate, we're happy to suggest Uruguay.

A.J. McCarthy is a Slate Video blogger.

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