Friends With No Benefits Tour to Umbria goes to the heart of rural and religious Italy

The Gang of Seven at Terre dei Nappi winery in Bevagna.  From left, going around the table, me, Pam Carpentier, Sabrina Crawford, Lisa Chambers, Errol Zahnow, Robert Della Vedova, Alessandro Castellani.

The Gang of Seven at Terre dei Nappi winery in Bevagna. From left, going around the table, me, Pam Carpentier, Sabrina Crawford, Lisa Chambers, Errol Zahnow, Robert Della Vedova, Alessandro Castellani.


SPELLO, Italy — If you ever look at the region of Umbria on a map, try to guess what makes it different than the other 19 regions in Italy. Go ahead. Stare. Analyze. Calculate. Scan the country from Sicily to the Italian Alps. Notice anything? If you guess right, you win an ounce of Umbria’s white truffles. (Don’t scoff. Recently the largest white truffle ever found, more than 4 pounds, has received offers of $1 million.) Give up?

Umbria is Italy’s only region that does not border a sea or another country.

No region in Italy is less influenced by outside sources. This is what I love about Umbria. In a country that gets nearly 50 million tourists a year, Umbria may be the most authentic region in Italy. Walled hill towns void of tourist buses. Remnants of the most beloved saint in Italian history. Ancient local delicacies ranging from piccione (pigeon) to cinghiale, the wild boar that has so overrun Umbria one might check you into your hotel room.

I recently made my second annual fall trip to Umbria, thanks to my partner in crime, sportswriter Alessandro Castellani, whose good friend, Umbrian innkeeper Leonardo De Mai, seemingly knows everyone in the region. Seven of us piled into cars and trains and headed north from Rome about two hours. Four men. Three women. Forties and 50s. No relationships.

I call it our Friends With No Benefits Tour.

The cast included:

* Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter whose deep love for A.S. Roma is only surpassed by his love for Italian culture.

* Robert Della Vedova, along with Alessandro the other one of my fellow Three Musketeers, an Australian-Italian who is up for anything Italian as long as there is a glass of Italian wine at the end of the day.

* Errol Zahnow, Robert’s friend visiting from Australia who dug deeper into Italian culture with every bite of Parmigiano Reggiano.

* Lisa Chambers, an Ivy Leaguer and fellow free-lance journalist still waiting for Internet in her new apartment from Rome’s “fine” public services. But then again, it’s only been two months.

* Sabrina Crawford, another American journalist who has moved to Rome to rediscover her Italian roots.

* Pam Carpentier, a Floridian and savvy traveler who’s spending all three months of her vacation in Rome.

* Mois, another ink-stained wretch who will never run out of things to write about in this incredible country.

The social dynamics of this kind of road trip are liberating. We all know each other well enough to enjoy each other’s company yet not so well that we publicly announce every little annoyance. Plus, there is no sexual tension. Our lover is Umbria.

Ubaldo Grazia, home of some of the most beautiful ceramics in the world.

Ubaldo Grazia, home of some of the most beautiful ceramics in the world.


We started our adventure in the town of Deruta. Deruta is to ceramics what Barolo is to wine, Venice is to gondolas, the Vatican is to Catholicism. It’s a town of 9,000 and every building along the main road appears to be a ceramics shop. The windows are filled with brightly painted pots, plates, vases, olive oil canisters, serving trays, wall hangings. I think I saw a kitchen sink made of ceramic, too.
Plates and vases are all elaborately  hand painted individually.

Plates and vases are all elaborately hand painted individually.


We stopped at Ubaldo Grazia, probably the highest-end shop in town and the most famous. It has pieces in Tiffany’s, Saks and many shops along New York’s Fifth Avenue. George Clooney, who has a villa on Lake Como, bought a 16-piece dinnerware set from Ubaldo. Francis Ford Coppola, a wine maker as well as a director, bought pieces decorated with grapes and vineyard leaves. Mel Gibson and Andy Garcia are regular customers. All four of The Beatles signed the guestbook, dated 1964.
The Beatles visited here in 1964.

The Beatles visited here in 1964.


The designs are spectacular. Colors of blue and yellow and red, as bright as fall leaves in the Umbrian countryside, explode over snow white pottery in flowing designs. Swirls and flowers and birds and dragons, each one is individually hand painted in a workshop you can visit during working hours. It wasn’t a ceramics shop. It was an art museum.
A seven-course serving tray.

A seven-course serving tray.

Matching plates.

Matching plates.


