“Since we can’t overcome our vices,” wrote Emil Cioran, “we may as well cultivate them and enjoy them as best we can.” Having for years kept mum about my obsession with football and my frenetic support for Hellas Verona on the terraces of the Bentegodi stadium, I finally gave up and decided to surrender to the enchantment entirely, see where it took me. All over Italy is the answer, every game, home and away, in an agonisingly long and exhausting season. And what possible excuse could I give to my wife if not that I was writing a book, a serious study, I said, not to mention an exciting story, about this huge mental space which is modern football, and, of course, about Italy.
Nothing I’ve written has turned out more different than I had expected, funnier, more complicated, more unpredictable and above all more exciting. The fans, as always, were accused of vulgarity and racism, but what a strange and ambiguous kind of racism this is. The club as always were battling against relegation, but how different that prospect is for the players, the managers, the men and women suffering on the terraces. It was an election year and politics kept encroaching. The police were far from being straightforward law-enforcers. Newspapers and TV were far from telling the truth about what was going on. The hard core toughs were threatening but hilarious, the referees unforgivable, the institutions a mask of hypocrisy.
Overnight in ancient buses and railway carriages, or sitting beside the players in chartered planes and smart hotel lobbies, I began to get a whole new take on Italian character, and above all on what it means to invest so much emotion in something that we all know, in the end, is meaningless. In a globalized world where borders and discriminations are no longer possible, where religion and political idealism seem more dangerous than comforting, football, I at last began to understand, offers a new and fiercely ironic way of forming community and engaging with the sacred. Take to the road with the boys and you too can be a part time fundamentalist, a weekend Taliban.
Last comment: when I started this book I was absolutely determined that it transcend both sport and chronicle. So you people who know nothing of football, and don’t want to know, you people, who perhaps despise those of us who have succumbed to its spell, take note: I always had you in mind when I was writing. Give it a few pages before you decide. But watch out. This is a season that went right to the final whistle of the final game. If you get hooked, you’re in for a long haul.