So I went to Italy and all I brought back was the lousy World Cup Championship. For the Italians, at least.
Thoughts on and images of the beautiful madness after the jump.
My trip consisted of two experiences – first, the south. Polignano a Mare. A small, beautiful beach town south of Bari in the region of Puglia. Polignano has everything you want in a small seaside town: a centro antica, great gelato (the nocciola, buon gusto!!), a deep azure sea, cliff divers, grottos carved into the rocky underbelly of the city. And flags. Lots of them.
The best moment was seeing kids in the town square, early Saturday afternoon, acting out the fantasy of what might come later on Sunday. It was just like we used to do on the schoolyard, mimicking the swings of Yaz, Pudge, Jim Ed, or on the court doing our best Larry Bird. "He shoots, he scores!". You can almost hear the daydreams. Del Piero…Grosso…Cannavaro…
Then the second experience. A one hour flight to Milano and then a frantic, gametime 130kmh drive to our host’s favorite bar, the only place he will watch the game, such is his superstition. This we appreciate. Milano is the home of Internazionale and AC, two of the world’s most storied clubs. Inter is the chosen side of about two-thirds of my hosts, while an outlier uncle and his sons follow AC. This weekend, they are united in their allegiances, to country and country alone. Matteo, our host, screams for Alessandro Del Piero, and the whole bar begins to sing "Alessandro, Alessandro…Alessandro Del Piero!!!" (Del Piero, it should be noted, plays for Juventus, hated by both AC and Inter fans alike, a regional rival currently ensconced, like AC, in a matchfixing scandal of epic proportions that will ruin both clubs’ repuations for the near term). This is like Sox fans willingly singing for A-Rod, or Jeter, or Yankees fans swooning, nay, singing, for an appearance by Curt Schilling in a national match. Tonight, there is no club but Italia. It’s refreshingly sincere.
The game. Tense, exciting. Though I read in the American press the next day that what I saw as pressurized and almost unbearably thrilling was for the most part plodding, deliberate, and uninteresting, I see nothing like that. The second half arrives, 1-1 is the score. Italy just misses on a set piece. Buffon makes a miracle save on Zizou. And then Zizou headbutts Matterazi. A pause, some confusion, and then, Zidane, expulso! Zidane, expulso! Incomprehensible! My friends get physical. They charge the television, pointing fingers, giving the finger, screaming, jumping, taunting the shamed Frenchman.
Overtime. Ribery just misses. The Italians clamp down, Cannavaro, the genius defender, showing his skills at the peak of his game. Then a pause after no scoring, the lineup for the penalties. For this moment I was disallowed from taking any pictures – again with the superstitions. But after Grosso kicked that ball into the corner, everything erupted, and nobody cared what I did. Flares are set off, the bar spilled out onto the street. There were hugs, kisses, and of course, many tears. A release of energy like nothing I have ever seen after a sporting event. Boston may have been like this after 2004 but I wasn’t there, shut in my apartment with a 10 day old and a woozy wife. And when you realize that Boston was just one city, and not an entire country of sixty million, the scale of this World Cup victory is registered.
And this one was for everyone Italian, not just in Italy. For brothers. For sisters. For fathers and sons (particularly the ones I sat right next to, who were my hosts). For a country. It wasn’t my country, but for a brief moment it might have been, such were the common emotions of joy and catharsis, of yearned-for accomplishment achieved that I understood to be on display. I don’t imagine I will experience anything like this ever again. Congratulazioni, Italia.