Italy flagYou’d probably find it hard to believe if you met me today, but in 1988 I was quite indifferent towards football. That was the year I visited Italy for the first time (I’d actually been to Sardinia five years earlier but that doesn’t count, as any Sardinian will tell you). While it didn’t take me long to fall in love with il bel paese, it took a little longer to fall in love with the sport that consumed so much of Italians’ waking energy.

Traipsing with my parents through the streets of Florence, Rome and Venice, I was too preoccupied with gelato or a toy model Ferrari to notice that I’d stumbled into soccer’s spiritual home. My only football-related memory of that summer is the replica shirts on display at market stalls outside the Uffizi, and being drawn to the azure blue of Napoli — not because of Maradona, but due to the fact that the team’s jersey was emblazoned with the logo of my favourite chocolate bar.

I was lucky enough to return frequently to Italy, where my family had made several friends. Thanks in no small part to the 1990 World Cup my enthusiasm for football had now piqued, and our hosts enjoyed indulging me in conversations about Gary Lineker or Totò Schillaci. Some friends of ours had a house in northern Tuscany near Massa-Carrara. On our way back from the beach we’d often stop for a late afternoon drink at Caffe la Rotonda, a dusty little café located between a fork in the road and a railroad crossing. Operated by a woman and her young daughter, it was the kind of place where old men sat and drank aperitivi while kids in flip-flops played video games in the back. It was here one sultry afternoon that I first came across a newspaper called La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Printed on pale pink paper, la Gazzetta immediately stood out from the stack, and once unfolded it covered the entire table, forcing others to lift up their drinks. But most interesting to me however, was that it appeared to be devoted solely to football. As its name confirms la Gazzetta is technically a sports daily, but anyone who’s been to Italy knows that sport means 90% football and 10% everything else. I became immediately fascinated by this alluring and exotic publication: here was a window into the world that I craved, a pink-and-black portal into the culture of calcio.

 Suddenly my visits to the bar became less about liquid refreshment and more about whether or not Sampdoria were really going to sell Gianluca Vialli.

My first task upon entering was to scan for la Gazzetta, which usually lurked folded on the counter or at an empty table. My Italian at the time being limited to the usual first words (ciao, grazie, margherita, centrocampista), I was initially drawn not to the speculative articles but to the daily double-page spread detailing the complex activities of each Serie A team’s summer transfer campaign. Without the money or language skills to justify purchasing the paper for myself, when the bar’s copy remained occupied I’d sit and fidget impatiently without touching my glass of acqua minerale. But quickly, out of a sheer desire to understand, I picked up the meanings of several words and began to grasp phrases in Italian, albeit most of them football terms and sporting jargon: acquisti, cessioni, trattative, probabile formazione…

Naturally, la Gazzetta takes on much greater relevance once the season has begun and there’s some actual football to talk about. Monday’s issue traditionally sells the most copies, since it contains the in-depth post-mortem of the weekend’s action. My Dad used to travel to Italy for work once or twice a year, and he began bringing Monday’s Gazzetta home for me. This is when I first became aware of le pagelle, the paper’s individual reviews and votes for each player’s performance after each match. According to common pagelle thought, a six is considered sufficient. Several players have received a nine, but not even Platini, Maradona or Van Basten ever scored a perfect ten.

In 1992 the British terrestrial network Channel 4 began televising live Serie A matches, and a new legion of Italian soccer fans in the UK were treated to what was at the time universally considered “the best league in the world”. Particularly popular was the Saturday morning highlights show Gazzetta Football Italia whose host, the peerless James Richardson, would present an irreverent and informed perusal through the week’s football papers from an elegant piazza somewhere in Italy. When I wasn’t hatching a plan to steal Richardson’s job, I was delighted to have a slice of the Italian lifestyle I yearned for beamed into my living room.

