Alessandro Piperno is an Italian author and literary critic. Two of his books have so far appeared in English, The Worst Intentions (2007) and Persecution (2010). In this interview conducted in the summer of 2012, he reveals where he comes down in the Lazio-Roma divide, why you can’t trust Freudian psychoanalysts, and ponders the significance of Lionel Messi’s giant socks.
In Persecution, Flavio, one of your characters, describes Italy winning the 1982 World Cup as a, ‘dangerous practical joke’, that has, ‘led Italians to believe in a cult of victory and competition based on the illusion that the most important thing is to win’. The protagonist of the story Leo Pontecorvo defends the national team. What side do you come down on?
I’m with Pontecorvo. For me, the ’82 World Cup was the most beautiful. Firstly because I was studying in England at the time and being abroad always helps in the development of patriotism, but also for another reason. Football is the most beautiful sport of all because it’s the one sport in which the winner isn’t always the best. When two boxers go head to head, the strongest wins. When Nadal plays the number 40 rank in the world, he wins. Not in football. Very often in football the weaker team wins, and they win because they take a risk. In this way, Italian football has taught losers how to win, and the Italian national side of 1982, more than any other, is the perfect example of this. With a team of small guys like Paolo Rossi and Bruno Conti, and with as unlikely a manager as Bearzot they played fantastic football. Both very Italian and very attacking. We shouldn’t forget that they put two past Argentina, three past England and three past Brazil. Four even, against Brazil, because we had one goal incorrectly disallowed for offside.
The Brazil side of 1982 is often cited as the best of all time. Were you not a fan of their style of play?
Socrates, Falcao… it was a magnificent, sublime dance, the likes of which had never been seen. But I should say that I’m not one for romanticism in football. For example, I don’t care for Barcelona at all; they’re a monotonous, arrogant team. I’m always against Barcelona. I find it difficult to understand what the fans get out of supporting a team that wins constantly, it must become deeply tiresome.
Do you find Lionel Messi boring too?
It’s impossible not be entertained by Messi, he must be one of the top five greatest ever players. However, I can’t say that I like him. Because I like Maradona, and Maradona, for me, is football. Absolute football. He is football because of the life that he lived, for his excess, for his charisma and because of his vices – because he wasn’t a clean player. I like the unclean players, the players who unite a certain arrogance to their talent. Maradona, Cantona, Gascoigne, Best, Chinaglia, Ibrahimovic -I love Ibrahimovic. Well brought up players don’t interest me. For example I much prefer Cristiano Ronaldo to Messi, even if Messi’s the better player. Another example: Pelé, in my opinion, is far too interested in human rights. It annoys me, in the same way that Rugby annoys me with its boastful gallantry, the so-called third half and its spirit of friendship. I really don’t like the idea of sport becoming some kind of American style family party with hot dogs, hats and children. Football is a unique spectacle. It’s a serious matter, it shouldn’t be light-hearted. That’s what I believe. Football is a story about virility. It’s not politically correct to say it but football is the only environment in which you can say “Long live virility!” So I like my footballers to be men.
Meaning what exactly?
When you hear people trying to compare Messi with Maradona, there’s one thing that is never said, and which is nonetheless fundamental in its absence, and that is -Maradona was beautiful. Now listen, I’m not speaking in an erotic sense; I’m intrinsically heterosexual. Maldini, Cabrini, all those guys who the women like, they do nothing for me. I’m talking about being beautiful in football. Maradona had these big legs, big shoulders, he was always balanced; every single part of his body, when it came into contact with the ball, spoke poetry. When he passed to a team-mate you’d have said the ball was a continuation of his foot. You can see it in any clip. Messi, however, it’s not beautiful when he touches the ball. And he’s not beautiful either. His legs aren’t up to much, he’s got these giant socks, he constantly hunches over when he’s running…
You are fan of Lazio, whose supporters have a certain reputation…
It’s stupid to think that Lazio is a club full of racists. But it is true that every Sunday, the Curva Nord sings anti-Semitic chants, and that it disgusts me. The racist chanting, the fascist salutes, I find it all truly disgraceful and it upsets me. There was this guy, who spent a whole season insulting all the players with anti-Jewsish slurs. One game, we score a goal and this guy takes me into his arms in an embrace, without knowing that I’m Jewish. I tell you that story in order to talk about my ancestry, and to show that I had suffered his hostility without reacting, a hostility that continues to exist. In spite of everything, I love being in the stadium. Football, for me, is epitomised by the stadium; a site of liberty in our controlled lives. I love to take a stranger in my arms when we score a goal, something that I wouldn’t do in any other circumstances.
What’s the difference between a Lazio fan and a Roma fan?
