MILAN — Things can change. In the 37 years that I have been living in Italy, I have watched nine World Cup tournaments. The Italian team was always there. In 1982 and 2006 it won. In 1994, in the United States, it lost the final on penalties to Brazil. In 1990, as host, it crashed out in the semifinals to Argentina. True, on other occasions it failed abjectly in the group stages. True, some years it left qualification for the competition to the very last game. But no one doubted it would win that game. No one doubted that a country that invests so much money and emotional energy in soccer, a country with so much flair, talent and sheer devilish cunning, would come good when it counts. But we were wrong. Italy’s national soccer team is not in Russia for this year’s World Cup. “The worst summer ever for Italian men,” a recent headline in Corriere della Sera declared: no World Cup and nothing to do on the beach but talk politics.
Because here, too, something has changed. Along with nine World Cups, in my time in Italy I have seen 26 governments form and dissolve. Some were theoretically a little right-wing and some hypothetically a little left, but all were essentially moderate, centrist and proudly European, falling into line with NATO and the European Union and the World Bank and, God bless us, Uncle Sam, on every major issue: sending troops here and there, as required — not many, but some — allowing their territory to be used to house missiles and launch military strikes, dutifully struggling to meet the endless conditions laid down by Brussels for membership in the euro club.
True, some prime ministers resisted more than others; one thinks of Bettino Craxi’s objections to nuclear warheads in Sicily in the mid-1980s. True, there has been plenty of gamesmanship on display, Italy being one of the countries most frequently reprimanded for breaches of European regulations. Still, no one doubted that in the end, Italy would always straighten up and behave. Again we were wrong. The 27th government of my life here has declared war on a range of fronts: Russian sanctions, European immigration regulations and fiscal austerity. “Italy first” is the slogan of Matteo Salvini, the head of the nationalist Lega party and the undisputed strongman of the new administration.
So, are the causes that led Italy’s national team to fail and Italy’s people to abandon their traditional political parties the same?
No. Italy’s soccer players were unlucky to find themselves in a qualifying group with the exceptional Spain, and unlucky again to be drawn against a tough, determinedly physical Sweden in a playoff where absolutely nothing went right. It was not a particularly talented team, but there are many worse playing in Russia.
Italian voters opted for Mr. Salvini’s Lega and Beppe Grillo’s utopistic Five Star Movement — its central policy is to guarantee a “citizenship income” to all — after nearly 20 years of frustrating economic decline and rising unemployment, a period more or less concurrent with membership of the euro and made all the more dramatic by the arrival of waves of African migrants on the country’s southern shores. The overwhelming perception is that the European Union has done very little to alleviate this specifically Italian difficulty.
But however different the underlying causes of the sporting “catastrophe,” as Italians like to call it, and the installation of an aggressively nationalist government, it is hard not to see disquieting connections. For a well-behaved member country of the supposedly benevolent, politically correct European Union, international sport, and particularly soccer, offers a rare occasion for the unrestrained expression of national identity. One can say what one likes about fragile Italian nationhood, but when the national team wins a World Cup game, the celebrations are extraordinary. There are hordes of scooters streaming flags, little girls and old ladies mad with joy, rivers of wine and grappa, revelers blaring horns into the early hours, wives and their mothers-in-law reconciled, southerners and northerners united in triumphant embrace. And all the better when the victim of Italian success is a dominant neighbor. To beat West Germany in the final in 1982 and France in 2006, those were moments of collective jubilation. Any notion that national feeling is a thing of the past was revealed as pious wishful thinking.
Meantime, the rhetoric of European Union politics moves insistently in the opposite direction. Responsible leaders of the Union’s less powerful member states must constantly remind their electorates that the major fiscal decisions are made elsewhere; their hands are tied, there is little they can do. Hence more and more, the only way to present yourself to the people as an effective leader, rather than a yes man, is to talk of a determination to reform the European Union — as President Emmanuel Macron of France has done — or better still, to defy the European Union, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Mr. Salvini in Italy are both doing. The only real energy in politics becomes the energy of national assertion, the kind of energy the Italians will not be able to vent on the national team this year.
“Italy’s not for bowing its head,” is a typical tweet from Mr. Salvini. It’s also typical soccer talk. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Salvini has been involved in a spat with one of the rare black members of Italy’s team, Mario Balotelli, who has accused Italian fans of failing to identify with black players. The new government is adamant it will not grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrants “merely” because they have grown up in Italy. We are in for a period of painful social conflict, at the end of which perhaps we may remember why it once seemed wise to relegate certain emotions to the stadium.
The good news, perhaps, is that the Italian women’s soccer team has qualified for the Women’s World Cup in 2019, for the first time since 1999. But one thing that has not changed is that national identity tends to be invested in men’s teams, not women’s. Mr. Salvini is all testosterone.
Tim Parks (@timparksauthor) is a writer and translator.