With 30 seconds to go I got up and went to the bathroom. I still couldn’t make sense of how such a match was going to extratime. The Brits hardly played, only defended. They were on their way to reverse the long standing tradition that wants the Italians the conservative and sneaky team that hardly ever plays to win but that in the end always does. Twists and turns of history sometimes punish the team with the very weapon that had granted them many victories in the past, so I struggled to leave no room in my heart for thoughts of defeat. Their goal seemed just cursed. Two posts hit and countless saves translated into an equal number of imprecations on my side. “You gotta relax man”, friends say. Not even worth answering, how could you understand what soccer means to an Italian? Like the Red Sox for Everett or the Montreal Canadiens for Mordecai Richler, the national soccer team in embodied in every italian’s soul. Even my mum, and many other italian mums all around the peninsula, watch the matches of the national team. Really, how could you understand?
Nor understand could I what I heard in the bathroom. “Of course I support England, munu [white man], go England”. Gulp of beer, poorly concealed burp. “But why?”, I asked. “The Italians are racist, they hate the black men, go England”. I thought I wanted to dig into the history of colonialism and give this kid a history refresher but then I thought it would be better to explain that the Italians are the only team on the pitch with a black man in the squad; as he took another gulp from his beer, I chose to give up. “But the Germans are more racist than the Italians!” he added, well…couldn’t really argue around that, could I?
But the karma was fully against me. The whole courtyard of the Lira Hotel was filled with locals cheering for England, a mystery that remains alive to this day. I slided slowly to the back of the yard, accompanied by my Canadian pal. Despite not understanding or suffering as much as I did, he deserves much credit for having chosen to stay. I made him my trusted ally and I shared my insights on the game like I did every match with my mum back home. Off-side is always the most puzzling of rules but he now understands it much better than my mum ever did and probably will. But I guess she just wants a rolling excuse to watch the games with her son. After all, if she truly understood everything, it would be only half the fun.
As the extra time progressed, the siege went on uninterrupted. The Italians attack, the Brit defend and wait for penalties. A cigarette for the last five minutes burned away along with the few energies left in the players. When the referee blew the whistle for full time, I knew that then it wasn’t down to who was the best team anymore. Penalties are a lottery, luck and stress management only. Pushed to the very back of the yard, I could only grasp a glimpse of the screen. Italy shoots first, scores. England does too. Italy shoots the second and misses but England doesn’t. Now momentum is with the Brits and I am now happy to have maintained a certain calm throughout the match. They don’t know that I am Italian and this is good if things turn nasty. Soccer fans have the bad habit of pushing the knife into the cut if your team loses; I was glad that I could avoid that insults added to injuries if we were to lose. But then Andrea approached the penalty spot and momentum was reversed in a second. He simply switched on the light.
Came close to the spot, run forward fast and determined, like he was to send a rocket in the sky, and just before hitting the ball he slowed down and sent the sphere towards the goal with a gentle lob. The British keeper, like all of us, was tripped up by the fint. He dived to his right and could only observe the ball rolling into the goal. You must be insane to shoot a penalty like this, yet Andrea wasn’t the first. Like Francesco eight years before in a match of equal importance, Andrea turned the tables. A penalty like that boost the confidence of the team mates and scares the opponents. It was a shot that screamed loud and clear that it was Italy to play in the semifinal. The third Brit penalty taker approached the spot. He runs, shoots and misses. Now it’s 2-2, it’s even. Italy goes for the fourth, and scores. England goes for the fourth and misses again. I kept silence at that moment, only muttering to myself that if we scored the next one we would win. Italy goes, shoots and scores. We’re through, justice delivered to the soccer pitch. I explode my joy, there’ll be yet another match to wait for, endure and hopefully enjoy. This time it’ll be the Germans, for a match that is a classic of European soccer, a clash of the titans dripping with history and memories; good memories. As the Germans preach confidence and strength in all the newspapers, the Italians play the underdog and indicate the Germans as favorites. Sipping my morning coffee in this interlude filled with hopes and fears, I recall a phrase of one of Italy’s most loved soccer managers: “Germans love Italians but do not respect them. Italians don’t like Germans but respect them”. It wouldn’t be the first time that they fall victim of their own confidence, it will all depend on the determination of the Italians to prove them wrong. Once again.