The Juventus team, including goalkeeper Dino Zoff, who led Italy to World Cup victory in 1982, and forward Roberto Bettega (far right), one of the club’s greatest players, line up before a game against Torino in 1979 © Offside/IPP

Giovanni Agnelli thought there might be a future in horseless carriages, so in 1899 he co-founded Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, or Fiat. In 1923 he arranged for his son Edoardo to become president of one of Turin’s football clubs, Juventus. Today Giovanni’s great-grandson Andrea runs Juve. The alliance between Italy’s unofficial “royal family”, its manufacturing behemoth and its dominant football team is the longest family ownership in top-level international sport.

To understand how power works in Italy, therefore, requires understanding Juventus. With Juve! the British author Herbie Sykes has written a potted history of modern Italy disguised as a football book, told in his distinctive voice: fond, chatty, distanced, and sometimes hilarious.

The Agnellis made armaments for Mussolini, then worked equally smoothly with Uncle Sam, converting Marshall Plan money into Italy’s motorised postwar ‘boom economico’. Fiat obliged the Americans by spying on its own employees to root out communists and homosexuals. A football club was the perfect (and cheap) family brand passport.

The Agnellis made Juve great mostly by buying great players, though they put it all down to rational management techniques. Edoardo’s son Gianni, ‘L’Avvocato’, a silver-haired playboy, longtime head of Fiat and figurehead of Juve for more than half a century, treated his footballers as a sort of private art collection. Alessandro Del Piero, for instance, was “Pinturicchio” — “Little Painter” — after the Renaissance artist. Juve was Gianni’s consolation during several family tragedies, including his son’s suicide.

Other Italian clubs represent their hometowns, in the country’s tradition of bitter parochialism, campanilismo. But Juve, as befitting the Agnellis’ ambitions, sees itself as the club of all Italy, supported especially by small-town Italians and southerners, who have no dominant clubs of their own and a tradition of migration to Turin to work for Fiat. Supporting Juventus has always been a way for powerless Italians to taste power. Juve now has perhaps 14m supporters, more than Milan, Inter, Lazio and Torino combined, writes Sykes.

It is also Italy’s most hated club. “Winning isn’t important — it’s the only thing that matters”, is Juve’s motto, and to make sure they won, they sometimes leaned on referees. In 2006, wiretaps revealed that the club’s then sporting director, Luciano Moggi, spent much of his working week on the phone arranging which referees should be assigned to Juventus’s matches and which to those of rivals. The scandal, Calciopoli, saw Juve punished with a year in Italy’s second division. Like many other Italian football scandals, Calciopoli remains endlessly debated, perhaps because match-fixing is the most visible manifestation of Italian corruption.

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Juve’s power has worked less well in Europe. The club has won just two European Cups, including the meaningless final played at Brussels’ Heysel stadium in 1985 after 39 mostly Italian spectators died in a crush trying to escape rampaging Liverpool hooligans. The biggest triumphs of the bianconeri have come in the blue shirts of Italy: the world champions of 1934, 1982, and 2006 each had a crucial “blocco-Juve” contingent.

Today Juve has outgrown not just shrunken post-industrial Turin, but even Italy itself. It has eaten Italian football, winning nine straight titles, and scarcely needs refereeing help any more. Yet dragged down by the country’s economic decline, it lacks the funds to compete with Europe’s strongest clubs.

Sykes’ analysis of Italian football scandals and campanilismo isn’t groundbreaking, there is some borderline national stereotyping, and his grasp of non-Italian football names is shaky. Still, he tells this important story wonderfully well.

Juve! 100 Years of an Italian Football Dynasty, by Herbie Sykes, Yellow Jersey Press, RRP£20, 406 pages

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