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Using Italian Football Slang to Describe Roma: Part I

We use the holidays to look at Italian football’s most used sporting labels, by way of the current Roma team.

Paulo Fonseca coach of AS Roma smiles the Serie A football... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/LightRocket via Getty Images

This was an excellent idea put forward by CdT member Zacathustra, that I’ve dilly-dallied on in the couple of weeks since for fear that I’d forget some obvious words. But you know what? I’m going to forget some anyway.

So if there are any of your favourite calcio terms missing below - or in part 2 - that you want to share, let us all know in the comment section of either.

Italian everyday language, like French, comes with the twist that a lot of everyday terms used are actually English words. Just like you’re far more likely to call a computer ‘il computer’ in Italian, instead of an ordinatore. Those re-appropriated English words are often used in different context, or with a different inflection to make them uniquely Italian.

Call someone a ‘top player’ in English, and you’ve likely said it in passing as if you’re just reaffirming you view them as good-natured person. But call someone a top player - to-hp play-urrrr - in Italian and you’re making an absolute declaration that you hold that player’s consistency and professionalism in high esteem. There are just different levels of gravitas to these things.

And then there are the Italian words that simply don’t carry over well to English, which was where this idea started in the first place. Words like cattiveria that we’ll save till very, very last because they’re hard to peg down.

Enjoy the nuance, and Happy Holidays!

Furbo: James Pallotta

Roma v Liverpool UEFA Champions League 2/05/2018. Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Closest English equivalent: To be sly, or the idiom ‘sleight of hand’. Also the idiom ‘by any means necessary’. A strange kind of Italian diplomacy.
Honourable mentions: Paulo Fonseca

I’m reaching a little with this one because, as far as I know, James Pallotta has never outright been described as furbo by Rome’s press. But when Pallotta claimed he feels Italian because of his roots, then his furbo style of Roma ownership is witness to that claim.

The definitive sense of furbo is to be sly or to deceive. But that doesn’t do any justice to how furbismo is seen as a ubiquitous trait of Italian life. It’s not a term strictly confined to Italian sport, and is more commonly used outside of it. Arrigo Sacchi once said: “Here in Italy, we value those who are furbo when we look at who’s most likely to succeed.”

In many generations gone by, fare il furbo (‘to be the sly one’) was only ever used in an admirable sense, though you’ll find younger generation Italians of today are pretty fed up with people in power not telling it how it is. Still, at worst it’s a neutral term in Italy where it’d be undoubtedly seen as a defect of character in the UK or the States. And this is one area where I envy American living, in a practical way.

AS Roma v Hellas Verona FC - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the States, you can pretty much call out (or get called out) for acting like an asshole when getting called out is for the good of conflict resolution. You can even tell someone to go fuck themselves when it’s called for. But do that in Italy and you won’t get very far without causing deep offence and long-lasting resentment. Believe me, I’ve made this mistake more than I’d care to admit.

A hotel manager in Bollatte screaming her head off at me just because she’d picked up that I’d used the word ‘fottuto’ (while I was speaking in English - I was new to the country at the time) as an adjective to tell her that her behaviour towards my girlfriend at the time was ‘fucking out out of line’ sticks in the memory. I’ll never be allowed to book a room in that hotel again. And that’s fair enough; for all the stereotypes about Italian passion, using that kind of language in Italy just isn’t done. It’s seen as though you’re trying to humiliate the other person.

It is more valued to hammer your point home without causing offence. Achieve both those goals at the same time, and you’ve mastered furbismo. And believe me, as an Englishman born in London I used to be good at that kind of passive aggression but.. eh.. somewhere in my thirties I lost a lot of patience.

In his eight years of Roma ownership, James Pallotta had sold a few whoppers, both when it comes to Roma’s transfer market and his own intentions. Nonetheless, Roma has only benefited from the Pallotta era in many ways. Was Jimmy using every tactic in the book to build up Roma and flip it for a profit all along?

Only 2020 will reveal the truth. But Pallotta has fatto il furbo very well even if, in strict venture capital terms, he’s actually two years behind schedule if a sale was always his intention.

An honourable mention should be given to current Roma coach Paulo Fonseca, who is often not only furbo but indeed furbissimo in his tactics from game to game. No one knows what to expect from Fonseca’s machinations week-by-week, but you’re guaranteed his aim is to win the game for Roma by any means necessary. Which also leads us to another word Fonseca embodies nicely...