The style hasn’t changed much. The prices, however, sure have. I was in the market for an olive oil and vinegar canister set and the one I saw was a hefty 125 euros ($140). A dinner plate was 180 euros. If any one of us had bought so much as a table setting for two we’d wipe out our budget for October. Pam, however, is on vacation. When you’re on vacation and have a job, money isn’t an option when it comes to outfitting your home with dinnerware from Italy that dates back five centuries. She bought two dinner plates, two foundation plates and a serving bowl for a price I was afraid to look at for fear of terminal sticker shock.
Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco, left, can be seen all over Umbria.

Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco, left, can be seen all over Umbria.


Our next stop was the one place in Umbria on nearly every tourist’s bucket list. Travelers have gone to Assisi for, oh, nearly 900 years. Francis Bernardone, better known today as St. Francis of Assisi, remains the most beloved saint in the history of the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until I visited Assisi my first time in 2002 when I really understood his impact on the world. Born in Assisi as a spoiled kid to a wealthy merchant, he played the part of an entitled brat until he saw a holy vision in his 20s. He then stripped himself of all wealthy trappings and dedicated his life to helping the poor, much to his old man’s chagrin. Francis traveled around Umbria and beyond preaching Christ’s word, setting up monasteries and, allegedly, performing miracles such as curing the sick and talking with animals. Keep in mind, Italy in the early 13th century was a war-torn peninsula where the Papal States battled for control with the Holy Roman Empire. Back then, peace wasn’t a big conversation topic. Yet St. Francis’ word carries to this day. So beloved by the church, he was canonized only two years after his death in 1226. He was 44.

Assisi hasn’t changed much since Francis roamed its narrow alleys in a peasant robe. Our car approached from below and the Basilica di San Francesco, all 42,000 square feet, fills up nearly half the town. It anchors the left side of the hill like a battleship. With its arched porticoes and imposing bell tower, the massive, yellow-white exterior can be seen all over Umbria.

The entrance to the Basilica di San Francesco.

The entrance to the Basilica di San Francesco.


Arriving shortly before noon is not the best time to see Assisi. I tell visitors to Italy that when you visit touristy towns, spend the night. Assisi. Siena. Positano. I also include the independent republic of San Marino tucked in the corner of Le Marche. When the sun goes down and the tourists return to their bases in Rome or Naples or Milan, these little historical towns change dramatically. The locals come out. The night spots open. I spent my first trip to Assisi in 2002 hanging out in a local cafe talking to locals in their 20s and 30s about life in a tourist trap. They were wonderfully entertaining, gracious and insightful. About the only locals I saw on this recent trip were Franciscan monks conducting tours and selling souvenirs inside the basilica.

The entire church is a tribute to its favorite son. I walked in past a man in a brown hoodie talking to a tour group and stared at the violent scene above me. One of four frescoes, depicting St. Francis’ victory over evil, shows a demon covered by a snake surrounded by skulls. It looked more like hell than heaven.

Assisi isn't just the church.

Assisi isn’t just the church.


I walked down a small flight of stairs where the church still keeps St. Francis’ body. Next to the small tomb I saw a man in a gray windbreaker and beard, on his knees and his hands together and eyes closed, quietly moving his lips to a prayer only he could hear. On the other side, I saw another man doing the same, two bookends holding up a saint who has lured pilgrims here for half a millennium.
One of the views from residential Assisi.

One of the views from residential Assisi.


In the upstairs church, built after the lower church between 1230 and 1253, I could see why. Ringing the upper walls are 28 frescoes depicting St. Francis’ life. There is St. Francis wearing flowing, elaborate clothes and another of him wearing rags and telling his exasperated father he would dedicate himself to the poor. In others he’s talking to angels. In others he’s talking to animals. In the background I could hear the melodic, high-pitched singing of Franciscan monks over the loudspeaker. Even for a heathen like myself, Basilica di San Francesco makes me feel the history of the Catholic Church if not its god.
Luciana

Luciana Cerbini of Casa Gola serving bruschetta with her excellent, fresh olive oil.

A worker using a motorized, plastic blade to clear olives at Casa Gola.

A worker using a motorized, plastic blade to clear olives at Casa Gola.


