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Black, pink and read all over Italy: La Gazzetta tracks the pulse of sport

Reading La Gazzetta dello Sport has become a morning ritual for Italian football fans.
Reading La Gazzetta dello Sport has become a morning ritual for Italian football fans.

MILAN -- This morning, in cafés across Italy, people of all ages are doing the same thing: ordering an espresso, Caffe Si brand more than likely, then spreading out the pink-colored pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport and reading every last nuance about Saturday's Italy-Germany quarterfinal match. The thin pages crinkle when they're flipped, a pleasing sound, and the big, brash headlines help set the daily terms of debate in a country obsessed with arguing about football as much as watching or playing it. Few things are as Italian as a worn-out copy of La Gazzetta, tossed on a table or a bar-top in the late afternoon, read and re-read all day long, wrinkled and poorly folded, stained with coffee rings, burned by a stray cigarette ash or two.

"I call it a disposable bible," says Andrea Monti, the current editor.

He says he learned to read in part through his father's copy of La Gazzetta, which is true for many Italian children in the 120 years since it began publishing. The average daily circulation is 400,000, with several times that many actual readers, because nearly every bar and café buys a communal copy, especially in the north of Italy. The national sports dailies, especially La Gazzetta and its biggest competitor, the Rome-based Corriere dello Sport, are everywhere. In Milan, La Gazzetta is in business class lounges at the international airport and in working class bars. Guys getting their shoes shined read it, and the guy shining the shoes has a polish-smeared copy rolled up near his kit.

The newsroom is on the third floor in a building northeast of downtown, on the far side of a sprawling quadrangle with famous covers of the paper turned into large art installations. Opposite the elevator is a mural which covers much of the wall, four photographs perfectly summing up the paper's place in the local and even national zeitgeist. One shows a little boy and girl sitting in the grass reading the paper, and the next shows two constructions workers doing the same. In the third, a group of guys all have a copy rolled up in their back pocket, and finally, four well-dressed old Italian men sit on a park bench, sharing a copy. This is the last thing the staff sees before going to work, and the first thing they all see when they leave.

A mural in the La Gazzetta newsroom depicts the devotion of the newspaper's audience.

Upstairs, on the day after Italy beat Spain, people are moving slowly.

"Last night, the newspaper got out of control," Monti says, showing off the Italy jersey he wore. "People were dragging themselves in totally drunk. They drank Spanish champagne, which is very cheap."

His guys pulled themselves together and put out the paper, and now they're back to do it again. There's an hour until the daily 6 p.m. budget meeting, when the plan for the next day's paper is finalized and the all-important cover is debated and decided. La Gazzetta front pages often go viral, and this morning, much of Italy woke up laughing at today's headline: GODEMOS! A made up word, combining the Italian word for "enjoy" and the Spanish word for "let's go," it's also a pun on the Spanish left-wing political party Podemos, some glib national smack talk.

"I was drinking myself," Monti says, smiling. "So I came up with Godemos."

The headline 'Godemos' celebrated Italy's victory and poked fun at defeated Spain.

La Gazzetta is many things -- serious journalistic watchdog, vapid narrative junkie, tabloid scandal chaser, pot-stirring anarchist -- but more than anything, it is governed by an ultimate commandment: Thou Shalt Be Fun.

"That is the secret," Monti says. "It's not a war."

The newsroom is divided by sport, football on the right, motorsports and Olympic sports on the left, with the graphics department all the way in the back. Designers and artists often live in their own world, where they do things like decorate with light-up palm trees and listen to Morrissey. The center of the room is a big round desk, known to everyone as the Central Office, with the chairs and computers facing out. Inside that circle is a smaller desk, with four chairs, where the bosses sit. This room around midnight each evening is not for the faint of heart.

At any paper, things get wild as deadline approaches, especially in sports, where much of the news happens late. People who work in sports departments, whether The Kansas City Star or La Gazzetta dello Sport, think that news-side people are soft. On election nights, the news folks get pampered, usually with free pizza and soda and hand-holding and praise, and in sports, every night is election night. They don't need aromatherapy and pep talks. For the staff at La Gazzetta, that's multiplied. They put out a 40 to 64-page paper every day, always on deadline.

Monti, sitting in his office behind his modern white square desk, talks with pride about his team. The work they do, he says, is artisan and pre-industrial, and even though the digital business becomes more important every day, he still likes the feeling of having a set amount of time to fill a set amount of pages. It's a rush.

"A void," he says, holding his hands up in the air. "It's like dangling over the Grand Canyon."

Italy's victory over Spain produced pages of celebratory images for La Gazzetta.

He looks dapper, of course, wearing a white blazer with a red paisley pocket square, his clothes giving away his past jobs just as surely as if he handed out résumés to strangers. He edited magazines, as high-brow as the Italian editions of Fortune and GQ, and as low-brow as Maxim. His start at the paper was rough, seen as an outsider among old-school journalists. In the daily world, his team had to teach him to start writing an editorial before the match ended. Real beat reporters can always file at the final whistle or buzzer, a skill respected in a newsroom more than poetry. At first Monti tried to wait until the end to start, so he could collect his thoughts and compose, until his staff explained that they weren't picking flowers or pondering the universe: Just writing the f---ing column. As an aside, and a rule of thumb, sports desk people think magazine people are even softer than news-side people.

Now Monti and his staff are looking forward to Germany, whose football team Italy hates even more than Spain. It's a little after 6 p.m., and the staff is gathering in the big conference room down the hall. They're waiting on him. In that room, a nation's conversation will be shaped. La Gazzetta remains a powerful force in Italy: cheerleader, confessor, deeply in love with the game, skeptical of the forces surrounding it. That certainly describes Monti.

As if to prove his point, he points to a famous photograph on the wall, of the bitter 1940s cycling rivals Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. They hated each other, and they came to symbolize the divides in the country: the secular Coppi and the deeply Catholic Bartali. In the photo, during a race, the men share their water with each other. The photograph became famous, showing the Italian people that even the bitterest divide could be bridged. Something's always bothered him about the picture. Monti laughs and counts the canteens. Each cyclist has one, and then there's the one they are sharing. Did it, perhaps, belong to the photographer?

He points at the picture.

"Who's canteen is this?" he asks.

The Central Office is the epicenter of the newsroom, where the top editors make the day's key decisions.

Monti gets to the conference room. The walls are glass, with enormous soccer balls etched into them. It's still a male world, with just one woman at the table, and the tone, even for an English speaker listening to Italian, feels like a locker room. Today, Monti says, the word is that AC Milan is working to finalize a sale, which would move the team from Italian politician and scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi to a Chinese consortium. A Chinese businessman, Zhang Jindong, is already the new owner of Inter-Milan.

"We have to learn Chinese," Monti says.

The editors go around the room, explaining what is happening in their sports, and where in the world their writers will be filing from tonight. It's a football fan's dream, discussing possible transfers and signings, playing out scenarios. The biggest news is local. AC Milan has hired a new coach, Vincenzo Montella, while at Inter, the sale to Zhang became official at the team's shareholder meeting.

The designers start drawing almost immediately, sketching out mock front pages in pencil and with felt pens, working through ideas.

Once the rundown is finished, the argument begins in earnest.

Some people want to lead the paper with the day's breaking news about the local clubs. Others want to focus on the Italian national team in the Euros, especially on manager Antonio Conte, whose popularity is at a peak right now.

"Every Inter and Milan fan, they are the first buyers of our newspaper," explains head football editor Luigi Garlando, sitting in the meeting. "It is also true 15 million saw the Italy match. It's very hot. It's not easy to decide."

It's happening in Italian, very quickly, so it's hard to tell exactly who says what. The room argues about the front page. Tempers flare a bit. There's a history of tension between Monti and the staff; several years ago, 91 of the paper's 150-odd employees voted to have him fired, which the publisher refused to do. The writers sometimes complain about having their football coverage dumbed down; it is definitely a place that likes easy-to-understand themes and tectonic morality plays. There's a New York Post comparison to be made, even if Monti doesn't particularly like it.

In the meeting, an editor or designer furiously draws the cover he imagines, stopping only to pick his nose, and then Monti takes a felt pen and draws what he wanted, on top of the now useless "Godemos" cover.

Then Monti decides.

They will lead with Conte.

"Va bene," he says, in his deep bass of a voice, which really is a thing to hear, like rocks in a blender. A man who seems to be a designer, really angry about this for reasons that weren't totally apparent because of the language barrier, heads off to do a quick mock-up of Monti's cover idea, muttering to himself out the door, still muttering as he walks down the hall. Soon he returns, and he is still talking to himself, and before he hands over the page proof, he utters a phrase that is the most foul thing that can be said in the Italian language. It's basically calling God a pig and is worse than a graphic paragraph about things to do to someone's mother. If you want to see real shock, and maybe start a fight in Italy, this is the phrase you use.

They keep arguing until Monti has had enough and ends it.

"Excusa," the editor replies.

The designer's mock-up of the day's cover, left, comes together as the finished product.

The mock-up has the Milan news stripped across the top. The main centerpiece is a story with the working headline "Guru Conte," which is debated and abandoned. Editors throw around other ideas. The sun glares through the long, narrow windows and, finally, they decide.

"The Italian One," Monti says.

Everyone leaves the room and gets to work. The next morning, at newsstands and in cigarette shops and in café-bars all over the north, people start their day by spreading open the pages of La Gazzetta, reading about the coach of their national team. The centerpiece is a text rendering of Conte's head, made up of words that describe him and his coaching success. In the past 16 years, like every print outlet in the world, the circulation has fallen by half, and the digital readership gets larger every day. Maybe one day this perfect still life of Italian culture will vanish, along with the people who devote so much of their lives to creating it. That seems impossible on a Wednesday morning in Milan. Nobody seems rushed at all, drinking cups of espresso for a euro each and flipping through the pink pages of La Gazetta, looking for reasons to believe they will beat Germany and keep their dream alive.

A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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