Golaccio! Back in 1992, television broadcaster Channel 4 launched its coverage of Italian football in the United Kingdom. The live matches and Gazzetta Football Italia magazine show proved such a success that a generation of British football fans fell in love with Serie A. Soccerphile writer Andy Greeves was amongst those smitten by charm of Italy's beautiful game and, 25 years on from the launch of Football Italia, reminisces about all things calcio in the nineties with the show's former host James Richardson.
28 July, 2017
The breakaway of the then-22 top flight clubs from the Football League to form their own division - The Premier League - in 1992 was a seismic moment in English football history. Sky Sports promised 'A Whole New Ball Game' when it won the broadcasting rights to the new division and a quarter of a century, the sport in England has changed immeasurably.
ITV first broadcast a live club match back in 1983 when Tottenham Hotspur took on Nottingham Forest on October 2 that year. Their coverage of the old Division One expanded during the 1980's and through into the early 1990's, especially on the back of winning exclusive league rights in 1988. The result of their failed bid to screen the Premier League in 1992 meant that for the first time in nearly a decade, there would be no live, top-flight English club football on terrestrial television.
Terrestrial viewers would however have the opportunity to watch the best league in the world at that time. That year, Channel 4 paid £1.5m for the rights to broadcast Serie A in the UK, initially just for the 1992-93 campaign. In terms of viewing figures, their Football Italia coverage was an instant success. Three million viewers tuned in for the first match on the channel - Sampdoria versus Lazio on September 6, 1992 - compared to just 0.52 million that saw the Premier League's first live television match, as Nottingham Forest took on Liverpool on August 16, 1992.
The vast difference in those viewing figures can be attributed to the channels' potential reach at the time - over 20 million people in the UK had licences to watch terrestrial television (and more were able to do so free of charge), including Channel 4. In comparison Sky Sports had just 1.6 million subscribers back then. The success of Football Italia was a success for many more reasons than just the fact it had a potential for a bigger audience than the Premier League. It was a triumph from both a sporting and broadcasting perspective.
"Not many people in the UK had access to live football at that time that wasn't Serie A and of course that was huge," says James Richardson, who hosted Channel 4's Football Italia coverage that through until its conclusion in 2002. "The longevity of the coverage shows that Football Italia had far more going for it other than just being accessible to a wide audience. Serie A was without doubt the best league in the world when it was launched in 1992 and remained so the best part of a decade.
"It was played out in a backdrop of Italy's stadiums, which only two years earlier had hosted a World Cup that had really captured the imagination of the British public. There was definitely a romance about football in Italy. And of course, there were three members of the England team that had done so well in that World Cup plying their trade in Italy in David Platt, Des Walker and Paul Gascoigne.
"With Football Italia, it was like you had the successful film, which was Italia '90 and we were offering the TV spin-off with all the best players from that World Cup appearing in Serie A!"
Channel 4's initial motivation for securing the rights to Serie A came with the news of Paul Gascoigne's transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to SS Lazio. The British public took 'Gazza' to their heart after his performances at the World Cup in 1990, that saw England get to the semi-finals of the tournament. 'Gazzamania' was born and the player became the subject of intense public and media interest thereafter.
"Channel 4 originally approached the Italian Football Federation (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio; FIGC) about buying the rights to Lazio games only but the league informed them they couldn't buy individual club rights," recalls Richardson. "They informed Channel 4 that the rights for the league were for available that year though. They decided to bid and were ultimately successful."
Richardson was just 25 when he landed the role hosting Channel 4's Football Italia.
"I was working at Sky at the time ironically," recalls Richardson. "A friend of mine worked for a production company that was going to be behind Channel 4's coverage of Italian football and she mentioned to me they were looking for a reporter. I had no on-screen experience and I certainly wasn't any kind of a football genius, so I didn't initially apply for the job as I didn't think I was up to it.
"A week later, my friend mentioned they still didn't have anyone for the role. Around about the time of Italia '90, I started going out with a girl from Rome, so I learnt Italian. I phoned the company up and said, 'look, I've not been a presenter or a reporter before, I'm not a football expert but I do speak Italian'. They pretty much turned around and told me 'that's great, off you go'! It was a total surprise.
"It was originally meant to have been a kind of 'our man in Italy production role' but that changed when Paul Gascoigne's time keeping meant he wasn't quite the ideal presenter of the morning show (Gazzetta Football Italia)! Saturday morning was meant to have been about him presenting and linking all the items on the programme but that lasted for about two weeks. There was then a surreal experience when I had to present the whole show from his garden when he didn't turn up for the third show!"
Despite his short lived presenting role, Gascoigne's Serie A debut for Lazio against Genoa was broadcast live on Channel 4 on September 27, 1992 and Gazza continued to be a regular guest on Football Italia.
"Working with Gazza was amazing," smiles Richardson. "He was such a significant player, culturally as well as from a sporting point of view. To have access to him at the same time he wouldn't speak to the Italian press was incredible. It was always a case of seagulls and trawlers after we'd done our interviews. The Rome press would always be hanging around, trying to see if they could get anything from him.
"When you sit down with Gazza, he is such a simple, charming guy. He was very generous with his time and energy and we had some really funny times. We went out socially a few times and he often invited me out after interviews. That would often be on a Thursday though and unfortunately that night would always be when I was getting the material back to London."
