UNLIKE THE LANGUAGES OF THE OTHER MAJOR ITALIAN ISLANDS, the Venetian dialect considers the word for the sea, mar, to be feminine. Each year, on Ascension Day, the Venetians marry the sea, symbolically making it their property and all its possessions – its dowry – their own. Ultimately, from their betrothal to the waves, they gained an empire. So it was that Venice developed a very different relationship with its mar than islands like Sardinia and Sicily did with their own màre and mari.

For Venice, the water that surrounded it was both the protector and the one in need of protection. “They wrapped the sea around them like a cloak,” writes Roger Crowley in City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire. But to those other great islands, exposed in the open Mediterranean rather than tucked away in a corner of the Adriatic, the sea brought invaders; rapacious mainlanders out to superimpose their own culture over that of the islanders. While Venice harassed the mainland, in the process establishing colonies as far afield as Israel and Egypt, the mainland harassed Sardinia and Sicily.

In 1963, however, the Sardinian town of Cagliari embarked on a course of action that would eventually see it follow in the footsteps of Venice and become a colonising force, albeit in a very different context. That year, Gigi Riva (pictured) arrived on the island. Seven years later, Cagliari and Riva briefly conquered all of Italy.

The story of Cagliari winning Serie A is very much the story of the island taking on the mainland. Until 1964, the Rossoblu had never played in the top division of Italian football – Riva joined them when they were still in Serie B – and their transformation from relative anonymity to one of the country’s dominant forces was as rapid as it was surprising.

“Before Riva, Cagliari were a provincial team who had won nothing,” says John Foot in Calcio, his outstanding history of Italian football. But with the great man in their team the Sardinian club terrorised all those around them, and the 1970 title win claimed for the island a small piece of peninsular property, thereby reversing a centuries-old tradition of subjugation to occupying forces. It was a rare moment of triumph, a symbolic retribution for hundreds of years as the pawn of continental expansionism.

Over the years, a bewildering variety of would-be conquerors had pitched up on the island. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Berbers, Aragonese, Habsburgs and French all tried their hand – to varying degrees of success – at dominating Sardinia, which was also ravaged during both World Wars as a result of conflicts playing out on the European continent. Evidently, the vast majority of the Sardinian people’s time seems to have been taken up with attempting to ward off aggressors.

Yet, at the time of Riva and the title win, Sardinia was experiencing a newer form of foreign incursion at the more genteel hands of large regiments of tourists. Aga Khan’s 1962 construction of the coastal “paradise” at Costa Smeralda was a precursor to years of tourist sallies into Sardinia, culminating in its present submersion beneath a torrent of Ryanair and Easyjet passengers. Sardinia has changed.

“It seemed like Africa to me, the island where they sent people to punish them,” said Riva of his arrival there. “Wealth is not a crime,” remarked one-time QPR chairman Flavio Briatore, almost forty years later. The latter was speaking at a private party in his nightclub, thrown in order to protest taxes imposed by local authorities desperate to limit the development of holiday homes and villages on Sardinia.

While the tourists flocked in, the locals flocked out; at the ports and airports, pleasure-trippers went one way, migrant workers the other. For Sardinians, the Cagliari team became a figurehead, a beacon of pride in an era when the island’s identity was under fire from the dual threat of tourist-driven homogenisation and emigration. The team played in front of massive, passionate crowds eager to escape the asphyxiating nature of life on a poor island, frustrated at the latest assault on their culture. Under the tutelage of Il Filosofo, Manlio Scopigno, Cagliari played innovative, attacking football, a fact which further separated them from most Italian sides of the era.

The Italian game back then was dominated by the spectre of Helenio Herrera, self-professed pioneer of catenaccio, and rigid, systematic play was the preeminent ideology. Scopigno and Cagliari challenged that, particularly through the employment of Pierluigi Cera as a libero rather than the conventional ‘Herreran’ sweeper. Such was their impact that Sardinian journalist Nanni Boi was moved to claim Riva had brought about the “unification of Sardinia”.

