As the years tick by and pay-to-view television continues to dominate sport (particularly in the broadcasting of football and cricket), it becomes increasingly clear just how welcome Football Italia was during the 1990s. Sunday afternoon tradition – the ritual of which has no discernible start or end; there was simply a period where it happened – dictated that if Formula One was not putting on a race then a couple of hours was spent in the company of James Richardson on Channel 4.
From the terraces of stadia all over Italy, one of the finest sports presenters to grace television brought a foreign league, full of foreign players and made up of teams with exotic nicknames like the Rossoneri and Nerazzurri, to life. For a 13-year old, the whys and wherefores of Serie A being broadcast didn’t matter – it was a chance to watch football, with the English equivalent hidden behind a prohibitively expensive pay wall.
Don’t dismiss Saturday morning tradition either – the delightful and always entertaining Gazetta programme, which continued for several years after live Sunday matches ceased to be shown, and provided the lifeline of terrestrial television highlights. The iconic shot of Richardson sitting at an outdoor café (with a grand landmark in the background and a tempting ice cream dessert on the table), translating transfer rumours and news from the Italian papers, is probably the part of the show that still lives in most memories now.
How else could I watch my team, Inter, come back from 2-0 down to get a draw against Juventus (when they were still good) during the 2001-02 season, with Clarence Seedorf scoring two astonishing long-range goals? Those programmes brought the league to life in a way that Match Of The Day has never seemed to quite achieve with the Premier League.
At this point, you might be asking why Inter are ‘my team’?
Enjoying football, but being brought up in a household with no interest in it, meant inspiration had to come from different sources. With nobody taking me to Stoke City or Port Vale every week – or even a local non-league team – during childhood, other attachments had to form. Which is where Football Italia came in…
In 1999, Inter signed striker Christian Vieri to play alongside legend-in-the-making Ronaldo – the Brazilian, original Ronaldo who would be named World Player of the Year three times. To my 15-year old mind this was the most exciting strike partnership in world football, and it made Inter compelling to watch. Injuries to both players frequently kept them from playing together, but rather than cause disillusionment it only served to further the mystique of their partnership.
For all the money that went into assembling the Inter squad, they were a disjointed team who could somehow be classed as underdogs, albeit with massive potential. Chasing a first league title in ten years or more, they were a club often frustrated, while bitter rivals Milan and Juventus continued to taste success. For reasons that can be explained no better than this, they became the team I slavishly followed week after week with the help of James Richardson and Channel 4.
That 2001-02 season summed Inter up perfectly. Ronaldo returned from injury a few games from the end of the season and immediately started scoring goals. Vieri was in imperious form all season and they headed the table with one game to play. Finally, at just the right time, the strike partnership was working as it had meant to for three seasons, and that elusive title would be Inter’s.
Alas, no. Losing 4-2 to Lazio allowed Juventus to steal it at the death. Inter didn’t even finish second, as Roma secured that honour. The disappointment marked the end of a short and unfulfilled era – Ronaldo won the 2002 World Cup for Brazil, moved to Real Madrid, and memorably tore apart Manchester United in the 2003 Champions League. Inter continued to never-quite-make-it until the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 changed the face of Italian football.
Serie A is sadly nowhere to be seen on television following stints on Bravo and Channel 5. Undoubtedly, the quality it offers now does not match that of ten or twenty years ago, but thanks to Football Italia I would still rather have the Italian league on my television than any other. Though I have to follow them from afar, Inter will remain ‘my team’ and someone will have to go a long way to top that partnership of Vieri and Ronaldo.
Ronaldo retired this week, and the following article was part of the inspiration behind the above reminiscences: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/9397354.stm
James Richardson hosts Football Weekly for The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/series/footballweekly