Italy is founded on two pillars: the memories of unrepeatable past greatness, from the Roman Empire to Michelangelo and Leonardo, and the National Football Team, the Azzurri.
According to my 28 years of experience, Italy feels Italian when it unites in front of a television set to watch 22 players chasing a ball: in front of a frayed country lacking unity, a strange national pride literally explodes in front of what many Italians call the most beautiful game in the world.
It seems strange, but let us use an example: Madrid, on July 11, 1982, goal by Tardelli, Italy wins the World Cup against West Germany. Thirty-seven million Italians celebrate by watching the game on the TV and then go out and invade the streets, all the streets in Italy, all together. So Italy exists.
In 1984, Demoscopea carried out a survey. To the question “are you happy to be born in Italy?” 93% of Italians answered yes; to the question, “what event made you happiest to be Italian?” 40% answered “the victory of the National Football Team in the 1982 World Cup”. Then, no coincidence exists in Silvio Berlusconi’s choice taken on January 26, 1994, announcing his candidature for the political elections of that year: Berlusconi used the expression “descent into the field”, drawing heavily from the football vocabulary.
Well, you may ask, what does politics have to do with all this?
It is a well-known fact that symbols unite people, tribes, nations; we talk about guides able to lead the different souls that form a group – as Yuval Noah Harari well explains in his masterpiece “Sapiens”. Since there is a lack of a modern ruling class worthy of the name in Italy, the solution appears to be relying on the National Football Team. The epic of the Belpaese is entrusted to 22 players dressed in blue, the Azzurri.
For this reason, the attitude of the National Football Team at the European Championships currently taking place is not and cannot be limited to playing and winning matches. The National Team has political weight being a symbol on and off the pitch.
The Azzurri have a political responsibility.
Indeed, during these European Championships, many of the teams on the field have consciously chosen to kneel before the opening whistle, inspired by the protest of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This symbolic gesture changes the whole representation of the patriarchal and exclusionary sports epic we are used to. UEFA authorised the initiative, but among the 36 teams, the only ones to ever kneel were England, Wales and Belgium. On the other hand, only five Italians knelt in the preliminary round match against Wales (Belotti, Chiesa, Bernardeschi, Toloi and Emerson). Embarrassing words have been uttered by Chiellini, who affirmed: “We will kneel out of solidarity and sensitivity towards other teams if they ask to kneel [however] we will certainly try to fight racism in other ways, with initiatives along with the Federation in the upcoming months”.
Chiellini’s words are embarrassing for two reasons, at least: (i) kneeling only and exclusively due to the choice of the other team demonstrates an ideological subservience and cowardice of which Italians should feel ashamed: accordingly, the Azzurri do not care, they would show a minimum of courage saying that out loud, at least; (ii) football rises, as mentioned, to the symbolic representation of the myth, it replaces the epic: to make quick parallelism, the Greeks had the Olympics in Athens, we have the European Championships, they had Achilles we have… Chiellini. Fair parallelisms demonstrating the decadence of the times we live in.
So, if what I said is true – and it is true – football is politics. Sport is not just sport – it is the bearer of principles and values such as solidarity and teamwork, the merit that comes from hard work, results and healthy competitiveness, humility and other fine things that the Azzurri seem to forget for the sake of cover shots. We are victims of a constant bias for which we could obtain gains avoiding duties.
Let us imagine what it would have meant for a young person to see the idol, the symbol, kneeling for a cause like BLM; at least, we can say the gesture would have encouraged this young person to ask questions, do some research, raise awareness.
It has been an irretrievably lost chance, a wound that shows how football is exclusionary and patriarchal, basically uninterested in the world outside the field, at least in Italy.
Dear Azzurri, remember that the ball you have on the field is spherical, like the Earth we inhabit, and you have it between your feet: you have the power to make it go where you want, where it should go.
Or at least you can give it a try for once.