The Man who Made Calcio
How Gianni Brera shaped the language and style of Italian football
A stroll through the leafy streets of Coverciano, a district of north-eastern Florence, leads inevitably to the Museo del Calcio on viale Aldo Palazzeschi. Among the rows of replica Italy shirts hung on the walls in chronological order and the many artifacts housed in glass cases under low wooden beamed ceilings is a red Olivetti typewriter. It's a portable Lettera 62, not quite the design classic that was the shapely Valentine model as conceived by Ettore Sottsass at the height of the Made in Italy trademark. This typewriter looks unremarkable, if not a little ugly. Exhibition based on looks can be ruled out. There must be some sentimental value here. Why else, visitors ask, would a typewriter command such a central presence amid the relics of Italy's proud football history?
The truth is that it was one of four that belonged to Gianni Brera, the sports journalist who, it's no exaggeration to say, shaped the way an entire nation thinks and speaks about football and also how it would play the game for decades. The location of that particular Olivetti Lettera 62 is no coincidence either. It is given pride of place near Italy's coaching school of excellence, the place where a country's football philosophy is laid out and learned by generation after generation of coaches. Brera, by force of his own will, perhaps did more than anyone to set its curriculum — and not always to Italy's benefit. For that reason he is admired and loathed in equal measure. He considered himself an ideologue and pontificated from the ivory keys of his typewriter. Full-bodied like the Barbaresco he used to drink, he had an untidy beard and swept-back hair the colour of the smoke that billowed intermittently from his pipe. So how did this one man, who carried himself with the air of an intellectual, come to have such an influence?
Brera was born on 8 September 1919 in San Zenone, a small village in the northern province of Pavia where the Po and Olona rivers merge. His roots in Padania would greatly shape his ideas on football. The son of a tailor and barber, Brera's childhood was spent playing football — or fòlber as it was known in the local dialect — on the sandbanks or in the oratory of San Bartolomeo, the local church. Not one to blow his own trumpet, Brera later recalled in an interview with Il Giorno, "I played centre-forward and I was Jesus Christ to my fellow villagers. But I couldn't have become a true footballer because I wasn't a natural athlete."
Nevertheless, he felt that this experience, bolstered by a spell playing for an amateur side in Milan as a midfielder, qualified him to write about the game with an appreciation and an understanding that his future colleagues simply didn't share. "Modestly I note that, before me, people spoke about football like they might speak about a tambourine," Brera scoffed. "Those who wrote about the game hadn't played it while I had played football and found the need to express the gestures that I myself had made or had seen others make in a language that was true to the reality. The others were tell-tales."
A political science student at university, Brera made his debut as a football writer for Guerin Sportivo as a 17 year old. He covered lower-league games for the magazine he'd later edit until the outbreak of the Second World War, when he enlisted in a parachute regiment. Once the armistice had been signed and his unit demobilised, he daringly joined the 10th Garibaldi Brigade of partisans in Val d'Ossola and took part in operations to thwart Nazi efforts to destroy local infrastructure, although he insisted he never fired a shot. Soon afterwards, Brera swapped the theatre of war for the velodrome as Bruno Roghi hired him to write about cycling and athletics for La Gazzetta dello Sport. In 1949, aged just 30, he rose to become the pink paper's editor.
Brera, however, was a born columnist, not a director. He left the post in 1954 to go freelance and participated in the formation of Il Giorno. It was there that he established his reputation and consolidated his style. Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher, literary critic and author of The Name of the Rose, wrote an article for the University of Rome's De Nomine magazine arguing that Brera was "Gadda explained to the people."
Carlo Emilio Gadda was considered by the novelist Italo Calvino and the poet and film-director Pier Paolo Pasolini as one of the greatest and most authentic Italian writers of the 20th century. A Lombard like Brera, the publication in 1957 of his quintessentially Roman novel Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana(That Awful Mess on the via Merulana) was seen as a kind of Ulysses moment, for like James Joyce it held a fascination with language and a revolutionary attitude to its use in fiction.
Since the time of Alessandro Manzoni, whose 1827 work Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) became a symbol of the Risorgimento in its development of the modern, unified Italian language, the nation's writers had in effect felt unable to incorporate local dialects into literature. The literary language that Manzoni fixed and made national was, for some, both "a guide and a straitjacket". What Gadda did was loosen the restraints, using the dialect of his characters, in this case Romanesco, better to portray them.
