Then, in the 26th minute, the world came to an end.
Off a corner kick, Nigeria's Emmanuel Amunike sharply angled a shot off his heel past the Italian goalie for a score. In Legends, silverware dropped onto the tables in unison. The room, so full of life and wit and shouting just a moment earlier, fell silent. Suddenly, you could hear the zippers in the men's room.

"Stronzo," someone said quietly.
For the next hour, you would have thought the Pope died. Armando Sarlo, a gentleman who patiently explained the higher theories of il calcio to a visitor throughout the afternoon, visibly darkened in mood. Heads shook sadly. Mr. Aiello, the stoic of the group, never moved a muscle, but something tragic crept into his eyes. Now, as the little men scampered across the TV screen, you could even hear the ESPN commentary.

"The Italians," one broadcasting sage explained, "see their soccer as grand opera. It must have passion. And it must have resolution. A one-nil loss to Nigeria would not be resolution."

Just so. This was now the combined cast of Aida and Pagliacci sitting in Legends with half-empty beer glasses in front of them. "If Italy loses today," Benito Sarlo had explained earlier, "there will be bickering among family members and friends back home. Everyone will be in a terrible mood. People will not even eat."

That seemed impossible. Still, they weren't eating now, in America. Not only that, but as this particular opera stretched onward through halftime with no more scoring and no resolution, it seemed that it would end with the principals, bereft of any reason to live, falling upon their swords while the music rose and the stage faded to black.

But Armando Sarlo wasn't draped in the Italian flag for nothing.
As you may know, the Italy-Nigeria game had a dramatist (or at least a rewrite man) hiding in the wings. When, in the 76th minute, Gianfranco Zola was red-carded (outta here!) for a foul absolutely no one saw, the Italian fortunes hit rock bottom. For the remaining fourteen or so minutes, the Azzurri would have to play ten men against Nigeria's eleven, trailing 1-zip, er, nil.

"We did it before," Armando muttered darkly. "We can do it again." Indeed, Italy had earlier in the tournament beaten Norway with a short-handed goal--the only one of the game.

And that is how it happened. Again. As the clock wound down inside the last two minutes, Italy was one goal down to Nigeria, one man short and hadn't threatened to score since the Punic Wars. Then, like a bolt from heaven, the star of the Italian side, Roberto Baggio, zipped a shot inside the left post. It hit the back of the net in what seemed like slow motion.

Personally, I have never been hugged harder or kissed more fervently on both cheeks by man or woman. The huge form suddenly in my arms was, of course, Armando Sarlo, delirious with joy.

"Bello! Bello! Bello!...Yes!" he shouted. Everyone in the room knew Italy would now score the winning goal in overtime, and it did. Baggio again. Penalty kick. But when I looked around, Benito Sarlo was not in the room. Back in the kitchen, he explained later. He had been too scared to watch. "Too antsy," he said. "It's hard for anyone to understand how much this means to us."

Well, kind of. "That goal," another of the TV fans, Turin native Aldo Lombardo, said bluntly, "saved a riot in Italy." Lombardo, with his tree-trunk arms and broad, no-nonsense face, looked like he knew about such things. Then he added ominously: "It also saved a riot right here."

Way to go, Roberto Baggio. Grazie from your American friends.
When the Sambuca glasses had been cleared and the Italian fans had left, Benito Sarlo called his wife, who was visiting family in Calabria, to see how the party was going. "Oh, yes," he reported. "They are waving the flags. And drinking in the streets."

And shouting happy oaths. Because stronzo had, in the flick of an eyelash, turned to gold. "Good thing, too," said John Kaskela, the bartender at Legends, who was now wiping down the mahogany. "If they lost, we would have had to put up a sign: `Closed until further notice. Acute melancholia.'"

Instead, Armando's voice was still ringing in the ears. "Bello! Bello! Bello!...Yes!"

That is the sound of passion. And resolution.

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