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Was it simply the right time and the right place? Perhaps it was that iconic jerky intro music and visuals. “Campionato! Di Calcio! Italiano!” insisted the voice, capturing the beat, and intoxicating us all. Was it the erudite and urbane James Richardson sitting outside a café sipping his espresso with the Corriere dello Sport and the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport laid out on the table in front of him? Perhaps even the lingering phrase of ‘Golaço!’ – it means a goal that is amazing, crazy or similar, by the way, and was never ‘Goal Lazio’ just ask Mr Richardson if you don’t believe me. That’s what I read anyway – or was it just the football itself. Perhaps it was a combination of all those things, but from that Sunday in 1992 when Channel 4 introduced an intrigued – and later entranced – British footballing audience to the joys of Serie A football, a cult that became an obsession took root in fans’ consciousnesses. After just short of a million viewers on that first week, ratings rocketed. More than three million of us tuned in regularly. We were sold.
The first game shown was between Lazio and Sampdoria. With Des Walker signed to the Genoa-based club and Paul Gascoigne off to the eternal city for a time period that proved much shorter than eternity, it seemed an obvious choice to gain the maximum attention for the new venture. Gascoigne was, however, absent through injury, but that meant the door was opened for the real star to perform – Italian football. A wildly entertaining 3-3 draw followed which, in 90 minutes, blew away the widely held misconception of the Italian game being dominated by defences and hedonistically abrasive tackles. Forget that image, this was fantasy football, and there were loads of Golaço! to go around.
As well as the two stars mentioned as being lined up for the opening game, David Platt had also made his way to Italy, but Calcio had stars in abundance, both home-grown and imported, and all were displayed for our delectation on Sunday afternoons. Baggio was in his pomp, Vialli and Mancini were firing Sampdoria, rapidly on the way to becoming every football hipster’s favourite club. Parma were busting into the top echelon of the game with Zola, and in Milan the Rossoneri were pitting Maldini, Albertini and the imperious Baresi against the Nerazzurri’s Christian Vieri, Bergami and Zanetti.
Sky Sports had just made their first grab at British football, but at that time, if you had a satellite dish, you were one of the privileged few and the domestic squabbles that you were paying for often paled in comparison to the star-studded entertainment being offered for gratis on Channel 4. This was football free and available for Calcio fans, and yet superior in both technique and star quality to the paid version.
What made it so special? Well, the football was outstanding of course, but the magic was more than that. This was a football programme that made you feel like you were an invited guest, not merely someone looking in. Richardson had a wonderfully disarming way about him. Holding up sections of the Italian press and pointing to headlines that meant little until he translated them. He led us into the world of Calcio with a smile. We were sitting across the table from him, each of us together and yet alone with him sharing a cup of that finest Italian coffee. Players turned up to talk with him and acted out bizarre scenarios. Vialli in a wig, Lombardo being clowned. It was all part of the charm.
Peter Brackley was also a key element in the success of the programme. Ensconced in a studio in London, he would commentate on precisely the same feed that the television viewers could see, but his wit and wisdom would take us to a place where even he wasn’t. Assisted ably on so many occasions, and less ably on others, by the likes of Ray Wilkins, Luther Blissett and Don Howe, experience of, and affection for, the Italian game by the former two shone through, whilst Howe ventured his thoughts on tactics, although the former coaches insistence on adding an extra vowel whenever pronouncing Sampdoria – making it ‘Samp-a-doria’ still grates with me to this day.
The programme’s success even spawned an offshoot. On Saturday mornings, Gazzetta Football Italia would review the previous weekend’s games, goals and gaffs. Again, there’s Richardson sitting at a pavement café, often with an overly large ice cream dessert in front of him. In between slots of highlights, when returning to join him at the table, the dessert had diminished in size until, by the end of the programme it had been finished with just the spoon sitting in the glass. We all wanted to believe that he too was watching the highlights as we were, enjoying the ice cream as he did so. It wasn’t true of course, all the segways were recorded en masse with the dessert being diminished in between takes – whether scoffed by Richard, crew or merely disposed of wasn’t clear – but again, it felt like an intimate chat about football.
Nothing lasts forever of course, and in the money-minded world of football, that’s, even more, the case. When Channel 4 had initially signed up the deal with Serie A it suited both parties to have a reasonable fee involved. For the league, it was a chance to offer a taster of the product to a wider audience, before seeking to cash in on the newly hooked junkies. For the channel, it was groundbreaking stuff and probably the programme that everyone can recall when asked to recall the most iconic things about Channel 4 – certainly for football fans anyway.
Eventually, the programme was lost from Channel 4 and endured an itinerant few years migrating between Eurosport, Bravo and Five, until it finally ended at the end of the 2007-08 season. By that time, however, much of its joy and charm had been diluted and its passing was probably for the best. It’s often said that people look back with rose-tinted glasses, often overemphasising the good elements, and passing over the less special times. That may be so, but for so many football fans of that particular vintage, Channel 4’s Football Italia was a joy. So on behalf of all like-minded people. I offer my thanks for that. As James Richardson might have said, “Grazie e Ciao!”