Brera did the same, only in writing about sport it was much more accessible to the wider public, who for the most part had retained local dialects as their mother tongue and a proud source of identity. It's often forgotten that Italy is still a relatively new country and Italian a new language. At the time of unification under Garibaldi in 1871 only 10% of the population spoke it and to this day many think that the regions making up Italy were too distinct to be squeezed into a single nation. Brera felt that way too.
"I learned Italian at school," he wrote, "but I always thought in redefossiano [his local dialect]. After studying, I discovered that in order to be quick at my job, it'd be worthwhile for me to think immediately in my language. I sometimes had to write 20 pages of copy on a Sunday afternoon and if I needed a word out of convenience, the one that almost always cropped up would be in dialect. If I could write everything in dialect, I'd be even happier because since Dante, the Tuscans have tired me. Excluding Galileo, they haven't written anything since the 16th century."
That last sentence in particular indicated Brera's agreement with Pasolini that in the sixties Italy's linguistic axis was moving from its origins in Florence towards the industrial triangle of the north made up of Milan, Turin and Genoa. The mass immigration from the south of men wishing to work in factories such as FIAT's and the location of the national media, which was based mostly in Milan and Turin, had obvious repercussions for the traditional linguistic fabric of Italy.
All of this came to the fore in Brera's writing. "A language," he wrote, "is a lot more alive the closer it is to real life. Sport has added something in this respect. It reaches many people, gets them talking and subconsciously or otherwise draws out words and expressions." Brera accordingly sprinkled his match reports with dialect, not just from Lombardy, but Lazio, Campania and Tuscany too. He popularised their use and gained immense popularity, selling vast quantities of newspapers as he did so.
José Mourinho understood the importance of this. In response to a cheeky question asked during his official unveiling at Inter about which Chelsea players would work well in Italy, he famously raised his eyebrows and said, "io non sono un pirla," - "I'm not an idiot" - pirla being a Milanese expression. Brera would elaborate a little further, however. He sometimes even used dialect to identify a player from a specific region. For example, when writing "Romeo Benetti touched the ball back to Gianni Rivera," he'd use the Venetian word indrio instead of dietro, the standard Italian for 'back', subtly to indicate that Benetti hailed from the Veneto.
There was more to Brera's writing than just wordplay, though. He was an extraordinary wordsmith and is credited with inventing an entire language of his own. Walk into any bookstore in Italy and alongside the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana there will likely be several dedicated to Brera himself. "He is a writer pretending to be a journalist," mused one of his contemporaries, Oreste del Buono.
Brera came up with neologisms like allupato, comparing a striker apparently ready to pounce in the box with a snarling wolf circling its prey. There were verbal idioms too, such as balbettare calcio or stammering football, which indicated a team had no fluency in its play. Brera memorably coined nicknames as well, which would stand the test of time. Gigi Riva was known as Thunder, Lele Oriali Gassy, Mario Bertini Einstein and Marco Tardelli Gazzellino (the little Gazelle.)
Hundreds of words were added to the written and spoken language, words that travelled the world and entered into common football parlance. The term libero, for instance, was Brera's creation. It emerged in his Storia critica del calcio italiano (A Critical History of Italian Football), a seminal work that the journalist Darwin Pastorin has fittingly described as "the War and Peace of Italian football." Writing about the 1949-50 campaign Brera recalled how the league leaders Juventus came to be sensationally defeated 7-1 by Milan. "Reflecting on the defensive inadequacies of the WM formation I am anxious to know why the poor central 'stopper' doesn't at least come to be protected by a teammate, 'libero' or free from the incumbencies of man-marking."
Some have argued that this suggestion, together with his assertion that "the perfect match would end 0-0", is evidence that Brera was the midwife who brought catenaccio into the world, a style of play that, for good and bad, has become synonymous with Italian football. Brera undoubtedly had an interest in seeing that it triumphed. His eccentric view of the world maintained that the Italians as a race were devoid of protein and therefore had to play what he called a difensivista game of football because they lacked the physical strength to play in an open and attacking way.
Pasolini, a great follower of football who often played on the restorative beaches in Grado with Edy Reja and Angelo Sormani, considered the claims that Brera had invented an Italian school of football to be disingenuous if not ironic. "Gianni Brera didn't invent catenaccio," he observed. "If catenaccio were part of the Italian character, as is probable, it couldn't have been invented. In the same way as the slums around Rome were not invented by those who put them in neo-realist films. They were already there."
