England and Italy like to tease each other with clichés but when it comes to football our roles are often reversed
Sunday's Euro 2012 clash between Italy and England brings together two countries that often appear to be complete opposites: one thought of as sunny, passionate, noisy and chaotic; the other grey, self-controlled, quiet and orderly. The strange thing is that despite almost two millennia of links, trade and travel between the two, the old stereotypes and misunderstandings seem almost impossible to erase.
To Italians we English will always be, above all, sporchi (unhygienic, if not downright dirty). The fact that some of us have carpets in the bathroom and think that a bidet is for children to wash their hands is clinching evidence that we're unclean. They think we're so polite that we never tell it like it is; and, moreover, that we so love queueing that we would form a line even to swim in the sea.
The English, every Italian knows, are cold and distant, with a sense of superiority that borders on the snooty. That's why we're inveterate colonialists, even now wagging our fingers and starting wars. The phrase la perfida Albione (perfidious Albion) might have been coined by a Frenchman but it's much more used in Italy, describing our treachery and cruel pursuit of our national self-interest. Our food is terrible, they say, and we never serve bread with our meals – a shame, as it would probably be the only edible bit. We dress badly and our weather is grim, which partly accounts for the fact we love bowler hats and black umbrellas. Above all, we're mostly followers of that unfathomable heresy that is Protestantism, so we're not really Christians at all.
We, in turn, seem convinced that all Italians are mummy's boys and smooth-talking womanisers. They would be queue-bargers if there were any queues to barge. Italians are, we think, loud, stylish and passionate; they're hypochondriacs who are obsessed with their digestive systems.
Their innate creativity often leads into untethered fantasy and vertiginous rhetoric. This makes them rather slippery, easily able to blur right and wrong. There's a sort of cunning that gives them a blindspot to the corruption of their public servants. It's them, not us, we say, that can't tell it like it is. Sure they're good at football, but only because they're divers and play catenaccio, getting every man (and probably the referee they've bribed) behind the ball. All this, of course, is down to the fact that they're Catholics, and therefore not really Christians at all but Dionysian pagans.
There is, admittedly, a tiny grain of truth in one or two of those clichés. It's true that our weather can err on the damp side and that we do form orderly queues at the drop of a bowler. We have weird standards of hygiene: I was once watching a dull makeover programme on TV with my Italian wife when the interior design expert pronounced that brown carpets were a good idea as they didn't show up the filth so much.
Italians actually are more stylish, their weather and food are infinitely preferable. I was lucky to be in Italy when they won the World Cup in 2006, and "loud" doesn't begin to describe the exuberant cacophony. When Roma won the scudetto (league title) a few years before, the sirens didn't stop all summer. Italians, it's true, did elect Berlusconi and Andreotti and, I'm sorry, the world-famous Ponzi scheme is so-called because it was invented by an Italian swindler called Carlo.
But what's interesting is how many of those stereotypes are plain wrong. The oldest Protestant community in Europe, the noble Waldensians, are from Italy. The famous Illy coffee is made by a Waldensian family in the country's north-east. Some of the 20th century's most famous Italians were either from an Albanian Orthodox background (such as the political theorist Antonio Gramsci or the mercurial financier Enrico Cuccia) or a Jewish one (such as the writers Primo Levi or Natalia Ginzburg). The presence of Mario Balotelli and Angelo Ogbonna in Italy's Euro 2012 squad belies the notion that this is still a monocultural country.
And while it's true that England has an imperial past, the most formidable empire was the one that invaded us from 55BC onwards. Mussolini only resurrected the "perfidious Albion" jibe because he, too, wanted his "place in the sun" and we were opposed to Italian expansion in Africa.
