“Campionato… di calcio…. Italiano” – the four words that kickstarted Saturday mornings for many in the 1990s. No football programme better encapsulated the zeitgeist of the decade better than Gazzetta Football Italia.
Each week James Richardson, usually situated in a historical piazza or stylish cafe with a stack of newspapers and a delicious Italian pastry, presented the latest news and action from Italy.
Richardson’s razor-sharp wit, jovial nature and trademark puns was a breath of fresh air on TV. He educated the viewer without insulting their intelligence and became one of the most iconic football presenters of the past 25 years.
Nearly two decades since the show said its final arrivederci on Channel 4, the image of Richardson holding aloft La Gazzetta dello Sport’s famous pink paper while relaying the headlines has adorned mugs, pins, t-shirts, posters and sweatshirts.
Countless love letters have been written about the show’s influence. Often imitated, but never duplicated, the Gazzetta legend grows with every passing year. Yet, what was missing was the show itself. Clips of Gazzetta have been on YouTube for years, but never a complete episode.
However, a cryptic tweet from Richardson in early April revealing he had some video tapes of “specialist interest” got people speculating that perhaps, finally, full episodes of the show might see the light of day.
Several weeks later, episodes began to appear on Richardson’s YouTube channel, JimboVision. For the first time since 2002, there was Gazzetta Football Italia in all its feature-length glory.
“Basically, my mother was moving house and I was helping her clear some things out. She had a whole bunch of old VHS tapes, 1980s keep fit videos, that sort of thing,” says Richardson.
“But among them was a collection of tapes with my name on the label, so I grabbed them and put them in a bag and thought ‘I won’t throw these out, maybe one day I’ll convert them’ and they sat in the back of my car since October.”
“When the [Covid-19] pandemic happened, people were asking Channel 4 to put old Football Italia episodes online, but in the end that didn’t work out,” he says. “So I thought, in the meantime, I could put these ones up. It took a bit of a time to get a VHS player, but eventually I tracked one down.”
Various calls, including a recent petition, have been made down the years for Channel 4 and the production company who created the programme, Chrysalis, to release a greatest hits package of Gazzetta episodes. But Richardson says it’s not as simple as collating all of the old footage, with copyright issues shackling any intention to show them.
With the old episodes locked away in a top-secret vault beneath London’s busy streets, Richardson’s videos provided him with a treasure trove of memories he too hadn’t seen for years.
“It’s like with anything,” he says. “Any old album you dig up and see yourself after 20 years. There are some astonishing wardrobe choices. I really struggled to understand what world I was living in that they seemed like good ideas, but it was a different time and they do things a little differently in Italy.
“By and large, it was really sweet to see that time again. To see Paul Ince with a big smile on his face, to see Paul Gascoigne playing around. There are so many nice elements to the show: the music was great, Kenneth Wolstenholme was great, all the little puns they used on the intros were great. The show still holds up pretty well.”
Having already chewed through all but one of the episodes, what’s most striking is the show’s remarkable access to the game’s biggest players, a facet Richardson also reinforces.
“I was impressed with some of the big names we got,” he admits. “One week we’d have Gianluca Vialli, the next would be Roberto Baggio and then the following show we’d have George Weah. A part of it was that we weren’t the same people who were bothering the clubs every week, wanting to talk about some tactical issue.
“So, it was slightly exotic, slightly glamorous. The fact we were English, but also that people tended to be more forgiving and a bit more generous with their time.”
The October 1994 episode is particularly noteworthy when Richardson can be seen asking Baggio – the reigning Ballon d’Or winner – for five minutes of his time in the car park of Torino’s Stadio Comunale. Baggio happily obliges, even giving a thumbs up to the camera while Richardson presents in English.
“Baggio was a lovely guy,” Richardson recalls. “A couple of years ago he was in London doing an event and he pretended to recognise me, which was really sweet of him. We did the event and went to dinner afterwards. He was so down to earth and a guy who’s really at peace with himself.
“Whether it’s because of the penalty he missed or the way managers in the era didn’t always understand him, but there’s a certain bittersweet, wistful quality to most people’s recollection of Baggio.”