After I leave a holy place such as San Francesco or St. Peter’s or the Duomo in Milan, I want to do only one thing: drink. Umbria does not have the name cache as its neighbor to the north, Tuscany, but Umbrian wines are under-appreciated and, frankly, under-priced. We went to the tiny village of Bevagna where we first stopped at Casa Gola, in the middle of olive orchards that produce some of the best olive oil in Italy. Casa Gola also offers classes in cooking dishes you will find nowhere in the United States. While we watched a worker pull olives off trees with what looked like a plastic motorized clipper, Casa Gola’s Luciana Cerbini served us all trays of bruschetta dripping with her incredible olive oil. Like salami sandwiches in the Swiss Alps, bruschetta in extra virgin olive oil always tastes better in an olive orchard.
Leonardo has a friend who owns a terrific winery in Bevagna called Terre dei Nappi. Terre dei Nappi is the epitome of the little Italian country winery. It has no showroom, no tour buses, no souvenir T-shirts.
Me with this year's haul from Terre dei Nappi.

Me with this year’s haul from Terre dei Nappi.

Antipasti at Terre dei Nappi.

Antipasti at Terre dei Nappi.


The heads of the winery, as they did last year, opened their little showroom for us and brought out a half dozen bottles of wine — along with plates of prosciutto, salami, cheeses and bread. Each bottle, from the dry Montefalco Rosso to the sweet Passito dessert wine, had us oohing and aahing like bleating sheep. I came away with two bottles of Montefalco Rosso and one of the slightly sweeter Montefalco Sagrantino, all for about 30 euros ($34). In the U.S., three bottles of this quality of wine might top $100.
Terziere Castello is only open in October.

Terziere Castello is only open in October.


Also underrated is the Umbrian cuisine. People here are notably proud of it to the point where they hold festivals for nearly every delicacy on their food chain. Or have you never heard of the snail festival in Cantalupo? It’s every August. Or the onion festival in Cannara? It’s every September. In October, the town of Trevi celebrates the one food no one can live without …

… celery.

Our waitresses. Apparently, the town of Trevi does not have strict child labor laws.

Our waitresses. Apparently, the town of Trevi does not have strict child labor laws.


Yes, Trevi has a celery festival every October. It is the only month of the year the town opens Terziere Castello, a sprawling restaurant that looks like a movie set for a film about the Middle Ages. The curved stone ceiling makes you feel as if you’re inside a cave. Iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Wide, bulky drinking cups look perfect for grog. A man sitting at the table next to ours ate a turkey leg with his hand. I wanted to call a waitress by yelling, “Hey, scullery wench!” Instead, waiting our table were girls 13 and 12 years old.
Arrosticini di Pecora. (Roast lamb.)

Arrosticini di Pecora. (Roast lamb.)

Frantasie di Chianina.

Frantasie di Chianina.


The menu, obviously, was heavy on the celery, called “sedano” in Italian. Zuppa di Sedano (Celery Soup), Parmigiana di Sedano (Celery covered in parmesan cheese), Sedano Ripieno (Stuffed Celery), Sedano in Padella (Celery in a pan), Sedano alla Popolana (loosely translated: Peasant Celery). There’s even a celery dessert. I had the Fantasie di Chianina. It’s a chunky pasta made from chianina, one of the largest and oldest breeds of cow in the world and found in Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio, the region surrounding Rome. The cows are white and used for the famous steaks in Latini, the Florence steakhouse that I’ve written is the best in the world. For the second course I had Arrosticini di Pecora, roast lamb. It was as delicate, lean and fresh as if slaughtered at my table.
A typical residential road in Spello.

A typical residential road in Spello.


The next day we made a return trip to Spello, the cute, walled town lined with blooming flower beds, stone archways, narrow cobblestone alleys and tasteful art stores and food stores. We stopped again at La Bottega Di Teresa, home to some of the best olive oil in Italy and fantastic honeys, cheeses and salamis hanging all over the store. Teresa informed me that my blog and photo of her last year helped make her the No. 1 alimentari (meat and cheese store) in Umbria. Since the number of my website’s subscribers could probably fit in her store, I told her the credit probably goes to her olive oils, honeys, cheeses and salamis.
Spello's 12th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Spello’s 12th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore.


We arrived back in Rome early evening. Hugs and double cheek kisses were passed around. I helped haul Pam’s kitchen-full of souvenir craft ware to her apartment in Centro Storico. I carried my booty of wines and ceramic oil and vinegar canisters on the bus for home. Friends with no benefits? With places like Umbria only a couple hours away, there are always benefits.
The gang at the end in front of La Bottega Di Teresa in Spello, Teresa is back row, third from right.

The gang at the end in front of La Bottega Di Teresa in Spello, Teresa is back row, third from right.

