What happened to Italian football’s creativity?

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 26, 2018

The relationship between Italian football and the concept of creativity has often been a complicated one. Players with a tendency to wander, to operate at the boundaries of team strategy, have regularly been treated with suspicion. In the 1960s and ‘70s, these individuals were viewed as luxuries, their presence in the line-up necessitating a clear compartmentalisation of roles. They would be allowed to use their imagination on the ball, but the rest of the team had to compensate for this with a rigid collective setup.

Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola thrived during the Catenaccio years thanks to this compartmentalisation. They were the offensive fulcrums around which the great AC Milan and Inter sides of the era were built. But they rarely thrived together at international level – rather, they took it in turns to play. Ferruccio Valcareggi, who led the Azzurri between 1966 and 1974, came up with a ploy known as the ‘relay’, which involved substituting one player for the other at half-time during matches so as not to disrupt the overall balance of his team.

Clearly, calcio felt it more than possible to have too much of a good thing. So, in spite of their two finest players being imaginative types who knitted attacks together, making and occasionally taking chances, only one was allowed to start. This thought process continued well beyond the death of Catenaccio into the 1990s and 2000s, with Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero rarely taking to the field alongside one another in Italy colours.

The Italian football culture has changed slightly in recent decades. There is now a greater acceptance of attacking play, and taking the game to the opposition. What classifies as ‘risky’ is now slightly different – teams play out from the back more, place greater emphasis on possession, and score more goals. As a consequence of this, last season Serie A was the seventh highest scoring league in Europe, averaging 2.8 goals per game.

However, rather curiously, in spite of this cultural shift there is a now an alarming paucity of fantasisti. This issue was glaringly obvious when, for the most recent set of international friendlies, Italy named a squad with just two players who could even be considered for such a role – Lorenzo Insigne and Simone Verdi. In truth, there were few alternatives beyond this pair who could have been called up; only Federico Bernardeschi and Sebastian Giovinco truly fit the profile.

Theoretically, fantasisti should be appreciated now more than ever before on the peninsula, so where have they all gone? The answer to this question may lie in one specific gradual tactical mutation that has taken place in Serie A over the last 30 years.

Arrigo Sacchi’s utter commitment to zonal marking changed the way Italian football thought. Copycats emerged, and now those who go man-to-man – Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, for example – are the exception, rather than the rule. Teams such as Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli and Eusebio Di Francesco’s Roma are the best examples of the new way, what with their extremely high defensive lines and aggressive pressing games.

The football is, for many, more attractive to watch. But the fantasisti, arguably the most attractive individual players in the sport, have suffered as a result. There is simply less room for luxury when every player has a space to mark, an opponent to pressurise, and a defensive duty to perform.

Italy’s tactical obsession is well documented. So unflinching is the country’s belief in team strategy over individual inspiration, it may even be reducing the development of young creatives. In Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s book, ‘The Italian Job’, Fabio Capello rails against what he sees as a suffocating system. “What’s the point of trying to build up the fitness of a 10-year-old if his body is still growing?” he asked, rhetorically. “And what’s the point of cluttering his mind with tactical notions and formations? All you’re doing is stifling his ability to express himself.”

When Italy needed to score to overcome a 1-0 first leg loss to Sweden in last year’s World Cup qualification play-off, they left Insigne on the substitute’s bench, opting instead for a hard-working, functional front two of Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti to try and turn the game. The final score was 0-0, and the Azzurri missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

Perhaps an even harsher confirmation of Italy’s existing creative dearth this is that, even if Valcareggi’s relay concept was to be reinstated, the desperate shortage of candidates make it unviable. Evidently, while the culture of calcio has changed, scepticism over the value of fantasisti remains deeply ingrained.

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