My family returned to Serriciolo, the town where I’d first picked up la Gazzetta, during the World Cup of 1994. We watched Italy dispose of Spain and Bulgaria to set up a final against Romario’s Brazil, for which the bar moved its TV outside into the car park and set up rows of seats for locals to come and watch. I sat wearing my blue Italy shirt holding the tricolore flag on a stick that I’d bought six years earlier in Siena. My strong connection to the Azzurri grew even deeper when Baggio’s final penalty sailed into the southern California sky. Women and children were in tears, and powerless ragazzi began hurling plastic and wooden chairs over the fence and onto the train tracks out of sheer frustration. The next morning la Gazzetta had sold out at the local newspaper shop, so the woman who ran the bar gave me her copy as a souvenir. It was stapled, and the front page read “Poker Brasile”.

After high school I began studying Italian at university, and a couple of years later I embarked on a study abroad program in the northern Italian town of Pavia. I moved in with another student named Federico who as luck would have it was a fellow soccer nut, and an avid Milan fan. After our first weekend in the apartment together, he turned to me over breakfast. “There’s something very important you have to do in Italy on a Monday morning,” he warned. “What’s that?” I asked, imagining some bureaucratic nightmare I was unaware of, with long queues and uncooperative clerks. Federico’s eyes widened. “Buy la Gazzetta!”

I was delighted to have found a like mind with whom to share my passion for calcio, which had now become a full-blown obsession and a personal area of encyclopedic expertise. In Pavia I’d leave the house each morning with 3,000 lire: 1,500 for la Gazzetta and another 1,500 for a coffee at the bar. I’d then come home and read the paper cover to cover at the kitchen table until lunchtime, when Federico and I would discuss the day’s top stories over huge bowls of spaghetti. Sometimes we’d even buy Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based rival to Milan’s Gazzetta. Italy actually has three sports dailies, although I considered Turin’s Tuttosport shameless in both its outlandish front page stories and clear bias towards Juventus. By now I had become fiercely loyal to la Gazzetta, or “la Rosea” as Federico sometimes called it. Both Tuttosport and Corriere are printed on plain off-white newspaper, and neither could entice me as la Gazzetta first had all those years ago.

I spent most weekends in Milan, which usually involved attending a game at San Siro, where la Gazzetta served as both half-time entertainment and a handy seat cushion. Whether on the train or at the stadium, it was in this period that I realised how carrying the paper in Italy provided me with a sort of camouflage, a quick and easy prop for instantly fitting in. Just as I’d always been able to identify Italians in London by their Invicta rucksacks (something I also carried), surely no-one would peg me as a tourist with la Gazzetta tucked under my arm.

Now fluent in Italian, I returned to Cambridge where I was able to continue reading la Gazzetta on a daily basis. Happily for me, more often than not it was the only newspaper left unread at the Italian coffee shop where I’d stop for a macchiato each afternoon. After graduation I moved back home to Loughborough where foreign newspapers are harder to come by, forcing me to resort to taking the twenty-minute train ride into Leicester on a Tuesday to get my hands on Monday’s issue (it always arrived a day late).

My future uncertain, I moved back to Italy where I had one or two work prospects in the quiet Tuscan town of Borgo San Lorenzo. I began lecturing at the local high school and soon discovered that my favourite newspaper was a useful social tool with which to ingratiate myself to the local ragazzi, affording me minor celebrity status among the area’s under-twenty-fives. For hoards of small-town Tuscan teens I wasn’t just the English guy, I was the English guy that reads la Gazzetta and supports Fiorentina.

After moving to Florence I found I was one of thousands of foreigners, but still probably the only one with a folded Gazzetta permanently in his back pocket. By this time the paper had become such a part of my life that I even brought my copy with me when purchasing a bag for work, just to make sure it would fit snugly inside. After a few weeks the guy at the newsstand on the corner of Viale Matteotti no longer had to ask which paper I wanted, and even began saving the issues I missed when I went home for long weekends. We never chatted for longer than thirty seconds at a time, and subjects didn’t extend far beyond the plight of Fiorentina or the weather. Imagine his surprise when after several months he discovered I was English!

