By Enza Ferreri
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If you asked people in an opinion poll in the UK and probably in other parts of the world what they think Italian achievements and successes in sport are, very likely they would immediately think of football, perhaps motor racing and cycling, but not much else.
If you asked people in an opinion poll in the UK to name the top 10 countries with most Olympic medals victories, they probably would not include Italy among them.
And yet, Italy has regularly been among the countries that have won the highest number of medals in the Olympic Games.
Most Popular Sport in Italy
The most popular sport in Italy is football, what in America is called “soccer”.
In football, Italy is a giant, with one of the best records of achievements in the world. On 14 February 2007 FIFA, the international football governing body, ranked Italy first in the FIFA World Rankings, with 1488 points, 37 points more than Argentina, 2nd ranked. This moved Italy up one from their previous rank, second.
Italian football players of outstanding value throughout the history of the game have been so many that they could fill a book.
Italy Football Achievements
Italy has won the World Cup 4 times, in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, an impressive record only bettered by Brazil with one more victory, 5.
Italy’s coach Vittorio Pozzo is the only man to ever coach a team to two World Cup victories, in 1934 and 1938.
In addition, Italy won one European championship in 1968, two Central European International Cups and one Olympic Gold Medal in 1936.
But that’s not enough: Italy has been in the final of many more World Cups and European Cups.
In 1994, in the USA, the World Cup final was between Italy and Brazil. Both countries had won the title a record 3 times. Whoever won that historic final would become the first national football team ever to conquer the title for the 4th time. The result score at the end of the match was still 0-0, and it remained that after the extra time was played.
The result was then decided by a penalty shoot-out.
Italy lost but, as everybody knows, penalty shoot-outs are much more a matter of luck than skills.
It could easily have been Italy to win 4 World Cups for the first time in the history of football.
In France 1998, Italy lost to the national that was to become champions, France. Again, the match was decided after the regular time was over.
In 2000, the European Championship final was between Italy and France. Decided by penalty shoot-out once again. We lost.
The 2008 European championship has seen the Azzurri’s opening matches not particularly brilliant, but also marred by wrong referee decisions, all against Italy. In the first game, Holland-Italy, the opening goal by the Dutch was a clear and obvious offside, with about one metre between the Dutch goal-scorer and the closest Italian player behind him. The goal should have been disallowed but was instead conceded by the referee. The Dutch players themselves could not believe it, there was utter suprprise on their faces. The UEFA, the European football governing body, was so concerned about this poor referee decision that it issued a statement to defend it soon after the match, even though these statements are usually made only if there is a complaint from the offended team, and in this case Italy had not made a complaint.
The UEFA’s defense of the referee’s decision is as poor as the decision itself. It claims that the goal was not offside, given that, when Van Nistelrooy scored for the Dutch, the Italian defender, Panucci, although out of the field due to injury, was still in play because he had left the field without asking for the referee’s permission to do so.
This is a reference to a guidelines code with advice to referees published by FIFA. What is absurd about this line of defense is that a rule that allegedly penalizes a player and his team for being injured seems to go against common sense and reason. Panucci clearly could not ask for the referees’s permission to leave the field if he was in acute pain. But this was not, obviously, the reason behind this rule and the referee’s decision goes against the spirit of the rule.
The rule is there to prevent a defender from leaving the field just to avoid a goal by creating an offside, i.e. to prevent him from cheating. If this happens, the referee has not only to allow the goal as onside but also to punish the defender by showing him the yellow card.
The referee did not yellow card Panucci because he knew that the Italian was really injured and not cheating, but that very decision also demonstrates that the goal was offside and was to be disallowed.
That first goal, stolen and not regularly scored, changed the game completely. The Dutch then scored two more goals but the match until that crucial moment of the bad referee’s decision had been entirely different. The Dutch were charged up and we got demoralized. True, a great team must pick themselves up and carry on, even if their opponents are 14 and not 11. But the fact remains that Italy that night played against 14: Holland plus the trio of referee and linesmen.
It’s also true that these things always happen in football. But what makes wrong referee decisions more acceptable is that, according to the theory of probability, they should sometimes go against you and sometimes go in your favour: statistically, if all is fair there should be a percentage of 50/50 of referee decisions for and against the same team.
Not so for Italy. In their second match of the tournament, against Romania, Italy scored a goal that was perfecly regular and was disallowed for offside. And later on in the game the referee awarded an extremnely dubious penalty to Romania, superbly saved by our Buffon.
In football, where even one single goal can make all the difference in outcome, referees decisions which direcly affect the result, like offside decisions, are crucial in determining who wins and who loses, as opposed to decisions only indirectly affecting the result, such as sending off players.
Only a match between Italy and, say, Saudi Arabia, or a game between professional and amateur footballers, would not be affected in its result by constant and consistent wrong referee decisions against one team only.
I am sure that, if Brazil had had bad referee decisions against them on a regular basis, they would not have won five world cups.
In yachting, Italy reached the final of the America’s Cup in Auckland in 2000 with the yacht Luna Rossa by beating the American favourite in the semifinal, and went to race against the title holder New Zealand which beat them in the final.
Italy had already been in the final of this most prestigious trophy in international yachting competition in 1992 with Il Moro di Venezia. It was defeated by the favourite America3.
In recent years, the Italian yacht Luna Rossa placed third or fourth in the America’s Cup.
In motorcycling, Italy’s Valentino Rossi is the undisputed champion of the world, having won seven world titles in the MotoGP world championship.
One of the most successful motorcycle road racers in motorcycling, thanks to the nine Grand Prix World Championships he has won (five of which were won consecutively between 2001 and 2005), he is the only rider in the history of MotoGP to have won the title in four different classes: 125, 250, 500, and the premier class MotoGP, in which he was as many as seven times the MotoGP World Champion.
Still active though planning to retire, Rossi is generally considered one of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time.
Other Italians have been top international motorcycling aces, like Loris Capirossi and, earlier, Giacomo Agostini, who won seven times from 1966 to 1972.
Italy is relatively new to rugby, a sport which has still little following in the country.
Yet, the country’s team is in the Six Nations tournament, and has beaten long-established national teams like Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Photo credit: Luna Rossa by Valencia Sailing .