James Richardson talks Football Italia and Serie A’s unique appeal

James Richardson is a titan of European football broadcasting, fronting the unforgettable Football Italia on Channel 4 during the 1990s and early 2000s and more recently The Goals Show and Golazzo on BT Sport.

He’s also been the host of the much-loved The Totally Football Show since 2017, which became a part of The Athletic’s podcast network in 2020.

With both Milan clubs back on the up and Serie A more competitive at the top than any other major league in Europe, it’s a compelling time to follow Italian football.

James, aka Jimbo, sat down with The Athletic’s Jay Harris to discuss his glorious decade presenting Football Italia, meeting Robert Baggio and Serie A’s unique appeal.

Check out The Totally Football Show with the likes of James Horncastle, Raphael Honigstein, Duncan Alexander and Daniel Storey three times a week on Apple, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.

How did you first get into football? 

I think the first game I attended was a Spurs match back in the early ’80s. I think they were playing West Ham. Then I went to some Arsenal games. The first Italian game I went to was Roma v Monaco in the UEFA Cup in 1992.

So you didn’t grow up supporting an English team?

No. My brother was a big Swansea fan so I used to keep half an eye on them.

Where did this affinity for Italian football originate from? 

I met this Italian girl and got quite captivated by everything Italian. It was very easy to be captivated by Italian football. I had a squarial or whatever the piece of equipment was that you needed to watch the early satellite adventures of Serie A on British TV. This was post-Italia ’90 where there was this tremendous, romantic and quite nostalgic charm about Serie A and the stadiums because it was the place where we just loved this extraordinary adventure involving England.

Even though it was a foreign league with no natural connection to me and a lot of other people, the fact it was a lot of the same players and venues, with a lot of the same glorious weather that we had enjoyed in Italia 90, meant that it evoked something. Also, as you pointed out, I didn’t really follow an English team. So I quite liked the fact that it was starting from scratch. Everyone else had massively invested in one area of English football or another and I didn’t really have the heritage they had with the game. But here was something fresh. I found that quite intriguing.

How did you learn Italian?

I went over there in ’92 and met her (Italian girlfriend) in 1990 so it wasn’t that quick. In terms of affording the new speaker some footholds, you can hook your way into Italian quite comfortably. The pronunciations do what it says on the tin. It’s all quite fun. If you’re an English speaker you have got much of the grammar already.

It sounds like what drew you in about Italian football was the wider culture as much as what happened on the pitch?

English football, in my mind, had been inevitably contaminated by some of the stuff that had gone on through the 1980s. Then we had Italia ’90 which put the sport in a different light for a lot of people. To suddenly have access to this league which had an incredible collection of players and an incredible collection of haircuts, in incredible stadia, it felt glamorous in a way. It had a glamour which at the time English football did not perhaps possess.

Why did it have that glamour at the time? My generation has grown up with a different perception of Serie A…

When I started watching Serie A, (Diego) Maradona was playing there. (Ruud) Gullit was playing there. (Marco) van Basten was playing there and any number of incredible players. (Roberto) Baggio. (Roberto) Mancini. (Franco) Baresi. Even through the 90s, when you look back at the squad lists and team sheets from fixtures it’s bonkers how so many players were crammed into the XI together.

Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli playing for Juventus in 1992 (Photo: Getty Images)

Serie A teams do not, in terms of silverware, have the same charm or pull about them these days that they did back then, but the glamour of Italian football extended way beyond the fact they were winning lots or had famous players turning out for them. It was about the stadia. Those stadia were extraordinary. The expression ‘cathedrals of culture’ is used a lot but they were very much seen like another level of backdrop for the sport. There’s also the fact it’s Italy which is, for a lot of us, as glamorous as it gets.

You have mentioned Italia ’90 a few times, what was so special about that tournament?

Football became really cool. The English national side had not done a huge amount to break out of that image (of 1980s football) through a lack of success or the activities of various extremist supporters on their trips around Europe and beyond. But Italia ’90 showed us a world away from that image.

If you’re not of that time, it’s worth remembering World Cups were essentially an opportunity once every four years to discover a whole new world of players, teams, sights, spectacles and crazy otherworldly continental football techniques we never saw over. Really it was a Christmas if Christmas only came along once every four years.

The World Cup was an incredibly special thing. This World Cup taking place in Italy; gorgeous backdrop and England doing well and a fantastic soundtrack. If you wanted a microcosm, English football had gone from plodding soap opera-themed anthems to New Order doing our theme song. It was a whole new ball game; a sudden explosion of football and its new role in our culture.

Was part of Serie A’s appeal the tactical innovations managers tried over there?

