Gianni Brera once famously said: “Calcio is the most beautiful game in the world. Unfortunately, or fortunately, not all those who love calcio are able to understand it.” That quote stands out pertinently in the shadow of Johan Cruyff, who said virtually the same thing. As Cruyff was to the playing side of the game, Brera was to the writing side of it. He was an inventor, a trailblazer, difficult to understand at times, but ever the genius.
In 1975 Italy’s greatest commentator on calcio and life, Gianni Brera, published a collection of his finest works under the title Il Più Bel Gioco Del Mondo (The Most Beautiful Game in the World). It’s a masterpiece of collected items from 40 years of reporting on the world of Italian football, from the scandals that befell the heroes of the pitch to the larger-than-life moments of men like Sandro Mazzola, who spent his early career in the shadow of his father, the legendary Valentino. The culture wars between north and south, the internecine war between AC Milan and Internazionale, the truth, the half true, and Gianni’s truth; Brera covered it all in his epic life.
The Italian wrote with an ear and hand for the game like no writer before him, and invented a language to describe the style of play and the movement of the players. Furthermore, he famously rejected the fascist lexicon that had been thrust upon calcio under Benito Mussolini, in an era where the two were inextricably linked.
Brera knew the power of calcio on political movements and especially the working class who attended the matches. He often wrote of the relationship between the game and the great families of Italy’s aristocracy such as the Agnellis, who control Turin giants Juventus to this day.
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Brera hailed from Pavia, a region south of Milan in Lombardy. He often claimed to be a neutral in the great Derby della Madonnina – the clash between the two Milanese clubs AC Milan and Internazionale – to fend off criticism of playing favourites. He would tell people he was a Genoa supporter to keep his fairness above reproach. He criticised everyone with equal passion, even the Genovese, and made a habit of fair, brutal reporting.
During the reign of Benito ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini there was an emphasis placed on calcio to great effect as a tool to promote fascist ideals. Il Duce would often be seen in pictures with the Azzurri, the Italian national team, and the top domestic sides.
The propaganda machine was utilised to its maximum to change the language of calcio to be used as a political instrument of the state. Gianni Brera was the antidote to the poisoned well of deceit and propaganda. His writing was filled with the language of the game in a fresh manner, a new lexicon to detail events and style of play that no writer had ever attempted.
La Gazzetta dello Sport is Italy’s sports paper of record. Its pink pages are symbolic and ubiquitous. Based in the commercial capital of Milan, the daily has the highest circulation of any sporting publication in Italy – quite some feat in a sports mad country.
The paper covers much more than just football, and as its editor – the youngest in Italian newspaper history – Gianni Brera was impassioned by many sports beyond the pitches of Italy. As a young man Brera tried his hand at calcio and boxing, and became a big fan of the Giro d’Italia, the annual bike race that pits the finest athletes on two wheels in the Alps of Italy and France, and all across the peninsula. The race was first organised by the pink paper in 1909 as a way to increase circulation.
Brera liked to say of himself that he was a “writer who was pretending to be a journalist”, and certainly did nothing to dissuade his many critics. Being critical as he was, Brera was often accused of disliking the Italians of the south; to counter that argument he would cite his friendship with communist and noted author Leonardo Sciascia, the Sicilian who penned the great Mafia novel Il Giorno della Civetta (The Day of the Owl). While this relationship was one of political discourse and intellectual stimulation for Brera, like many things he used it to sway his readers on matters of sport.
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Read | James Catton: the man behind football journalism
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A product of the anti-fascist movement, Brera joined the forces against Mussolini in Val d’Ossola in 1944. Not a warrior set out for blood, Brera claimed that he never engaged fascists, although he does go on to say they fired shots at him and his compatriots. His valour was not to be won on a battlefield with weapons of war; it would be fought with words as weapons.
Like many who come from Italy, the place of their origin is not seen by themselves as “Italy”. Reunification was only 60 years in the past for Brera and, like many of his contemporaries, he identified with the region of his origin, in this case, Pavia. This fact would cause him to express ideas in his writings that would today seem very much politically incorrect. The peoples of the Mezzogiorno – the Napolitani, the Romani, the Calabrese and the Siciliani – were all targets of Brera throughout his career. Indeed, the modern Italy still holds a strong distinction between the north and the south.
