Autumn 1994. I arrived in Padua, a small town in the north eastern corner of Italy and about a 20-minute train journey from Venice. I was a 21 year-old student of Italian and had never heard of the place – it had been drawn out of a hat by 2 members of staff in the Italian department at my university. Academically things started inauspiciously. In my first lecture I was one of around 500, predominantly Italian, students understanding very little – correction, nothing of what the aged professor said. At the end I asked him tentatively what advice he had for an English student with limited Italian language skills. As he pondered the question, his face crumpled into a smile and then let out a series of gurgling throaty laughs which left him unable to answer. I waited… and waited… the laugh metamorphosed into a series of wheezy coughs that became so intense that I feared my question might have finished him off.
So, in the spirit of a less urgent and more shame-faced Ross Kemp, I felt it was high time “I got myself out of there”. I didn’t return to any university lectures until the following May, but a month later, I was training with a local semi-professional football team called AC Ferrari – which, as it turned out, proved to be a better education in Italian than anything the university offered. The first three training sessions – like my lecture experience – did not go well. I was overawed by the skill, insouciance, know-how and all round ability of the players who were mostly in their mid- twenties. I quickly discovered what it meant to “hide” in a game. It was the only thing I did with any success in those early sessions. One of the players, Roberto Zaramella, willingly and unstintingly gave me lifts to and from training each week. The pitch was out of town and it was disconcerting to be driven along dark roads by someone I barely knew or could barely communicate with – and it was bitterly cold. The Veneto is as flat as a pancake and chill winds swept down from the Dolomites to the north, adding to my discomfort.
After a fifth training session of contributing virtually nothing, something had to be done. I would try some flicks and a few runs – I would go out there and “try and enjoy it,” as Cloughie used to say with the “enjoy” surely the biggest misnomer of all those well-worn football maxims. If this didn’t work, I would simply thank my teammates for a great cultural experience, slip Roberto some petrol money, and resign on the spot.
The day arrived. I was extremely nervous with the adrenaline coursing through my system. This gave my eyes an unnerving, far-away look, but my resolve remained intact. I went for it – and it worked. A couple of runs came off as did a feint or two that lost my marker. Passes began to hit the targets. I wriggled between two opposition players and, as I released the ball, caught the exchange of surprised glances between some of the players who, over the previous weeks, had probably been asking why I was there. At last I had some momentum and came out of my hiding place to demand the ball.
At the end of that session I was called into a port-a-cabin at the edge of the training ground that doubled as the manager’s office and with two others in attendance was asked if I wanted to sign for the club. I had no idea what exactly I was signing up for (I didn’t care) and was told apologetically the following week that I didn’t qualify for any payment. No matter. The mental, physical, technical, and not to mention linguistic challenges I faced each training session, more than compensated.
AC Ferri did have some success in an end of season cup competition. One of the team’s sponsors was a local restaurant and it was there we celebrated one evening. For the main course I was offered, and my Italian had improved significantly over the previous months, what I think I understood to be either horse or starfish…! I opted for the latter and, whatever it was, it was delicious.
But surely the greatest departure between the cultures was that there was no beer; only the local reddish wine. And in a reverse of the bible story, to my astonishment, the players added water. Despite this, they quickly became light-headed to the point at which even the most uncompromising of opponents in training roared with laughter when (and it happened repeatedly) someone sat on a piece of food that had been, with ever less subtlety, placed on his unsuspecting neighbour’s chair. When in Padua, do as the Romans do, so I gulped down a couple of glasses of secretly unwatered wine and joined in the fun.
By a lucky twist of fate my year in Italy coincided with unfashionable Padova’s return to Serie A for the first time since the early 1960s. It is fair to say that the first 4 matches back in the top flight did not quite go according to plan: Played: 4; lost: 4, goals for: 0; goals against: 12! The club had recruited the hulking ginger American defender, Alexis Lalas in the close season, though on the pitch it was less the ginger beard that drew the attention than the groans that reverberated around the home section of fans each time he shinned the ball (so lots of groans) and misplaced his passes (more). Fans winced and shielded their eyes when an opponent made the mistake of getting too close; he invariably ended up somewhere off the pitch. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help noticing that there were some conspiratorial glances among fans that betrayed an unmistakable mix of amusement and admiration each time it happened. Lalas seemed like a fish out of water and I knew how he felt.
Padova was a traumatised club but managed to stem the flow in their 5th match with a 3-3 draw against Napoli. Then the tide began to turn. The first win came against AC Milan no less! Another highlight came the following spring with victory against an all-conquering Juventus, who along with Parma (with Asprilla, Zola and Cannavaro amongst their ranks), contested all the domestic honours as well as a European final that season. Juve had Padova’s most famous ex player on the pitch that day: Alessandro del Piero, but he couldn’t stop his side succumbing to an improbable 0-1 defeat. In between those highlights, Padova endured some maulings. I watched them comprehensively dismantled by Sven Goran Eriksson’s Sampdoria with Gullit, Lombardo, Platt and Mancini combining so cohesively that it is easy in hindsight to see how the latter two’s on-pitch understanding simply carried over into management. Amazingly, Sampdoria only scored 4 that day. The same number was managed during Fiorentina’s visit.
But over the course of the season Padova had done enough to earn the right to contest a one match, play-off against Genoa to decide which of them would take the final relegation place. Lalas’s form on the pitch improved markedly too – even if his Italian had not. He was famous for being seen (an easy spot it has to be said) around town with his guitar promoting tranquillity and peace and saying how he enjoyed playing his football. He had to be told on live local TV that he was continually mistaking the word “match” for “war” which didn’t do much for his overall message. Padova won that relegation play-off in Florence against Genoa. However, the following season, Serie A proved to be a painful and inexorable procession towards Serie B and the team has not had the merest sniff of the top flight since.
PS With tremendous generosity AC Ferri donated the marble-bottomed trophy won that season to me. It was so heavy that it put my luggage way over the permitted weight-limit at the airport. I explained what the culprit was and emphasised what a good year I’d enjoyed, at which point the check-in staff nodded earnestly and let me off any further costs. The gesture epitomised the friendly good nature I had experienced all that year in Italy. On my return there this summer, I learned with sadness that Padova had gone into liquidation a few weeks earlier, their purpose-built stadium for Serie A now hosts domestic and international rugby.
And Lalas? He was a pivotal figure in the development of the MLS and was with Beckham for a few years at the Galaxy. He is currently a Fox sports analyst and it’s a fair bet he still plays the guitar.