I was, and to a large extend still am, tactically negato — as the Italians would say. Tactically denied! I am aware of the fact that Italian footballers were tactically a lot more versatile than their counterparts in other countries and it’s something that a lot of managers talk about either when they go to Italy or when they leave Italy. The fact players over there are very adaptable and well versed in switching from one system to another. Arrigo Sacchi is the totem of Italian football coaching excellence and catenaccio is the tactical style everyone knows, but it goes way beyond that. 

It’s a fact it’s the nationality which has the most Premier League winning managers. For all of your Klopps and Guardiolas, nobody has won the Premier League more than Italian managers. Sacchi wasn’t one of them. There is still an incredible tactical legacy and tradition there. It’s something which has been heightened, not lessened by the drain of money from the Italian game or the fact other game’s finances have become so inflated.

Juventus won the scudetto nine years in a row, but Inter Milan and AC Milan have been victorious in the past two seasons. Does it feel like we are entering a new era?

Demonstrably. Juventus are among the contenders this year but I have no idea who will win it. The great thing is there are certainly three, possibly four who could do it. Last season it went down to the final game of the campaign and I think there is every chance that could happen again. For all the many things Serie A lacks, one thing it doesn’t need to be jealous of, when you look at the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 or even the Premier League when you look at the duopoly we have at the top, is an actual title race. It is genuinely wide open. Napoli would be the fourth option but maybe you want to throw Roma in there. There’s something about (Jose) Mourinho’s second season and (Paulo) Dybala.

What does Mourinho bring to the league?

His football last year wasn’t always the best. They won a title. It was only the Conference League but for Roma that is a big deal. It’s also just really important for the fact he is happy. I think a happy Mourinho is an entirely different asset to your football club. For all his skill at creating enemies and feeling attacked so he can pull the wagon in a circle, when he is happy and feeling confident and getting tattoos on his shoulder, then I think he becomes an inspirational figure in the manner when he first arrived in the Premier League.

I don’t think Roma are going to win the title this year. It’s a mad place and they were too far off behind Milan last year. It’s a massive gap. But I think they could genuinely make a push this time around and it would be amazing to see.

Outside of the top six clubs, which teams should people pay special attention to?

I think everyone knows Fiorentina, but if they don’t they should get to know them. They are a young side and a team in the 1990s that were a bona fide scudetto candidate. They’re a very interesting team to watch this season. Last season they were great fun. Hugely entertaining. Luka Jovic is in the team and there is an interesting narrative if Vincenzo Italiano can get the best out of him.

But the team I’m really curious about is Silvio Berlusconi’s Monza. If you go back to the 1990s, beyond all of the players, Berlusconi dominated that decade and was one of the people behind making Serie A so dominant. He and his right-hand man, Adriano Galliani, were permanent fixtures at San Siro watching Milan crush all and sundry. For various reasons they went away and sold the club. Since then they’ve bought a smaller side nearby, Monza, and got them up in Serie A.

AC Milan won the scudetto last season (Photo: Luca Amedeo Bizzarri/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

They will be going to San Siro with them in September. It will just be so interesting to see how it goes. Berlusconi has come out and done his usual things. Issuing mandates about signings having to be Italian with short hair and no tattoos. It’s the kind of stuff he used to do back in his Milan days and the managers would politely ignore him and they would occasionally get letters about why they should do what he says. It’s a fascinating throwback to have this slightly anachronistic figure in Berlusconi with a smaller side. How far can he take them? His money, by no means the all-conquering fund back in his day, will still put them in a position few promoted sides are. I’m curious to see how it works.

Whatever else, he maybe good or bad, and there seems to be a long list of both, he was astonishingly good at running a football club. I think it’s 29 titles or trophies in 30 out of 31 seasons with Milan. Milan were not a club who were doing well before he took over. They had just had a legal-inspired relegation. They were fortunate with the players they had coming through, but he was a really astute club president. Beyond all the folkloristic and the even the darker aspects of him and what he represents, I think it’s really interesting to see him and Galliani back together at a Serie A club.

What transfer has excited you the most this summer?

(Paul) Pogba received huge amounts of attention because, similarly with (Romelu) Lukaku, this was a player they sold for a lot of money and got back for not a lot of money. If you’re a Juventus fan, the idea of Pogba playing for that midfield again takes you back to the last time they were good. When they had him, (Andrea) Pirlo and (Claudio) Marchisio. It was a glorious time for Juve.

