Almost eight years ago, in a soccer stadium in Berlin, a moment happened that Italians are still talking about. Fabio Grosso ended the country’s 25-year losing streak by scoring Italy’s golden goal during overtime penalty kicks in the 2006 World Cup final against France.
The crowd erupted. Grosso ran around the field like a maniac. The Azzurri players embraced each other like soldiers seeing their families for the first time after a long, bloody war. They cried. There were lots and lots of tears. They kissed. They hugged. They shouted and ran. They cried some more. They are Italians, after all.
Back in Italy, people flooded the streets. The Romans took to their monuments, proudly parading flags across ancient bridges and jumping into the Trevi fountain like each of them was the main character in a Fellini movie. The whole damn country went berserk.
Expat, bloodline and honorary Italians residing in towns, villages and cities all around the world also went nuts. We jumped and sang and cried and drank grappa and took to the streets. We were i campioni del mondo! World Champions!
For the next four years, we had the cup, and our cocky Italian pride was completely valid.
I lived in Italy in 2010. There were banners on bus stops, buildings and billboards with a photo of that cherished moment 4-years earlier. The headline said: “Ricordati 2006?” (remember 2006?). The Italian people, not satisfied to be last time’s champs, wanted it again. The entire country wanted South Africa in 2010 to be Italy’s championship double-header. We all had high hopes.
Even Shakira was excited!
Waka Waka was one of the official songs of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The song was everywhere pretty much all year. Watch this video because the song is awesome, and because the Waka Waka dance is so much fun. But really, watch because the video starts with Italy’s winning goal in the 2006 World Cup. See for yourself the drama, the excitement, the passion – the joy! (La Gioia!)
Now that you’re all happy from watching Waka Waka, we can discuss what happened next.
As you probably know, Italy choked in the 2010 World Cup like a novice speed eating meatballs.
They lost early and they lost to friggen Slovakia. No offence, Slovakia, but per la vergonga, Italia! (for shame, Italy)
I was teaching English at a summer camp in Tuscany when it happened. When the time ran out and Italy officially lost to Slovakia, the kids, so animated and jubilant while watching the game, turned into emotional messes.
They smacked their little hands to their faces to wipe off their painted face flags, they took off their jerseys and threw them on the floor. They shouted obscenities. I found one child wrapped in the flag, crying like someone had just killed her dog in front of her. They hugged each other. They sobbed. They yelled. They cried some more. They are Italians, after all.
One Italian newspaper, La Gazetta, said: “It was the darkest and most terrible day in the history of Italian football.”
The kids had every right to be upset. We all did.
I heard many complaints from Italians, long before the sad 2010 World Cup loss, about how their country is stuck in the past in too many ways. It’s a double-edged sword. Italy’s history is a huge part of its industry. Tourists flock to see the artistic masterpieces, to walk the ancient streets, and to experience “la dolce vita,” but the challenge for Italians has been honoring the past without getting stuck there.
Italians are wary of youth and change, hence the aging 2010 World Cup national soccer team. They had the big names, but those names no longer had the speed or endurance, and most importantly, the fiery passion, of the younger players that could have been chosen – and who might have taken the team much farther.
As much I enjoyed watching beautiful Fabio Cannavaro, the Azzurri’s captain, run around the field with Francesco Totti and the rest of them, it’s time for a lot of them to retire. Cannavaro agrees. After the loss, he called on Italian soccer to invest in the youth.
The 2014 team is poised and ready. Coach Cesare Prandelli is shaking things up by mixing old with new, in play strategy and team members, embracing the best of the Italian soccer style of the past with an eye toward the future.
But this post isn’t about Italy’s soccer politics, or their triumphant win in 2006, or their pathetic loss in 2010, or their chances in Brazil; it’s about the soccer, and more importantly, the fans.
Italy’s national identity is very much tied to a white and black spherical ball.
It’s a beautiful game, no? And cheap! Anyone with a working set of legs and a ball can play it.
When I lived in Rome, I’d hear little boys yelling at each other as they chased a soccer ball down the narrow cobblestoned streets. They would use old fountains as nets and apologize emphatically while running as their ball ricocheted off mopeds and knocked flowerpots off of windowsills.
The old men and women watching from benches would turn into fully invested fans and referees, shouting at the kids as though they were playing the most important game of their lives. Because that’s the way you should play every game.
I attended a Roma/Lazio soccer match while in Rome. It was terrifying and wonderful. I got a sense of what watching the gladiators in the Roman coliseum must have been like, mostly because the crowd was intense and a little insane. People threw smoke bombs onto the field before the game; they chanted long, elaborate songs that everyone knew the words to (except me); they waved their flags and banners, and they spewed venomous death threats at the rival fans. It was fun, long and intense, and we stood the entire time. By the end of the game, I was so exhausted, I felt like I had played it.
Rome is a city largely run by the Catholic clergy who reside within its borders, but I’d argue that more than Jesus and maybe even more than food, the real religion in Italy is soccer.
It gets them more impassioned, both joyfully and bitterly, than anything else.
Part World Cup champs, part sore losers. Part Da Vinci, part Berlusconi. The two faces of Italian soccer and its fans are the two faces of Italy.