Cagliari were a rebuttal of Sardinia’s marginalisation, a signal that the island was very much a part of things: the team that tore up Serie A in the late 1960s and very early 1970s would provide a number of players for Italy’s 1970 World Cup squad – Riva, Albertosi, Cera and Domenghini all started in the final, while Boninsegna, another starter, had left the club a year previously. For a short time, Sardinia came in from the margins and made itself integral to Italy.

In the 1970 Cagliari generation, Sardinia was lucky to possess a voice that shouted its message so loudly and clearly, but nearby Sicily was not so fortunate. Football on that particular island has rarely risen above anything other than provincial mediocrity, with Catania arguably Sicily’s dominant club until the relatively recent growth of Palermo. Like Sardinia, Sicily has long been the focus of attention from the “outside” world, but unlike the former it has never had a Serie A champion, Palermo’s three fifth-place finishes serving as the island’s top-flight high water mark.

That said, the first decade after the millennium was in some ways a golden era for Sicilian football, with the 2004-05 season being arguably the best collective Serie A season in the island’s history – Palermo and Messina placed in 6th and 7th respectively. Sicily has always been a force lower down the pyramid – between them, Catania, Messina and Palermo have won four Serie D, 14 Serie C (including C1, C2 and the reinvented Lega Pro) and seven Serie B titles – but its teams have not managed to replicate that success at the top level.

Perhaps Sicily’s football has suffered as a result of having an excess of prominent local clubs, a consequence of the island’s past. “For over 25 centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own,” wrote Giuseppe di Lampedusa in 1958. During the “25 centuries” mentioned by di Lampedusa, Sicily passed from the control of one powerful empire to the next. Following Greek and Carthaginian conquest, Sicily would eventually become a Roman possession and go on to feed the Italian peninsula for most of the Republican period. Later, it briefly wound up as a Vandal province before they lost out to the Byzantines, after which came the Moors, the Normans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Catalans and the Spanish.

“All those rulers,” writes di Lampedusa, “who landed by main force from every direction who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere.”

So it was that external forces made a patchwork quilt of Sicily, creating enclaves of differing cultures, religions, and ways of life that survive to this day – although now in the more banal form of mere interprovincial animosity.

Predestined to revolve around local loyalties set in stone centuries before and created by those who came there as conquerors, the way football in Sicily developed was largely contingent on ancient enmities. Palermitani will never support a team from Catania, and vice versa. Each province or city gets behind its own outfit, so there is no unilaterally “Sicilian” team, despite contrary claims by some Palermo and Catania supporters in relation to their own clubs. There was never any chance of a Sicilian version of Cagliari playing to full houses, taking Serie A by storm and representing the whole of the island. The 2000s-era Palermo of Toni, Miccoli, Cavani et al was probably the closest Sicily came to this ideal, but they were never loved by Catanesi or Messinesi.

Only Toto Schillaci, star of the 1990 World Cup, ever came close to making the rather obvious stitches in the patchwork disappear, and local tensions are sometimes made explicit by the actions of football supporters. In 2001, Messina fan Antonio Currò was killed by a bomb thrown by Catania fans while six years later, during the Sicilian Derby between Catania and Palermo, policeman Filippo Raciti was killed in clashes with ultras.

In recent decades, Sicilians have counterbalanced the traditional island-mainland relationship by flooding into the Italian peninsula in large numbers. Like Sardinians, they spread out across Italy in search of work – many ended up in Turin working for Fiat and enjoyed vicarious success by supporting the factory team, Juventus. Schillaci himself represented the Old Lady, but never managed to win a Serie A title either with Juve or Internazionale, for whom he subsequently played. In some ways, Schillaci’s fate reflected that of a wide number of his fellow Sicilians; he was always the outsider, the migrant, and frequently the victim of abuse from the northerners among whom he made his living.

There is, however, one Italian island that rejected the notion of mainland hegemony: Venice. While Sardinia and Sicily were forced to look inward, Venice made a mockery of the idea of insularity. Far from being subservient to empire, it became one. For several centuries, historical Venice occupied large swathes of modern-day Croatia, Montenegro and Albania through a cunning mix of financial chicanery, astute politicking and military strategy. In modern times, though, Venetians are leaving their picturesque archipelago for a different reason, forced out by skyrocketing prices and the transformation of their habitat into a Disneyland for wealthy tourists. The mainland is avenging its losses.

