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Italys self-esteem has taken a beating, but I still wouldnt live anywhere else

Dumped out of the World Cup, mired in political controversy, the countrys pride has been wounded. Time to take refuge in some traditional delights

Millions of Italians have been understandably despondent for the past few days. The results of the regional elections in Sicily proved that former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is back in the big time. With a face that looks more sinister with each passing year, the 81-year-old politician took the credit for a victory in which his rightwing coalition won more than double the votes of the left.

Then, on Monday evening, the Italian football team were dumped out of the World Cup in the qualifying stages, beaten in the playoffs by the humble but hard-working Swedes. For the first time since 1958, the Azzurri four-time winners wont even be at the tournament. It feels like not being invited to your own birthday party, said a glum Italian friend.

Football was one of the remaining reasons Italians felt any national pride. With that gone, it seems that their self-esteem has hit rock-bottom. Allitaliana has become short-hand for something done badly, with corners cut and, probably, a bit of corruption too. Its a country, says everyone, allo sfascio ruined or collapsed. Last month Andrea Camilleri, author of the Inspector Montalbano books, derided that well-worn phrase of national self-approval Italiani, brava gente (Italians good people): We Italians are racist, he said, why dont we want to say it? Forget good people.

No one would pretend that the country isnt in a grave crisis: youth unemployment stands at 37.8%, some 11.9% of Italians are living in extreme poverty. The national public debt is at 134.7% of GDP (according to EU treaties, its supposed to be at 60%). Corruption is endemic and every year the various mafias seem to spread like black ink on blotting paper.

Perhaps most worryingly, more people are looking back nostalgically not to Berlusconi, but to the man who sometimes inspires him: Benito Mussolini. Italys far right is now vocally and visually present in every football stadium, with straight-arm salutes so normal theyre not even news. Last month, stickers of Anne Frank were put up in Romes Stadio Olimpico, a sign that to many fans the Holocaust is just a joke with which to taunt the opposition. In Ostia, neo-fascists recently won 9% of the vote.

And yet the reason the neo-fascists are winning votes is, paradoxically, the same reason Italians might stop their collective hand-wringing and feel proud of their country: Italy has offered refuge to more than three-and-a-half million immigrants in the last 15 years. In the space of barely two decades, Italy has gone from being an almost monocultural country to one with 10% of its population considered foreign. Last year more than 180,000 migrants arrived by ship alone.

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A restaurant in Rome: Italys varied cuisine remains a cause for national celebration. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Of course there are instances of racism, even murder, and its well-known that the mafias make money out of the mass migrations. The mooted jussoli legislation, granting citizenship to children of immigrants, is still a long way off (it was that which prompted Camilleris outburst).

But what Italy, and Greece, have done on the frontiers of Europe, while crippled by debt themselves and largely unsupported by the EU (only little Slovenia contributed to Italys noble Mare Nostrum sea rescues) is astonishing. Isolated incidents of intolerance and hatred make the news, but on the ground what you constantly see is Italians long tradition of hospitality: brusque, maybe, but unhindered by nationalism. There are many, tiny examples of it: the Cal family in Treviso who opened their home to six immigrants, or Francesco Tuccio, the Lampedusa carpenter so moved by the drowning of migrants that he started making tiny crucifixes from the wreckage of the boats, little relics to remind the world of others suffering.

Its the same on the sporting front. Every year the country has a rival and grassroots alternative to the Fifa circus, called the antiracist World Cup. Its so much more fun, and admirable, than the real thing. Theres an association called Matti per il Calcio, basically mad for football, involving psychiatric patients in great, inclusive games. For all its reputation for gamesmanship and whingeing, Italian sport has frequently been a means of enriching, even saving, lives: think of Gino Bartali, the great cyclist of the 1940s and 50s who, during the war, worked with the Jewish resistance, carrying clandestine documents in the tubes of his bicycle.

Bartali is a reminder of Giuseppe Garibaldis line that Italy would never be short of people who can astound the world. Life is almost unthinkable without Italian inventions: the barometer, the helicopter, the pianoforte, the radio, the typewriter, batteries, the microchip, the dynamo, pneumatic tyres and the nuclear reactor. That creativity is still in evidence today. Most Italian TV is as shockingly mind-melting as it ever was, but its cinema is enjoying a golden age, with directors such as Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino producing innovative and challenging works. Italian literature, too, has rarely enjoyed so much international esteem, not just thanks to Elena Ferrante and Camilleri, but also due to some sensationally good giallisti (thriller writers): Giancarlo de Cataldo, Gianrico Carofiglio, Massimo Carlotto and Giorgio Vasta.

Another constant gripe Italians have against their fellow countrymen is that theyre often imbroglioni, or conmen. Its true, of course, that two of the worlds most famous swindlers are Italian: Carlo Ponzi (he of the pyramid selling scheme) and Giuseppe Balsamo, the self-proclaimed Count of Cagliostro, a Sicilian smooth-talker who, in a tiny way, helped cause the French Revolution. And yet, its very often Italians who have been victims.

Mussolini came to power in the aftermath of the first world war largely as a result of the sense of grievance that what the allies had promised the country had not been delivered by the treaty of Versailles. Plenty of Italians can lay claim to inventions for which they havent been credited: Garibaldis friend, Antonio Meucci, invented the telephone (or, as he called it, the telettrofono) but couldnt afford the $10 to renew his patent and the glory went to others. To go back to the sore subject of Sweden and football: many Italians remember the suspicious 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark in the 2004 European Championships exactly the result needed for both to go through and eliminate Italy. So much for upright northerners and dodgy Eyeties.

But perhaps the reason its most difficult for Italians to be proud of being Italian is that they never, bar the football, think in nationalistic terms. Its one of the pleasures of living here that pompous patriotism is replaced by an attachment to your local village, town or city. Its whats called, of course, campanilismo, attachment to the belltower. Even in tiny villages you regularly see graffiti proclaiming that this little settlement is caput mundi, the centre of the world, or that the next door one is merda. It often makes cosmopolitan Italians wince at the provincialism. And many understandably complain, as Dante did, that the country is ever divided against itself: think Guelph and Ghibelline, or the warring contrade (districts) in the Siena Palio horse race.

But there are charming and exquisite consequences of that rootedness. Italy has more grape varieties than the rest of the world put together. It has more surnames than China. In an ever more homogenised world, Italy has fiercely fought to maintain particularity and tiny traditions. No village is without its summer sagra, a celebration of local cuisine. Deriding Italy is a national pastime, but woe betide the heretic who insults the local town. The result is that if you travel just a dozen kilometres you come across new dialects, enticing wines, curious customs and, of course, fine food.

And its food, more now than football, that is the last refuge of that dying breed, the Italian patriot. For many, the act of eating is an almost sacred rite. Bread is something numinous: the highest compliment you can pay to someone is that theyre buono come il pane (as good as bread) and Italians are shocked less by English food than the fact that we eat it without bread. Its like, says my same, glum friend, not having half the cutlery. In Italy, the table is a place outside time (hence the countrys slow food movement) in which capitalist greed is held at bay (you never tip in a restaurant, in fact they tip you, invariably putting bottles of liqueur on the table for free).

Come the spring, the country will almost certainly elect an alarming far-right government, and come the summer the World Cup will feel like someone elses party. And yet most Italians will still begrudgingly feel, like Giuseppe Verdi, that you may have the universe if I may have Italy.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma and is the author of The Dark Heart of Italy

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/19/italy-self-esteem-takes-a-beating-world-cup-political-controversy

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