L’avanzamento della squadra Nazionale Italiana di calcio in una nazione con guerre regionali

Norway-Italy pass

Il calcio ha una caratteristica che, pur avendo lavorato come giornalista sportivo per tanti anni negli Stati Uniti, non ho riscontrato in nessun altro sport. Il nazionalismo. Il suo lato positivo. Il lato che non scateni conflitti ma al contrario faccia vedere sugli spalti bandiere, visi dipinti e costumi da Napoleone.
Una intera Nazione si ferma per assistere al gioco della propria squadra che li rappresenta su un palcoscenico mondiale o continentale. La pallacanestro in America? No. La squadra americana è tanto buona quanto noiosa. La squadra di calcio americana? Assolutamente no. C’è stata una grande attenzione alla Coppa del Mondo ma metà degli americani chiamano il calcio..”pallone”. Il calcio nel resto del mondo galvanizza intere Nazioni.

Odio apparire esageratamente buonista, ma il calcio internazionale ha anche la capacità di aiutare il mondo a essere più unito. In 40 anni da giornalista sportivo, il più importante evento sportivo sul quale ho fatto un servizio è stato La Coppa del Mondo 2006 in Germania. Trentadue Nazioni riunite in pace e per lo sport. Non avevo mai visto persone essere così vicine l’una all’altra come ho potuto vedere in quell’occasione. Il momento che più è rimasto impresso nella mia memoria è stato quando a Monaco di Baviera, passeggiando di fronte ad un bar ho visto un tifoso Tedesco, vestito con i tradizionali pantaloncini corti in pelle, sorseggiare una birra con un tifoso Messicano con tanto di sombrero. Camminando in direzione dello stadio ero contornato da tifosi iraniani che parlavano di calcio invece che di politica. Persino gli Inglesi, lasciati a casa gli Hooligans, si comportavano educatamente.

Così , martedì sera, ho colto al volo l’opportunità di assistere ad una partita della quale non vi è stato alcun segnale nel radar degli avvenimenti sportivi Americani.

La squadra Norvegese era a Roma per giocare contro l’Italia nell’ultima partita di qualificazione per i Campionati Europei che si terranno il prossimo anno in Francia. L’Italia aveva già conquistato una qualificazione ma era necessario che vincesse per finire nel proprio gruppo e guadagnarsi una migliore posizione nel sorteggio(?) del 12 Dicembre. La Norvegia, al secondo posto, era solo ad un punto di vantaggio sulla Croazia per il secondo ed ultimo posto di qualifica automatico. La Croazia visita la Malta.

La squadra Nazionale Italiana ha sempre risvegliato un grande interesse in Italia. Gli Italiani la seguono ma l’Italia è diversa da qualsiasi altro Paese del mondo. Nonostante abbia radici che risalgano a circa 3.000 anni fa e, indipendentemente dall’impronta indelebile che l’Impero Romano abbia lasciato nel mondo, l’Italia solo nel 1861 è diventata una Repubblica. Circa 100 anni più tardi degli Stati Uniti d’America. Prima del 1861, l’Italia era una penisola costellata di città-stato che erano altrettanto sospettose e piene di odio nei confronti dei propri confinanti di alcuni Stati, al giorno d’oggi, nel Golfo Persico. Importanti forze militari si erano formate a Venezia, in Lombardia e a Genova. La Sicilia e la Sardegna erano infiltrate da eserciti stranieri così numerosi da renderle praticamente dei Paesi separati. Le innumerevoli invasioni di Roma fecero salire nel 14mo secolo la popolazione a circa 20.000 abitanti. L’intera città era un campo di addestramento per i vandali . La vendetta è una brutta bestia, Romani!

Siamo ora nel 21mo secolo, e l’Italia rimane divisa in tante Regioni come ogni altro Paese del mondo. Ognuna delle 20 Regioni ha il proprio dialetto, la propria storia e le proprie tradizioni culinarie. E.. ognuna ha anche la propria squadra di calcio. Se una Nazione si schiera per la propria squadra nazionale di calcio, le regioni Italiane si schierano invece per la propria squadra regionale. Ha la precedenza. Sempre. Ho ascoltato Rete Sport su 105.6 FM. E’ una stazione radio dedicata interamente e tutto il giorno alla squadra della AS Roma. Questo è tutto. Nessun altra squadra. Nessun altro sport.

Ho vissuto per 23 anni a Denver (Colorado USA) dove la violenza aumenta nelle giornate in cui la squadra del Broncos NFL non vince. Non hanno una copertura mediatica del genere. Ho domandato a Manuele, un ragazzo che lavora nella palestra che frequento ed è un membro del famoso gruppo di Ultras della AS Roma della Curva sud, se la maggioranza dei romani preferirebbe che la Roma vincesse il campionato di serie A, o titolo nazionale, piuttosto che la Nazionale vincesse la Coppa del Mondo. “Serie A” ha risposto. “Nessun dubbio, al 100%. Se la Roma dovesse vincere quest’anno, vedrai dei festeggiamenti che non hai mai visto prima”.