I’ve got a friend who claims he can tell who’s scored in the derby match, just by standing outside the ground and listening to sound of the crowd roar. The Roma fans, he says, make a ‘gooooool’, whilst the Lazio fans are closer to an ‘a sound than an ‘o’. He’s right. I couldn’t tell you how but there are definite, anthropological differences. On my way here today, I stopped to buy a newspaper. The guy at the kiosk was dressed head to toe in Roma colours. I would never do that. To be a Lazio fan is to be more modest, more subtle. A Lazio fan will always criticise his team. A Roma fan will be more extravagant, exhibitionist, will always talk about his team in positive terms. And so on.
How do you experience this rivalry in your day-to-day?
I’ve got a lot of friends who are Roma fans, but in footballing terms I’m incredibly hostile to Roma. I’ll tell you a story. For a long time I went to see a therapist. After about a year and a half I began to suspect that he was a Roma fan. A sort of counter-transference, he was a Freudian. I said to him, ‘Doctor, you are a hypocrite. You’re hiding a crucial piece of information from me’. He, naturally, gave me the typical responses you’d expect from a Roma, er sorry a psychoanalyst, forgive the slip, ‘Let’s talk about it, would it bother you if I were, let’s discuss what that might mean…’, all these abstract responses. All I wanted to know was what side of the city he belonged to, but I never did find out and I never will. A Freudian, so he told me nothing.
How important is the derby?
To be a fan of a team that has no derby match would mean half my enjoyment gone. The Napoli fan, for example, has only Napoli, and is really missing something, if you ask my opinion. The joy of winning a derby match is very strong, most of all because the pleasure you take is in the opposition losing. In 2006 Vanity Fair suggested I write an article for them about the World Cup final. They gave me the choice of going to the game, in Berlin, or going to Paris and watching the match amongst the French. Obviously I chose to go to France. I remember strolling down the Champs-Elysée after the final whistle and witnessing this immense scene of a party turned bad; where moments earlier the avenue had been rammed full with people now it was totally empty and there was rubbish everywhere. Seeing all those sad French people was a beautiful, metaphysical experience that greatly added to the joy of victory.
Again in your book Persecution, one of the characters explains that being a supporter is above all a question of hate…
I think hate is too strong a word, I can’t bring myself to hate anything, but in principal I agree. I would prefer Lazio and Roma to both lose rather than both win, because that way, at least Roma loses. There’s far more joy in the defeat of your rival than in your own team’s victory. There’s another thing to be said here, which is as true of football as it is of life in general, which is that the pain of defeat is far more powerful than the joy of victory. I was born in 1972. Lazio won their first scudetto in 1974, which, of course, I can’t remember. So that means that by the year 2000 and the second title, I’d led this terrible life for 30 years, 30 years of suffering. Lazio won that championship in incredible fashion. We were at the stadium and our match was over, the final day of the season, and were awaiting the result of Juventus- Perugia which had been interrupted by a torrential downpour. Everyone was wondering around, some people were in a desperate state and were holding each other for support. All the movement in the stands meant that I became separated from my brother in the crowds, and then, the speaker announced, ‘Lazio is champion of Italy!’, and my brother and I were now looking for each other, like two lost lovers. It was an intense joy, the joy of a lifetime. But then 20 minutes later, I thought to myself, ‘What have I won, exactly?’. Nothing. My life had not changed. I’d waited 30 years and still everything was the same as yesterday.
Do you make many analogies between football and life?
I’ve got a friend who says it’s nonsense that football is a metaphor for life, the truth is that life is a metaphor for football. What I would say is that football is the sport that speaks most about the complexity of existence, because it’s a sport in which you can win through merit, but also through deception and trickery. It’s a sport that is part of you from the moment you’re born, at least in Italy. In fact, football gives you, in condensed, packaged moments, what life gives you over time. All that I’ve said about the joy of victory and pain of defeat can be applied to women. When everything’s going well with a woman, you enter into an acceptance of a sort of lukewarm routine, without being conscious of your happiness. If she leaves you, you’ll suffer for years. Another thing. Let’s say your team is 3-0 down at half time. They’ve had a really shitty first half and you’re annoyed and you insult the players; you hate them. In the second half, they somehow manage to get in to the game and, without really knowing how or why, fluke a 4-3 victory. You’ve instantly forgotten everything from before, the same players are now your heroes. It’s a typical example of how humanity operates. Football is anthropology in its purest form.
And what about the relationship between literature and football?
There have been some great American novels about baseball, but no-one has successfully written a good football novel, nor even made a good film. It’s as if football somehow escapes being artistically captured. Yes, there was Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, which is a great read for a fan but it doesn’t have a wider significance for humanity, it’s not a masterpiece. The difference between football and literature is principally in that art requires time, patience and precision. Is it not the case that writers, in their writing, make an attempt to bring order to all the things that escape us in life? Whilst football, as I’ve said before, is a mongrel sport, impossible to control; too many things come into play. Figure skating, on the other hand, has a lot more to do with literature than football does; there is a search for the ideal, perfection of the form and for beauty. I think Baudelaire would have been a fan.
This interview appeared in So Foot #98 in July 2012 and was conducted by Lucas Duvernet-Coppola..