Monday, August 7, 2006

This one's for me!

Wow, what a month it has been. Four weeks ago we were basking in the euphoria of Italy's fourth World Cup championship. The night before the game I started this blog on a whim. Fifty posts and over 200 hits later we are still here. If I had more time I could have posted 20 more. Zidane, Materazzi, Lippi, Donadoni, Calciopoli and on and on. Things have finally slowed down somewhat but there is always something new every day.

On the personal side, this World Cup was especially sweet. On the selfish side, I say this one is for me. You may ask, what makes me so special? Well, here is my story.

As a young boy in the 1970's, I visited my dad's hometown in Italy twice with my parents. However, it was summertime and other than playing in the alley or on the beach there weren't any games to watch on TV.

My dad used to tell me stories about playing soccer in the service and how he "guarded the door" but I had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually I figured out that the portiere was actually the goalie. So the game was a part of family folklore even though I had minimal personal experience. Remember these were the days before soccer moms and minivans.

So my first real exposure to European soccer was a PBS show called "Soccer Made in Germany" which was on in the late 1970's. The show detailed the games in the Bundesliga and occasionally some international matches as well. It was narrated by Toby Charles and his cadence and exaggerated British pronunciation of the German names and teams was so unique and memorable that I can recite them to this day. Player names like "Ruminegga"(Karl-Heinz Rummenigge), "Schumaka" (Harald Schumacher)and "Klaus Fisha" (Klaus Fisher) were so poetic. Teams names like Borussia Munchengladbach and Bayern Munich just rolled off the tongue. I became hooked on the game.

The show also allowed me to converse with my soccer playing friends Dave, Steve and Frank along with Paul F. and learn the finer points of the game. When we were seniors in high school Dave was co-captain of our high school team. That was a dream season which ended in a heart-breaking defeat in the Ohio state final game. Incidently our team wore the identical adidas uniform that the West German team did so we've always had a soft spot for the Germans even though we are Italian.

So we move to the 1982 World Cup. I don't recall too many games being on TV since ESPN was just getting started that year but I do remember the building anticipation as Italy defeated Argentina then Brazil in the second round. Paolo Rossi was a "goal hound" as Dave liked to say and was phenomenal that year.

So Italy defeats Poland in the semifinals while West Germany beat France on penalty kicks, 5-4, in one of the best games I have ever seen. Then the gods must have been against me because I had to work on Sunday the day of the Italy v. West Germany final. And there was no way out of it. Every other Italian I knew was watching that game somewhere but me. Italy won but somehow it was a little hollow for me.

I have very few memories of the 1986 World Cup. I had just graduated from college, started a new job and was busy chasing the girl I would marry the next year. I think I saw Maradona's Hand of God goal but that was probably just a highlight later. Obviously the Italians didn't do much that year.

In 1990, Italy hosted the World Cup and I once again got bit by the bug. Who was this Schillachi guy? And I liked this Baggio guy with the mullet. Others were Zenga, Maldini, Baresi and Bergomi just to name a few. They were the best team and they were destined to win it all that year. But they ran into a guy named Goycochea and they lost on penalty kicks to Argentina to the semifinals.

They would go on to win the third place game but I was heartbroken. How could you go "undefeated" yet still not win it all. It was then that I decided that I hated penalty kicks. That World Cup stuck with me more than any other one until this year. The players were mostly my age and somehow I felt a real connection with that group and unfulfilled by their failure.

That World Cup spawned an idea though. Dave and I heard that the US would host the next World Cup in 1994. I was able to procure two tickets to the opening match in New Jersey to watch Italy play Ireland. It was a dream come true. And again there was no way they were going to lose.

Incidentally my uncle came from Italy in June of 1994 to visit for the first time ever. He was afraid of flying but came with a friend and got discounted tickets as part of a travel package for the games in the US. Watching highlights with him was a great memory that I will always have of him.