E’ vero. Ho assistito alla vittoria dell’Italia con calcio di rigore sulla Francia nel 2006 per la Coppa del Mondo. Gli italiani gremivano le piazze pubbliche guardando la partita su megaschermi. Hanno festeggiato tutta la notte. E al sorgere dell’alba a Berlino, ho visto italiani continuare a serpeggiare per le strade sbandierando drappi tricolori. Ma quando nel 2001 la AS Roma vinse lo Scudetto di Serie A, i romani festeggiarono per una settimana intera. Ogni sera riempivano Piazza santa Maria Liberatrice, distante pochi passi dal mio appartamento e non lontano da dove venne fondato il club nel 1927. Sono fermamente convinto che il livello di crescita demografica negativo abbia ricevuto una impennata nove mesi dopo quella notte del 2001.

Come disse una volta Winston Churchill, “ Gli Italiani perdono le guerre come se fossero partite di calcio e partite di calcio come se fossero guerre”. Ho notato la differenza mentre percorrevo la distanza assurda (quasi quattro KM!) tra il banco di accettazione per la stampa situato in un lato dello Stadio Olimpico e l’ entrata dedicata ai giornalisti. Questo blog non ha fotografie perchè non ho visto nemmeno un tifoso vestito da gladiatore, da Giulio Cesare o da gondoliere. Ho visto ragazze tifose vestite come modelle sulla passarella di una sfilata di moda ma.. questo è normale per voi ragazze romane! Se non siete vestite di giallo e di rosso o non avete in mano niente di giallo e rosso ad una partita della Roma potreste essere anche nude.

Quindi il pubblico era ottimo, sotto molti punti di vista. Ragionateci. La Norvegia contro l’Italia a Roma. Potrebbe ogni altro Stadio al mondo avere un pubblico con donne più belle che lo Stadio Olimpico quella sera? Circa 30.000 tifosi riempivano entrambe i lati dello Stadio ma la Curva Nord e la curva Sud erano stranamente chiuse. Non sembrava nemmeno una vera partita senza i lanci di bombe lacrimogene e i canti osceni e lo spiegamento di striscioni con diciture ancora più oscene.

Addirittura il pubblico non ha nemmeno borbottato o gridato durante il canto dell’”Inno degli Italiani” con le sue strane parole. Scritto nel 1847 dall’allora ventenne Goffredo Mameli, l’Inno evidenzia la disunione del Paese facendo capire cosa renda così strana la tifoseria italiana…

L’Inno include la seguente strofa:
“Noi fummo da secoli là,
calpesti, derisi
perchè non siam popol,
perchè siam divisi.”

Quale Inno Nazionale di quale altra Nazione si dilania ammettendo una mancanza di unione? Si può riscontrare nella tifoseria Italiana, ma questo non incide sulla qualità del gioco. Nonostante l’Italia avesse già conquistato la qualifica per il 2016, la sua superiorità calcistica nei confronti dell’esasperante desiderio della Norvegia di vincere ha prodotto una delle migliori partite di calcio che io abbia mai visto. La Norvegia ha partecipato solo una volta nell’arco dei 55 anni di storia del Campionati Europei. Quando Alexander Tettey, giocatore ghanese della Norvegia, si è lanciato in un calcio libero deviato fuori dei 18 metri dell’area di rigore, i 1.000 tifosi Norvegesi sembravano indemoniati. E così pure la squadra Norvegese dopo il primo tempo riunendosi correndo intorno al proprio Capitano Per Ciljan Skjelbred che con occhi spalancati e aria animata faceva loro grandi discorsi di incoraggiamento.

Poi.. la Nazionale Italiana ha risvegliato la sconsolata folla di tifosi italiani. Orjan Nyland, l’incredibile portiere della Norvegia, ha fatto tre parate magnifiche prima che il giocatore della Roma Alessandro Florenzi sgaiattolasse dietro a un giocatore della difesa che non ha gestito bene l’azione, e tirasse in rete al 77mo minuto. Nove minuti più tardi, Graziano Pelle, uno degli attaccanti più pericolosi della Nazionale Italiana, ha preso un bellissimo cross da Florenzi ed ha fatto un tiro per la vittoria contro il quale Nyland non è riuscito a fare nulla.

