Italians talk a lot about football. The weekend’s Serie A matches are the preferred subject for Monday morning discussions across the peninsula (while coffees and cappuccinos are being offered by those whose teams have lost their games). Italians use their own expressions and, as happens in all football-loving countries, they’re sometimes used as metaphors in everyday discussions.
Even if you know Italian, you might not be able to follow these conversations. In Italy dialects are still alive and used in informal contexts, especially in some regions. If you go to a game, you may hear those regional dialects, particularly when curses are being shouted. If you’re at the San Siro, listen for baüscia, a Milanese dialect term referring to Inter supporters. It means “upper-class, bourgeois”, the social class most of the nerazzurri belonged to until the 1950s, as opposed to AC Milan fans who were mainly blue collar workers. And while Juventus striker Paulo Dybala is most often called La Joya (Argentinian for “The Jewel”), to Palermo supporters, he will always be O’Picciriddu, which means “the kid” in Palermitan dialect.
Even if you don’t speak the language, a few Italian football terms have been exported globally, so you may have already heard them. But, in order to make sure you’ll understand some of the key words and technical terms used by Italian TV commentators, you can help yourself to this little (and non-exhaustive) dictionary.
You may have heard that Italians speak with their hands. While that’s true, it’s not always the case, so you’ll be able to understand these expressions without needing to see the accompanying gestures.
Calcio [il]: Italians, unlike others, use calcio (literally “kick”) to refer to the Beautiful Game. Il Calcio refers to the sport. Giocare a calcio means playing football. Calciatori are the football players.
Bandiera [la]: Literally “flag”. This term is used to describe a player that has played all (or a massive part) of his career for the same club. He’ll always wear the same colours, till the day he retires from football. This concept is particularly romantic in modern football. Who is considered a bandiera in today’s Serie A? Francesco Totti is surely the greatest example, having played his entire career for Roma.
Catenaccio [il]: Maybe the most common term associated with Italian football and the traditional philosophy of Italian football. Catenaccio indicates the strategy of playing a defensive match, trying to make it as difficult as possible for the opponents to score, before concentrating on scoring. The term was born in the ‘60s to describe the Italian style of playin as opposed to the spectacular attacking football displayed by Brazil.
Although it is commonly thought that catenaccio makes Serie A less interesting for foreign football fans (and sometimes tends to exasperate Italian fans as well) many teams still stick to this philosophy. It’s not rare to see the “small teams” setting up in a 5-3-1-1 or 4-4-1-1, especially when facing the “big teams”. This kind of match usually tends to finish 1-0 or 2-0 maximum, while in La Liga you’ll see Real or Barcelona overcoming their opponents by 5 or 6 goals. Juventus, who’ve won the scudetto for the last five years and is one of the few Italian teams with European ambitions, is still most well-known for its defence (Buffon-Bonucci-Chiellini-Barzagli) rather than for its stellar attack. Several times, both Allegri and the players have publicly stated that the force of their team lies in the defence.
Colpo di tacco [il]: backheel. Classy skill.
Contropiede [il]: Counterattack. The best way to try to surprise your opponents and score a goal, interrupting their actions, stealing them the ball and running towards their goal. It’s still the most popular tactic used by smaller teams against the bigger clubs in Serie A. The most famous counterattack in Italy’s recent football history came against Germany at the very end of the 2006 World Cup semifinal. It started with Fabio Cannavaro’s header in defense, ended with Alessandro Del Piero’s goal, and ensured the azzurri were in the final.
Cucchiaio [il]: Literally means “spoon”. This is how the Italians call the panenka penalty. The most famous of all time, for Italians, is the one that Francesco Totti put past Edwin Van Der Sar during the incredible Euro semifinal in which Italy beat Netherlands at Euro 2000. After a breath-taking match, during the shootout, Francesco Totti broke the tension by saying to his team-mates “Mo’ je faccio er cucchiaio” (In Romanesco dialect, “Now I will do him a spoon”). So he did. Others might remember how Andrea Pirlo did a spoon to Joe Hart during the Euro 2012 quarterfinals when Italy beat England.
Curva [la]: The curva refers to the section of the stadium running behind the goals, where the arena curves around the shorter end of the pitch. This term is used to indicate the group of supporters who sit there, more than the stand itself. So, if you hear a journalist saying La Curva esulta, it means the supporters in that area are celebrating a goal.
Gol alla del Piero: This is a goal scored by shooting a slider into the top right corner of the net from the top left corner of the goal area. It takes its name from Alessandro Del Piero, who, during his career, scored a series of goals like this, the first coming in his Champions League debut at Dortmund in 1996 and the second just two weeks later against Steaua Bucharest. Scoring two goals that were both so similar and so fantastic helped popularize this expression.
Gol di rapina: Rapina means robbery. It makes sense, then, that this refers to a goal scored by taking advantage of an error or distraction made by the opponent’s defense. Filippo Inzaghi, who was well known for his instinct for goal, scored a lot of gol di rapina.
