From the 17th to the 19th century, there existed a custom amongst the British upper class, famously known as the Grand Tour. Considered as a necessary rite of passage for aristocrats, this tradition became deeply entrenched within the country’s history, and has been somewhat revisited in modern times under the less-grandiose term ‘gap year’.
Whilst 1990s Brits might associate this expression to exploring Asia on the back of an elephant, 300 years ago, the Grand Tour had an entirely different connotation, though admittedly sharing some similar features with its modern counterpart.
The Tour was regarded as a pursuit of art and culture around continental Europe – a voyage throughout the origins of Western civilisation. In the company of a Cicerone, as opposed to a tuk-tuk driver, young Englishmen would set off on a year’s journey that would carry them through the Netherlands, to France and, finally, to the Italian peninsula. In this concluding stage of the Tour, the little lords would go to Venice, then perhaps visit Bologna, but certainly make the trek down to Rome. They’d trace the Amalfitan coast back up to beautiful Tuscany and, finally, to Turin, before heading back home.
This year, another Englishman has embarked upon a somewhat comparable journey. Joe Hart, Shrewsbury-born, is spending a year in Turin, at 29 years of age. Unlike the few Englishmen present in Turin two centuries ago, he isn’t a young aristocrat, his aim isn’t necessarily a sophisticated pursuit of Italian culture, and he certainly doesn’t enjoy the services of an omniscient Cicerone by his side.
And still, the underlying motivations and characteristics of his year in Turin have been reminiscent of those of the Tour. Hart’s year so far has been all about gaining life experience, about exploring a new society, perhaps also about refuelling his passion for the beautiful game. He has boarded upon this adventure with the exact spirit of those who ventured along the same route hundreds of years ago, with enthusiasm, open-mindedness and, most significantly, the willingness to breathe in everything the country has to offer.
Like the visitors of the past, since the very first of his Turin days, Hart has invested his energies in establishing a strong bond with his new city and with his new club, Torino. And by constantly demonstrating his genuine interest in local history and traditions, he has rapidly won over Granata hearts – no pun intended.
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Set to travel back home at the end of the campaign, or more likely to continue his tour elsewhere, the Englishman will leave an important mark and legacy in Turin. But before we address the issue of what Hart is to leave behind himself at the end of the year, let’s travel back to Italy’s torrid month of August.
Amidst the widespread public amazement that met Toro’s signing of such a high-profile international player, many at the time were unable to explain the exact reasons behind Hart’s choice. Some hypothesised rational explanations, the most cynical pointing at the keeper’s alleged lack of alternatives. But before anyone had a clear grasp of his real attitude towards this deadline day move, one man above all seemed to fully comprehend Hart’s real nature: Torino’s president Urbano Cairo.
Upon the Englishman’s arrival in Italy, Cairo commented: “Hart, other than talent, possesses a strong sense of humility and the enthusiasm of someone who never takes his importance for granted.” And along the same lines, one of Hart’s first announcements was: “I’ve heard that [Siniša] Mihajlović [Torino’s head coach] wants us to be both humble and ambitious: this is something I like, because that’s exactly how I intend to be.”
To the ears and eyes of the majority, these declarations will have sounded no different from the typical statements that conventionally follow a player’s arrival at a new club. But as the season would go on to reveal, there was much more behind Joe Hart than empty words and swooping commonplaces. Urbano Cairo knew this before anyone else.
It is no secret, as Hart himself has admitted on more than one occasion, that the major reason behind the decision to leave his home club was his dire relationship with Pep Guardiola. Disliked by the Spaniard for his perceived inability to play with his feet, Hart was unequivocally shown the way out, as Chilean Claudio Bravo was welcomed in his place.
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However, his subsequent decision to play for Torino – as opposed to any other club – still came as a surprise to many. His arrival in Turin, during which he was greeted by hundreds of enthusiastic Granata supporters in unprecedented fashion, was addressed quite differently by English fans, who displayed a sardonic take on the matter.