Questa Nazionale italiana ha così tante incognite. Cinque degli attaccanti non erano nella formazione dell’ultima Coppa del Mondo e tre degli attuali giocatori messi insieme raggiungono la mia età anagrafica ma ancora viene seguito il modello cauto e oltremodo difensivo che li ha fatti eliminare dalle formazioni delle ultime due Coppe del Mondo. I 16 goals dell’Italia in 10 partite di qualificazione hanno relegato l’Irlanda del Nord tra i i minori secondi dei nove gruppi di campioni.(boh? This sentence.. I can’t translate it..)

E come può una squadra con una tale enfasi di difesa incassare un goal come è successo con il primo goal segnato dalla Norvegia. Ma l’Italia può contare su un allenatore molto in gamba e di successo, Antonio Conti, che ha iniziato ad allenare la squadra dopo la Coppa del Mondo ed ha perso solo una partita su 14: un’amichevole contro il Portogallo. Voci di corridoio a Roma sussurrano che pezzi grossi della squadra della Roma lo vorrebbero ingaggiare. Se l’attuale allenatore della Roma, in carica da tre anni, non farà schizzare la Roma dal suo attuale quarto posto in classifica, in una stagione nella quale la Juventus, quattro volte campione in carica, è decisamente in ribasso, può essere che Conti avrà questa opportunità. La stampa italiana lo ha intervistato in proposito e la sua risposta è stata : “Roma è una città stupenda che ho imparato ad apprezzare venendo a viverci per lavoro ma i tifosi della Roma e il club devono mantenere la calma. Garcia è un ottimo allenatore che ha tutto il mio rispetto.”

Sono uscito dallo Stadio ed mi sono imbattuto in una pattuglia di Carabinieri annoiati. I tifosi italiani si comportavano rispettosamente come se stessero uscendo dalla Basilica di San Pietro. Sono tornato verso casa su un autobus pieno di gente. Credo di avere visto solo due tifosi con indosso i colori della Nazionale Italiana. In Francia si inizierà in Giugno 2016 e non mi aspetto un maggiore fermento ed entusiasmo di quanto non abbia potuto vedere la scorsa sera a Roma.

Ma.. se la Roma vincesse il campionato di serie A a maggio… so che resterò a Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice almeno per una settimana!

Italy’s national soccer team advances in a nation of regional wars

Norway-Italy passSoccer has an element that I found in no other sport growing up as a sportswriter in America. It has nationalism. The good kind. Not the kind that sparks wars but, instead, flags, face paint and Napoleon costumes in the stands. An entire country shuts down to watch its team represent it on a world or continental stage. Basketball in America? No. The U.S. team is so good it’s boring. The American soccer team? Not really. World Cup ratings were high but half of America calls it “kickball.” Soccer in the rest of the world galvanizes entire countries.

I hate to sound pollyannaish, but international soccer also helps bring the world closer. In 40 years as a sportswriter, the greatest single event I covered was the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Thirty-two nations gathered in peace and sport. Never have I seen my fellow man reach out to each other as I did then. My one Kodak moment was walking past a bar in Munich and seeing a German fan in lederhosen drinking a beer with a Mexican fan in a sombrero. I walked to the stadium surrounded by Iranian fans who talked soccer instead of politics. Even the English fans, their hooligans prevented from coming, were polite.

So I jumped at the opportunity Tuesday night to attend a game that didn’t record a blip on the American sports radar. Norway was in Rome to play Italy in the last game of qualifying for next year’s European Championships in France. Italy already clinched qualification but needed to win to finish in its group and earn a better seed in the Dec. 12 draw. Norway, in second place, was only one point ahead of Croatia for the second and last automatic qualifying spot. Croatia visited last-place Malta.

Italy’s national team has always carried an interesting cache in Italy. Italians follow it, but Italy is different than any other country. Despite roots dating back nearly 3,000 years, regardless of the eternal imprint the Roman Empire left on the world, Italy has only been a republic since 1861. That’s nearly 100 years after the United States. Before 1861, Italy was a peninsula filled with city states that were as suspicious and hateful of their neighbors as some today in the Persian Gulf. Major militaries formed in Venice, Lombardy and Genoa. Sicily and Sardinia were infiltrated by so many foreign armies they were almost separate countries. Countless invasions of Rome dropped the city population in the 14th century to about 20,000. The whole city was a training camp for vandals. Payback is a bitch, Romans.

It’s the 21st century, and Italy remains as regionalized as any country in the world. All 20 regions have their own dialect, their own history, their own cuisine. They also have their own soccer club. If a country rallies around its national soccer team, Italy’s regions rally around its soccer club. It takes precedence. Always. I listen to Rete Sport on 105.6 FM. It’s a radio station that is devoted all day to A.S. Roma. That’s it. No other team. No other sport. For 23 years I lived in Denver where domestic violence rises on days when the Denver Broncos NFL team doesn’t win. They don’t have media coverage like this.

