Why Italy?

On Sunday, after bearing the brunt of an excited explanation of Italy’s glorious victory over England via penalties, including a stunning Panenka from Pirlo, my own wife turned around and asked me why I was rooting for the Azzurri.

This was weird, because it’s her fault.

(Hey, this is a blog post about soccer. If you’re not interested, feel free to stop reading here.)

She’s half Italian, and although her grandfather on the other side of her family is a pretty staunch supporter of the Spanish national team, she and her brothers seem to have taken up the flag of the Italian team. I have a feeling this has a lot to do with what she refers to as “Italia ’90,” which must have been a big deal in her house, and importantly, in her grandmother’s house, where there’s always a satellite cable thingie of some sort tuned to a variety of RAI channels.

I have watched more RAI in Italy, Venezuela, and New Mexico than most non-Italians have watched in their lives, Vinny Vedecci (which is stunningly accurate) not withstanding.

So maybe that’s where it started for her.

For me, it was the 2002 World Cup. We lived in New Mexico at the time, and I was waking up well before the crack of dawn to watch the U.S. Men’s National Team play, for no discernible reason other than I was remarkably unemployed at the time, and could do so. Then, it was Italy’s turn — probably the fateful round of 16 match against South Korea, and we drove over to a friend’s house to watch the game together. I think I might have been more worked up in anticipation than her and her brother, as illustrated by long forgotten history of that early morning which I won’t relive here. Anyway, I don’t remember much, except my future wife jumping up and down in joy and agony, and cursing out Totti for the dive (watching it 10 years later, it does look more like a foul than a dive) that got him thrown out of the match.

That must have been where it started for me.

Four years later, married and traveling with her family in Italy, I found myself quietly rooting for Brian “Wow That’s A Ton of Blood” McBride and the American team against Italy in their group stage tie, while sitting in a quiet restaurant in a sort of sleepy pilgrimage town in southern Italy. The day of their round of 16 win against Australia, I was driving our family around Catania in Sicily, somewhat lost on the way out of town, listening to the game on the radio (in Italian, naturally), when Totti hit his penalty in injury time. I remember seeing a kid standing on the balcony of his second floor apartment in the sun, waving an Italian flag at least as tall as he was. (Memory may have somewhat augmented this visual.) By the time the semifinals rolled around, we were back home in Santa Cruz, and saw the incredible 2-0 win over Germany from inside a crowded bar downtown, then watched the final with a room full of trendy Americans rooting for France (as I might have been categorized back in 1998), in the back of the Irish-ish pub where I had bartended for a couple years.

I may have been a little vocal when Zidane was sent off. Something I seem to recall about yelling “AU REVOIR!” while holding up my imaginary red card… Anyway, some of these details are better lost to memory.

2010? I don’t seem to remember an Italian team playing in the World Cup in… Oh, right. There was that. Even I, an American rooting for what amounts to my soccer-team-in-law, felt shame when the Azzurri were unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament early. They showed no sign of life, or creativity, and while it’s easy to blame the coach, player selection, morale, etc., they just didn’t look like they wanted to be there. It was hard to watch.

So not counting the recent friendly where I rooted for my first team, the red, white, and blue, against an underpowered Azzurri that was short Cassano, Balotelli, Osvaldo, or any other substantial offensive threat, that brings us to the current tournament, where I’ve cheered a 1-1 tie with Spain, the goalless 120 minutes vs. England ending in penalties, and now I’m looking forward to a semifinal against Germany, who are sure to be favored, but don’t count out the ridiculously tenacious Italians. They’re stubbornly playing for pride, with a great old goalie, at least two certifiable madmen up top, and Pirlo the artist in the middle of the field. And they like being the underdog.

And so do I.



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