Golazzo! James Richardson looks back on Football Italia

Wednesday, 28th March 2018, 2:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th March 2018, 9:01 am

At a cafe table in a piazza of an historic Italian town sits an Englishman, with an espresso and a selection of pastries or ice cream, untouched.

Gesticulating at the pink Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper, a youthful James Richardson educates British viewers about Serie A, the best league in the world.

This was the 1990s, and this was the modus operandi of Gazzetta Football Italia, the Saturday magazine version of the hugely popular Channel 4 show.

"It was remarkable how often people would allow us to disrupt trade and basically set up in a corner of their cafe," Richardson said.

"How friendly and accommodating they were for a show they had no idea about. Essentially it was a random English bloke saying 'can I sit here and wave a newspaper in the air?'"

For a decade from 1992 to 2002, a generation of football fans would tune in every weekend for their dose of Italian football culture, captivated by a league that was different, unique, exotic.

To celebrate its cult status and popularity among generations of football fans BT Sport have produced a documentary, Golazzo: The Football Italia Story, which airs on Saturday evening and is presented by Richardson.

Yet all of this may not have been possible if it wasn't for Paul Gascoigne. The inspiration, and, at first, the intended host.

"They'd taken great note of him during the 1990 World Cup," Richardson recalls. "I think there was huge anticipation in Britain how he would get on against what was then the greatest collection of players in the world.

"Whether he'd be able to come back from injury, whether the greatest player we'd produced for a while was going to be a match for some of the great names of world football like Maradona, Gullit, Van Basten."

With the English Premier League moving to Sky there was a "vacuum to be filled" for millions of fans wanting a football fix. And what better fix than Italian football?

"Obviously Italian football was huge back then," Richardson says. "We'd just had a World Cup in Italy and it really captured the imagination. This was football in many of the same locations, a lot of the same stadiums.

"It was also a league which featured three members of that English team (David Platt, Gascoigne and Des Walker).

"For anyone who enjoyed Italia '90 it was almost like a spin-off series."

Gooooooolazo!

Richardson explains that both the name of the show and theme tune were selected for the original host, Paul Gascoigne:

"The name of the Saturday show, Gazzetta, echoes both the very popular Italian football paper, Gazzetta dello Sport and also Gazza, which didn't dawn on me for years.

"I had just happily assumed it was a reference to Gazzetta dello Sport.

"As for the theme tune, even though I assumed it was GOLAZO they were using a Jose Altafini bit of commentary. The composer did confirm, years later, that he was basically saying 'Go Lazio'.

"I assumed through the 10 years that there was no way he could possibly be doing that!"

Richardson, inadvertently, took the reins, and become a well-known face and voice, his mannerisms and wordplay bringing Italian football to life with wit and panache.

Yet before this he had no interest in being a presenter, even as Italian football moved from Sky to Channel 4 in 1992.

"Largely, I got the job because I spoke Italian," explains Richardson, who had learned the language because he met a girl from Rome.

"They were looking for a presenter, I was looking for a production or research role. They said get in touch but I didn't bother. About a week later we spoke again, they hadn't been able to find anyone and they needed someone who spoke Italian.

"It really was that simple. I must admit I didn't think I'd last long. I thought I'd be back within weeks. It turns out I made 10 years out of it."

Over the decade, Richardson rubbed shoulders with the great and good. There were interviews with Roberto Baggio, skits with Gianluca Vialli, even a chat with Elvis Costello during the Derby della Lanterna.

On Gazza

"Working with Paul Gascoigne was really extraordinary because he's, at heart, such an entertainer and a very generous person," he says.

"It was weird to be visiting him, entering into that little bubble, talking to him and then emerging from it again to face all the Roman journalists wanting to know what Gazza said.

"The fact we were an English TV programme opened a lot of doors. Italians found that intriguing, they had huge respect for English TV and English football. That made us simpatico in a way it might not have been if we'd been from Bari."

Even if it looked like a dream job to most viewers, it was a demanding role. Filming interviews, the paper round-up, putting together packages. Someone would fly out to receive the tapes on Thursday and fly back for them to go out on Saturday morning.

After the millennium Channel 4 allowed the deal to show Italian football to run its course. It would mark the end of an era.

"Channel 4 showing Italian football in the first place is a bizarre thing," Richardson says.

"By 2002 the circumstances were very different, a lot of people had Sky, Gascoigne was a distant memory, there were few if any English players in Serie A and overall the quality had declined."

The show then had a nomadic spell, turning up on Eurosport, Bravo and Channel 5.

But those 10 years on Channel 4 was Italian football nirvana, and for fans of a certain age it's remembered affectionately.

"The show was something of an anomaly at the time, a novelty to have a foreign league broadcast on British TV," explains Richardson. "It seemed exotic and I guess there was a real glamour compared to a lot of football people had been watching.

"For a lot of young and impressionable people, myself included, there was a romance to it. Everything seemed better back in the '90s.

"The football was excellent, it was different to what we'd seen before and the programme was different. There was a certain sense of community with the viewers which I guess has meant that people look back on it fondly."

James Richardson's Football Italia essentials

The Cities: I lived in Rome so it meant I could get home earlier! It was such a great place to film, so many amazing things to see. I had a soft-spot for Verona and loved it when Venezia were in Serie A. One of the reasons the show was so successful was because it was set in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The Piazza: I loved the Piazza della Rotonda, the piazza right in front of the Pantheon (in Rome). One of the most extraordinary buildings, beautiful Roman square, fabulous cafes.

The Stadium. When you have the San Siro full for a derby or night time game it has this amazing atmosphere. You really feel like you're front row at something special.

The Players: Beppe Signori remains one of my favourite guys. Nicola Berti, Vialli was a fascinating interview, Baggio, there was something magical about him and Tottiiii... I had a real thing for Roberto Mancini. I really enjoyed watching the way he played, the way he thought about the game.

The Beverage: If I was sitting in a cafe and was allowed one drink... a Campari and orange juice.

Golazzo: The Football Italia Story is the latest documentary by BT Sport Films. It airs at 10pm on Saturday 31 March on BT Sport 2.

This article originally appeared on our sister title, iNews