Philip Barker

The distinctive bright pink pages have become familiar across the world and since it first appeared in news kiosks 125 years ago this week, Gazzetta dello Sport has become an institution.

The paper has acclaimed Olympic champions, World Cup victories and defeats but also has also exposed sporting scandal and witnessed tragedy. It has even devoted a front page to the passing of a Pope.

It is said to be the most-read in Italy, either in print or online, which would have astonished founders Eugenio Camillo Costamagna and Eliso Rivera in 1896.

It came about as the result of a merger between the Milanese Il Ciclista and La Tripletta published in Turin. Editorial offices were established at 14 Via Pasquirolo in Milan. The first edition, published on green paper not pink, coincided with the opening of the first Olympic Games of the Modern Era in Athens. It ran to four pages; 20,000 were printed and sold out almost immediately at five cents a copy.

Costamagna himself wrote an editorial about events in Athens. Signing himself "Magno", he told his readers about the Games of Antiquity, and how the first Olympic champion had been Coroibus, a cook from the village of Elis.

"Greece, mother of ancient civilisation, rises once again to proclaim the revival of the famous Olympic Games which were celebrated in former times."

He described the modern Olympics as the "idea of some humanitarians, dreaming of a perfect and healthy world."

It was perhaps unsurprising that the new paper concentrated on Olympic cycle races.

It also carried advertisements for a shop run by Carlo Tardy of Turin who promised "all inner tubes and covers sold are guaranteed until 1st October. Top quality and free of manufacturing defects."

A newspaper front page was displayed at Paolo Rossi's funeral earlier this year ©Getty Images
A newspaper front page was displayed at Paolo Rossi's funeral earlier this year ©Getty Images

The paper examined women’s sport but agreed that they should "stay at home".

The paper was only two years old but at the end of 1898, its appearance was to change forever.

"With the first number of January 1899, Gazzetta will be printed on pink paper."

In 1904, Rome was chosen to host the Olympics in 1908. International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Baron Pierre de Coubertin called it a "sumptuous toga" for the Olympic movementYet the organisation soon ran into difficulties and the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 made it impossible.

London took on the responsibility of host city, yet by a twist of fate, the most enduring story involved Italy’s Dorando Pietri. He led the marathon but arrived exhausted at the stadium and stumbled towards the line. Officials rushed to his aid but he was disqualified for receiving assistance.

Gazzetta affirmed: "He was the true moral victor and displayed a rare and superior energy."

Dorando received a consolation trophy from the Queen and took his place in the annals of the Olympics.

Although Italy did not win any medals in Olympic cycling, men like Luigi Ganna and Eberardo Pavesi were starting to make their mark in road racing. Partly inspired by the benefit that French newspaper L’Auto had derived from the Tour de France and partly to thwart attempts by a rival newspaper Corriere dello Sport to establish a similar event, the paper announced, "the first Giro d’Italia, to take place next Spring. It will become one of the most coveted and important events in international cycling."

The paper promised total prize money of 25,000 lire for a race covering 3,000 kilometres.

The Grio d'Italia leader's jersey matches the colour of the Gazetta pages ©Getty Images
The Grio d'Italia leader's jersey matches the colour of the Gazetta pages ©Getty Images

On May 13 1909, 127 riders set out. The opening stage was won by Dario Beni from Rome.

A little over a fortnight later, 500,000 gathered in Milan to see the leading riders finish. Ganna was the first winner.

That year Gazzetta also promoted wrestling. In what it described as a "titanic duel and superb spectacle" Giovanni Raicevich of Trieste beat French champion Paul Pons at Milan’s Teatro dal Verme after a contest lasting 47 minutes.

Within a few short years though, the world was at war.

Special issues of "Gazzetta for the Trenches" were produced to tell the story of sportsmen at the front in attempt to maintain morale.

When peace came, there was also talk of Rome staging the Olympics, although this was headed off by in 1921 by IOC President Coubertin and his "masterly coup" which awarded the 1924 Games to Paris and those in 1928 to Amsterdam.

Sport in Italy was set for a dramatic change when Benito Mussolini took power.

By the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles an Italian gallery of champions filled the front page of the paper. "The tenth Olympiad has revealed to the world, the progress of Italian sport regenerated by Fascism."

Dorando Pietri "was the true moral victor and displayed a rare and superior energy", according to Gazzetta ©Getty Images
Dorando Pietri "was the true moral victor and displayed a rare and superior energy", according to Gazzetta ©Getty Images

The paper reported the exploits of heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera and Tazio Nuvolari, revered by motor racing connoisseurs to this day.

It was also a golden era in football. Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup and, coached by highly respected Vittorio Pozzo, they beat Czechoslovakia after extra time in the final.