Many Venetians who depart do so for Mestre, a town linked to the island of Venice by land-bridge. Mestre developed rapidly after the expansion of the Port of Venice in the 1920s, growing to become a vast working-class sprawl directly across the water from aristocratic Venice. In 1929, AC Mestre was founded, and in the 1980s it merged with AC Venezia to become Veneziamestre. The island and the continent had symbolically become one entity. “The result was an identity crisis,” writes Foot. “Most ultra tried to maintain their previous identity, right down to the old colours.

“For a long time, fans from the same team came to blows, before some sort of peace was established as the team ended up in Serie A, before dropping down again.

“Much of the tension between the two sets of fans is also political, or politically inspired. Since 1979, four referendums have been held by those who wish to separate the local governments of Mestre and Venezia. […] All have been defeated.”

Clearly, the Venetian island-mainland dynamic remains edgy well into the 21st century. The situation was compounded in 2013 – exactly one hundred years after the construction of the Pierluigi Penzo stadium on the island – when the now renamed Foot Ball Club [sic] Unione Venezia was forced to temporarily play its home games in the inland town of Portogruaro. Although the club have since returned to the Penzo, plans are afoot to build a new stadium on the mainland close to Marco Polo airport, which is – in a neat piece of symmetry – named after the famous Venetian who travelled half the world in the mercantile cause of the island. As surely as Venice itself sinks into the sea, the mainland is slowly wresting control of Venetian football from the island.

Although Venezia were never champions of Serie A, they briefly sat at the peak of Italian football after a Coppa Italia win in 1941. Those were the Mussolini years in Italy, but in Venice they were also the Mazzola years. Valentino Mazzola, father of Sandro and one of Italy’s greatest players, made his name at Venezia and fittingly, it was the sea that brought him to the city. Spotted by the club while on naval service in Venice, Mazzola lead them to the Coppa through his talismanic attacking midfield play and powerful all-round game.

At Venezia he made up a central midfield partnership with Ezio Loik, and the duo would later go on to be part of the tragic Grande Torino team, whose dominance of Italy was cut short by the Superga air disaster – both Loik and Mazzola were killed in the crash. Indeed, it was Loik who scored the winning goal for Venezia in the 1941 final, a game which had to be replayed in Venice after a 3-3 draw in Rome.

Nowadays, Venice is distinguished from its island counterparts by the more everyday Italian preoccupation with regional hierarchy, as well as by the fact that it still commands a large swathe of Italy’s northern landmass: the province of Veneto. As a region, the Veneto exhibits a mentality oddly reflective of its capital’s detachment from the land it nominally controls. In his seminal work on football support in Veneto, A Season with Verona, Tim Parks recognises an insular mentality among fans from within the province’s inland reaches: “Their community is so genuinely tight-knit, so radically local and such a well-defined linguistic island, that the idea of masquerading as one of them is unthinkable.”

In fact, Italy consists of a wide number of distinct linguistic islands – the product of the most definitely insular city-state system – of which the Veneto contains just a few. Venice’s continental province is proud of its linguistic diversity, and uses its dialects to differentiate itself from the rest of the country, as the rest of the country does from it. “We don’t understand what the fuck you’re saying,” sang the Veronese at an away game in Catania. “The centre of the world is our city, our language, our accent,” adds Parks on their behalf.

Of the island teams only Cagliari and Catania played in Serie A in the 2013-14 season. Cagliari stumbled to a disappointing 15th, while a poor Catania side returned to Serie B, finishing 18th. The other major Sicilian clubs are once again reduced to lower league domination – Messina won Italy’s fourth tier last season, their second league win on the trot after winning the fifth tier in 2012-13. Palermo, having won Serie B last year, will compete once again in Serie A, but hold little hope of gaining a top-half finish. Venezia currently languish in the third level of the pyramid.

So it is that a golden age of island football in Italy appears unlikely to reoccur any time soon. The idea of a Cagliari ’70 or Venezia ’41 emerging to challenge the traditional giants of Juventus, Milan or Inter is one rooted in fantasy, but if memories of struggles and triumphs over mainland forces don’t provide motivation for Italy’s island football clubs, what will?

By Luke Ginnell. Follow @HeavyFirstTouch