Gestitore: Paulo Fonseca


Closest English equivalent: ‘Man-manager’. Also what Jose Mourinho once tried to backhandedly describe as a ‘tinkerman’.

This is a term that you’ll only ever find used in sports. Arguably ‘gestitore’ isn’t even a word, but coaches are viewed by the Italian press as either gestitori or integralisti. You’ll find sports journalists trying to peg a coach as either one or the other, when the coach is young or doesn’t have a long track record to speak of at Serie A level. It’s even a question that journalists will outright ask coaches at press conferences: Are you one or the other?

The coach’s answer will seal his fate in the headlines for ... well, probably forever. It’s hard reputation to shake off once you’ve earned it.

Paulo Fonseca coach of AS Roma looks on ahead the Serie A... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/LightRocket via Getty Images

Zdenek Zeman will forever be Serie A’s integralista; a coach who refuses to compromises on his football philosophy and system. If you’re at the club when Zeman walks in and you don’t know your place in a 4-3-3, then you better get to know fast.

Players conform to tactics with an integralista coach at the helm, not the other way around. But a gestitore is a coach who’s willing to mold his tactics to suit the players.

You might think this is obviously the sign of a good manager who’s respected wherever he goes, since Fonseca is riding the wave of success and dining out on this term right now. So far so good, right? But then try to explain Max Allegri’s career as a gestitore and how disparagingly his success is written about by the press.

Allegri holds the joint record for the most Serie A titles in history and yet, when he’s described as a gestitore, it’s done in disparaging terms in the same manner as when Jose Mourinho once tried to damn Claudio Ranieri as the ‘tinkerman’ back when Mourinho was hell-bent on waging a private war with Ranieri.

Obviously, Ranieri then went on to go and turn the ‘Tinkerman’ label (capital T) on it’s head with his own immortal success at Leicester, not just winning the title but the admiration and respect of Mourinho ever since.

In the same manner, when Carlo Ancelotti is labelled a gestitore then it’s done in reverent - almost fawning - terms by the press. As always, context is everything: Bend a little and you’re a wise man. But bend too far and you’ll likely be seen as someone who stands for nothing.

Almost no coach will want to be known as a guy who’s willing to compromise his philosophy and bottom-line fundamentals, no matter which side of the divide to which he’s boxed in by the Italian press.

Fonseca’s philosophy is threefold: dominate the game, dominate possession and win the ball back as soon as possible. He has shown himself as willing to compromise on his tactics and man-manage his way when necessary, all in the aim of realising his strategy.

L’estremo Difensore: Pau Lopez

Ac Fiorentina v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Closest English equivalent: ‘The last man’ in literal terms, but read on...

This one is non-specific to Pau Lopez personally but to his position. It’s one that can really trip you up if you’re used to reading or heading about Premier League football.

In the English sports world, ‘the last man’ conjures up the image of the last outfield defender left between a striker the goal. In Italian football, the estremo difensore - sometimes ultimo difensore - is always, always the goalkeeper.

Technically that is correct; the keeper is literally the last line of defence. And Italian football loves to be precise in its technicalities. But it still used to trip me up for years because you’ll often read or hear a reference to l’estremo difensore in the middle of match commentary without context.

In those moments, it’s always a reference to the keeper.

Jolly: Alessandro Florenzi

Football Europa League Roma-Wolfsberger

Closest English equivalent: Utility man in English football parlance.
Honourable mentions: Rodrigo Taddei.

A jolly is a noun in the calcio lexicon, as opposed to the adjective in English football.

We’re not saying Florenzi is so overjoyed at playing in Rome than he whistles his way to work every morning (who knows? he might do) but that he has proven to be a reliable jolly for Roma over the years.

He’s a utility man, successful at adapting his game to whatever role the team requires of him.

Again though, context is everything. When Florenzi plays well on a Sunday, he’ll be praised as a great jolly over the Monday-morning radiowaves. When he has a bad game, then he’s just a jolly; a guy who could have had a different career had he stuck to one role but chose to be a lowly jolly instead.

If you want an example of how wildly this term can vary from backhanded-insult to outright reverence, then just know that describing Rodrido Taddei as a jolly is your best way to pay respect to the cult-hero status Taddei’s earned himself in the Italian capital. Taddei being Roma’s jolly is only ever a form of prestige, that very few players in the game could earn.

