Paddy Agnew’s Notes from Italy: Gianni Mura Was More Than A Football Writer

There have been few more original, engaging or literate Italian football writers than La Repubblica’s Gianni Mura, who died of a heart attack on March 21st at the age of 74.

Milan based Mura, of course, was more than a football writer. A novelist and a writer of sports books, particularly about cycling, Gianni was also a great gourmet, a much respected writer on food and wine, a great lover of poetry.

Your correspondent was lucky enough to come across Gianni very shortly after I had moved to Italy in late 1985. The occasion was a pre-World Cup warm-up friendly between the Enzo Bearzot coached Italy and the Franz Beckenbauer coached West Germany played in Avellino in February of 1986.

For the record, West Germany won 2-1 in a game played in a relentless downpour, a game that told us little other than to confirm the suspicion that Bearzot’s 1982 World Cup winners were going to have problems holding onto their title later that summer in Mexico. Which indeed was the case since Italy went out in the second round, beaten 2-0 by Platini’s France.

For the ill-funded freelance, getting down to Avellino for the game had been slow and complicated, requiring bus, train and taxi. Thus when I was offered a lift for the 250K trip back home to Rome, I was more than grateful.

The offer of the lift had come from ‘Beppe Smorto, then the sports editor of Rome daily La Repubblica and someone who in those early days in Italy was a generous and invaluable source of help. A fellow passenger was the burly, not exactly photogenic Gianni Mura, then and for the next 34 years the paper’s number one football writer.

The conversation on the road back to Rome was an eyeopener. I immediately concluded that it might be worth my while to keep a very close eye on what this guy was writing. His shrewd, sardonic and never banal observations from the back seat of Beppe’s car were so clear that even I, with my then halting Italian, could not fail to understand. In my book, “Forza Italia”, I recalled that meeting with Gianni, writing:

“I have read thousands of columns by Gianni in the years since (Avellino) and have rarely been disappointed. Not only does he unfailingly go to the heart of the footballing matter, always seeing the game in the broader context of the society in which it is played, but he invariably does so in an original and witty prose style. He is also something of a gourmet. When you arrive in the press room on the opening day of a World Cup finals or of a European Championship tournament, Gianni is your man, as he will have already carried out a thorough reconnaissance of all the local restaurants”.

Preparing to write this piece, I looked around not so much for articles written by Gianni (I have read a heap of them) but rather for his thoughts on sports journalism. I found this in an interview two years ago on the online sports review “Contrasti”.

Talking about himself, he said that, although he got his first job at Gazzetta Dello Sport, he would really have preferred to have started with a “news” daily such as Corriere Della Sera. So how did he approach sports journalism, he was asked:

“The initial line I took at the beginning worked out all right. Basically, I opted for a style that was: Feet on the ground; The guy who wins is not a God; Sport is important but it is only a part of the bigger picture, of our lives”.

Gianni had a particular love of cycling. He was surprised to discover one day that, for state broadcaster RAI, I had made an English language documentary on the brilliant but tragic figure of 1998 Giro and Tour de France winner Marco Pantani. We shared our sense of dismay and sadness at Pantani’s miserable end, dying of acute cocaine poisoning at the age of 34, depressed and alone in an out of season hotel in Rimini.

For Gianni, “the Pirate” Pantani, with his shaved head, earrings and bandana and with his aggressive, attacking climbing style, had partly represented a romantic and swashbuckling era long gone. To some extent, Gianni too belonged to that long gone era, as witness his attachment to a series of Olivetti typewriters which he used for work.

As a football writer, I often appreciated his short, sharp and succinct analysis. Writing on the day that José Mourinho’s Inter Milan won the Serie A title in 2009 in the Special One’s first season at Inter, he observed:

“For sure no one will recall Mourinho’s first Inter for the quality of its football. More likely for its efficiency and, when necessary, its good luck.”

In the following season when Mourinho and Inter lifted the Champions League, Serie A scudetto and Coppa Italia treble, many football writers all over Europe made a similar observation.

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When the Gian Piero Ventura coached Italy compromised their qualification for the Russia 2018 World Cup by drawing 1-1 at home to Spain in an October 2016 qualifier, only their second but obviously a critical group game, Gianni feared the worse. After all, just three months earlier under Antonio Conte, Italy had seen off Spain 2-0 at the Euro 2016 finals in France. Gianni’s simple comment about the Ventura team’s lack of ambition was withering:

“That they might be stronger than us, at least as far as their technique, their ball control and their tight passing game are concerned, we already knew. But not to this embarrassing extent…”

Of course, the rest is history. Italian embarrassment was to get much more acute as the Ventura team went on to become the first Italian side in 60 years to fail to qualify for the finals after being eliminated in a play-off by Sweden.

Those snippets, however, probably do not do much justice to Gianni Mura. He was an intelligent observer, an original thinker and a good listener. In the words of one mutual friend, “Lui era molto buono”, (He was a decent man). “Ti Sia Lieve La Terra”, May The Earth Be Mild To You, Gianni Mura.

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