Italy plays by its own rules
By Juha Akkanen
This summer will not go down in the memory for the fact that Finland began its illustrious but challenging six-month stint as the rotating Presidency of the EU.
Nor will it be remembered for the fact that Sauli Niinistö, former Finance Minister and defeated National Coalition Party presidential candidate, decided he would not be throwing his hat into the ring for next year's parliamentary elections.
No, and it will not even go down in the annals because Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who unexpectedly announced in April 2005 that he and his wife were divorcing after twenty years of marriage, finally stepped out into the public glare and the tabloid headlines with his new partner Susan.
This summer will instead be remembered for the final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, in which France met Italy in Berlin.
The entire armchair sports contingent must have looked on in disbelief at the replays of Zinedine Zidane head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest. Huh? It can't be true! What on earth possessed Zizou to do that?
And then we saw the footage of what happened a moment or two before the famous blow: how Materazzi was tugging Zidane's shirt like he wanted to ensure first refusal on it after the match. The situation appeared to have been defused, even though Materazzi's mouth was running in high gear the whole while. And suddenly Zidane saw red, surged into action - and saw red.
The Argentine referee naturally had no choice but to raise the card and dismiss Zidane from the field. An embarrassing end to a glorious career. But in the eyes of the layman, Materazzi, too, should have got his marching orders, for instance for unsportsmanlike behaviour.
Whatever it was that Materazzi yelled at the retreating Zidane before the French player turned and floored him, he should go and repeat the comments in one of the predominantly Arab banlieues of Paris or Marseilles - if he was any kind of man, that is.
Zidane apologised for having shown a bad example to watching children. Is Materazzi fit to serve as an example to the sporting youth of the world? At best only to the Italian ones.
As it stands, there was nothing very surprising in Materazzi's conduct. It only serves to reinforce the image of Italians. They are the same kind of shirt-tuggers within the EU, too, and particularly within the European Monetary Union.
They know well how to run their mouth off, and they use every trick in the book - and some of them require quite some imagination. But if the Italians don't or can't make it on their own, then they immediately call on the EU, or the referee, or Mamma, for help.
Italians seem to believe that they are governed by a quite different set of rules, whether it is football or fiscal policy that is in question.
Because of what happened in the final, the entire month-long World Cup tournament left a rather lousy taste in the mouth. Although to tell the truth, football as a whole seems to have sunk to the level of a sport for "men" playing at being princesses.
When I watched English league matches as a kid, as often as not the sleet was coming down sideways on the pitch. If players from opposing teams collided with one another - even badly - one would help the other up out of the mud and they would get on with the game.
Today's star turns, in particular the Southern Europeans and the Latinos, roll on the ground sobbing and grimacing for minutes on end if another player so much as touches them by accident. One sees more credible acting skills in a daytime soap like The Bold and the Beautiful.
But then again, is not Italy justly famous for its operetta tradition?
In my own games of football as a child, one heard a lot less wailing and gnashing of teeth, even if there were one or two cry-babies in the bunch and one kid whose shoulder was forever getting dislocated. He bravely toughed it out.
Still, you can understand the modern game. With a star player, each leg carries a price-tag of several million euros. It's something to cry about when you get a big blue bruise on a property worth millions.
Thus far I have been a staunch friend of Italian wines. That came to an end this summer. My stand on the matter is of minimal importance and perhaps even ridiculous, but I can afford to buy French quality instead.
After all this, can one even rely on any veritas in Italian vino?
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.8.2006
TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Finns have at least one reason to feel slightly aggrieved at Italian EU shirt-tugging. The most obvious example was the torpedoing of Helsinki's claims (backed by all but one member-state) on the European Food Agency. This ultimately went to Parma after the intransigence of the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, complete with his famous remarks about Finnish ignorance of the wonders of prosciutto. Mr. Berlusconi later compounded the perceived felony when boasting that he had won the agency for Parma (a fine city shortly thereafter to be embroiled in the Parmalat accounting fraud scandal) by flirting and using his "playboy skills" on Finnish President Tarja Halonen. In fact Halonen was not strictly in a position to decide on the siting of the relevant body, since it was an issue for the government.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Foreign Ministry summons Italian Ambassador over Berlusconi comments (23.6.2005)
JUHA AKKANEN / Helsingin Sanomat