As the game got closer the buildup was intense. But the whole experience was a complete downer, almost surreal, starting with the drive to Joisey. The game was on Saturday and we decided to leave on Thursday evening so we could split up the 10 hour drive. Just outside of Pittsburgh we encountered a monsoon rainstorm and got a room for the night.

The next day we were stuck in a traffic jam on the Pennsylvania Turnpike because the US Open golf tournament was being held at Oakmont and it was to be Arnold Palmer's last Open. It was at that point that we bitched each other out for not flying!

So we negotiated that mess and now we begin to hear radio reports that OJ Simpson was going to turn himself in to authorities for the murder of his wife Nichole and her friend Ron Goldman the weekend before. As we get closer to New Jersey the reports change saying that he has not showed up for the police and is now a fugitive. This story was just getting started.

Later while scanning the paper I mention to Dave that it would be neat see a baseball game that night if we could. Sure enough the Yankees were in town and we had time to get to our hotel and drive to the Bronx.

Our hotel was near the airport (how ironic) in Newark just a few miles from the Meadowlands. I was happy that we were that close but the barbed wire around the parking lot fence wasn't very reassuring. We dropped our stuff and caught a glimpse of the opening match between Germany and Bolivia.

We were near the Statue of Liberty as we negotiated the drive across to New York City. We "surfaced" from one of the tunnels, and were immediately met by a window cleaner and a guy selling candy bars at the light.

Once again, we were the victim of poor timing. As we tried to get out of the area near Wall Street, we noticed all of the paper and trash on the streets. The city had just given the NY Rangers a ticker-tape parade for winning the Stanley Cup in hockey. More traffic and more delays as it was roughly 5:30 pm on a Friday in NYC.

We made it to the Bronx at 7:00 and were able to get third row tickets near first base for about $20 bucks each. This was probably the high point our trip. It was neat to walk around in the stadium but I don't remember much about the game.

Part of the reason for the trip was to spend time soaking up our Italian roots by finding some fellow Italiani to party with. We were too stupid to go to Little Italy though. Instead we went to the Meadowlands expecting to see hundreds of fans tailgating or celebrating the night before. As we approached we saw lights and just knew it was going to be good. But it was some type of local festival or carnival and not much else.

So as we retreated back to our hotel, we heard that OJ was now on the run and had threatened to kill himself. This was the beginning of the infamous white Bronco chase. We got some pizza and took in the drama until after midnight.

We arrived several hours before the game just to revel in our italian-ness. We met a few fans but it was so hot that day that many stayed away until nearly kick-off. Since it was the first game at that site, many of the booths and vendors were not even set up. A near riot almost ensued while we were in the beverage tent because they were unable to keep the coolers stocked. The Irish fans were downright nasty to some of the workers. For a little while there was the kind of pushing and shoving that only you see in Third World countries when they are passing out food rations. Thankfully things calmed down when more cases of water and Powerade arrived.

We had good seats which were in the shade so that was a benefit. The Italians had a couple of chances early but for some reason Beppe Signori was not in the game and Roberto Baggio was unable to do it all by himself. It was at that point I decided that I did not like Arrigo Sacchi. Somehow the Irish scored in the first half and Italy struggled but could not even things up.

More disappointment as we tried to figure out what just happened. No partying in the streets on that night. Only crying in our beer at the hotel.

There was one more glitch in our trip which was the perfect ending to our journey. As we approached the Pennsylvania border we were pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper that clocked me going 74 and a 55 zone. But seriously, it is 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning and there is no one else around. A few hours later as we approached the Ohio border knowing we still had 4 hours to go we bitched each other out again for not flying! Between the rental car, the gas and my ticket, I think flying would have made it a break even.

Somehow the Azzurri were able to regroup and make it to the finals against Brazil. Once again they were doomed by their inability to make or stop penalty kicks. I always felt bad for Roberto Baggio because he never seemed comfortable in the lead role that year. He was also blamed for missing the PK that would have kept them in it but that seemed unfair. His play earlier in the tourney was the only reason why they made it that far.