"The Azzurri win the World Championship in the presence of Mussolini" said headlines.

At the Berlin Olympics, Ondina Valla became the first Italian woman to win Olympic gold. After her victory in the 80-metre Hurdles, she gave a Fascist salute from the podium.

Gazzetta saluted World Cup glory again in 1938. "Amazing victory by the Italian team. Apotheosis of Fascist sport in the Paris stadium."

Party secretary Achille Starace acclaimed "the success of the 'Azzurri Fascisti' in becoming World Champions for the second time."

The front page also depicted Italian Football Federation President Giorgio Vaccaro in uniform. Later an IOC member, he would prove difficult to dislodge, even when he became "persona non grata" after the war because of his association with Mussolini’s regime.

Post-war reorganisation of Italian sport was guided by lawyer Giulio Onesti. Under his leadership, Cortina d’Ampezzo hosted the 1956 Winter Games and 1960 Olympics took place in Rome. On the track, Livio Berruti's 200m gold crowned an "exhilarating day for Italian sport".

In the preceding decade, Italian heroes had included double Formula One champion Alberto Ascari and legendary cyclist Fausto Coppi, winner of the Giro and Tour de France twice in the same year, but the paper was soon to record the premature passing of both men.

Tragedy also stalked Italian football. Torino had been the outstanding Italian club side in the immediate post-war era, but in 1949, a plane carrying them home from a match crashed into the hillside at Superga on the outskirts of the city. There were no survivors.

For the next three decades, the two Milan sides led the way in European club competitions but the national team suffered humiliation in 1966.

"We are in the realms of unreality, beaten by North Korea," wrote Emilio Violanti after the defeat in Middlesbrough.

Within two years, Italy were European champions, though they needed the toss of the coin to beat the Soviet Union in the semi-finals. "The money is with us", said headlines.

The 1970s began with a World Cup final defeat to Brazil and ended with a bribery scandal that saw star striker Paolo Rossi banned.

Some were astonished when he was recalled for the 1982 FIFA World Cup. Then he scored a hat-trick against Brazil in a match for the ages. The headline "Fantastico!" was read by more than a million. Even that mark was superseded a week later when the edition reporting Italy’s World Cup final victory over West Germany sold 1,409,043.

Although Italy hosted the 1990 World Cup such joyous scenes would not be repeated until 2006 when Italy beat France on penalties. Curiously another match-fixing scandal, dubbed "Calciopoli" and reported by Gazzetta threatened to overshadow Italian prospects.

Yet even these were not the darkest days reported to appear in pages of the paper. In 1985, the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus was keenly awaited. The following day headlines spoke of "Massacre" and "Murderers". The paper reported 47 deaths - "almost all were Italian". It blamed Liverpool supporters for forcing the collapse of a wall. After the violence, the match went ahead. Juventus won 1-0. Few disagreed with the verdict: "To Juventus the cursed cup. The most bitter final in history."

After Italy won the FIFA World Cup in 2006, the Gazzetta pages were soon filled with details of the Calciopoli scandal ©Getty Images
After Italy won the FIFA World Cup in 2006, the Gazzetta pages were soon filled with details of the Calciopoli scandal ©Getty Images

Though hooliganism continued to be a problem for much of the decade, Italian football was illuminated by the late Diego Maradona who became a folk hero at Napoli. "Maradonissimo" was how Gazzetta reported a hat-trick by a man who inspired a first Scudetto (Italian championship) for Napoli and the UEFA Cup.

At Maradona’s passing last year, the paper said, "Football cries more than anyone".

In 1988 the paper had marked the death of Enzo Ferrari with an eight-page tribute and there was a similar recognition of Gianni Agnelli, the father figure of Juventus, in 2003.

In 2005 the front page said farewell to a man who had once been a goalkeeper and "a keen swimmer and cyclist, for whom practicing sport was to give equilibrium to the spirit." It was of course Pope John Paul II. Sport in Italy came to a standstill to give him a last salute.

Colour had made its mark in the centenary year of the paper and in 2000 came a front page unthinkable when the first issue hit the stands. It wasn’t so much the headline, "Oro, Oro, Oro" (gold gold, gold), but the fact that two of the three were women - fencer Valentina Vezzali and track cyclist Antonella Bellutti. Bronze medal-winning fencer Giovanna Trillini and judoka Emanuela Pierantozzi also made the front page.

Italy was centre stage for the Winter Olympics in 2006 and this time Gazzetta produced a daily commemorative newspaper.

When in 2019, Milan and Cortina celebrated the award of the 2026 Winter Olympics, the front page depicted the celebrations of the bid team at the instant the result was revealed, with the headline "Si Gioachiamo" (let’s play) in the national colours of red, white and green.

Preparations will surely command many more pages in the next five years.