Over the next couple of years I can recall not buying la Gazzetta on only a handful of isolated occasions, for which severe weather or temperamental alarm clocks were usually to blame. Not counting those rare exceptions I was never without it.

The twenty-first century Gazzetta now cost one euro, and had begun to enhance its own legend with full-colour graphics, a glossy Saturday supplement called SportWeek, and limited edition DVDs celebrating soccer’s former greats. One day I was stunned to see that the paper had turned green for a day to promote the release of the movie Shrek 2. Inside I learned that when it was formed in 1896 la Gazzetta had originally been printed on green pages, before switching to pink three years later. Undoubtedly, its distinctive colour has helped it stand out from the competition, but also seep into the Italian consciousness as a beloved national institution, even among those who’ve never read it in their lives.

Though I never missed an issue, my life — both professional and personal — had become so busy that I rarely had time to open it. Some days I’d only get the chance to unfurl that morning’s paper after crawling into bed at night; in extreme cases I’d reluctantly place it atop a growing stack that had been saved for a later date. I began to question my motives for buying la Gazzetta every single day. Was it because I wanted to, or because I felt I had to? That pink newspaper had become such a part of my daily routine I hadn’t stopped to even think about it. It was almost like a piece of my personality I had to maintain. No longer just a morning ritual, it had become a habit, and when I calculated how much I’d spent on it down the years I felt like a total idiot.

Giving up la Gazzetta in a World Cup year was always going to be tough, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I failed miserably. In the summer of 2006 I watched every Italy match at the same café, where the paper sat carefully folded on my lucky table number five during the Azzurri’s dramatic and unexpected road to glory. The celebrations lasted all night, and by dawn Piazza Duomo was a sea of green broken glass. At around seven o’clock a truck pulled up and dumped bundles of newspapers onto the ground, each one featuring the same front page photo of a jubilant Fabio Cannavaro holding aloft the World Cup trophy. The truck driver cut open the package and handed me a Gazzetta from the top of the pile: it was still warm, like the fresh bomboloni at Pasticceria Donnini.

Suddenly my unwavering devotion to la Gazzetta seemed less foolish. It had taught me more about Italian culture, history and language than any textbook, and it was precisely for moments like this that I’d read it with almost religious regularity for so many years. Italy’s fourth World Cup victory had come after years of hard luck and controversy; I wasn’t even Italian, but I felt like I’d earned it.

I knew if I ever left Italy la Gazzetta would be one of three things I’d miss the most (panettone and Campari Soda are the other two).

In New York I can still live like an Italian to an extent, except here nobody talks about football, and a black-and-white version of la Gazzetta on darker pink paper now costs an exorbitant three dollars. In the last few years the paper (like Italy) has seen too many changes at the top, and each new director has tampered with both its appearance and philosophy. Not long after I moved to America it underwent a radical transformation from broadsheet to tabloid format, a revamp which was accompanied by a high-budget television commercial in which pink confetti fell like snow onto Milan’s centro storico. I ended my readership on principle and instead began consulting for my Serie A news.

I recently returned to Italy with work, determined to indulge in old habits. Arriving at Malpensa airport, I quickly abandoned my colleagues at the carousel in order to glance through la Gazzetta with a coffee at the bar. Driving through the foggy plains of Lombardy — where a decade earlier I’d first lived as a student — I began thinking about Italy, and how the country had shaped my adult life more than any other over the last two decades. It’s where I got my first real job, where I first paid a bill or monthly rent, where I once shook hands with Paolo Maldini. I even met my wife there.

It occurred to me that the one constant through all of this has been la Gazzetta, to this day the only newspaper I’ve ever bought with any degree of frequency. Much has changed in Italy the last twenty years, even Maldini — the last survivor from the football of my youth — has now retired. But my love for that country and its calcio has never waned, and whenever I wake up in Florence or Milan or Rome my first thoughts are always the same: Gazzetta, cappuccino, brioche. In that order.

By James Taylor

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona