As featured on Guardian Sport
As a football fan living in the United States, it blows my mind how many games are available on television these days. I’m 33 now and can easily remember the days when I would record Champions League games on VHS and then trade them with my friend who had a satellite dish and could watch Premier League games. I remember spending $20 a game to watch Euro 2004 on pay-per-view. Now, on a given Saturday or Sunday, I have probably 10 games minimum to choose from on my basic cable package.
I don’t miss the hassle of tracking down – and paying for – European games, but even I can feel overwhelmed at times with the abundance of options. And yet, unless you’re a fan of the Premier League – which most people here are – the action can still feel distant and its presentation incomplete, the physical distance from the stadium acutely felt.
It’s pointless to argue against the Premier League as the one true international football league, but I believe its success has less to do with the action on the field than the crispness of its presentation, its brand as many would call it. The periphery is perfect: the stadiums are beautiful, new and full, the fans loud and the games themselves are mostly competitive. But more than anything, what makes these games so watchable is the commentary.
As far back as I can remember I have associated a British accent with football, and that we can watch these games here in basically their original form is to me what makes them so appealing and popular. NBC Sports now employs its own commentators, meaning we might not get the actual English broadcast, but, just as important to the observer, we do get real English accents, lending everything both immediacy and authenticity. This, to me, is what sets the Premier League above the rest of the big European leagues: whether it be a game from Spain, Germany, France or Italy, we are not watching the real thing, but instead something in translation and in which, inevitably, much is lost.
This thought struck me on a recent Sunday morning as I watched a Serie A match with the sound off. I have spent about three years of my life living in Italy and have followed Serie A intently ever since I was introduced to it as a wide-eyed 16-year-old. That morning, the sound was off because my girlfriend was still asleep, but more and more I’ve found myself watching these games without the sound, which seems almost a contaminant.
It’s not that the quality of the commentary in English is that bad – it is pretty bad, though – it’s more that it just doesn’t fit the game the way the actual Italian commentary does. As in this country, where language and sport seem to have evolved side-by-side, the same is true in Italy and any viewing without the original audio is incomplete.
As I’m sure an American would feel, there was something missing watching an NFL broadcast with a British announcer, or a Canadian watching an NHL game even with an American commentator, I realised how vital a companion commentary is to sport. For rather than watching a Serie A game, I feel more that I’m watching and listening to somebody else watching the game, with an added layer of detachment. It’s not just that the observations are more astute and the passion more felt – in Italian, at least, the language applied to football has meshed perfectly with the action it describes, or perhaps vice-versa.
To begin with, the Italians have their own name for the game: calcio, literally ‘kick’, preferring not to Latinize the word ‘football’ as the Spanish (fútbol), French (le foot) and Portuguese (futebol) all have. In my very first Italian class, when a student asked the teacher why Italians didn’t use a simple variation like the Spanish, she replied, without even the hint of a smile, that it was “because we are much better at soccer than the Spanish.”
Read | Gianni Brera: the godfather of calcio writings
Italian football is often criticised for being overly dramatic, with players spending too much time on the ground feigning injury or encircling the referee with pleading hand gestures or dropping to the grass, faces in their hands after a missed opportunity. English commentators love to lament such moments. All these criticisms are legitimate, but at the same time, given the language of the game, it doesn’t seem it could be any other way, for an Italian match is more than just that; it is a performance in which the players are fighting not only to win but also to win over the audience, with the field the ultimate stage.
In Italian, for instance, a player does not play a position (posizione), but rather their role (ruolo) and while English commentators will use the word, it is used more to describe what a player’s position entails, not the player’s actual position itself. Coaches will often speak post-match about how a certain player “interpreted their role”, or how their team “interpreted the match” as a whole.
On the field, the playmaker is called a regista, or ‘director’, while players who exchange passes are said to dialogare, literally ‘to dialogue’ and a goal is not scored, but rather ‘authored’ (l’autore del gol ). A player who is often at the centre of the action becomes the game’s protagonista, with the potential to risolvere la partita, or ‘resolve the match’. A particularly creative player may also be praised for his fantasia, while a true legend of the game like Francesco Totti or Roberto Baggio is a maestro.
A team’s passing or possession may be referred to as its fraseggio, which means literally its ‘phrasing’, a term often used to describe musical expression and precision. A player’s individual move is a numero, his error or lapse in judgment a pasticcio, or ‘pastiche’, while his shot on goal is a conclusione, which, should he miss, is considered fallita, or ‘failed’, the same word used to describe bankruptcy.
A ball is not won from the opposing team, but instead conquistato, or ‘conquered’ and is not trapped but addomesticato, ‘domesticated’. A challenge from an opposing player is a contrasto, or ‘conflict’, a match-up a duello, and a penalty kick a rigore, or ‘rigour’. Meanwhile, all this drama plays out in front of the pubblico in the stands, whose near non-stop singing of cori, ‘choruses’, are just as likely to jeer a team’s victory than celebrate it depending on the performance itself.
It’s impossible to say if the game adapted to the language of the stage or the other way round, but certainly this colourful commentary lends a Serie A match the gravitas it warrants. Suddenly, it makes sense why everything is so dramatised and why the highest praise a commentator can bestow upon a match is that of spettacolo, the word for both ‘spectacle’ and a ‘play’, or why an opposing coach, after losing to Napoli in the autumn, described his opponents in wonder as una sinfonia, “a symphony”.
Interestingly, to describe new trends in the game, the Italian language often looks outward, incorporating many English terms such as pressing, tap-in, Mister, assist, cross, dribbling and stretching that are both appallingly pronounced and sometimes even carry a reimagined meaning. Dribbling, for instance, becomes a noun in Italian, so instead of a dribble to beat someone, a player executes a dribbling, and an assist need only lead to a goal-scoring opportunity to count as such, not necessarily a goal. Whether misunderstandings or not, these neologisms only add to the charm and idiosyncrasy of the calcio lexicon.
There are many other issues with the presentation of the Serie A on television – a lack of fans and outdated stadiums sit high – but to me the biggest is the language barrier. I’m sure fans of the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and LaLiga would all have similar complaints, and this is why audiences around the world will continue to flock to and enjoy the Premier League. The availability of these games on television is thus both amazing and frustrating, the same way the coffee from my Italian espresso maker will never taste quite as good here. Something is missing, and so I watch and sip in silence.
By Sam Griswold