That of course didn't stop Brera revelling when the Milan of Gipo Viani and later that of his good friend Nereo Rocco tasted success with the tactic in the fifties and sixties. They managed to win five Scudetti, a trio of European Cups, two Cup-Winners' Cups, the Intercontinental Cup and three Coppa Italia titles between them. It smelt to Brera like vindication.
Only a few years before he had said, 'I told you so,' to his colleagues. Alfredo Foni was the Italy coach at the time. He had got the job after winning back-to-back league titles with Inter in 1953 and 1954. That team had played a difensivista system. Ivano Blason was a trailblazer as a prototypical libero. But when Foni took charge of Italy, the press demanded that he abandon his principles and attempt to play positive football. The azzurri failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup and Brera felt a touch of schadenfreude.
"Finally the difensivisti imposed themselves," he wrote victoriously in another of his books, Il mestiere del calciatore (The Craft of the Player). "Viani and Rocco assumed the helm of the 1960 Olympic team and from that day forward we can say that Italy possessed a school of thought. The Italian defensive system has been more or less adopted throughout the world. Even the English had to deny themselves and play a defender free from man-marking responsibilities alongside and behind the stopper in order to win the World Cup in 1966."
If catenaccio was 'holy', as Brera liked to say, then, in his eyes, it was also untouchable. He exalted players from the north of Italy like the Inter legend Giacinto Facchetti, who had been born in the Lombard town of Treviglio. According to Brera's rather unsavoury musings in anthropology, Italy was an "authentic racial jungle". He controversially theorised that Italy's best players were of razza piave or northern stock. This led to accusations of racism, particularly from the south. There were heated arguments with his readers and colleagues, no more so than Gino Palumbo, the editor of La Gazzetta dello Sport in the late seventies and early eighties.
Palumbo was a native of the Mezzogiorno, Italy's south. He firmly believed that the beautiful game should be played the right way, not in defence or on the counter-attack, but rather in attack with a lot of possession. Palumbo wanted to be entertained and to see goals flying in. So he came to be considered the head of the scuola napoletana and Brera that of the scuola lombarda.
To say it was a clash of footballing civilisations isn't an exaggeration: before a game at the Rigamonti between Brescia and Torino there were fisticuffs. Palumbo famously stormed into the press box, spoiling for a fight. When he couldn't find Brera, he called out his name. No sooner had a figure, hunched over a typewriter, started to turn around in his chair than Palumbo was upon him. A slap resounded in the cold Lombard air then punches followed. The pair had to be separated by the others in attendance. Palumbo was furious with Brera for writing an article criticising the opinions of Antonio Ghirelli, another journalist of the scuola napoletana. This was war.
"His long career was a series of fights," said one of Italy's most distinguished journalists, Indro Montanelli. "He argued with everyone, not just about language. When it came to football he claimed to know better than any president, club, coach, trainer or player. His opinions were received like the blows of a stick. His fortune came in living during a time when duels had gone out of fashion. Otherwise he'd spend all day shooting or being shot at."
Brera made enemies all right. Take the 1962 World Cup in Chile as an example, when he let the locals know that Ghirelli had filed a piece which deplored the country's infrastructure and even cast aspersions on its women. "One evening I went to dinner for the first time in a stylish restaurant in Santiago," Ghirelli recalled. "I still didn't know anything about the uproar I'd caused so I sat down at a table across from where Brera was sitting with some colleagues. Brera then gestured a great hulk of a man towards me who I later found out to be South America's champion Greco-Roman wrestler. He threw himself on me, shouting at me in Spanish, accusing me of offending his country and his citizens."
Brera certainly had a wicked streak. But if his criticisms hurt other journalists, spare a thought for the players he lambasted in his columns. Sandro Mazzola once said that reading an article written by Brera was akin to self-harming because they were filled with line upon line of "words that cut".
Of course no one knew that better than Gianni Rivera, the languid but elegant Milan No 10 of the sixties and seventies, the golden boy of Italian football. He was the focus of a journalistic critique that was remarkable for its relentlessness. But this was no personal assault: Brera always held a hushed admiration for Rivera. He called him "my negative hero", which is better than the antichrist. Rivera was to Brera what Galileo was to the Catholic Church. He challenged his religion and all that he held dear.
