The Making Of Capello & England's Lost Semi-Final

Philip Cornwall's zig-zag to Polkraine takes him to host cities for Euro 1980 and Euro 1968, in a country he loves and yet finds disturbing by equal turn. To Italy...

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Revisiting the England team's hooligan and footballing baggage via Belgium, France and Switzerland at least serves as another reminder that worse things have happened to England than a) having Fabio Capello as coach; and b) not having Fabio Capello or, for that matter, anyone as coach from 8 February to 30 April. It is time to visit his homeland, starting with the city with which he is most associated.

Capello, unlike veal cutlets dipped in egg, covered in breadcrumbs and then fried in olive oil, is not actually Milanese. But his remarkable run of four Serie A titles with Milan in his first five seasons coincided with the zenith of the English love affair with Italian football; Italia 90 was fresh in the memory and his were the dominant team when Paul Gascoigne was playing for Lazio, Des Walker for Sampdoria and David Platt for whomever he fancied at the time. As the live top flight became a satellite exclusive in 1992, Channel 4's Football Italia, with its Gazzetta strand the game's most cerebral magazine show, had a sizeable if niche audience. The Champions League exploits of Capello's Milan - finalists in 1993, 4-0 thumpers of Johan Cruyff's Barcelona Dream Team in an astonishing 1994 conclusion - were in the mainstream of the game. They, and Serie A generally, were what English teams and the Premier League aspired to be.

How Italian football has fallen. There is still a hint of glamour that lasts until you have to show your passport in order to buy a ticket (an anti-hooliganism measure) but the No 1 league of the 90s is now No 4, overtaken by Spain and Germany and also those English wannabes.

Milan has a European Championship past: it was a host city in 1980. It would have liked to have a European Championship present: Italy was the favourite to host the 2012 finals. In 2005 UEFA staged an initial vote, reducing the contenders to three by dropping Greece and Turkey. At that point Italy was a strong first place and the combined Poland & Ukraine a weak third, the pair split by Croatia & Hungary. By 2007, though, Italy's stock had fallen sufficiently badly in the wake of the calciopoli scandal that UEFA took the gamble of heading east.

Had Michel Platini and friends done as expected then right now Italy would simultaneously be hosting the championship and a fresh football corruption scandal, one so widespread that the prime minister, Mario Monti, has wondered out loud whether Italians should cease playing the game for two or three years to try to cleanse calcio once and for all. The national squad have lost Domenico Criscito because he was questioned by police and there are no guarantees that surviving Azzurri will not be dragged in.

In addition to the seemingly pervasive fixing of matches there is a continuing violence, with each group of Ultras vying to give the most extreme reaction to poor results: consider the Genoa players forced to hand over their kit in a literal manifestation of "You're not fit to wear the shirt". By its nature, football has losers as well as winners and so there will be no shortage of such tales.

Milan the club as the imperious football power were created by Silvio Berlusconi, the showman turned politician whose personal conduct could not shake Capello's loyalty but whose stewardship of the country proved both divisive and disastrous. While the Italian economy is not quite in as bad a shape as the Greek and much more of the infrastructure is in place, one wonders how the country would have coped with staging the tournament. Whatever criticism comes UEFA's way over Poland and Ukraine we should remember where the paths not taken may have led.

It is not all gloom. The front page of Corriere dello Sport relates Inter's plans to build a new stadium and leave San Siro to Milan and Juventus have just finished the season as champions in a proper football stadium on the site of the "old" - badly built for Italia 90 - Stadio delle Alpi; there is investment around. But the transfer news suggests more leading players leaving the country, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic wanted by the Qatari-owned PSG. It is conspicuous that sheikhs and oligarchs are yet to plunge properly into the murk of Serie A.

The earthquakes that have caused human tragedy and what the front page of La Repubblica calls "cultural ruins" are a natural phenomenon unconnected to the work of man, but it is an effort not to see them as a metaphor for the state of a nation.

