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Stories - Sports - Destinations

Roberto Gotta, a nomad who narrates the sport

By Tommaso Lavizzari
19 min read
Roberto Gotta

You know the feeling when you’re fascinated by someone’s work even if you don’t know them, but then when you meet them in person, you get disappointed. Well, it didn’t happen to me with Roberto Gotta. I’ve followed his work since the days of Guerin Sportivo and American Superbasket.

I had the pleasure of meeting Roberto Gotta a few years ago when I had already entered the world of journalism, sports specifically. A coffee and a chat were enough to discover that, in person, he’s much better than what he writes. We have built a nice relationship, at least that’s what I think, based on endless voice messages that we exchange, listen to, and respond to when we have time or when we feel like it. Without a precise logic. As we both like it. I admit that there is a lot to learn from him every time, and I thank him for that here in public.

Roberto Gotta is an exceptional journalist, writer, author, and narrator. When he describes something, it is because he has already experienced, studied, deepened, and processed it—a scarce aspect in a world made of the rapid superficiality of the Internet.

Today Roberto Gotta is the author of Sky’s English football specials, those conducted by Paolo Di Canio and the second voice for some Premier League commentaries. He has been the official voice for the commentaries of American sports for various organizations, and today he is for DAZN. He is also the author of some of the most beautiful books ever written about the sport in Italy.

Roberto Gotta is a tireless traveler dedicated to his passion for sports. In his unmistakable style, he travels, collects stories, and brings them back to us thirsty for knowledge. Long before storytelling became fashionable.

You have decided to make videos on Youtube in which you tell your many journeys related to the world of sport, travels that you have always made for work but equally for personal pleasure.

“I have traveled a lot, yes. I was ‘lucky’ that I had no interest in clothes, cars, holidays, lunches, or dinners: everything I earned, I reinvested in knowledge. So I traveled practically all the time for work or to get to know places that I would later narrate. I didn’t take into account the number of trips I made, but I counted every flight: 977. Excluding the 2 or 3 that I made personally piloting an ultralight. I took the license in 1999, but I couldn’t keep it afterward, so I took off the satisfaction. Some years I made 40, even 50 flights, going to America even 4 or 5 times. As a reporter for American Superbasket or the NFL. I studied the NBA players, followed the finals of the college championships, and, very often, I was lucky enough to watch the Super Bowl”.

So you decided to use your professionalism to recount your experiences through the material, mainly photographic, that you have collected in over 30 years of travel.

“That’s right. My father was a big fan of photography, so trying to make the most with what I had at home, I got into the habit of photographing everything, especially details. I have a lot of photos, and I thought it might be interesting to tell the stories I lived through.

Traveling almost always in a frugal way, at my own expense, allowed me to have a point of view of the common fan. Of course, when I went to America for the Super Bowl, I had the hotel with my colleagues, but otherwise, I wanted to keep my independence so I could see things as they really are. For me, this is the only way to describe particular things, the ones that interest me.

I suppose this way of traveling has also led to some hilarious stories…

“Well, yes. I almost got arrested in Mississippi. I drive pretty fast, but in that case, I was fooled by the local cars that were going at my own speed but all together, almost in a group. When they gradually got off the highway, I was the only one left, and the police immediately – rightly so – stopped me. It was 2002. I was in the United States for the Super Bowl that inaugurated the Patriots’ dynasty. I was there on my own, and I took the opportunity to interview a future NBA player that we then found again in Bologna… but you’ll find all about it in my video, and I won’t tell you any more. However, after the close meeting with the police, I continued driving at 30 km/h, bent on the wheel in Fantozzi style (laughter).

At that time, there was no Internet with today’s evolution, so I really have tons of stuff and memories that I never shared, except with acquaintances. My wife doesn’t care much about it, except when they are part of anecdotes inspired by movies or TV series: I consider myself lucky that she is not interested in sports; otherwise, I would have to talk about that even home”.

Why did you decide to travel on your expenses even when you are working?

“I’m not a journalist who lives on contacts and, in fact, I don’t consider myself a journalist in the traditional way because I don’t even like doing interviews.

Not wanting to have contacts, the only way to know is to move and see by myself. Because each of us has a different way of seeing things, and every point of view is valuable, even more if preceded by knowledge.

