With the nation‘s fascination with everything Paul Gascoigne after his exploits at World Cup ’90 showing no sign of abating, the production company Chrysalis quietly set about securing a deal to televise Serie A games in the UK in time for his arrival in Italy. Its innovative coverage would quickly entrench itself in the hearts of millions of football fans and influence their weekend plans throughout the 1990s.
The sight of the Italian flag themed Channel 4 logo, sound of Definitive Two’s evocative theme tune and the red, white and green of the ribbons and ticker tape covering our screens invited pure escapism. Never knowing whether the end of the opening sequence shouted “go Lazio” only added to the intrigue. For the record, it was “golaço”, Portugese for “fantastic goal” albeit pronounced in a way so as to allude to Gazza’s new team.
How James Richardson got the job that would elevate him to near cult status was more luck than design. Gascoigne himself was the intended presenter of the Saturday show and indeed fronted the first two episodes but after consistently arriving late for filming, the reins were handed to Richardson – in the right place at the right time. Cue the programme’s defining image of the impeccably dressed new host sat outside a café in a sun drenched Milanese piazza, sipping an espresso with a pink copy of Gazzetta dello Sport.
Not that you would have guessed it but Richardson had never worked in front of the camera before. Previously a producer, he took to presenting like a natural with a style all of his own. His articulate blend of wit, in-depth knowledge of the Italian game and subtle comedy was in stark contrast to the cliché ridden dross rolled out by terrestrial broadcasters covering the domestic game. His out of studio features with the likes of Gianluca Vialli donning a wig and Attilio Lombardo dancing the lambada were as refreshing as his larking about with Gazza and kitchen utensils in the former Spurs man’s Roman villa.
Saturday morning’s hour long Gazzetta was the undoubted highlight with James talking the viewer through the main newspaper stories, interspersed with highlights of all the fixtures from the previous week described by the dulcet tones of Peter Brackley and Gary Bloom. For those unfamiliar with the show, think Transworld Sport but just football and much better. On Sundays they showed a live game: Piacenza v Reggiana; the Turin derby; Udinese v Foggia; it didn’t matter, everyone tuned in. Well, three million did for their first live match, making it the most watched programme in the UK showing a non-domestic league.
The series was also responsible for creating some long standing, if slightly bizarre, allegiances. One friend, so enamoured by a virtuoso performance from striker Dario Hubner, became an ardent Brescia fan and still makes annual trips to the Stadio Mario Rigamonti to see the Biancoazzurri. Another developed an unconditional love for Guiseppe Signori’s sweet left foot and meticulously followed the forward’s career from Lazio to Bologna via Sampdoria, buying each season’s replica shirt along the way. Without Football Italia or the widespread online media we have today, forming such loyalties would have been impossible.
There is no doubt that the presence of the English contingent added to the show’s charms, especially since there were very few home grown players plying their trade in other leagues on the continent at the time. We were able to see David Platt flourish in his new setting, scoring freely from midfield as he embraced Italian culture during his four years there. Although his teammate, Des Walker, struggled to adapt to life in Genoa, his followers could monitor his progress weekly.
Ultimately, Gazza was the star turn. His trials and tribulations captivated the both the English and Italian public, from the highs of his last minute headed equaliser in the Rome derby and majestic solo run and finish against Pescara, to the lows of his broken leg and the appointment of Zdeněk Zeman as Lazio manager which ultimately spelt the end of his turbulent time in Italy.
Admittedly, the football was at times less than thrilling. Stereotypically negative tactics from defensively minded coaches were commonplace yet Football Italia was somehow more than just the football. In addition to Gascoigne, it was the glamour of the league’s star players, originality of the production and brilliance of its host that bred such devotion amongst its fans for whom the Football Italia is eternally etched in their memories.