Fun, glamour and chaos: how Gazzetta Football Italia won our hearts

“Welcome to Serie A – the greatest league in the world.” With those words the late Kenneth Wolstenholme kicked off a new era as Serie A became an institution in living rooms up and down the United Kingdom.

A few weeks earlier coverage of the newly-created, and much-hyped, Premier League had launched on Sky and was supposed to take centre stage. But back then, Serie A dominated every other division and Channel 4 had captured coverage of it for next to nothing. It was the only live football that was free to air in the UK and viewers loved it.

Italian football was meant to be slow and boring but in the first game broadcast by Channel 4 – the 30-year anniversary of which is on Tuesday – Sampdoria and Lazio shared six goals in Genoa. And that was just the start of the fun.

In the summer of 1993 I was fortunate enough to join Chrysalis Television and for so many of us working for the production company back then, Gazzetta Football Italia was the jewel in their crown. It perfected the mix of football and entertainment. Viewers loved James Richardson’s brilliantly scripted links and news stories, while at the same time had a real taste of the passion and colour of calcio.

While there was magic on the field, there were also more than a few chaotic incidents off it. In those pre-internet days, getting critical information such as team line-ups was a battle in itself. On some occasions we even had to phone the stadium.

Football Italia was also the first of its kind not to have commentators at the stadium. The beauty of it was that nobody knew. However, Peter Brackley’s cover as an “off tube” commentator was nearly blown one week when somebody switched our feed of Milan versus Parma to Fiorentina against Bari. As ever Brackers brushed it all off, commentating on a game he hadn’t even prepared for before we returned to San Siro.

There were other dramas, too. The feed went down during Parma’s clash with Juventus in 1998, meaning we had to use our own solitary camera in the stadium to continue live coverage and catch Filippo Inzaghi’s dramatic equaliser.

Then there was Perugia in 2000 where a biblical storm delayed the second half for more than an hour. Somehow, we talked Channel 4 into staying on air as Lazio celebrated their centenary season with only their second league title.

The show’s opening links, meanwhile, became the stuff of legend. One of the best was Attilio Lombardo doing the lambada. Gianluca Vialli wore a wig, Gianfranco Zola talked cockney rhyming slang and James stopped world player of the year Roberto Baggio in a car park, acting like they were best friends. Back then access to the stars was far easier; you simply cannot imagine something similar happening today.

The Brits in Italy got in on the act too. Paul Ince wore a chicken suit; David Platt turned his Mr Nice Guy image on its head by mimicking Arnold Schwarzenegger with an ‘I’ll be back’ sketch. Paul Gascoigne, of course, shone too, on one occasion doing links at a wildlife park with an enormous python around his neck as well as sitting next to a tiger. Suffice to say there were no risk assessment forms.

The comedy didn’t just come from the players either. When Faustino Asprilla returned to Parma from Newcastle in 1998 we talked one of our producers – a proud Geordie – into doing a voiceover in his native accent while the Colombian star was talking in perfect Italian.

Despite Gazza’s departure from Lazio to Rangers in 1995, Channel 4’s coverage went from strength to strength, mainly because the biggest stars in the world were continuing to head to Italy – the original Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Andriy Shevchenko and George Weah joining a cast featuring the likes of Francesco Totti, Gabriel Batistuta, Alessandro Del Piero et al.

As the years went on, Channel 4’s commitment to Serie A expanded. Saturday night games – including the Milan derby – were shown live along with both legs of Italy’s World Cup qualifying playoff with Russia.

Sadly, the turn of the millennium saw what had previously been Europe’s glamour league suffer a fall from grace. The financially stricken Fiorentina and Parma went to the wall. Racism and crowd violence also became widespread and in 2002 Channel 4 decided not to renew the contract.

Those last couple of years do not detract, though, from one of the great eras of modern football, when fans first got to embrace the passion, colour and excitement of the Italian game. The biggest compliment one can pay is that Football Italia is still being talked about 30 years on.