* * * * * * * *

England have appeared in both European Championships staged in Italy. In 1980 they reached the first finals I can remember after a barren decade, a tournament forgettable for the football but commemorated in the annals of confrontation. England's opening 1-1 draw with Belgium was marked by trouble in the stands; when the riot police deployed tear gas it drifted across the pitch and reached the players, leading to a five-minute delay. When I first started going to away games the T-shirt sellers actually celebrated the incident, with a cartoon bulldog in a gas mask and the legend "Teargassed in Turin".

Italy's previous Euro constituted a unique opportunity for England but instead became another landmark for the wrong reasons. In 2000 France became the only world champions to follow up a global success directly with a continental one. In 1968 England had their chance at the feat and I am headed for where they blew it.

Two hours south of Milan, Florence is far more renowned for culture than for calcio but it is one of only two cities outside London - the other being Turin, an hour west of Milan - where England have played a semi-final, and it was at the Stadio Communale that the then world champions had a man sent off for the very first time.

The home international championships of 1967 - including Scotland's famous 3-2 Wembley win - and 1968 had constituted a qualifying group. Sir Alf Ramsey's side then beat Spain home and away in the quarter-finals to reach the last four, with semis in Florence and Naples, and a final in Rome.

Three proper games and a third-place play-off is a pretty poor excuse for a tournament that was only growing gradually into respectability. I wasn't yet one-year-old when the event took place so it naturally passed me by at the time, but as I was gradually steeped in England lore this semi-final appearance scarcely registered. That Ramsey lost badly in his first match in charge, in a knockout tie against France for the 1964 competition, and to Gunter Netzer and friends in a 1972 quarter-final, when West Germany gained Wembley revenge for 1966, were well-known stories. The defeat to Yugoslavia was more elusive; likewise the third place achieved with a 2-0 win against the Soviet Union. I can scarcely dream of a semi-final now.

In the bars and restaurants around the Stadio Communale it is hard enough to find references to the European Championship about to start, never mind the one that took place 44 years ago. There are pictures of great Fiorentina teams, and signed pictures including Gabriel Batistuta. But none of a particular Fiorentina star of the late 80s.

I watched Roma play Juventus as a 16-year-old in 1984 but I didn't really "get" Italian football then. In 1990 I saw a game here in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup and Roberto Baggio's defection to Juventus, and we were sat next to three generations of a Florentine family. It was my job to translate the chants and assure my travelling companion that the grandmother to my left was indeed singing, like her grandchildren, that Baggio was the son of a whore.

Divisions in Italy are about more than football. Trenitalia coaches are decorated with the dates 1861-2011, to commemorate 150 years of Italy as a country. But I am off to Zagreb via Venice, added to the nascent Italian state in 1866, four years before Rome was; and I travel to Austria through territory added only after the First World War.

Not that Italian unity is universally popular. My hotel TV in Milan offered Radio Padania Libera, "free Padania" meaning a northern industrial independent entity liberated of the burden of the poor, agricultural south; before Italia 90 Fiorentina supporters attacked the car of the tournament's ultimate home hero, Salvatore "Toto" Schillaci, objecting to the presence of a Sicilian in the team. Part of the widespread animus against Juventus is that they are the team supported by Fiat workers, of those southern Italians who have emigrated to the north in search of work.

I tuck in to my bistecca alla Fiorentina as construction work continued on what is now the Stadio Artemio Franchi, and later enjoy a couple of hours in the tourist heart of the city, even taking a picture of the bridge I threw up off, thanks to a migraine, in 1984. I was inspired to learn Italian by Paolo Rossi and the team of 1982 and I wore an Italy shirt to the 1994 World Cup final; in 2006, amid the calciopoli scandal, I embraced the victory of the Azzurri in that year's Mondiale. Still, there are some comforts in being an England, and English, football fan.

Philip Cornwall

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