ALIVE AND KICKING

When Brazil booted the U.S. soccer team out of the World Cup on the Fourth of July, you could feel the blow to our national psyche for almost five minutes.

"Nice try," America murmured in one voice, then got right back to flipping burgers on the grill, choosing up sides for holiday softball games and speculating on the O.J. Simpson case. Despite a 1-0 loss, the republic would survive another four years. There was no grief-stricken rush on the emergency rooms and the mental wards. No one tried to poison the U.S. goalie. There was no sweat.

Next day, though, people who really give a damn about soccer embraced their trauma with new vigor.

If you want to see what the World Cup means to the world, watch a game in the company of Italians--a game in which Italians are playing. Neither the boozy bedlam of the South Stands at Mile High Stadium nor the eruption of an entire World Series crowd when the hometown slugger belts the game winner in the bottom of the eleventh has anything on a dozen or so knowledgeable Italian soccer fans glued to the tube when their beloved Azzurri take the field. It is beautiful, and it is scary.

Last Tuesday's game, a thrilling second-rounder pitting Italy against Nigeria, was played in Foxboro, Massachusetts, 2,000 miles from here. But the cries of exultation, vain hope and loathing pouring out of Legends, the sports bar in Cherry Creek, could probably be heard in, say, Chicago. If you don't know what stronzo! means, don't ask Father Catanzariti to translate unless you're in the mood to say ten Hail Marys. Suffice it to say that stronzo! quickly became the prevalent Italian oath through the bulk of the Italy-Nigeria game and that for most of the way the calzones sat half-eaten on the plates and the tension remained thicker than bolognese sauce.

This was the World Cup--Il Campionato Mondiale--after all, and for almost two hours it looked as though the upstarts from Nigeria were about to inflict another major tragedy on Italia, whose lifeblood is soccer and whose collapses are legion. Apparently, no one has assassinated an Italian player after a World Cup loss, as happened last week in Colombia. But when the Azzurri (the Blues, so named for their blue jerseys) were upset by lowly North Korea in 1966, Italian fans greeted them at the airport with a hail of rotten fruit. And the country has been known to go into deep mourning if its side gets eliminated before the third round.

Last Tuesday, Benito and Armando Sarlo, the Naples-born brothers who own Armando's Pizzeria (which is conveniently attached to Legends) greeted their coterie of soccer friends with hugs and smiles. The Nigerians would be a test, some allowed--an undisciplined, yet swift and explosive team--so the Italian pregame rituals were salted with apprehension. Carmelo Aiello, a small, quiet man born and raised in Rome, sat stock-still at a corner table, staring at the TV screen. Benito Sarlo, the elder brother and a veteran of nine years of semipro Neapolitan soccer, paced nervously.

"The 1982 team [which won the third of Italy's three World Cups] had much more speed," he explained. "This team plays more like Brazil, with many short kicks and lots of finesse. It also tends to play at the same level as its competition, which worries me. By the way, we serve a round of Sambucas for every Italian goal."

Just then his brother Armando burst through the front door. A bearish fellow, he wore a white straw hat splashed in red, white and green and an expression of wild anticipation. Armando was also draped, literally, in the Italian flag. It streamed capelike from his shoulders, and when he finally settled into a chair, the billowing tri-color settled with him, giving off an audible, air-under-nylon sigh.

Italian food came out from the kitchen. Drinks arrived. The game started.
Those of us who misunderstand the fine points of what Italians call calcio, Spaniards call futbol and Joe Sixpack calls boring are always a little bit in the dark at this point. Just what constitutes offsides? Why, after hitting the deck with the approximate impact of a feather drifting to earth, do most soccer players require the services of three or four stretcher-bearers to reach the sideline? And through what miracle of the futbol gods do the same fallen warriors suddenly spring to their feet eleven seconds later, ready to rewrite Pele's records? If the ref shows you two yellow cards in the game, you're gone. Back to the pines. But what if he shows you a '51 Mickey Mantle? Are you supposed to give him ten grand for it?

These things aside, there was no misunderstanding the feelings of the Sarlo brothers and their friends last Tuesday afternoon. "Bello! Bello!" roared Armando each time the Italian defenders put a Nigerian attack asunder. "Maronn'!" Benito shouted whenever Dino Baggio or little Giuseppe Signori had a shot on goal kicked away. "Forza Italia!" the fans yelled. This famous phrase carries such weight in the old country that it recently got a man elected president. You can look it up.

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