Soccer is a passion in most countries across the world, but few nations can match the passion that the Italians have for their soccer. Four World Cup wins and one European Championship glory for its national team aside, Italian football clubs have also competed in more European club championship finals (26) than clubs of any other country.
The rich history of silverware wins for Italian clubs continues further, with more players winning the coveted annual Ballon d'Or award (18) for individual footballing excellence, while playing for an Italian club than playing for a club in any other country.
And we haven't even got around to talking about the Italian fans yet! The curvas (home stands) across the nation stand firmly behind the goals of the home team, warning the visitors off their home turf with joy and menace in equal measure.
When trying to understand the significance and importance of soccer in Italy, one has to visit the grassroot setup of Italian football, the training ground of the future stars of the game. The Serie A is the highest, most coveted domestic professional soccer league in Italy.
It is at the top of the Italian domestic soccer pyramid. 9 more leagues follow, which may be categorized as professional and amateur soccer clubs. The Serie A - known as Serie A TIM for sponsorship purposes with Italian telecom company TIM - is rated as the fourth best league in Europe today, behind the English Premier Division, Spanish La Liga, and the German Bundesliga.
20 clubs compete for the Serie A title in Italy, which is played out in a round robin format, where each team plays the other team twice over the annual soccer season. The domestic structure ensures entry of fresh teams each year, by relegating the bottom three teams to the lower league, while promoting three teams from the lower league to the Serie A.
Apart from their respective leagues, Italian clubs also compete in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup), in which 78 Italian clubs from the top 4 leagues in Italy compete. The Coppa Italia is played in a knockout format, as opposed to the point-based ranking system which the leagues follow.
Facts About Serie A
Here are a couple of interesting facts about domestic professional soccer in Italy.
- Turin based club Juventus - nicknamed the Bianconeri (they play in white and black striped jerseys) and La Vecchia Signora - are the most successful domestic Italian teams. Over their history, Juventus have won the Serie A 27 times, and have been runners up 21 times. Juventus also holds the joint record for most Coppa Italia wins with AS Roma - 9 wins each.
- While Juventus have been successful domestically, it is AC Milan who have enjoyed success in European competitions - having won the Champions League 7 times compared to Juventus' 2 Champions League successes. They are the third most successful team in the Serie A - behind Juventus and Internazionale - having won 17 titles.
- Milan-based team and current Italian Champions Internazionale - nicknamed Nerazzuri, with respect to their black and blue striped jersey - are the only teams to have played out their glittering 102 year history in the topmost Italian league, and have never been relegated. Internazionale, for all their efforts, have won the Serie A eighteen times in the competition's 80-year history, and are the second most successful Italian club in that regard.
- Juventus, Internazionale, and Torino hold the joint record for the most number of championship titles won in consecutive seasons, with each club having won it 5 times on the trot.
- Former AC Milan and Italy national team captain Paolo Maldini one of the most famous Italians, holds the record for most number of appearances in the Serie A, having appeared a mind-boggling 647 times in the 25 years he played for AC Milan.
- Silvio Piola, who played with a host of Italian clubs, including Lazio, Torino, and Juventus, holds the record for the most number of goals in the top flight of Italian football, having scored 274 goals in 537 appearances.
- Goalkeeper Marco Ballotta is the oldest player to have ever played in the Serie A, and played his last game for Lazio at the age of 44 years and 38 days. A career which saw him play for 11 clubs in his 26 years in Italian football, Ballotta never managed to make it to the national team.
The Italian National Squad
The second part of this article deals with the exploits of their national team. The team known as the 'Azzurri' won the 2006 World Cup, taking their total tally of World Cup wins to 4, which makes them the nation which has won the second most number of World Cups - after Brazil. Along with Brazil, they also hold the record for winning the World Cup consecutive times-in 1934 and in the following World Cup in 1938.
Legendary striker Giuseppe Meazza was the hero for both those wins, in the days when Italy was ruled by a dictatorship under Benito Mussolini. The European Championship was won in 1968 in the only major international competition where a second final was played as a tie-breaker. Italy drew against Yugoslavia '1-1' after extra time. Those were the days when the penalty shootout hadn't been devised yet, and with the draw, Italy won the second leg 2-0.
After a long, dry patch at the World Cup finals tournament without a tournament victory - which included a defeat in the 1970 World Cup final to Brazil - the Azzurri won the tournament in 1982, courtesy goals by Altobelli, Tardelli, and the legendary Paolo Rossi in the final against West Germany.
There was heartbreak for Italy in 1994, where they lost the World Cup final to Brazil - again - this time on penalties. For all his achievements for the country, poor Roberto Baggio will perhaps always be remembered for missing the final penalty in that shootout.
But Italy was revived again when captain Fabio Cannavaro - one of the most famous soccer players from Italy, and coach Marcelo Lippi led the team to another World Cup victory in 2006. Not really fancied throughout the tournament, they won their games in rather dramatic fashion each time.
The round of 16 knockout games against Australia is still talked about, because the penalty call which Totti later converted and won Italy the game is widely considered debatable. The semi-final against Germany went into extra time, and just when everyone thought there would be a penalty shootout, Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero scored two goals in the final minutes of the game.
The World Cup final will forever be remembered for the headbutt by Zinedine Zidane on Marco Materazzi, and the subsequent sending off. Italy won on penalties, and as Cannavaro lifted the famed Jules Rimet trophy up high, the whole nation was frenzied with jubilation.
Interesting Facts About the Italian National Soccer Team
Here are some interesting facts about the Italian National team.
- Current Italian World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro is the highest capped Italian, having worn the Azzurri jersey 135 times since his debut in 1997.
- Luigi Riva's 35 goals in 42 appearances between 1965 and 1974 makes him the highest scoring player for the Italian team.
- The Italian national team played their first international game on the 15th of May 1910 against France in Milan - a game they won 6-2.
- On an unhappy summer's day in Budapest on 6th April 1924, Italy suffered its most undignified defeat at the hands of Hungary, losing 7-1.
- Italy's biggest victory has the date 2nd August stamped on it - the day the Azzurri triumphed 9-0 against the United States.
So, these were some interest facts about the history of Italian soccer. Soccer in Italy - like I said, is more than just a passion. It is a cultural identity. An identifying aspect of an Italian is the club he roots for. While Juventus remains the most supported club in Italy, other clubs like AS Roma, AC Milan, Internazionale, Napoli, and Lazio do evoke feverish levels of crowd support.