Then, if there are no obligations, I often don’t even book a hotel because, after the game, I get on a train or a plane and move to another destination to follow another event. I use every moment of my travels. Once, I remember, after a domestic flight, at the suggestion of a stewardess, I pretended to forget my luggage at the airport, because waiting for it I could not arrive in time at the arena where I had to follow a game. The games can be watched and heard better from the stands because the press boxes in the stadiums often have windows that dampen the sounds, but I need the press boxes only so I can take my things with me without having to leave them around, optimizing my times”.

Roberto Gotta

Is it true that you are the non-American journalist who has seen more Super Bowl games live than all the others?

“Could be, but I don’t know all the British and Mexicans, so it could be… but I wouldn’t swear to it. In Italy, probably yes, but, to be clear, it’s not a competition for who has seen more games because there are no personal merits.

Well, in 2012 and 2015 I made the commentary from Italy, and I chose to go there until the day before the match, following press conferences, presentation and everything else, and then return to Italy to make the commentary from the studio, at least being able to tell the weather, while in the last two years I haven’t moved.

In 2011 I had a credit valid only for the press room. It was inside the stadium but not on the field. In this situation, I shouldn’t have done the commentary of the game because of events that I prefer not to talk about, so I was confined in this hall inside the Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium with the TV screen that delayed the game compared to the audience roars. A complete horror!

However, the newly opened stadium had a problem: some sectors had been closed during the match day. The spectators who had a ticket for those sectors had to sit on the steps – that’s a violation of the strict American regulations, so I took advantage of the disorder and distraction of the staff to join some of them and follow the match with a view of the field. Then for the second half, I sat in a free seat in the press box. I was able to follow that Super Bowl live! According to the mockery rule, given by the Italian journalists who do these things: you have to see the game live; otherwise, it doesn’t count! (Laughter)

How many Super Bowls have you seen live?

“Well, from 1988 to 1991; then from 1999 to 2011. I skipped the one in 2012. I saw it in 2014, I skipped 2015. Then I skipped 2016, 2017, and 2018. The two I skipped are the ones I had to go back to Italy to do the commentary, with the consequent teasing by all the European press officers: everyone arrived, and I was going away, I was like the guy who goes in the wrong direction on the freeway”.

Questa immagine ha l'attributo alt vuoto; il nome del file è Pubblico-1024x1024.jpg

You are an incredible expert in English football and American sports, how was born this passion of yours?

“I’ve never been a very sociable teenager. On Saturday afternoons I spent a lot of time at home reading, listening to the radio, watching television. My father had a very lovely radio which, purely by chance, received the BBC very well. So on Saturday afternoons, I had the chance to follow all the First Division games (nowadays Premier League). That’s how I learned English. I used to go to the Stadium to see Bologna, but I never liked Italian cheer, the die-hard fans, etc.

I didn’t like this separation between the stands and the Curva, I didn’t understand why the ones from the Curva were automatically considered bigger fans than ones of the stands.

In England, everything was the same, at least in appearance. Firms would fight outside the stadium making their slaughterhouses, but when they played the game, there was an impression inside the stadium: they were all the same, and there was no more passionate sector, and I saw this with my own eyes. I remember when I was 9 years old, I saw on TV the match Poland-England in the Wembley (when Poland was eliminated from the World Cup in 1973). I was fascinated by the shadowy, covered, gray stands – and not only because the images were in black and white; by those Gregorian style songs that stood out towards the sky. I felt like I was witnessing an almost religious ritual.

I have this memory. 1974, England Cup Final, Newcastle-Liverpool. International football report on TV. Solemn presentation, perfect lawn… English style (laughter), fans with scarves and bright colors in the background of the terraces: “How wonderful!” I thought. Then, in 1975, I saw the final live on Swiss TV, and from there, the final spark was set off. So I started following the matches on the radio every Saturday afternoon. Then I went to mass at 18.30 and spent the whole time, I admit it, mentally reviewing the results, hoping to have understood everything correctly from the typical intonation of the commentators during the reading of the results. I used to write letters to companies and federations to receive material and read it. That’s how it was until the first trips and then the books I wrote”.

Where did the passion for American sports come from?

“Well, from basketball because there was a lot of basketball in Bologna. I remember that a journalist, Giorgio Gandolfi, along with others, had bought some tapes with games that he showed in some of the cinemas in the city. I remember seeing a flyer. They were games of second-level tournaments, but at the time, they were phantasmagorical things to see.

The American sports show immediately fascinated me. In Bologna, there is an excellent baseball team, and so I started to follow them too. In 1982, on Canale 5, I saw the second Super Bowl, and the fascination was the same that I had, about ten years before, for English football: stadium, colors, helmets, atmosphere.