On any form of social media, Hart was mocked for his move to Torino, publicly considered a significant step down from his parent club Manchester City. ‘RIP his career’ or ‘this move is absolute nonsense’ were the mainstream reactions: the English public simply couldn’t stomach the idea that their national goalkeeper would be moving to a mid-table Italian team, of which they knew little about.
Upon joining, Hart was inevitably asked about the Grande Torino era, characterised by the Superga disaster. And with his usual candour, Hart acknowledged that all he knew about the disaster, he’d learnt only a few days before. Although many would interpret this statement as a symbol of the absurdity of Hart’s decision, the goalkeeper’s response was perceived positively. In what was one of his first press conferences in Italy, he revealed exactly the kind of attitude that set him apart from the aforementioned haters: his enthusiasm and his readiness to assimilate and learn about a new culture, in spite of his previous unfamiliarity with it.
As a result, detached from this excessive hysteria, Hart rolled up his sleeves and began to accept and embrace the choice made. Following his early attempts to learn and publicly speak the Italian language, the sneering of the hating public continued. Hart’s first shot at Italian came only two weeks after his arrival, when he took to Facebook to comment on how much he’d been enjoying his time in the peninsula thus far. Referring to his two collected clean sheets, Hart wrote ‘due lenzuola pulite‘, which translates to two clean sheets. The real meaning, however, is ‘two clean bed sheets’. It is easy to see why many found this comical.
And after Hart’s creaky debut, a 3-1 loss to Atalanta which saw him make some blatant mistakes, the negativity inevitably increased. After all the public mockery, and after 10 years spent in England, many of which competing in the Champions League, it would’ve been understandable for Hart to regret his choice to plunge into this entirely new environment. Instead, aided by the less superficial amongst Torino’s fans, he reacted quite differently to these initial hurdles, leaping over them with his light-hearted spirit and tireless dedication.
Whilst writing this article, I was presented with the perfect opportunity to further strengthen my point about Joe Hart’s experience in Italy. This opportunity came in the tough clash between Inter and Torino, on 18 March in Turin. This game saw Hart commit two blunders for both of the Nerazzurri’s goals.
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During the first, he offered weak resistance to Geoffrey Kondogbia’s central shot. As for the second, Hart completely mistimed his leap for an incoming crossed ball, enabling Antonio Candreva to shoot towards the unguarded net. In the same game, however, Hart was also noted for two miraculous saves, of paramount importance to preserve a draw against an objectively better side.
In terms of performance, this match was representative of the level at which Hart has played all season: some amazing saves, general solidity and, inevitably, the occasional slip-up. His performance against Inter brought me to consider that it is not for the quality of his goalkeeping that he will be remembered; if we were to take only that into account, Hart could merely be considered as one of the many goalkeepers that the Serie A has seen. Instead, Hart’s attitude is what has enabled him to stand out, and to establish an unshakable model for all future foreign players of the Serie A.
In fact, Hart has so far preserved the impressive attitude disposed since the very beginning. With generally convincing performances on the pitch, he has gradually silenced the critics and sceptics. And with his visible commitment and honest affirmations, he has gained the respect of the fans, and of the Italian press.
“Football for me is everything and I’ll always be grateful to the Granata for giving me this opportunity,” Hart said to La Stampa in December, as much as three months after his arrival. Phrases of this kind were the most appreciated and surprising. Most players with Hart’s pedigree would take it for granted to play for Torino; they’d do it with sufficiency and boastfulness, as if they were doing a favour to the team.
Hart, however, is able to appreciate that the club is helping him as much as he is helping them. He plunged into this Grand Tour with the willingness to learn something new, despite his reputation and his past experience. This kind of attitude, rest assured, hasn’t – and won’t be – forgotten by Italian lovers of the game
By Federico Manasse @FedericoManasse