A coach who can speak Italian with
an intimate knowledge of Serie A after managing one of its
leading clubs is plotting the downfall of Italy in Euro 2012.
That man is Englishman Roy Hodgson and not Italian Fabio
Capello, who could have been leading England against his own
nation if he had not quit in February.
Although it is impossible to know whether Capello would have
steered England through as group winners, it is intriguing that
Hodgson is now responsible for trying to knock Italy out in
Sunday's quarter-final in Kiev.
For he, more than most, understands the chasm and the
culture clash between the football philosophies of the two
Although he possesses old-fashioned English charm and
modesty, an important part of Hodgson's football education was
enriched during two spells at Inter Milan in the late 1990s.
He did not win a trophy but he did take Inter to the 1997
UEFA Cup final which they lost on penalties to Schalke 04 and he
is one of the few Englishmen in recent times to work in Italy
and enjoy a modicum of success.
Adding to the irony, two of the most successful managers in
England at the moment are Italians Roberto Mancini, who has just
coached Manchester City to their first English title since 1968
and Roberto di Matteo who guided Chelsea to the FA Cup and
Champions League title last month.
England and Italy may be among Europe's most dominant football nations but their footballing paths have crossed
relatively infrequently in major competitions since Englishmen
formed the first Italian club in Genoa in 1893.
Sunday's meeting will only their third in a major tournament
following Italy's 1-0 win in the 1980 European Championship and
the Azzurri's 2-1 victory in the third-place playoff at the 1990
Their only other World Cup meetings were in qualifiers for
the 1978 and 1998 tournaments and they have not crossed paths
since a friendly in Leeds 10 years ago which Italy won 2-1.
So Sunday's match represents a rare coming together of two
great rivals who share a great love of defending but have few
While England are happy grinding out victories and relying
on the long ball game if necessary, Italians increasingly want
to see attractive football combined with defensive solidity.
The rise of Latin rivals Spain and their "tiki taka" has led
Italy to lust after a similar style even if the players are not
yet capable of achieving it and still have a tendency to drop
back when 1-0 up, a bit like the English.
The two nations do share an arrogant view of their own
leagues and apart from Manchester City's Mario Balotelli and
Paris Saint-Germain duo Salvatore Sirigu and Thiago Motta, the
Italian players are all with clubs in their own country.
All of Hodgson's 23-man Euro 2012 squad play in England.
However, Italy is increasingly aware that Serie A has
slipped down the pecking order behind the Premier League and La
Italians still struggle with crossing the ball into the
danger area, unlike England who thrive on it.
The Azzurri tend to try to walk the ball into the net and
when the chips are down they often have trouble imposing a
physical game when long balls are a necessity.
Gianluigi Buffon and Joe Hart are arguably the best two
goalkeepers at the tournament and have similar philosophies of
holding on to the ball as often as possible and rarely punching
Although their on-field rivalry dates back to a first
friendly international meeting in Rome in 1933, their games
developed along different lines in many ways.
Italy became the first of the two to attract top overseas
players in the 1950s and 1960s when "the lure of the lira"
enticed the likes of the Swedish "Gre-No-Li" trio Gunnar Gren,
Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedhom and Welsh giant John Charles,
In the 1960s, the likes of Dennis Law, Omar Sivori and
Karlheinz Schnellinger went to Italy, followed later by Michel
Platini, Zbigniew Boniek, Diego Maradona, Marco Van Basten, Ruud
Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
Former England midfielder Ray Wilkins, who played 84 times
for his country and spent three years with AC Milan, summed up
the cultural differences.
"I thought I was a professional footballer until I went to
Italy," Wilkins told Reuters. "The culture was fantastic at the
time, I learnt so much at Milan, it changed my outlook on
everything connected with football and has had a lasting
Today most of the world's top earners play in England, with
Serie A relatively impoverished and Italian football mired in
one scandal after another.
The Premier League, in contrast, continues to expand its
global reach with a new three-year three billion-pound global TV contract in place.
Whether England can finally beat Italy when it really
matters remains to be seen.
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