by Francesco Sironi, PhD student at the Università degli Studi di Milano
One of the most commonly used words in sport chronicles is the adjective “epic”. If athletes are heroes (let us think of team names such as Ajax or Atalanta), reporters are consequently the bards of this modern kind of epic. In a brief contribution to this blog, I would like to deal with one of the most important figures in the history of Italian journalism, Gianni Brera, paying particular attention to the presence of the classical world in his work.
Born in 1919, his passion for sports journalism emerged when he was still a boy. After a degree in Political Science and involvement in WW2 as a war reporter in the ranks of the Paratroopers Brigade Folgore and, later, as a member of the Italian Resistance, he became a full-time journalist, working for many Italian newspapers throughout his long career until his death in a car accident in 1992.
Gianni Brera’s style was impetuous, rich and innovative, relying on a background that included Italian dialects, foreign languages and, last but not least, the classical world, Latin and Greek. Brera invented a lot of new words and nicknames which are nowadays frequently used by everyone, not only in Italy. For example, he coined the word libero (sweeper), commonly used even in English-speaking countries for the defender who has no specific man-marking duty. The same goes for the nickname il Cavaliere, used to refer to the former Italian Prime Minister and owner of A.C. Milan Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian word for “sudden counter-attack” is also a product of Brera’s effervescent mind: contropiede is now widely used, even in everyday discourse, not only when it comes to football. Nevertheless, only a few know that such a word is an intentional loan translation from the Greek term ἀντίπους (ἀντι- contro, πούς piede), describing the backward movement of tragic choruses. A skilled journalist, in 1946 Brera was able to interview the Finnish middle-distance and long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi thanks to the linguistic intermediation of the banker Toivo Aro. The language used was neither Finnish nor English: it was Latin! Here are some parts of the Latin dialogue, as later recalled by Brera remembering Nurmi (Cf. Brera 1974, 224):
Brera: Quot annos?
Aro: Paulusne? Unumdequinquaginta: 49
B: Cur desqualificatus est? [Nurmi was disqualified at the Olympic Games of Los Angeles in 1932.]
A: Dicitur coepisse pecuniam singulam americanorum per omnem passum – loqui de dollaris non possum ante eum – et quinquagintaquinque certamina cucurrit, in portis et foras, perdiditque dua sola.
The style and grammar of the two speakers are not always perfect, but we could reasonably say that we are in the presence of a late sparkle of Humanism.
Here we come to our main point: the legacy of the Classical World in Gianni Brera’s work. Brera conceived sport, especially football, as an epic experience, which deserved adequate language and style. On the other hand, as an international and popular matter, it also demanded contributions from foreign languages and everyday speech, even dialect. To strengthen the epic aura of some of his most heart-felt passages, he even invented a goddess to invoke just as ancient poets did with the Muses. Taking as a model the muse Euterpe, he named this goddess Eupalla, from the Greek εὐ “good” and the Italian palla “ball” – furthermore, wordplay on Pallas, Athena’s epithet, is detectable as well. He often used Latin expressions or references to mythology.
Let us take one of Brera’s most famous chronicles as an example (Brera 1970). Introducing his article about the so-called “game of the century”, the World Cup semifinal between Italy and Germany in 1970 (4-3), he claimed that “true football is part of epics” and that, if he had not been exhausted with emotion, he would have begun his piece in the style of an authentic epinicion or a dithyramb. Since true football belongs to epics, Brera says, it might be worth to describe it with the rhythm of the Italian novenario, which he considers to be endowed with the same sonority as the ancient hexameter – and, indeed, it presents a sort of dactylic rhythm. After the long preamble, Brera maintains an epic style throughout the article, even hinting openly to mythology: the two midfielders Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera, for example, are referred to as the Dioscuri. Nothing more suitable for a game which turned out to be some kind of a Pacific battle, fought with a ball and no cannons.
Nevertheless, epic language and mythological references are not the only ingredients of Brera’s style: as we have said, they are wisely mixed with popular language, dialectal expressions and quotations from Italian literature. To sum up, Brera offers the reader an authentic and well-balanced pot-pourri of both high and low, scholarly and ordinary, classical and modern. This too is an original way of – maybe unconsciously – democratising Classics.
Brera, Gianni. Italia-Germania 4-3, “Il Giorno.” June 18, 1970.
Brera, Gianni. 1974. Incontri e invettive. Milano: Longanesi.