I started going to see the games of the two local teams and ended up playing in a third, smaller level. I lived 500 meters from the American football stadium in Bologna, so I used to walk there. Same for baseball, whose stadium was maybe a kilometer away. Favorable coincidences. My life was full of coincidences that led me to do what I’ve been doing for over 30 years, I guess. I lost count.”

So your passion comes from aesthetics?

“That’s right. I loved the show, the fun. Here at home, everything’s been much more stuck. English football was much more spectacular. I always found our Serie A more serious, less colorful, tactical, and blocked. Over there, the fans were behind the door. They were participating. A good dose of randomness led me to do a job of it. If I had been a good athlete, I would have become an athlete; instead, I ended up reporting the game.

I sent a letter to the director of Superbasket, who told me to write to him in the future. So, a year later, I published a summer fantasy, and I found the courage to send it to him. I realized that maybe it wasn’t so unthinkable to do it as a profession.

That’s how it started, and even today, I still find it hard to find logic in the development of my working life or career as you like to call it, but it’s a word that sounds a bit cynical to me.

I saw the first Super Bowl thanks to the credit of a dear friend, by pure chance. It was 1988. I went back in 1989, then in 1990: and in that year, after the Super Bowl, I decided to go to Orlando, where the Lakers played. At the end of the game, I had the incredible audacity to ask if I could interview Magic Johnson. Permission granted. Back in Italy, I transcribed everything and sent the piece to I Giganti del Basketin Milan. I had attached a couple of photos, very rare at the time. They published the article.

Due to some vicissitudes, the magazine headquarters was moved to Bologna, they remembered me, and that’s how I started. After a while, the magazine was acquired by the Superbasket group, and I passed to the editorial staff, a historical rival, together with the whole package. I stayed there until I got to be the editor, also in that case quite casually. I thought I was about to leave, fed up with the 14 years of routine, but instead… You see how many coincidences?”

…and what about English football?

“Another coincidence. Guerin Sportivo was from the same publisher as I Giganti del Basket. One day, in the canteen, I asked the foreign football manager to write about English football. After 18 years of study and passion, I felt ready to write about English football, and I realize that today some think they can do it after 18 months, or maybe 18 days. I always wanted to know things, and they were looking for someone who really knew things. That’s how I started, but only after the manager made me understand some important things that I didn’t know.”

Roberto Gotta

In fact, I know from the Guerin Sportivo. As a kid, I was a big fan of international football, and it was the only magazine that covered it. I also learned geography thanks to Guerin Sportivo.

You wrote a lot of books. I know you’re writing a new one. The last one you did was dedicated to Tom Brady. However, Le Reti di Wembley is considered the most beautiful volume ever in Italy on English football.

“I submitted it in 1999 to a publisher who wanted a novel that could be translated into a film, but I was never good at fiction writing. I’ve always had a historical approach, and so, in 2003, thanks to Libri di Sport, I found a way to create a volume inspired by the fascination I mentioned earlier. “Le Rete di Wembley”, precisely. One of those aesthetic details that struck me. I would like to underline that it is a book of ‘nostalgia’ but not of romance.

My sport is not romantic at all; in fact, it’s made of blood, sweat, tears, bruises, mud. Not poetry but strong feelings. Romantic football is a feel-good invention that doesn’t belong to me, certainly not as an adult”. 

“Le Reti di Wembley” is…

“A walk through the stadiums of London in search of anecdotes, memories, little stories, sensations, all in strict disorder, as if you were at the table with friends who are passionate about English football and curiosities and questions arise continuously without any rule or criteria”.

A bit like in this case: a quick interview that turned into a long chat. Then it came Addio West Ham: Il Nostro ultimo Anno ad Upton.

You subscribed to the Hammers, the last year before the demolition of the Stadium and the subsequent relocation of the team, and recounted it in your own way, from the fans’ point of view, the last season of the Irons in the historic Boylen Ground.

“The initial idea was very simple: I wanted to be there for the last game. For personal pleasure, not for cheering. You can’t cheer a team from another city, another country, at least that’s the way I am. Anyway, I thought that since it was the last game, half the world would like to be there and it would be challenging to find a ticket. Subscribing would have been the only way, and so I did. Only a while later, around mid-July, I thought I might share it. I turned to Stefano Olivari from Indiscreto, he liked the idea, and the book was born”.

