Sporting rivalry may spring to life
By Simon Kuper

Published: September 1 2006 17:58 | Last updated: September 1 2006 17:58

The last time an Italian football team got a heated reception here in France was in 1938. Arriving at Marseilles's station for that year's World Cup, the team's train was 'greeted� by 3,000 irate anti-fascist demonstrators, many of them Italian exiles. Italy went on to win the World Cup regardless. Along the way they beat France in Paris while wearing the Fascist black shirts for the only time in their history, according to David Goldblatt in his history of football The Ball is Round.

The atmosphere will be similar when Italy revisit Paris on Wednesday. Barely 60 days after the Italians beat France in the World Cup final in Berlin, the teams meet again in a qualifying match for the European Championship. Once or twice in a lifetime you might witness the birth of a sporting rivalry. Wednesday night is one of those times.

There never used to be a Franco-Italian football rivalry. 'For Italians, France is not a football country,� the Italian football author Tommaso Pellizzari helpfully explained to the French cult football magazine So Foot. 'The French league, for us Italians, doesn't exist. Apparently matches are played, perhaps they are even on television but nobody here cares.� On the rare occasions when a French team beat an Italian one, says Pellizzari, Italians felt a sense of 'man bites dog�.

The French, for their part, always lived in awe of Italian football culture: look, a people who actually cared about the game!

French fans didn't hate the chief emanation of Italian football, Juventus of Turin. They supported them. It was fitting that France's best footballer before Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini, was the son of Italian immigrants and returned across the Alps to Juventus. The Italian diaspora in south-eastern and eastern France produced many other French internationals.

The Italians, when they had cause to notice French football, were kind but patronising. Their media often spoke of 'our French cousins�. The headline in the daily paper La Repubblica before July's final was, 'Zidane, here we are: a final against an old friend.�

Everything changed that night in Berlin. The French didn't so much mind losing. What bugged them was Zidane's sending-off. True, he had head-butted Marco Materazzi, but so what? Ségolène Royale, possibly France's next Socialist president, praised Zizou for avenging Materazzi's insults of his mother and sister.

Crucially, Materazzi embodied the Italian, or 'Rital�, of French stereotype. This type had its roots outside football. 'In French imagination, Italy is synonymous with trickery,� explains the French historian Pierre Milza, author of Histoire de l'Italie. 'The Italian is someone who knifes you in the back without being seen.�

It might have been different if Zidane had felled an admirable Italian, such as Fabio Cannavaro, but his sensibility led him to Italy's worst player, a sneaky butcher who would never have got near a World Cup final but for Alessandro Nesta's injury.

Or as France's centre-back William Gallas said after the final: 'I accept it when a team wins deservedly but this is trickery. When you see players like that [Materazzi], you'd like to smack their faces. It's trickery, but they're Italians.�

The week after the final, France's Journal du Dimanche newspaper happened to be holding its semi-annual vote for most popular French person. Last December Zidane had sunk to an uncharacteristic second place. In July he rebounded to 48 per cent of the vote, winning by a landslide ahead of the tennis player-turned-singer Yannick Noah and the ecologist Nicolas Hulot.

French elegies rained in. The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy proclaimed Zizou a Homeric character. The dance-track 'Coup de Bouleâ?, or 'Headbuttâ?, written in half an hour the day after the final, topped the French charts and became the song of summer in the country's nightclubs. A taste of the lyrics: 'Headbutt to the right, headbutt to the left . . . The 'Rital' he was sore/ Zidane he has struck/ The Italian's not doing well/ The ref saw it on TV.â? The headbutt is now a running gag of French daily life: you sometimes see someone throw a mock one at a friend.

The absolution of Zidane ' which goes beyond France ' irritates many Italians. They were baffled when Fifa, the world's football authority, suspended Materazzi for two games, only one fewer than Zidane, who had retired anyway. Paolo Maldini, Italy's former captain, said: 'It's the first time a player is punished for things said on the field. For me there are two reasons. One, because he's an Italian and two, to justify the incorrect behaviour of a great champion.�

Italy's keeper Gianluigi Buffon added darkly: 'The responsible people at Fifa might prefer the victory of one team over that of another.�

All this misses the point that nobody is sorrier about Materazzi's suspension than French fans. They would love to have had him in Paris on Wednesday. He would have been guest of honour.

The party will go on without him. Normally footballers cloud their utterances in corporate fluff and say nothing to irritate opponents. The French this time have been frank.

'Of course we have a revenge to take,� says the midfielder Franck Ribery, mentioning the Materazzi incident. France's coach Raymond Domenech remarked even as the Italians were dancing around the cup: 'We deserved to be in their place.� Now he says he and many players remain 'traumatised� by the defeat.

On the rare occasions when the crowd in Paris's Stade de France makes any noise at all, it's usually to jeer its own players. On Wednesday it might actually notice the opposition. This would mark the moment that France develops a proper football culture.

Everything is in place: attendances in the French league are growing and could overtake Italy's Serie A this season; Olympique Lyon have tried to buy Juventus's best players, something that was once unthinkable; and now French football has a rivalry to replace the defunct one with Germany. People go on about Zidane's contribution to French football but Materazzi's is almost as great.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006