Napoli was a favourite target of Brera, especially when Diego Maradona played for the Partenopei. Brera famously called Maradona, “The beautiful abortion”. The tension between the north and south of Italy hit its peak when Maradona’s Argentina side knocked the Azzurri out of the World Cup in Naples, with the world’s best player leading the way. The rest of Italy saw Maradona as a traitor, where the south’s hero worship could take on dangerous proportions.
Brera, however, didn’t limit his brutal pieces to the south; he would often be just as critical of the northern teams and cities. In defence of Brera’s lashing of the great teams of Milan, Internazionale and AC, he often told his critics that he was a fan of Genoa, thus making himself seem impartial in the titanic battles between the Milanese giants. During most of Brera’s storied career it was the Milan teams, along with Juventus, that held sway on the top positions of the Serie A. In fact, sides such as Napoli, who we think of as being staples of European football today, were not far removed from Serie B and even Serie C1.
The very idea of defensive-minded football seems embedded in the soul of Italian players, even though the “real” catenaccio was an Austrian invention. It was Italy that took the idea and perfected the ultra-defensive model. Brera loved it. His tactical awareness would come alive with articles about the intricacies of the various methods of playing defensive, counter-attacking football.
The very thought of a well-played 0-0 match would send him into a writing frenzy of glowing admiration. One special man who Brera admired was a fellow Lombardy native who played for Helenio Herrera at Internazionale during the great years of the 1960s, Giacinto Facchetti.
Brera would often put Fracchetti on a high pedestal and hold him up as the perfect Italian player, a man who could defend to the death, and yet come from the back and score. Today we would refer to his style as Total Football in the Dutch model; Brera would praise Herrera for bringing him out of the academy system and into the senior side.
Possibly due to his experiences in the war, Brera would reject terminology that made the game a proxy for real war. The modern Serie A goalscoring leader is referred to as the Cannoniere, however Brera preferred his own term: Fromboliere. This is derived form the words “sling” and “rombola”, meaning slingshot. True violence – the cannons of the battlefield – was something Brera had seen and tried to keep out of his terminology for the game.
Similarly, Brera preferred to make the scoring of a goal an active phrase or word. Rather than just saying ‘goal’, Brera preferred a new method of expressing the act of scoring by using a Latin influence with the term ‘Goleador’ to indicate both the act and the event. This fresh way of expressing the simple act of scoring was to bring a romantic element to the game, to make it seem as a great battle in the bullring.
Brera also coined the term Libero for the sweeping defender in the catenaccio system. Based on the word ‘free’ itself, Libero has come to mean many things in football, but its original intent was to describe the sweeper role.
Perhaps Brera’s greatest contribution to the lexicon of all football was the term Centrocampista, or midfielder. When the English game moved from the W-M formation into a more modern Italian/Dutch system, where the inside wingers would control the focus of the play and become generals from the middle of the pitch, Brera, ever the tactician, knew there was a shift that must be named. Centrocampista was born. The midfielder had a name.
Many of the writings of Brera seem bizarre and extremely personal when read in today’s context. He was not afraid to bring innuendo and rumour to his articles and books. In his extremely popular and controversial Storia Critica del Calcio Italiano, which purports to be an historical representation of football in Italy, from its early days in Genoa and Torino to the heady days of European dominance in the 1980s, he gossips about players and coaches and tells tales of outlandish behaviour and scandals. It is filled with incredible writing and opinion on the tactics and mindset of some of the most influential figures in the history of the great game; however, it cannot be read as a work of pure historical journalism. It’s so much more.
Tactics were Brera’s passion, his understanding of the game unparalleled in world football writing. He would hold dinners for some of the great coaches and football men of his time, where the wine would flow and the conversations would dwell on the tactical formations of this side. Always learning, always questioning, Brera was looking for any tidbit of information that would help him to get the edge on the match. To beat the competition in writing the best articles about why AC Milan were playing a certain player, or why Inter were using a new formation.
Always a journalist, always an observant eye, Brera rightly holds his place up as the godfather of calcio writings.
By Jim Hart. Follow @Catenacciari