There are places whose first appeal is a pang of pure topography. Properly placed within the creaks and curves of a map, a pinpoint can attain its own self-sufficient gravity, and there are towns and areas that I have a craving to visit for no other reason than that their mere location suggests that they simply must be worth the attention. One of these is Istanbul, heart of Europe even as it seems a never-quite-dormant enemy; another is the Caucasus, a great crush of terrain and fruit squeezed between two temperate seas; or, Patagonia, curling its lip at moderation as it spits fire and ice at the edge of the world. From these examples I can conclude that my personal topographical bent is towards frontier towns and districts (Europe/Asia, land/sea, something/nothing); and not, I like to think, for the bookish grey reasons that such places undermine the patriotic and the essentialist by conflating different identities – a cursory glance at the history and culture of any capital city in the world would necessitate a similar undermining – but because they actively embody something quite separate: nothingness. Scouring a map for these appealing little dots is like cognitive experiment, looking for non-places.
One of my more recent pinpoint infatuations is Trieste (Trst, Triest, Trieszt, Трст), at the very farthest reaches of north-eastern Italy. This really is a place that belongs only nominally within just one nation-state. Looking at it one a map, one thinks: that can’t be in Italy; and of course, it mostly wasn’t. For 536 years, until 1920, this was the prosperous commercial hub of the Habsburg Empire, a Latin-Balkan-Mittel-European folly. Pope Leo XIII even considered moving the seat of his Church to Trieste in order to escape Italian anti-Catholicism. Defined transcendentally by empire, or trade (the name itself derives from the Illyrian Tergeste – ‘this is a market’), or even abortively by religion, Trieste embodies nothing but the liquidity of other defining characteristics.
|Triest et néant|
Of course, this is the same as saying that it embodies nothing. Jan Morris even wrote a book about this negative capability, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. With affection for the place, she recounts that ‘it offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakeable cuisine, hardly a single native name that anybody knows.’ Whilst a little too keenly put, it is true that those cultural figures associated with the town have been somewhat ‘other’: James Joyce, the continent-treading polyglot modernist; Avgust Černigoj, Slovene founder of Yugoslav Constructivism; even Italo Svevo, a true son of the city and accomplished novelist, dedicated most of his life to banking rather than literature, and was killed in a car crash before Italy recognised his gift. When I read Svevo’s masterpiece, Zeno’s Conscience, I was initially left cold by the unadorned, unmoved prose – until I realised that Svevo was writing as a banker would, for and of the bankers of his banking town. Again, the intriguing, sterile scent of nothing.
And yet the non-place so often leaves its mark where landmarks do not. The intertwining of Trieste with the various identities of Italian football is indelible. Indeed, two of the most defining instances of Italy realising itself as a distinct nation through football can be traced back to the Habsburg market.
For one of the stately names of international football, Italy has had for the most part a comparatively lacklustre record in terms of trophies. Of the four World Cups won, only two (1982 and 2006) came in the modern era; and these were won by unfancied yet determined teams, rather than claimed as their right by undeniable favourites. The impressive figure of four victories, which does place Italy within the international aristocracy, is propped up by two consecutive World Cups in 1934 and 1938, without which their pedigree would be slightly better than Spain’s or France’s and equal to Uruguay’s. It seems hard to value such achievements from the era of fledgling national federations, short knockout tournaments and political upheavals that denied strong teams from competing (Uruguay and the Home Nations in 1934; Spain and Austria in 1938) as profoundly as their later, totalised reimaginings. And yet they are central to Italy’s footballing history.
That the mythology of Italy as a footballing power solidified in these pre-modern triumphs is perhaps appropriate given that this was also the era of Italian Fascism, a political system built upon a mythology of unity and personal abnegation before the symbolic. Without wishing to equate Italian sporting success with Fascist rhetoric or suggest that those World Cup wins are somehow tainted by their association with the country’s contemporary political status, it seems fair to note the curious parallels of glory and national identity that they evoke. The 1934 Cup was held in Italy and, much like the Berlin Olympics, served as a propaganda exercise for Mussolini. Italy’s top scorer in 1938, the muscular striker Silvio Piola, was lauded by the regime for the way that his physique and subsequent playing style overcame any stereotype of Italian men as weak, fey, oversexualised.
|Uncomfortable 1930s imagery|
After a comfortable win over Norway in their opening match in 1938, Italy’s route to victory was rugged: France, Brazil, then Hungary in the final. And at this crucial juncture, a Triestan hero stepped from the shadows. Gino Colaussi played on the wing for Triestina for a decade, subverting opposition defences with his awkward dribbles. Born in the Gorizia province as Luigi Colausig, the Slavic and Germanic phonetic blurs of his birthplace and birthname marked him as a true son of the north-east. Yet without him, Italy would not have won the crucial second trophy, on the eve of a World War that would see his hometown become the centre of an East-West Cold War custody battle. He scored in the quarter-final, the semi-final, and then twice in the first half of the final to give his team a 3-1 halftime lead over Hungary, demoralising the Central Europeans and securing for Italy their consecutive triumph. The man whose name needed Italianising was an Italian hero. (His first in that match, incidentally, was an exquisite run and left-footed volley that is almost identical to ‘big-game bottler’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s winner against Real Madrid in 2009).
If the Gorizian helped to plant the seeds of the nation’s footballing dynasty, then it was Trieste’s most famous export who arguably more than anyone provided the contours of what is known now as ‘Italian football’. Nereo Rocco was born in the city in 1912. He was the first triestino to play for the national side, making just one 45 minute cameo in 1934. As a manager, he was one of the most important and influential of them all. The first Italian exponent of catenaccio, he guided hometown team Triestina to second place in Serie A in 1948; got Padova promoted into that division, where they finished an incredible third in 1958; and finally, in two stints at A.C. Milan, he won two scudetti, two European Cups, an Intercontinental Cup, a Coppa d’Italia, and a Cup Winners’ Cup.
Rocco’s role in creating a sense of catenaccio as a system and as an Italian ideology, and hence in defining the way in which Italian football is read (and dismissed) to this day is hard to understate. Here were all the ingredients: cynical and efficient defence, gilded with grace and wit in attack – Gianni Rivera and José Altafini both flourished under Rocco. For Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Giovanni Trapattoni and Gianni Rivera, read Marco Materazzi, Gennaro Gatusso, and Francesco Totti, and you have the spine of Italy’s 2006 World Cup success. Enzo Bearzot, who managed the national team to glory in 1982, was a fellow north-easterner (again, the surname is telling) who played under Rocco at Torino and imbibed his craggy charms. The term catenaccio has become a metonym for Italian football, and as with all such metonyms, it is chronically misunderstood: but at its heart is the stout figure of Rocco, as Triestan in his profession as Svevo was in his. His nickname, El Parón, was in the Friulian dialect with which he peppered his speech and hurled his expletives; he returned to his place of birth as often as possible from Lombardy, his sense of himself too allied to that of the flinty, unforgiving, and beautiful landscape of the Julian Alps and the Adriatic.
Trieste is as Austro-Hungarian and as Yugoslav and as Italian as it is possible for a city to be. Shadows are only ever absences, yet they are still cast. There is an ineluctable logic to their chills and angles. When Rocco’s Milan won the European Cup at Wembley in 1963, their captain was a centre-back that El Parón had imported from Trieste, named Cesare Maldini. Forty years later, again in England, his son lifted the Cup for Milan once more. By the time of Paolo and Shevchenko and above all Berlusconi, the trace of Colaussi and Rocco had grown faint indeed. But the lightest object blocks the strongest light: the meaning of ‘nowhere’, indeed.