I asked Manuele, who works in my gym and is a member of A.S. Roma’s notorious Curva Sud crowd of ultras, if most Romans would rather win the Serie A, or national title, than the World Cup. “Serie A,” he said. “No question, 100 percent. If Roma wins it this year, you’ll see a party like you’ve never seen.”

It’s true. I covered Italy’s shootout win over France for the 2006 World Cup title. Italians filled public squares watching it on big screens. They partied all night. As dawn broke in Berlin, I saw Italians still weaving through the streets waving their green, white and red flags. But when A.S. Roma won Serie A in 2001, Romans partied for a week. Every night they filled Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice around the corner from my apartment and not far from where the club formed in 1927. I firmly believe Italy’s negative birth rate received a major spike nine months after that night in 2001.

As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Italians lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars.” I noticed the difference as I made the absurd two-mile walk from credential pickup on one side of Olympic Stadium, all the way down the street and around a corner and down another entry road to the media entrance. This blog has no pictures because I saw no Italian fans dressed like gladiators, Julius Caesar or gondoliers. I did see female fans dressed like runway models but those are just your average Roman girls. If you’re not wearing red and yellow to a Roma game or carrying red and yellow, you may as well be naked.

Still, the crowd was good — in more ways than one. Think about it. Norway vs. Italy in Rome. Could any stadium in the world have better-looking women in it than Olympic Stadium that night? About 30,000 fans filled both sides of the Olympic Stadium but Curva Nord and Curva Sud were curiously closed off. It didn’t seem like a competition without the ultras spewing smoke bombs and filthy songs and displaying banners even worse. The crowd didn’t even roar that much after Italy’s curiously worded national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani.” Written in 1847 by a 20-year-old named Goffredo Mameli, the anthem actually points to the nation’s faults while illustrating what makes the Italian soccer team’s fan base so strange. The anthem actually contains the following stanza:

“We were for centuries
downtrodden, derided,
because we are not a people,
because we are divided.”

What other country’s anthem rips itself for a lack of unity? You can see it in the Italian national fan base but that hardly affects the quality of play. Despite Italy already clinching its spot for 2016, its superior talent against Norway’s sense of maddening urgency provided one of the best soccer matches I’ve ever seen. Norway has been to one European Championships in the competition’s 55-year history. When the Ghanian-born Norwegian club-veteran, Alexander Tettey, volleyed in a deflected free kick from outside the 18-meter box, the 1,000 Norwegian fans wedged into a corner section went berserk. So did Norway’s team which came out of halftime and rallied around inspirational captain Per Ciljan Skjelbred spirited, wide-eyed pep talk.

Italy then woke up the subdued Italian crowd. Orjan Nyland, Norway’s incredible goalkeeper, made three magnificent saves before A.S. Roma’s own Alessandro Florenzi snuck in behind a defender, who mishandled a free kick, to scoot it into the net in the 77th minute. Nine minutes later, Graziano Pelle, Italy’s most dangerous striker, took a beautiful cross from Florenzi and knocked it past a helpless Nyland for the eventual game-winner.

This Italian team has so many unknowns. Five of the starters weren’t on last year’s World Cup roster, three current players are about my age and it still follows Italy’s often cautious, overly defensive pattern that has knocked them out of the last two World Cups in the group stage. Italy’s 16 goals in 10 qualifying games tied Northern Ireland with the second fewest of the nine group champions. And how does a team with such a defensive emphasis screw up a free kick as it did on Norway’s first goal?

But Italy also has a remarkably successful coach in Antonio Conte who took over after the World Cup and has only lost one match in 14: a friendly against Portugal. Word around Rome is A.S. Roma’s brass would like to hire him. If third-year coach Rudy Garcia doesn’t jump Roma from its current fourth place, in a season when four-time defending champ Juventus is way down, Conte may have that option. The Italian media even asked him about it. He said, “Rome is a stupendous city that I’ve learned to appreciate coming here for work but the Roma fans and the club must be calm. Garcia is a great coach. I respect him a lot.”

I walked out of the stadium past a squadron of bored Carabinieri, Italy’s national police. The Italian fans were as well behaved as if they walked out of St. Peter’s. I stood in a packed bus back to my neighborhood. I think I saw two fans wearing Italy’s colors. France 2016 starts in June and I don’t expect the buildup to be much more than what I experienced last night.