So after two disappointing finishes, I had no idea what to expect in 1998. I think by then most of the games were on TV so that was a good thing. I was surprised that the French team was that good. It had been many years since they put up such a formidable group.

It seemed inevitable that they would lose yet again on penalty kicks this time to the host French team. France would go on to win the tournament which really stuck in my throat knowing we should be playing in the finals.

Watching Christian Vieri carry the team was amazing too. He had the attitude of a bulldog and that was something that seemed rare on an Italian team. Unfortunately Alessandro DelPiero was just another in a long line of guys like Gianluca Vialli and Gianluigi Lentini that disappointed on the big stage or were nonfactors after dominating in the Serie A.

I was thrilled when I heard the Azzurri legend Dino Zoff would be the coach for the 2000 Euro Championship. I liked his style of pressing up front more on offense and not relying on the defense all the time. As they moved through the ranks, I was convinced they would win it all this time even though it was not the World Cup.

But again I would be crushed. They somehow gave up the tying goal at the end of four minutes of extra time. Four #%&@ minutes! How is that possible? I am usually not a conspiracy theorist but for a long time after that I thought the game was fixed.

By 2002, I was leery of investing too much into the team. It just seemed to drain me when it was over. But faithfully I watched the games when I could be began to believe that they might do something worthwhile. The time change was difficult to get used to. The results were usually known early in the morning so it was hard to avoid the results all day.

This team seemed to lack the charisma and desire that some of the others have shown in the past. Throw in some shotty calls by the referees and our boys were ousted by SouthKorea in the Round of 16. Poor Dave. He had shelled out some pretty good money to buy the complete package of games just so we could watch them all. Thankfully he enjoys watching all of the games not just Italy's or it would have been about $20 per game!

And Euro 2004. Were they even there?

Enter the games of 2006. I was surprised that Francesco Totti was able to return after his nasty accident in the spring. But would this be more of the same from Del Piero and company or something special? Their opening victory over Ghana set the tone for the entire tournament. Score early and often if possible.

As the tourney moved along it was obvious that their defense was solid as always but the offense was their secret weapon. Ten different players would score for the Azzurri and what a welcome change that was. Gone were the days of grinding it out on defense and countering for a quick score. I alsways felt that there was too much Italian talent in the Serie A for them to have difficulty scoring goals like in the past.

During the final game against France I sat in the basement by myself certain they would win but expecting the usual sour defeat as in the past. The rest of the family stayed upstairs until it was over.

When Fabio Grosso snapped the back of the net with his penalty kick it took a couple of seconds for it to register that the game was over. I have never felt such a feeling of absolute joy and euphoria. It was finally over after nearly 25 years of striving for the next one. This was one that I could call my own.

All of the missed penalty kicks... working during the game in 1982... The Euro 2000 fiasco...the referees in 2002... Goycochea... Romario... Zidane.... and the suffering and disappointment were all a thing of the past. Somehow I feel like I've earned this one along with millions of other Italians around the world. I was especially happy that my relatives in Italy got to enjoy this and that my dad got to see it as well.

So thanks to you guys. Thank you Marcelo Lippi. Thank you for all of the wonderful memories and feelings from this competition.

Thanks also to anyone that frequents this place.


At 8/09/2006 6:09 AM, Blogger Isis said...

Beautiful story--I loved reading the whole background. I especially enjoyed the image of you watching this year's final game while the rest of the family stayed away--funny. I am more of a newcomer to this than you, though I remember watching the 2002 games at 5 in the morning or whenever they came on. Hope you keep this blog up--I have come to rely on it!!!

At 8/09/2006 3:23 PM, Blogger BigT said...

I am glad you enjoyed it. It took me longer than I expected but it was fun putting all of these thoughts into words.

You must have the bug too if you are getting up at 5am to watch games!

I plan on being here for awhile. It's nice to know that these efforts are importnat to someone out there in cyberspace...


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