In the pre-budget airline and internet era, Gazzetta could’ve passed as a travel show. A promotional tool for Italian tourism, with Richardson regularly presenting from inside one of the thousands of quaint piazzas strategically incorporated into every city and town throughout the country. It’s an aspect of the show he’d liked to have delved deeper into.
“If I had my time again, I’d try to do more with the whole lifestyle side of it,” Richardson reflects. “But at the time it was my first presenting job and, living in Italy, it was hard to maintain a perspective on what the show was for people back home. It wasn’t just about football. Maybe I’m doing the show a disservice and maybe we did do all of that, but that’s what I thought years after.
“In terms of the geography, the architecture, the food, the art, Italy’s a pretty special place. To have football in that setting was a dream combination. It’s the greatest backdrop you could have for a show.”
With the UK starved of football on TV back then, Gazzetta averaged 800,000 viewers on Saturday mornings in the first season of the show, with live games attracting more than three million viewers. Surprisingly, the biggest rating wasn’t for a titanic Serie A clash, with a World Cup play-off between Italy and Russia in 1997 drawing in five and a half million on a Wednesday afternoon. Richardson remembers the game well, but not for the viewing figures.
“Channel 4 did a promo where they had a Russian guy pushing an Italian’s face into a plate of pasta – it caused outrage in Italy,” he says. “It got picked up by the Italian newspapers and it was even raised in parliament that Channel 4 had insulted the country.
“I was really upset because I thought ‘this is going to blow any goodwill we might have as a station’. So we filmed one with Pierluigi Casiraghi pushing my face into a plate of pasta. I don’t know where that episode is, but I would dearly love to see it.”
Gazzetta turned Serie A’s galaxy of superheroes into household names, with Baggio, Vialli and Gabriel Batistuta equally as likely to roll off schoolchildren’s tongues as Alan Shearer, Eric Cantona or Robbie Fowler. Owning a shirt from a Serie A side was commonplace and not the declaration of hipsterdom it is today. However a combination of factors saw appetite for the show diminish by the dawn of the 21st century.
“I don’t really think the show was a priority for Channel 4 after Paul Ince left [in 1997] and there wasn’t a big English name to hang it on,” Richardson explains.
“You also have to remember this is an English audience, so there’s always going to be a greater interest in the local league. And with the Premier League performing strongly in Europe, it was an increasingly hard sell to make people interested in a foreign league.
“The whole notion of Channel 4 doing Sunday afternoon Italian football was a little bit hung by the fact the Italian Football Federation introduced more timeslots [in 1999] to put the big games in, so very few of them would be played in the traditional Sunday afternoon timeslot.
“The last game we showed live was Roma winning the Scudetto in June 2001. Channel 4 said to Italian officials we weren’t going to take the live rights anymore, just the highlights. The following season they just showed Gazzetta and Mezzanotte, which allowed them to show premium game on a Sunday night fixture. The Sunday afternoon slot wasn’t what it was 10 years prior.”
The final episode of Gazzetta – available on Richardson’s YouTube channel – aired on 4 May 2002, although tentative talks had started over renewing their deal until 2005.
“Channel 4 were in negotiations for the next cycle,” he reveals. “They said to Serie A they were just going to buy the highlights and not the live rights. And the league said ‘no, you have to buy everything’. So Channel 4 made them a very low offer for everything, based on what they wanted to pay for the highlights.
“The league rejected the offer, believing they’d get more money elsewhere and, of course, they didn’t. They pretty much gave away the rights to Eurosport midway through the 2002/03 season because no one was showing it.”
What legacy does Richardson believe the show left behind?
“The shows love of the Italian game did pass on to a lot of younger viewers and understandably so,” he says. “What a glamorous, impossible league it all seemed at the start; full of sunshine and cheekbone, Latin types going at it in towering cathedrals of calcio. On a personal level, an unexpected legacy is that I’m still presenting football on TV.”
With an official release highly unlikely, perhaps in the distant future someone, somewhere, will stumble across more episodes in a dusty attic and, just like its presenter, digitise them for a further fix of ‘90s TV gold.