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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.

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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