But it's the cliché of the "dodgy Iti" that is the hardest to kill off. There is, admittedly, something slightly peculiar about the country's morality and that might or might not be related to the confessionalism of Catholicism. And yet Italy is a country of breathtaking contradictions and it's interesting that the most memorable instance of fair play ever to occur in the Premier League was thanks to an Italian. As the ball came to Paolo Di Canio in the penalty area in 2000, he saw the Everton goalkeeper apparently badly injured and, rather than put the ball in the back of the net, he caught it and stopped the game. For some reason, it's not surprising that it was an Italian who made such a madly generous gesture.
It's true that on the eve of this tournament Italian football finds itself yet again in the midst of a match-fixing scandal. But there's an interesting flip side to that too. Just a few weeks ago, the national coach, the gentlemanly Cesare Prandelli, invited two of the journeyman footballers who had denounced the betting syndicates, Fabio Pisacane and Simone Farina, to train with the national team in recognition of their courageous honesty. Being a law-abiding citizen in England is pretty straightforward. Doing so in Italy, a country with more than its fair share of cartels and organised crime, is often difficult if not very dangerous. It's a shame most English pay attention to the law-breakers and law-benders, rather than recognising the daily bravery of millions who defy the various mafias.
It's actually within football that the national stereotypes of a colourful, chaotic land and an ordered, strategic one are inverted. The English game has matured a lot in the past decade or two, but down the leagues it's still based on a lot of passion, speed, and huff and puff. Rather than control, there's still something slightly "headless chicken" about English football. The Italians are very different: they probe, study, retreat, retain, retry. I spent five years playing park football in Italy and was always amazed how even amateur players would try to thread the needle rather than barge down the barn door. It was football played as chess. Perhaps that's why the past three managers to win the FA Cup – Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Roberto Di Matteo – have all been Italian.
The more you move beyond the stereotypes, the more you realise that, rather than opposites, both countries have always been dependent on each other. Without Sir Antonio Panizzi, for example, there would be no British Library. Without Italy there would be no Shakespeare. Without the external support of the British, it's arguable that Italy would never have had its Risorgimento. One of Italy's most distinguished football clubs, Genoa, was founded by Englishmen in 1893 (we generously allowed Italians to join our Cricket and Athletic Club four years later).
Rather than the sort of historical animosity we have with, say, France or Germany, with Italy there has always been – barring the aberration of the second world war – deep friendship. Perhaps that's why Italians pepper their conversation with English buzzwords like lo spread, il mouse or il mister. We do the same with Italian foodstuffs, constantly asking for a latte or a panini (sic). Even Chuggington, the toddlers' train programme on CBeebies, has an ice-cream-making maestro called Frostini.
It's as if each country has become the epitome of what the other yearns to be. To Italians, England is thought to be cutting-edge, cool and cosmopolitan; it's thought to be well-organised and meritocratic. To us, Italy is equated with good taste, good weather and the sunny plateau of Mediterranean culture. Rather than being disparaging about the other, each country actually projects its own longings on to the other, recognising a way of life that is often admirable, enviable and, just sometimes, completely imaginary.
The 14th-century mercenary, John Hawkwood, famously said that an Italianised Englishman was the devil incarnate. But most people (and not just those of us blessed with Anglo-Italian children) feel that the literal cross-fertilisation between the two countries has produced some fine sportsmen (Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio and Robert Sidoli), comedians (Armando Giovanni Iannucci) and musicians (Paolo Giovanni Nutini). In Italy, the investigative magistrate Henry John Woodcock had a huge influence on public life, and I'll skate over the fact that Berlusconi's favourite, silicon-enhanced call girl, Nicole Minetti, is also Anglo-Italian.
So although there will be divided loyalties in our house on Sunday evening, the game itself will be testament to the close ties between the two countries. Five of the probable starting English lineup (Hart, Lescott, Terry, Cole and Milner) play for an Italian manager at club level, and three players in the Italian squad hail from another club (Milan) founded by two Englishmen in 1899. Rather than a grudge match, Sunday's game will have all the edge and excitement of a derby.
Tobias Jones's journey through the Italian deep south, Blood on the Altar, is published by Faber & Faber. tobias-jones.com