Why do Italian athletes wear blue?

Blue is nowhere on the Italian flag, yet it's all over every Italian sports team. So why does Italy wear blue?

Why do Italian athletes wear blue?
Italian softball player Erika Piancastelli at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP

As the delayed 2020 Olympics get underway in Tokyo, Italian supporters will be rooting for gli Azzurri – ‘the Blues’.

Blue – or to get more specific, azure – has been the colour of Italy’s national sports teams for close to 100 years, despite featuring nowhere on the country’s green-white-and-red flag.

Your more poetically inclined friends might try to convince you that the deep blue donned by Italian athletes serves to remind them of Italy’s enviable sea and sky. But the real explanation is historical, and somewhat more prosaic.

We need to go back in time to a different Italy – before World War Two, before Fascism and before Italy became a republic in 1946.

READ ALSO: ‘Il Canto degli Italiani’: What the Italian national anthem means – and how to sing it

Before Italians voted to get rid of the monarchy 75 years ago, the country was ruled by the House of Savoy, a royal dynasty that first grew to power in the western part of the Alps, in what we’d now call north-west Italy and south-east France.

The Savoys gradually expanded their realm until it extended over the entire Italian peninsula, cannily becoming figureheads in the drive to unify Italy into a single kingdom in 1861.

The newly born Kingdom of Italy featured the House of Savoy’s coat of arms, a white cross on a red background, over the national flag we know today. 

Image by Flanker via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5

But wait: notice the blue border around that cross?

That’s because blue was the third colour of the House of Savoy: being devoted Catholics, the dynasty invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary – traditionally depicted wearing deep blue – by adding the colour to its red-and-white banners.

The particular shade – defined as “a shade of saturated blue between peacock blue and periwinkle” – became known as azzurro Savoia, or ‘Savoy blue’.

READ ALSO: Italian word of the day: ‘Azzurro’

So a few decades later, when Italy began sending athletes to the newly revived Olympic Games and created the first national football team, and sports associations found themselves in need of national colours, the choices were green, red, white or blue. 

The one they went with, at least at first, was white. The first football team to represent Italy internationally, in 1910, played its earliest matches in a white kit topped off with a little tricolour ribbon. 

It wasn’t until 1911 that the team adopted its new official jersey: blue with a red-and-white Savoy cross over the heart. They first donned it for a match against Hungary on January 6th 1911 (and promptly lost 1-0).

Photo: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

White remained the football team’s back-up colour, as well as the colour worn by most Italian athletes at the 1912 Olympic Games. 

But with the establishment of the Italian National Olympic Committee in 1914, a drive began to get all athletes representing Italy in the same kit. By the time of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, light blue uniforms – still with the Savoy cross – had become more or less standard.

Here’s Italian hurdler Luigi Facelli in blue shaking hands with his rival, David Burghley of Britain in white. 

Photo: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The design underwent some modifications over the years. Benito Mussolini’s Fascists, predictably, made it uglier by adding their symbol, the Roman fasces or bundle of rods that represents strength in unity, next to the Savoy coat of arms.

At one point Mussolini even insisted that Italian competitors swap their blue jerseys for black ones; athletes alternated between black and blue jerseys at the infamous 1936 Olympics in Berlin, as well as other events of the late 1930s.

Italy’s football team at the 1938 World Cup in France. Photo: AFP

With World War Two and the defeat of the Fascists, Italy’s kit was subject to more changes.

The 1946 referendum that made Italy a republic meant that it could get rid of both the fasces and the Savoy cross from its uniforms.

Their spot over the heart were replaced by a tricolour flag that adorns most national sports kits to this day.

Italy’s Kiri Tontodonati and Aisha Rocek compete in the women’s pair heats in Tokyo. Photo: Luis ACOSTA / AFP

The shade of Italy’s blue has also varied, from sky blue to navy to something close to turquoise. (It helps that Italy has a surprisingly large number of words for blue: learn more here.)