"Brera was always faithful to an idea of a contracted and closed football founded on the counter-attack and on opportunism," Rivera told La Repubblica. "He had elaborated on ethno-cultural theories to support his ideas about football. I thought that in order to play football and to entertain the supporters in the stands you had to have fun yourself and that if anything the physical and ethno-cultural characteristics of Italians when united to our technical refinement made us more adapted to a light-hearted and open game."
To a devout difensivista like Brera that was sacrilege. Rivera was frowned upon as a luxury player. He cut a frail figure on the pitch and wasn't prepared to put his foot in. A stroke of genius every now and again wasn't enough to merit a place on Brera's canvas and for that reason the nickname l'abatino was bestowed upon Rivera. Brera explained the term in incontrie invettive as relating to a fragile and elegant 'little priest' who had an 'affected style' and was by the same token a 'fake'. Underneath it all, Brera argued, there was no substance, but rather a lack of courage and athletic vigour.
Contrarian to the last, he refused to acknowledge Rivera's key role in Milan's two European Cup successes of 1963 and 1969. It became an issue in his relationship with Nereo Rocco, something they'd refer to as "our Stalingrad" during their 'Thursday night clubs' at the A Riccione restaurant in central Milan, which Brera called his 'office'. El Paròn had the conviction to stand by his choices, but others didn't for fear of a smear campaign from Brera.
With that in mind, it's worth asking whether he might actually have held Italian football back. The influence Brera commanded from the books and newspapers that he sold and the appearances that he made on TV shows like Domenica Sportiva was undeniable. Did he abuse the responsibility that came with such an honour? Quite possibly, yes.
Anyone who held views different to Brera's on the gioco all'italiana was punished in print. He got great satisfaction from learning how, on travelling to England for a coaching conference in 1964, the "crazily attacking" Helenio Herrera, then in charge of Inter, "spoke of our system as if it were his own." To Brera, Il Mago had been "forced" to adopt it.
Difensivismo became firmly entrenched. The number of goals scored in Italy dropped by a staggering 300 per cent between 1950 and 1970. With a few noteworthy exceptions, coaches stopped experimenting. Corrado Viciani's efforts to introduce a short-passing game at Ternana in 1972 were soon discredited and Luís Vinício received the same treatment after daring to reintroduce zonal-marking at Napoli in 1978.
While the rest of Europe drew inspiration from the Total Football practiced by Ajax and the Dutch national side, Italy remained impervious and became isolated. Yet there was a pride that came with doing things differently. But why did the Italians remain so faithful to difensivismo Was it all down to Brera and his considerable sway?
Not entirely, according to Mario Sconcerti. A respected former colleague of Brera's and now a columnist for Il Corriere della Sera, he believes that the answer lies in Italy's Catholicism and drift towards Communism after the Second World War. "Our football was very practical," Sconcerti wrote. "It was born during a time when the country was full of ruins. There was a need for pragmatism. It was impossible to think big. Moreover, we were a country of fascists who were learning to be social-communists while staying rigorously attached to the rules of the church. We had too many religions to respect. We tried to find a middle ground, a kind of football that was a little holier-than-thou and allowed us to commit sins without going to hell."
Much like the Vatican, there appeared to be little room for discussion in the church of Italian football, not with an evangelist like Brera around deciding what was right and wrong. Years went by and nothing changed until a shoe salesman from Fusignano by the name of Arrgio Sacchi dared to imagine what Italy might achieve by playing in a different way. Initially, he was dubbed 'the Alien'.
Sacchi had seen the world, taking business trips to Germany, Holland and France with his father. "It opened my mind," he said. "Brera used to say that Italian clubs had to focus on defending because of our diets. But I could see that in other sports we would excel and that our success proved that we were not inferior physically. And so I became convinced that the real problem was our mentality, which was lazy and defensive."
Brera didn't like it, but Sacchi oversaw a cultural and tactical revolution in Italy. When he arrived at Milan in 1987 an average of just 1.92 goals were scored per game in Serie A. When he left four years later that average had risen to 2.29, a figure that translates to an extra 113 goals a season. Sacchi was "a perfidious prophet" in Brera's eyes. He did away with his invention, namely the libero, and based his defence around a back four that didn't mark the man, but the zone. He asked that his team control possession and the spaces too. He wanted Milan to be proactive not reactive. They wouldn't sit back, not on Sacchi's watch. They would endeavour to make the play.