Centrale: Gianluca Mancini, Federico Fazio

Football Europa League Roma-Wolfsberger

Closest English equivalent: Centre-back, centre-half.

This one is of the similar in use as ultimo difensore above; they are different roles but both is often used without context where you’re implicitly expected to know what position is being referred. It is specific to the role rather than personality.

Just know that if you ever read a player described as a centrale in an Italian sports paper with no context, then it’s automatically assumed you’re talking about a centre-back.

Vero Leader: Chris Smalling

ACF Fiorentina v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Closest English equivalent: Exactly what is says on the tin: True leader.
Honourable mentions: Bryan Cristante, Kevin Strootman.

During his brief stint in the capital so far, who would doubt Chris Smalling’s natural ability to get his teammates following his lead? Smalling has the innate ability to raise the performance levels of Roma’s entire eleven through the combination of calm demeanour and aggressive style of play at the heart of Roma’s defence.

Vero leader is often used to describe the guy who may not wear the armband but, for all intents and purposes, runs the show. He’s the guy you don’t want to let down with your performances, and the atmosphere changes when he walks into the dressing room. He’s considered un-droppable - the first name on the teamsheet every weekend - simply because the other ten players won’t put in the same effort or focus without him driving them.

This is a term more often used by fans than the media, though journalists and match commentators have often ascribed to label Bryan Cristante the vero leader in Rome. You may laugh, but that illustrates the point: it’s a contentious term, often used in a hipster manner to go against the grain.

The vero leader is the guy who doesn’t often get his due credit, but he’s not the type of guy to need recognition in order to drive the team - and that’s all exactly what makes him a core player on the teamsheet.

Coincidentally, this was often a label that went hand-in-hand with Roma’s previous number six Kevin Strootman.

Regista di Fascia: Aleksandar Kolarov

Aleksandar Kolarov of AS Roma celebrates at the end of the... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/LightRocket via Getty Images

Closest English equivalent: Literally a wide playmaker but English media doesn’t bother with this term.
Honourable mentions: Elisa Bartoli.

This is a modern spin-off of a classic term that’s only just come into use in the latter decade, and shows just how important the regista is to calcio’s school of thought.

We don’t really need to go into detail on what a regista (‘playmaker’) represents in any football side, but Italian football is forever looking to identify who the true playmaker is at the heart of a Serie A team. So much so that you can be labelled a regista from the front, a regista from the back like Amadou Diawara or, in the modern fullback’s case, a regista of the wing - regista di fascia.

There’s no player more often described in these terms by Italian sports press - country-wide and not just in Rome - than Aleksandar Kolarov. It’s a way of implicitly recognizing the modern fullback that makes the team tick over creatively.

You’ll find Elisa Bartoli doing the same thing on the Roma women’s team, even tough she’s more frequently described as a lottatrice (‘fighter’) for her ability to physically ride tackles while driving possession up the field.

Predestinato: Amadou Diawara

Football Serie A Roma-Spal photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Closest English equivalent: The idioms ‘born to do this’ and ‘plays beyond his years’ come to mind.
Honourable mentions: Nicolò Zaniolo.

This is the highest form of praise you can give to a young talent in Italian football, and has most often been used to describe Diawara on Roma radio this season.

You may think I’m exaggerating that as a Diawara fan myself, but the clamour has gone so far this month that Il Romanista’s Piero Torri outright wrote what everyone was thinking when he explicitly chose to compare Diawara’s Roma performances to Daniele De Rossi:

“We don’t want to be blasphemous and we’re sure than even Daniele De Rossi will understand, but the Diawara we saw yesterday evening [against Inter Milan] looked like a player truly in the mould of the number sixteen who today wears Boca’s journey and who we still miss all the same. But have you all seen, whenever there was a loose ball, who was always or almost always the first to reach that ball thanks to his sense of positioning that belongs to the predistinati?”

Truly, this past month especially, not a week has gone by without Diawara being labelled a predestinato on the radio. A guy who plays beyond his years, as if he’s been playing the game well into his thirties. Every so often, you’ll also hear this same label given to Zaniolo when it comes to the physical side of the game.

Zaniolo’s physique, as we all know, has to be seen to be believed for a guy who’s just finished being a teenager.

Disagree with the usage of the terms listed above? Have your say below, and stay tuned for our second and final part to this feature.