Usually it goes like this: Italy scores a nice goal, my friends are all jumping on the sofa, cheering, chanting, backslapping, until someone spots me. Quiet, completely unemotional, I look like an international observer whom strict rules of engagement deny any form of involvement.
“That was a nice one”, I say then, trying to simulate at least a shred of concern. But the tone isn’t right: more neutral than an unsentimental Swiss guy, I draw everybody’s attention, and start to be frowned upon.
“No, hell, that was really good”, I say, louder, hoping to dismiss the usual suspicion: lack of patriotic love, snobbishness, high treason. But it’s clear that I'm cheating, and in five seconds I find myself alone, watching the game in an adjacent room, like a leper.
Truth is: I supported Italy just once.
And, unfortunately, that time Italy won.
It was the summer of 1982. My first World Cup as a supporter. I could have already started in 1978, but at the time my parents were freshly divorced: thus, since my father wasn’t home, neither was football.
Besides, I found outlater, my dad boycotted the 1978 WorldCup. Against the Argentinian dictatorship, he immolated himself by turning off the TV.
Instead, I watched the Spanish World Cup with him, in the summer house of my grandpa.
I was nine, my brother was seven. The beach was flooded with kids in Bruno Conti’s shirt, or Paolo Rossi’s, or Tardelli’s, and well, from our point of view, supporting Italy sounded like something that made a lot of sense.
From our father’s point of view, well, it didn’t.
In love with attractive football, professor of Latin Americancontemporary history, half Brazilian because he grew up between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, my father had all that was required to spoil our debut in international cheering.
First, he frustrated us with an exhaustive political explanation of our nationalist desire: owning a three-coloured Italian flag, like all the other boys, was off the table. Then, before the first match, he explained his idea of football: in sport, as in any other field, may the best side win. And with “the best” he meant: Brazil.
The qualifying round was a nightmare: my brother and I were bored to death by the three Italian draws against Poland, Peruand Cameroon. At the end of every game, with his truly magistral ability to synthesize, my father would turn off the TV, reckoning,“what a shitty team”.
Brazil, instead: 2-1 against the Soviet Union, 4-1 against Scotland, 4-0 against New Zealand. Backheels, bicycle kicks, Eder and Zico scoring free kicks from every remote corner of the pitch. “The best football ever”, my father would say. Implying,of course: “Not like the shitty Italian team”. My brother and I cheered at every Brazilian goal with added emphasis: in the end, that didn’t cost us anything, and dad seemed happy.
And then we were starting to adjust. On the beach we didn’t want to be Zoff or Antognoni anymore. In the matches inthe sand against the kids of our age, we now impersonated Zico, Falcao, Socrates.
“The best team ever”, we’d tell the other kids, stopping the ball on the imaginary goal line between two flip flops. And then we’d score with a backheel. Around mid-morning we'd already lost half of our friends, and half of our shins.
In the meantime, shamefully qualified only owing to the goal difference, Italy ended up in an impossible group for the second round. Diego Armando Maradona’s Argentina and the miracle team, the unstoppable Brazil, looked totally out of reach for the Italian team, trapped in a nervous media blackout after the harsh critiques received by all the newspapers.
But, in spite of all expectations, Bearzot’s Eleven managed to walk away with a 2-1 victory against Argentina.
Hugging in the courtyard, far away from harsh looks and potential Decoubertinisms about the tough and unfair playing style of Claudio Gentile and associates, my brother and I established a pact: from that same afternoonon, on the beach we'd be Conti and Tardelli again.
In a few hours we made friends again with the other Italian boys, defeating some petulant French children who, taking advantage of the lack of crossbars, insisted on calling off every second goal.
On the fourth of July Italy faced Brazil with only one favourable outcome: victory. A draw would have taken Zico and friends to the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, my brother and I faced our father with a certain cowardice: officially converted to cheering on the best team in the world, from the start of the match we simulated a deep delight for the magic play of Cerezo and the other South American players.
Six minutes after the starting whistle, Paolo Rossi, who up to that moment in the World Cup hadn’t touched a ball decently, scored with a header.
