Italian goalscoring star Cristiano Lucarelli (left of picture) told a packed University College London lecture theatre last night that his country's footballing culture had something to learn from the English and that given a choice of where he could play, "If I had supernatural powers I would take Livorno and put it in England!".
Lucarelli, a totem for both his home town and their football team as well as a passionate socialist, was speaking at the seminar "Money, Politics and Violence: Is there any more space for passion in Italian football?", which was organised for the students of John Foot (right of picture), a reader at UCL and author of "Calcio: A History of Italian Football". Also taking part was Lucarelli's agent and biographer Carlo Pallavicino, the man responsible for brokering the deal that took Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United. All three men provided entertaining and thought provoking contributions.
Foot and Pallavicino both spoke passionately of the ills of corruption and violence in Italian football. Foot admitted his "obituary" for the game in Italy earlier this year, where he spoke of "a stinking corpse riddled with maggots", was perhaps a little too apocalyptic, but he was still dismayed that many of those who seemed to be prime movers in the officiating and influence scandals of Calciopoli, whom he termed "immortal dinosaurs", were still apparently in positions of footballing authority. Pallavicino shared his consternation at this and also despaired of the new Italian government's inability to impose reforms on their top clubs to bring them more in line with the collective operation of our own Premiership. However, he found a ray of hope in John Foot's book:
I agreed with great pleasure with his final conclusion of page 559. I was very pleased and proud to discover that there is one good reason at least for which it was a good idea for [James Richardson Spensley] to be proud of importing football to Italy. The reason is sitting right next to me.
Lucarelli stands out as a passionate and dynamic figure in the game who, Foot revealed, had suffered along with his team from the corruption infecting Serie A. Relaxed and affable as he spoke through an interpreter, Lucarelli believed Italy had to learn from the English to tackle the root of the problem:
To improve football and defeat violence you must be educated to accept defeat. When I see English football, when a team is relegated, the fans actually clap. In Italy you cannot even leave home. I have played for several teams and I went two divisions down. For a family it really becomes hell living in a situation like that. You cannot take your wife to go shopping. You cannot take your children to school. If things do not go well you can always find someone on the street willing to commit a violent act... Winning at all costs and by all means, this is the big problem that Calcio has.
He would not be drawn on any preferences for particular English clubs, but there are aspects of the English football experience he'd like to export to his homeland:
I like above all that the stadiums in England do not have fences and that children and families can come without any problems.
When asked about Livorno, the club he spearheaded into Italy's top division, he felt football there was definitely suffering the effects of public faith in the game as a whole being shaken. A stadium that had filled up five hours early with 20,000 ardent spectators in the third division had last week housed only a quarter of that. After some fans recently questioned the effort of the team, Lucarelli himself is wondering publicly if it might be time for him to move on:
What happened two weeks ago hurt me a bit. One has to think whether to carry on in life's adventure or stop. It would be nice to go with nice memories. I've given Livorno all I could, maybe even a little more. On a scale of one to ten I gave ten in love, affection and devotion and maybe I haven't received back ten. The top was reached in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. Now's the difficult part... Now it's all about losing things. The only thing that worries me right now is to save Livorno. If I'm to go it's important Livorno stays in the first division.
He insisted his mind was not yet completely made up about what to do, but It sounded as if Internazionale of Milan, the national champions, might be his next destination if he does go:
Moratti [Inter's president] is one of the few people that I admire. To be praised by him, a real gentleman, has been really nice.
It was clear it would be a wrench for him, though, after fulfilling his and his father's dream of representing his beloved Amaranti, his boyhood team in spite of his friends' support of the more distant glamour clubs:
I used to get really upset. I was also a fan of Serie A, but it was my second choice. Livorno was always my first choice. I used to ask, 'If one day there would be Livorno-Milan or Livorno-Inter, who would you go for?
Pallavicino revealed even Lucarelli's expectations in those days extended only to playing Pisa in matches at home against his brother. But Lucarelli has always had, and still demonstrates, this passionate difference, setting him apart as an outspoken beacon of hope where many of his fellow professionals are afraid to take sides because, as they are reminded they are paid very well and they are paid only to play football. Lucarelli joked that any prospective employers would have to be willing first to put up with this talking.
The only time in the whole evening that Lucarelli briefly became stern and deliberate was when a West Ham fans asked him his opinion of countryman, Hammers hero and renowned admirer of Mussolini, Paolo Di Canio:
I think the opposite to what he thinks, but I appreciate his courage for expressing his ideas. When a footballer has the courage to express his ideas, it's in any case a person who should be appreciated for the effort.
Wherever he may go in the close season, it's clear that Livorno will always be at his heart:
So many footballers who came to play stayed on. I always say there is a magic atmosphere.
And when asked what Livorno needed to survive their current fight against relegation his opinion was delighted and forthright as he answered in English "Five points!". He will be hoping, as he returns to training this morning following his 24 hours in London, that he is just the man to get them.