Libero [il]: In the old good days, the libero, which literally means “free”, was the number 6 of a team, a central defender who was freed from the task of keeping a close eye on one of his opponents. Instead his role was to play behind the stopper, clearing the threats that his fellow defenders could not eliminate. As zone defense arrived in Italy (with Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in the late 80’s), this role disappeared, at least in its traditional interpretation. The modern libero is normally the central defender who is in charge of building the play from the back.
Liscio [il]: Literally ”smooth”, this is what happens to an outfield player who completely misses the ball when making the move to kick it. It can have different effects, but it’s particularly dangerous when it happens to a defender, leaving the ball available to the opponent’s attackers.
Maledetta [la]: While it literally means “the cursed”, this expression refers to a particular type of free kick, normally taken from a few steps outside the goal area. In Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, I Think, Therefore I Play, the Italian playmaker reveals that it was actually Juninho who inspired him. The Brazilian player found a way to kick the ball with the three external toes of his foot, generating a killer trajectory that allowed the ball to rise over the players’ wall, quickly dropping again to land in the back of the net. Pirlo writes about the time he spent at Milanello, staying late after training, trying to replicate the same effect. Until, one day, he managed – and those free-kicks became his trademark.
Nel sette: Literally “in the seven”. Un tiro nel sette is a shot that goes right to the top corner of the net. The expression comes from the fact that the top corner is shaped like a seven. Another way to refer to this particular spot is angolino or “tiny corner”.
Panchinaro [il]: A pejorative term used to describe the condition of a player who is normally on the bench (in fact, panchina means bench).
Papera [la]: La papera is a duck. The duck is the most feared animal for Italian goalkeepers. In fact, a goalkeeper fa una papera (literally does a duck) when he makes a particularly awkward and clumsy mistake, one that in most cases leads to conceding a ridiculous goal.
Rovesciata [la]: The verb rovesciare means to put upside-down. Scoring a goal in rovesciata is the dream of every kid who loves football, as la rovesciata is a bicycle kick.
Sciabolata morbida [la]: Literally a “smooth sabre cut”. A long (and generally inswinging) aerial pass, normally performed by a defender who is trying to reach his forwards teammates with a long ball, in order to overcome the opponent’s midfield. A trademark of the Italian journalist Sandro Piccinini, who introduced this expression and likes to use it frequently during his commentaries.
Smanacciata [la]: This describes a goalkeeper who can manage to randomly push away the ball with their hands but is unable to block the ball or direct it to a safe place (towards a team-mate or outside the pitch). Often the smanacciata carries the risk of becoming a papera.
Traversone [il]: A long distance cross, performed to invite the center-forward to head the ball into goal.
Trequartista [il]: The mythological figure of football, il Trequartista is the traditional Number 10, the one who has been blessed with grace and talent, the magician who exalts the supporters with his goals, dribbling skills, and assists.
In the 1970’s, Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola were the Italians who excelled in the pure interpretation of this role. Valentino Mazzola (Sandro’s father) was the point of reference in the 40s. During the 80s, Serie A number 10s were more positioned as attackers, in support of the number 9. This is why number 10s such as Diego Maradona and Michele Platini in the 80s, and Roberto Baggio, Roberto Mancini and Dejan Savićević in the 90s, were actually considered inside forwards rather than trequartistas. Meanwhile, in the 90s and into the 2000s, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti were sometimes used as attackers and sometimes took a couple of steps back to play behind two attackers. The role of trequartista changed through the years, but the term still evokes a greatness that only belongs to extremely talented players.
Triangolo (Uno-due) [il]: A triangle or one-two is a quick back-and-forth between two players. Generally this happens when one of the two is running towards the opponent’s goal and, in order to overcome his direct rival, passes the ball to a teammate covering the closest half-space. The teammate is then expected to quickly return him the ball (usually in one touch).
Tunnel [il]: nutmeg, the skill of dribbling by passing the ball between the opponent’s leg.
Zona Cesarini: Gol in Zona Cesarini is a goal scored in the final minutes of a football match, or, more generally, a point scored at the very end of a sport event. In everyday conversation, this expression is used when talking about things that were done at the very last minute (i.e. Ho consegnato il mio compito in zona Cesarini – I turned in my homework right before the deadline). The name comes from Renato Cesarini, a Juventus winger in the 30s who scored at the end of two important games against Napoli and Torino. But his most famous late goal was the one he scored for Italy during a game against Hungary during the Central European International Cup. The following week, the journalist Eugenio Danese referred to a late goal scored during a Serie A match as caso Cesarini. The term zona was likely copied from the card game bridge, where zona indicates the last phase of a game.
Fantacalcio [il]. In short Il Fanta. The most well-known fantasy-football game in Italy. If you were able to beat your friends at Fanta over the weekend, your Monday will surely be off to a good start.