While my brother and I, paralyzed in bed, were trying to communicate our common joy with quick secret looks, my father called some divinity’s name in vain, exhaled a “what fucking luck”, and started cheering for Brazil again, jumping up in ecstasy when Socrates scored the equalizer.
Rossi’s second goal took us by surprise. I was about to get caught, waving my fist behind the edge of the bed. Luckily, my father was too busy in cursing Telé Santana and “that jerk” of Valdir Peres, the truly lousy goalkeeper of the Seleçao.
During the second half, the cursing grew heavier and heavier, turning into some sort of alternative audio to the official commentary by Nando Martellini. Every time a Brazilian player touched the ball, my father would explain the difference between real football and that horrible, shitty counterattack style used by the “Azzurri”. At every foul he'd open his arms and ask the TV: “What the fuck is that?”
So, when twenty minutes before the final whistle Falcao dribbled past a couple of defenders and beat Zoff with a wonderful long shot, dad burst into a shout of liberation. He traversed the whole room with his fists in the air, like he was the one who’d scored the goal, and suddenly he couldn’t find Zico nearby to hug and cheer.
Lacking Zicos, he hugged us.
From the top of my nine years and my inborn propensity to lie I managed to fake a decent jubilation. My brother, poor lad, didn’t. So, for about five minutes, he got himself the umpteenth lesson about the futebol bailado and the alegria of Brazilian football.
Then, out of the blue, Paolo Rossi scored the third one.
My brother and I, shaking our heads in disbelief over the terrible incident that impacted the lives of all of us attractive-football-lovers, felt a compelling impulse to synchronized urination.
Locked in the toilet, shielded by the noise of flushing, we indulged in a rich scene of exultation, before recollecting ourselves and going back to the room.
In front of the TV my father was sweating and holding back tears. The last fifteen minutes of the game were a sad agony for him, in which he repeated depressing sentences like“it’s the end of football”, or “sooner or later, the Brazilians too will start to play like this shitty team”.
My brother and I nodded solemnly at his theories: “Brazil, losing these kinds of matches, will end up playing European style”. Which meant, in my father’s view: shitty. Defending and trying to score by counterattack. Battering and stealing.
With the final whistle dad turned off the TV and sat down. Only after a couple of minutes, caressing my head as he was trying to provide me with the necessary strength, he said: “Unfortunately, we will never see the wonderful Brazilian football style again”.
The telephone saved me from an answer. It was my mother. She spoke with my brother first. He said a couple of yesses, then a no, then passed me the receiver. On the other end my mother was asking: “Did you see the game? Are you happy?” With my father standing next to me, I took quite a long time before I answered. Then I said in one breath: “Unfortunately, we will never see the wonderful Brazilian football style again”.
Pretending a terrible discouragement, I handed the phone to my father. Then, with my brother, we left the house for the courtyard. There, out of our father’s reach, we jumped and hugged, rolling all over the floor. In the end, in one of the rare pronouncements of his rather silent childhood, my brother said, imitating my father: “What a shitty team!” We laughed for hours.
Some days later Italy won the World Cup, kicking the shit out of Germany. My mother, may she always be praised, came to pick us up in time to watch the final. Sheltered by an enabling environment, I cheered for the Azzurri like a madman, shouting along with the block of flats when Tardelli scored.
But then, I don’t know.
I never supported Italy anymore. I tried, but I really couldn’t.
The fact is that my father had it right: football became quite a shit. Brazil, who still lined up a very offensive team in 1986, ended up, in 1994, winning a World Cup final without scoring even once.
But it’s not about football. The truth is that, in a weird coincidence, in every field, in every human activity, the world in the mid eighties was divided into winners and losers. We letany other concerngo, we erased any other category. And sometimes I think that if a beautiful, wonderful team, joyful, entertaining, had beaten an “effective” team, this wouldn't have happened.
So, somewhere inside me, a firm belief has taken root: if Planet Earth is now reduced to shit, if the world sucks so badly, if politics, economics, human relationships are only governed by a winning/losing mechanism, it’s not just our government’s fault. It’s not because of power groups and multinational corporations.
If the world sucks, and if I think about that fourth of July in 1982, it's also my fault.
My fault, and that jerk Valdir Peres’s.
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