Underpinning all of this was the belief that, if a team wanted to go down in history and stay in the memory of supporters long after the result, they also had to convince. Sacchi ensured his place in posterity by offering up to the footballing gods the magnificence of a 5-0 win against Real Madrid and the feat of winning two European Cups back-to-back. Brera unwittingly played a part. Sacchi would use his criticisms as motivation for the players in the build up to the 1989 final in Barcelona against Steaua Bucharest.
"I took his piece in the dressing room," Sacchi claimed, "and said, 'The most famous journalist in Italy says that the Romanians are maestros with the ball and that we need to wait for them and beat them on the counterattack. What shall we do?' Ruud Gullit then got up and said, 'We'll attack them from the first second'." Milan won 4-0 and Brera, the Clausewitz of Italian football, had lost.
Yet he clung to his ideas to the last. Three days before Sacchi was unveiled as the Italy manager in 1991, Brera wrote an article for La Repubblica entitled Non si va contro la storia (You don't go against history.) Hitting his stride, he noted, "A trolley is still a trolley even if you call it a tram. For this reason I still don't understand the silliness of these arguments. I know that it's exciting to see a team take a game by the scruff of the neck and impose itself on the opponent, but the only valid strength of the Italians resides in our cunning at inviting the opposition to compromise themselves."
A year later, on 19 December 1992, Brera was dead, killed in a car accident with two of his friends. A nation mourned. "It's the end of fantasia, the end of creativity," lamented Del Buono. "Now all that remains is a normalised football."
When one considers Brera's career, it's hard not to think about a short story that the great Argentinian writer, poet and critic Jorge Luis Borges composed in the 1960s. His subject was the last game of football ever played. It was a dystopia. "Football, like all sport," Borges reflected, "is a kind of drama interpreted by one man alone in a projection room or by actors in front of a cameraman."
Brera was that one man smoking a Tuscan cigar in the dark while a film reel clicked in the background. He had the plot all worked out. He wrote the script. It was a world he had done a lot to create, shape and direct, not least with his words. When Italians talk about football, they speak the language of Brera and that's his great legacy. But, as Sacchi proved, they didn't have to play his football.
Cantare e portare la croce — to sing and carry the cross
Example: "Although generous in his efforts to recover the ball, Giorgio Chinaglia can't sing and carry the cross."
Brera's point here is that the Lazio striker isn't the kind of player who can drag himself up and down the pitch with the proverbial cross on his back and still have the lucidity and the presence of mind either to score' or pick out a teammate with an assist to make his side sing.
Ballare nel manico — to dance on the handle of a shovel
Example: "This year there's talk of Inter winning the Scudetto, but some of their players dance on the handle of a shovel."
Mariolino Corso was the player Brera had in mind on this occasion. Naturally talented, but with a lazy demeanour and a reputation for drifting in and out of games, it sometimes seemed as though the little running Corso did do was only to persuade Helenio Herrera that he was working and not skiving.
Inciampar nelle primule — to trip over in the primroses
Example: "The exasperated Giovannino Rivera confirms that the pitch in Munich is a bed of primroses."
Not for the first time, Brera was needling Italy's No 10 by floridly describing Rivera's struggle to keep his balance during a friendly against Austria on the eve of the 1974 World Cup.
Puliciclone — Paolo Pulici
A member of Torino's 1976 Scudetto-winning side, Pulici had a habit of blowing opposition defenders away with his great pace and aggression, which led Brera to fuse his surname with the Italian word for cyclone, hence Puliciclone.
Baron Tricchetracche — Franco Causio
Explosive up front for Juventus, Causio was 'treated' to a sobriquet that played on his Southern origins with the title of Baron, to which was added Tricche-Tracche, an onomatopoeia that conjured the sound of firecrackers.
Conileone — José Altafini
Likened to a rabbit (coniglio) by the Milan coach Gipo Viani for shying away from tackles as though afraid of getting hurt, Brera recognised that in moments of true inspiration, Altafini carried himself like a proud lion, so he blended Coniglio with Leone.
Rombo di Tuono — Gigi Riva
When the Cagliari striker hit a shot during training in 1970 that broke the arm of a nine-year-old boy stood behind the goal, it sounded like a 'thunder-clap'. Brera, however, was trying to evoke Riva's formidable athletic qualities, which made him a force of nature.