Have you seen them all?

“All but one. The first home victory, in mid-September. That’s why I thought I bring them bad luck, but then I don’t really believe in such nonsense. But then it was a much better season than I expected. It was a very strange experience. It was a unique one for obvious reasons: the stadium is no longer there.

Unbelievable because every 15 days, I sat in a place far away from home, but I was at home in a certain sense. Often I would come and go to London on the same day. Very nice, I have to say”.

We could call you a real football nomad. I’ll even use you for the current events. Football has started again. The Premier League is back.

You are the author of the Sky specials made by Paolo Di Canio and the second voice of some Premier League commentaries. I think it’s the first time a season has been interrupted. What are your expectations?

“Justice. For Liverpool to win the title (Interview was before Liverpool’s 2019/2020 mathematical victory of the Premier League). For the rest, I’m worried that the clubs at the bottom of the league table will ask to block relegation in the event of another interruption. It would be a disaster. Premier League with 22-team…you know. It’d be a real mess. There used to be 22 teams in the First Division, but there wasn’t the pressure like today. So I hope that doesn’t happen. There’s a very tight schedule, and it’s very difficult to manage. For the rest, I have to say that, as a fan of the Bundesliga, I wasn’t disappointed by what I saw. Apart from the absence of the audience, it was a real game. And a really fun one.

Professionally speaking, it was obviously a tough time. Uncertainty aside, we had to make Di Canio’s show from a distance. Paolo was fantastic to recover on his own. It’s not easy”.

What about American sport? Trump wanted to get it going again before because the sport is business, much more than here.

“Trump mostly talked about the NFL, which had one advantage: when the pandemic erupted, it had just ended. It will start again in September, and it’s likely that it’ll recover smoothly, even if something comes up every day. The problem will be more related to the recent turmoil. This is going to be a lot of trouble. On the other hand, the NBA will start again on July 31 from Disney World, with 22 teams: 16 of whom qualified for the playoffs and 6 who can still get there. Here too, we’ll have to see how to solve both social and economic problems. It’s not an easy situation. Some football will also restart. The MLB should have restarted on July 4, a perfect day, but here too, there are a lot of conflicts to resolve. It’s probably the worst-run league, and I’m very sorry for that.

In the U.S., the sport is business just like here; only the setting is different – it’s more honest. In the U.S., Frosinone would not go in Serie A because they would be too inferior economically to the others. That’s why the leagues are limited in number, and whoever is part of them has the same chance of winning the title. They sell a product, the product is the match, and therefore they do everything to ensure that this product is consumed.

It’s all well controlled because no one wants to risk them skipping franchises because of financial problems. So you lose the concept of ownership, but the system holds because it is the system itself that guarantees the success of the teams and not the other way around. Let’s say that the helm is firmly in the hands of the leagues, which is generally a guarantee.

Is it possible that this system is also the future of European football, which today seems destined to no longer hold up as we are used to?

This is the problem. In Bologna, the average fan can’t wait for Bologna-Cesena, Bologna-Fiorentina, etc. etc.; or Bologna-Juventus to get angry that three-quarters of the stadium is full of Juventus fans even though they play in Bologna. That’s where the split is created. The parochialism is great, but a Juventus fan does not care to see Juventus-Bologna; he wants to see Juventus-Real Madrid. So the mentality has changed, and it may be that these two speeds are going to merge. So Bologna will no longer be able to compete with Juventus and will always find itself playing at its equal level, while Juventus will find itself playing every year with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, etc. This rupture will possibly be created soon.

Personally, I don’t like the current European structure very much. I don’t like that the same matches emerge every year from the Cup draws, that there are no longer the outsiders of the past. So, if it has to be so monotonous, we might as well create a Superlegaand play the same matches every year.

That’s a bit of a Playstation concept. The audience is the kids, who today play every afternoon online Manchester City-Paris Saint Germain and who push in this direction. We had a different mentality; we come from a different era. A time when aesthetics and colors were more important than anything else, and in the afternoon, we played Subbuteo alone”.

Written by
Tommaso Lavizzari
Tommaso Lavizzari. Freelance Journalist, author and content creator. He was director of Sport Tribune and Soccer Illustrated. He speaks and writes about sports and lifestyle for various magazines, newspapers, radio and TV. He creates editorial content for different brands and companies. He published with Francesco Aldo Fiorentino "SURF. Big Wednesday 40 years later" for Mondadori Electa.
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19 min read

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