Gascoigne was one of the reasons football fans in England initially tuned into Football Italia but Gazza was soon just 'part of furniture' of the hit show. The same viewers who had tuned in solely to see the golden boy of the English game quickly became captivated by the quality of the Serie A and indeed, the way in which it was presented by Channel 4.
On the pitch, the league had an abundance of international stars. A quick list at the top-scorers list from 1992-93 season gives you an idea of the quality on show with the likes of Marco van Basten, Jean-Pierre Papin, Roberto Mancini, Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Baggio and Guiseppe Signori amongst those players to get 13 or more goals during the campaign. There were some real classic matches that season too and Channel 4 was fortunate to cover a number of them - AC Milan beating Pescara 5-4 and the Rosseneri winning 7-4 at Fiorentina to name just a few.
The race for the Scudetto was wide open throughout the 1990's too, adding to the league's attraction. The term the 'Sette Sorelle' (seven sisters) was coined in Italian football to reflect the fact seven clubs - Juventus, AC Milan, Internazionale, Roma, Lazio, Parma and Fiorentina - all seemed to have the capability to win the title at the start of any given season during the decade. Four teams - Milan, Juve, Roma and Lazio - all manage to achieve one or more Scudetto in Channel 4's decade covering Serie A.
Off the field, Richardson became hugely popular for his humour and ability to avoid the many clichés of football presenting. The abiding image of the coverage was of the Bristol-born presenter sitting outside a different café each week, talking through the football stories that has appeared in Italian newspapers in his own inimitable style.
"At the time, Italy was like a pantheon of football gods yet those same individuals proved to be warm and accessible," comments Richardson. "For a relatively inexperienced guy to get to meet them and interview them was incredible.
"There was something special about Roberto Baggio. He wouldn't necessarily talk too much but his eyes said so much. You had particular players at the time like Gianluca Vialli, who very much a Sampdoria player, then very much a Juventus player. There was Francesco Totti who was starting out at Roma and who will always be Roma through and through. But Baggio, a bit like Gianluigi Buffon today, seemed to be above all fan affiliations. He was Italy's player and everyone loved him.
"Pierluigi Casiraghi, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini to name but a few… they were absolute gents. I remember sitting in a courtyard of a villa in Florence, talking to Gabriel Bastistuta about getting his haircut and classically, there was 'Doing the Lambada with Attilio Lombardo!' They were great times."
Gazzetta Football Italia oozed the kind of slickness and class on show at Serie A stadiums at the time and Richardson starred as the witty and informed host. Even the theme tune - Definitive Two's I'm Stronger Now, was ultra-cool. It featured the cry of Golaccio! - which isn't actually an Italian word but a term made famous by Jose Altafini - a Brazilian footballer turned pundit who used the phrase to describe a great goal. In the UK, many viewers thought the scream was 'Go Lazio!', given much of Channel 4's coverage of Italian football had been geared around the Biancocelesti in the early days.
While everything on screen was executed with the precision of a Franco Baresi tackle, behind the camera things were anything but smooth.
"We had a very tight schedule, turning around a programme every week," explains Richardson. "It became quite stressful at times, as I had to source interviews and was responsible for essentially making sure we had a show. I seemed to spend a lot of my time frantically phoning around with the programme deadline looming!"
After a frantic week, Richardson took his café seat and presented Gazzetta - which was screened on a Saturday morning in the UK - accompanied by a cappuccino and a large ice-cream sundae on his table!
"I often get asked if the ice creams were real and I can confirm they very much were," he laughs. "It wasn't like I was carrying around a latex ice cream sundae with me!"
Like desserts, Channel 4's coverage of Italian football wasn't to last forever. When the broadcaster abandoned coverage of Roma's title decider against Parma on June 17, 2001 with seven minutes to go, it was a sign of things to come. The Giallorossi's match had been delayed due to a pitch invasion and the broadcaster decided not to accommodate schedule changes to that day's programme line-up. They had done so in similar circumstances the previous season, so show all of Juventus' unsuccessful title bid. By Serie A's final season on the channel in 2001-02, live matches were ditched and only highlights were shown.
Richardson moved to British Eurosport and then Bravo to host their coverage of Football Italia between 2002 and 2006 but by then Serie A had dipped in popularity with British viewers. The increased standing of the Premier League by then and the diminishing quality in the Italian game had a big part to play in that. There was also a vast increase in those with satellite dishes in the noughties compared with 1992. They had English football and indeed other leagues from around the world available at the touch of a button.
Richardson has remained a busy man since Football Italia vanished from Channel 4 some 15 years ago and currently presents the UEFA Champions League Goals Show on BT Sport. The Roma-supporting presenter also heads-up their coverage of Serie A, hosts The Guardian's Football Weekly podcast and contributes to the Premier League's global television output through production company IMG.
"I took part in an event London recently, looking back on the Football Italia days 25 years on," adds Richardson. "There was myself, (and broadcasters/journalists) James Horncastle and Paolo Bandini. We looked back on the players, the matches, the goals and the stories of the time too. There is a lot of nostalgia attached to the show and it was nice to indulge in a spot of reminiscing."