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'Many Italians tend to see the referee as corrupt until proven otherwise'

Historian and Italian football expert John Foot is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

IN THE FIRST chapter of his seminal history of Italian football, Calcio, John Foot sets out the truth he soon came to learn about the country. “it is almost impossible to comprehend Italy without understanding football, and vice-versa.” 

John is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines, and he delved further into that thesis, explaining perhaps the best articulation Italian football makes on behalf of its society is seen in the treatment of referees. 

  • The full conversation with John is now available, so to get access to it along with the full 83-episode Behind the Lines archive, subscribe at members.the42.ie. And for a limited time, you can get €5 off an annual membership by using the promo code BTL. 

“That really is important to understanding how Italians understand society, in that they have a fundamental mistrust of authority”, says John on the podcast. “And then you’ve got this weird situation where you’ve got this kind of dictator; the referee as a dictator before VAR, when his decision is final. There was no appeal, they have to decide straight away.

“Italians hate that. Plus, this mistrust of authority is often a suspicion of corruption. And Italians – not all of them – but many of them tend to see the referee as corrupt until proven otherwise. So it’s the other way around to the way that British people see the referee, we tend to need proof. They don’t: they need proof to show they’re not corrupt. So many games are interpreted through referee decisions as opposed to players’ performances.” 

What about VAR? Is its introduction the best thing possible for Italian football’s culture of suspicion, or is it just making things worse? 

“I think in some ways it’s taken out some of the violence out of the of the discussions, because they have become dissipated into VAR, which is a much more nebulous thing.  

“It’s not personalised like before, it was like ‘That referee is this.’ But VAR has made the hatred and the discussions much more spread out. On the other hand, it just transfers the conspiracy theory to somewhere else. Now VAR is treated as a technological thing that becomes manoeuvred by higher forces, be they Juve or Uefa or whatever.

“I’ve got a feeling that the kind of conspiracy theories I noticed in Italy in the ’80s and ’90s have now become global. That’s partly because of social media and partly it’s the fact that all the national TV channels have got these programmes on where they have to talk about stuff for hours.

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“And conspiracy theories are quite good things to talk about, because you can get people to ring up and disagree about them, which is a good way to run a kind of phone in like 606 or something.

“I think I feel there’s been a kind of Italianisation of the media, but also the way that we see football. In the past, I think some people would have thought someone like Mike Dean, to pluck a random example from the air ,was just a bad referee.

“Now, it’s like Mike Dean is a Tottenham fan because we can see him jumping in this little clip. That’s the kind of road we’re going down and it’s not a very good road to go down. But it seems to be very familiar to me to the stuff that was already there in Italy in the 80s.” 

Listen to the full interview with John by subscribing at members.the42.ie

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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