Lukaku is interesting to see as well. How well can he adapt? The early games seem to suggest he is going to slot back in again. Dybala to Roma was fabulous because it was so out of left field. It kind of levels up the playing field a little bit. (Cesc) Fabregas is just mad in Serie B with Como, but all credit to him.

(Charles) De Ketelaere at Milan is someone I’m really interested in seeing how he will do. We’ve seen him a little bit in the Champions League and he impressed. The media have already coined him The Belgian Kaka. He’s young, he’s tall, he scores goals. He’s graceful. But he is also a No 10 for Milan which is something they really lacked. The other thing I find interesting is the fact he is a young player who turned down a move to the Premier League because he wanted Milan, San Siro and what (Stefano) Pioli is doing there. He found that somewhere he would be more at home.

Paul pogba Juventus 10

Pogba rejoined Juventus this summer (Photo: Getty Images)

Another is Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has gone to Napoli for less than €10million (£8.4m, $9.97m). He was very much in the footnotes of the transfer deals, but has been absolutely sensational so far.

What is it about Serie A that still holds a grand appeal now?

“While Serie A doesn’t have the best players anymore, there’s three main reasons why I love it. One, I have an emotional connection with these clubs. Two, you have an actual title race; it is genuinely impossible to know what will happen across the season. It is a myth those top-versus-bottom upsets only happen in the Premier League. They happen all over Europe and they certainly happen in Serie A. The unpredictability of the title race is a massive factor. It’s going to be a compelling narrative on and off the field.

“You asked me earlier about what drew me to Serie A when I first went there. It’s mainly these extraordinarily colourful characters running the game and all the mad stuff they would get up to. You still have all of that in modern times too.

“And the third thing… I love the dynamism and relentless pace of the Premier League, but sometimes, and I say this with the greatest respect to Serie A, it operates at a slower pace so you get the time to actually see a little bit of what’s going on. It’s a slightly more refined and restrained pace and sometimes there is a place for that. A slower jam in place of the higher beats-per-minute of the Premier League.”

What are your enduring memories of presenting Football Italia?

It was a decade and there are a lot of memories in there. Getting that show happened really quickly. I made a phone call about possible work with the people making it, but not as a presenter. I didn’t follow it up. Then a week passed and, after someone urged me, I did. Within a couple of weeks I had a job as a presenter on a network TV show which was just mad. I hadn’t been a presenter before. I didn’t really bring any real great football knowledge to the job either.

So my first memory was how out of my depth I felt. I do recall the first bit of filming I did was a feature on Fiorentina. It was fine, but I just thought I will be on a plane home in three or four weeks. By the time anyone sees me on screen they are going to think, ‘What the hell is going on here? Who is this person and why has he been given a job talking about football on TV?’. As it turned out, that expected trip home didn’t happen for a decade.

I felt a little bit like, ‘Woah, what has just happened here?’. But life is like that sometimes. It throws curveballs your way. And in terms of curveballs it could throw your way, moving to Italy to live with your girlfriend was basically like running around in the sunshine having ice creams for a living.

I remember the constant feeling of panic on a Thursday trying to get the stuff I had filmed back to London, whether it was via this satellite feed in the bowels of Italian state television which was not an easy place to access, especially when you were in a hurry. Or via a courier guy who would come out and pick the tapes up. It was always a race to get whatever we had filmed back to London.

The ice creams… there was never time to eat the ice creams because I took too long to film my newspaper section. My nerves at meeting Roberto Baggio for the first time. Ditto for Gullit, Vialli and Van Basten. How intimidating (Fabio) Capello was the first time I met him? Basically, I was just this 25/26-year-old when it began and luckily I had no idea that people would be watching this back home.

So in a sense, the only people I was worried about would be the people from Channel 4 when they received the pictures. It all went okay and then it just became this 24-7 life for 10 years. Amazing really. There’s no way it happened. I sit here in London some years later and it feels like a collective mass hallucination that involved me going to Italy to interview the world’s best players.

You did skits with players like Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne. Has football lost a bit of that light-heartedness?

We did have a lot of fun. (Attilio) Lombardo back in the first season set the tone for that a lot. Players did seem at ease in a way that perhaps with other media pressures they maybe wouldn’t be. Was it the fact we were a foreign TV station? I think that helped. For the English guys we weren’t foreign, but that was an asset. They were in a foreign country and a familiar face comes along and they sort of knew what I was about.

David Platt didn’t mind dressing up as Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator. But for the Italian players or the players who weren’t from England, we weren’t some Roman TV station looking to cause a polemico or looking to cause controversy. We were just English TV which had a certain amount of cache. People would say ’BBC?’ and I wouldn’t always correct them! These guys know what they are doing, we will roll with them.

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