Italians lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars.
Olde-timey racist though he was, Winston Churchill was right about the sheer power of calcio culture in Italy. This is a country that lives for the game, and has given a huge amount back in return. There is, though, a flip-side to the pride that Italians take in their football, as highlighted by Giovanni Vasso at the splendid barbadillo.it:
If it happens in Serie A, or in Italy international matches, it exists. For us, Pelè became the greatest footballer in the world only after Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the 1970 World Cup final. And Maradona, for us, is better than Pelè because he played in Italy.
We’d do well to remember that this is not an exclusively Italian trait (“…but can he do it on a wet Wednesday in Stoke, Geoff?“). However, this pride and occasional insularity may be the reason why the language of football in Italy retains such a unique flavour.
So when Antonin Panenka floated a penalty down the centre of Sepp Maier’s goal in the final of the 1976 European Championship, he did earn himself a place in football history. What he didn’t do, however, was write himself into the whole world’s footballing lexicon.
Because although in English (and other languages such as French) it is called the Panenka penalty, in Italy it is known as a cucchiaio (spoon). And while Panenka was plying his trade in the 1970s, the cucchiaio became a celebrated move in Italy during Euro 2000, thanks to Francesco Totti.
In a shootout against Holland, with the score at 2-0 to Italy, Totti remarked to Di Biagio that he wasn’t worried about the imposing presence of Edwin Van Der Saar in nets for the Netherlands. With typical bravado, and in his thick Roman dialect, he uttered the now immortal words “mo je faccio er cucchiaio” (“I’m going to do the spoon to him” – I’m going to chip the ball down the middle of his goal). He did it, it worked, and Italy floated delicately, hysterically into the next round.
Totti had picked up the technique from Rudi Voller at Roma, and the word cucchiaio was a reference to the trajectory of the ball in flight as it sailed towards the goal. It would also later be described by the more generic scavetto (meaning simply “little dig”). No matter, in the fertile minds of the Italian public, a new piece of terminology had been planted and was ready to take root. It became Totti’s trademark, although there is today a recognition of the move’s origins.
Of course, if Panenka were playing today, his trick would reach Italy and the rest of the world in more rapid fashion. In the modern era, a move like that would be giffed, Vined and YouTubed to a pulp before our Antonin had time to emerge frosty-nipped from his post-match cryogenic ice-bath recovery pod. But back in the 70s, when the watching media was made up of television, radio and print, news travelled at a more sedate pace. So even with an audacious new idea in a high-profile game, word took its time to get out.
It’s for this reason that the word “Panenka” is also not widely used in, for example, Brazil. In 1976, there were comparatively few televisions in the country (4 million in a population of 110 million), so this move that happened all the way on the other side of the world wasn’t well particularly well known. It was only in 1995 when Djalminha, playing for Guarani against Internacional de Porto Alegre, dinked the ball past Argentine national keeper Goycochea, and brought the cavadinha (“little chip”) to national attention.
As in Italy, Brazilian football did come to recognise Panenka as the inventor of the move, but has kept its own term for it. Incidentally, in the state of São Paulo, for reasons unclear, the move is also described as a totózinho (which, basically, means “poo”).
Looking more generally, it’s noticeable that Brazil, like Italy, is not keen on naming elements of the game after individuals. As the team at Miudo Maravilha put it, it’s not about who invented a trick, it’s more important to know “how humiliating and beautiful the move is”.
But despite these notable absences, there does remain a rich and varied footballing lexicon for signature moves, as we’ll see in an upcoming piece which explores the genre in more detail.