Italy is the home of calcio and classic clubs of great tradition – many who still play in ageing communal stadiums from the pre- and immediate post-war eras.
Crowds are down, revenues too, and many look back on the 1990 World Cup as a high-water mark of the modern Italian game.
Sadly it’s not all pretty pageantry and colourful fireworks. Much as many stadia have barely changed since 1990, so some attitudes seem stuck in the dark ages. Terrace racism goes on unnoticed, let alone unpunished, and hooliganism still blights the game. In need of their regular revenue, some clubs do little to rock the boat with their hard-core fans, the ultras.
The national side remain one of the great powers of European football, with enviably good records against Germany, England and Holland.
Station to station
An excellent and affordable rail system generally negates the need for internal flights. Tickets can be bought online with Trenitalia. Buses serve rural areas, most notably Sicily, where buses provide the best link between Palermo and Catania.
Tables & trophies
The Italian league system is a long chain of divisions, in which clubs from communities as tiny as Sassuolo can climb to the highest rung and take on the Milans of this world.
The top two clubs of Serie B automatically go up to Serie A. The promotion place is decided by play-offs between clubs finishing third to eighth, unless the third-placed team is leading the fourth one by at least nine points.
If the third-placed team is not promoted automatically, then it joins the other five Serie A hopefuls in a modestly complicated series of play-offs, the lowest-placed finisher only getting one game to beat the higher-placed one away – before regular two-legged ties.
Four teams drop down from Serie B to Serie C, the bottom three automatically. If the team finishing 18th has a minimum five-point lead over the 19th, they stay up. If not, 18th and 19th play off over two legs – or rather playout as Italians term such relegation deciders.
Categorised into three 20-team regional leagues (Girone A, B and C), Serie C is the last professional division – it’s also referred to as Lega Pro.
Each of the three Girone group winners go up to Serie B, plus a fourth team decided by a play-off between the three runners-up.
Amateur Serie D consists of nine regional leagues, each with 18 clubs. Nine clubs drop from Serie C to D – the bottom-placed finishers, plus two decided by playout between those between 16th and 19th positions at season’s end.
Serie D is the highest level of the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti, a network of amateur leagues stretching down six flights including this fourth one.
The Italian Cup, Coppa Italia, is less prestigious than its counterpart in England or France.
Teams from Serie D and C (aka Lega Pro) join the first round, Serie B the second, and lower-ranked Serie A the third. Highest-ranked Serie A sides join at the fifth round of 16 teams. Ties are decided over one game, extra-time and penalties, apart from the two-legged semi-final. The final is played at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
The weekend starts here
Serie A begins in late August and finishes in mid to late May. There’s a two-week break around Christmas and New Year.
Sunday is calcio day, though there are usually a couple of games on a Saturday, at 6pm and 8.45pm. Sunday is also staggered, usually with a game at 12.30pm and at least one marquee fixture at 8.45pm, straddling the main kick-off time of 3pm. There is also sometimes a Sunday game at 6pm, and Monday evening games are not unusual.
Note that teams taking part in Champions League fixtures the following midweek often have league matches pushed to the previous Saturday rather than Sunday.
Serie B runs from late August to the third week of May, with play-offs and playouts into mid June. Most games are played on Saturday at 3pm, usually with one fixture on Friday evening and one on Monday evening.
You need to show your passport when you buy match tickets from any biglietteria in Italy. Tickets are distributed from windows at the stadium and usually at the club shop – referred to as ‘Point’ and often in town – a few days before kick-off. On match day itself, there are often restrictions in place so that tickets cannot be sold in the run-up to kick-off – only until lunchtime.
Re-sale agency viagogo is also very active in Italy.
Touts, bagarini, are also operate outside stadiums, invariably at big matches, and these days speak reasonable English.
The most expensive tickets (around €50-60) will be in the Tribuna Centrale, then the Tribuna Laterale (around €30-40), the cheapest (around €20) behind the goals in the Curva.