White with blue accents remains the most common alternative kit, but Italian athletes have also been known to don black or red (no green, for reasons we can only assume are aesthetic).

Variations are especially common in certain events – notably cycling, motor racing, skiing, skating and other winter sports.

Italian speed skater Yvonne Daldossi at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photo by JUNG YEON-JE / AFP

At the Tokyo Games, Italian competitors are wearing mainly blue, with white and blue as a back-up. 

Meanwhile their ceremonial tracksuits – designed by who other than Giorgio Armani – are black with a circular tricolour on the front. The Azzurri put them on for the podium, so they’re the ones you really want to see.

Italy’s new gold medallist in taekwondo, Vito Dell’Aquila. (Photo: Javier SORIANO / AFP)

Member comments

  1. Maybe they didn’t choose green because that is the colour of the Irish team. Flag is almost the same too – green, white and gold not orange or the Italian red.

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REVEALED: The cities in Italy with the highest crime rates

From robbery and vehicle theft to cyber fraud and blackmail, where are you most likely to be a victim of crime in Italy? Here are the country’s latest crime figures.

REVEALED: The cities in Italy with the highest crime rates

While Italy is among the safest countries in the world – it ranked 32nd out of 163 in the latest Global Peace Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace – crime is a concern in many parts of the boot, especially in big cities. 

Milan is by far the Italian city with the highest crime rate, according to data from Italy’s Department of Public Security collated in a report by financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

Altogether, as many as 193,700 crimes were reported in the city in 2021 – that’s nearly 6,000 reported crimes for every 100,000 residents. 

But while Milan takes the unenviable title of Italy’s ‘crime capital’, things aren’t much better in other major cities as Turin (3rd overall), Bologna (4th), Rome (5th), Florence (7th) and Naples (10th) all figure in the top 10. 

Italy's crime map in 2021

Milan is Italy’s ‘crime capital’, followed by Rimini and Turin. Image: Il Sole 24 Ore

The top of the table is completed by smaller and, perhaps, slightly unassuming Italian cities, namely Rimini (2nd), Imperia (6th), Prato (8th) and Livorno (9th).

READ ALSO: What happens when a foreign national gets arrested in Italy?

That said, while the overall crime rate ranking shows us Italy’s crime hotspots, it doesn’t provide any insight into the types of offences committed, which is why it is worth looking into single-offence rankings. 

For instance, Milan, Rimini and Rome are the top Italian cities when it comes to theft-related offences, with all three locations registering well over 2,000 reported thefts per 100,000 residents in 2021. 

Crime card for Rome, Italy

Italy’s capital city, Rome, has the fifth-highest crime rate in the country. Image: Il Sole 24 Ore

But while these cities remain the country’s overall theft capitals, other Italian cities seem to have their own ‘theft specialisation’. 

For example, Ravenna ranks first for home burglaries, while Naples and Barletta are first for motorcycle and car thefts respectively. 

As for other types of offences, the northern city of Trieste is first for sexual violence (as many as 25 reported crimes per 100,000 residents) and attempted murder, whereas Gorizia is the worst Italian city when it comes to cyber fraud and online scams. 

Finally, Biella ranks first for blackmail and extortion, while La Spezia is Italy’s ‘drug-dealing capital’.

Trieste's crime card, Italy

Trieste is the worst Italian city in terms of sexual violence offences. Image: Il Sole 24 Ore

Il Sole 24 Ore’s report however shows that Italy registered far fewer crimes in 2021 than it did in 2019, especially in big cities.

Notably, in Florence and Venice the number of reported crimes was down by 24.6 and 17.8 percent respectively.

READ ALSO: Rome shooting: What was behind attack that killed friend of Italy’s PM?

It should be pointed out, however, how the presence of Covid-related social restrictions throughout the first half of 2021 likely contributed in some measure to the overall drop in reported crime. 

It’s also worth noting that, in spite of such measures, some smaller Italian provinces still experienced significantly negative trends, with Piacenza, Isernia and Rieti all registering higher crime rates compared to 2019.