But if Roma wins Serie A in May, I am not leaving Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice for a week.

Coffee in Italy is a culture you must taste to understand

How I start my day: a cappuccino and perfect chocolate cornetto at Linari, my neighborhood cafe.

How I start my day: a cappuccino and perfect chocolate cornetto at Linari, my neighborhood cafe.


I once had a friend who worked for Vatican Radio and had one of the greatest handicaps for living in Rome. She was allergic to dairy products. Think about it. She couldn’t eat cheese. She couldn’t eat gelato. How can you live in Rome and not eat cheese or gelato? It’s like moving to the Caribbean and not being able to swim. I mean, what’s the point? Then again, when I moved to Rome, I had a big handicap, too, one that made Italians look at me as if I had a third eye.

I didn’t drink coffee.

I wasn’t allergic to it. I hated it. I loathed it. I didn’t like any hot liquids. Hot chocolate. Saki. Hot spiced wine. But coffee topped the list of disgusting beverages. Bitter and drab, it did nothing but make me thirsty. And I viewed all fluids as a means to quench a thirst. Nothing else. During an all-night writing marathon, caffeine had all the effect on me as Pez.

When I moved to Rome the first time in 2001, I made a tough decision. I love hanging out in piazzas. They are what separates Rome from every city in the world. It’s what makes living in Rome like living in a small town with a big city right across the street. I also love wine. But drinking wine all day in a piazza is problematic. I wasn’t a bored housewife in the suburbs.

This is the design a Lazio fan/barrista put in my cappucino one day. Lazio is my beloved A.S. Roma's cross-town soccer rival.

This is the design a Lazio fan/barrista put in my cappucino one day. Lazio is my beloved A.S. Roma’s cross-town soccer rival.

I decided I’d better start drinking coffee. I’d better learn to like it. I remember my first cup of coffee in Rome. My then-girlfriend and I had just landed in November 2001 and we checked into a hotel by the Termini train station. We walked a couple blocks to tree-lined Via Merulana, one of Rome’s prettiest streets. We went to Caffe Merulana and I ordered a cappuccino. The waiter brought it out and in the foam, the barrister had artfully formed a heart. The first sip was like a child eating his first piece of chocolate. Creamy. Sweet. Warm. The milky froth took off just enough bitterness and the sugar added just enough sweetness to make it more of a dessert than a caffeine jolt. The heart in the foam became quite an omen.

The relationship didn’t last but my love for coffee sure did.

Now every morning I dive head first into a coffee culture that is as much a part of the Italian social fabric as aperitivos, wine and corrupt politics. When I wake, pure muscle memory pulls me into my kitchen where I take my little espresso maker and make a cappuccino that is always percolating right when my computer is warmed up. I take my cappuccino onto my terrace, look out over the Tiber River and the foamy milky coffee reminds me of why I love living in Rome so much.

My neighborhood cafe, Linari, has been around for 44 years.

My neighborhood cafe, Linari, has been around for 44 years.


Three or four times a week I’ll walk two blocks to my local cafe, Linari, and stand at the counter with a cappuccino and a perfect chocolate cornetto. If I stay long enough I’ll probably see more than half my Testaccio neighborhood, all gossiping away in the Romanaccio version of Italian that I have no hope of ever understanding.

To live in Italy, one must do more than drink coffee. One must understand coffee. When you visit Italy, order a coffee in one of the following ways:

A caffe from Caffe Sant'Eustachio.

A caffe from Caffe Sant’Eustachio.


Caffe. This is the most common yet the most shocking to Americans. It is a simple shot of espresso that fills about a third of a small cup just a bit bigger than a thimble. I still enjoy watching Americans’ jaws drop when they see it and ask, “Where’s the rest of it?” This isn’t Starbucks, Bubba. Thank God.
Caffe macchiato.

Caffe macchiato.


Caffe macchiato. This is halfway between a caffe and a cappuccino. It’s a caffe stained with a little spot of milk. Pronounce it correctly, mock-ee-OTTO, and you’ll be treated like a local.

Cappuccino. The classic Italian coffee. Espresso coffee covered in warm milk then topped with creamy foam, it is the perfect way to start the Italian day. Please note the word “start.” Do NOT, even if the craving eats at you like a heroin withdrawal, order a cappuccino after noon. Only tourists do that. Yes, you’re a tourist. Just don’t act like a stupid one.

Cappuccino ben caldo. “Ben caldo” means “extra hot.” This is my favorite. Italians like to drink their coffee fast and don’t like it so hot it singes their tongues like American coffee. I like mine with a newspaper.

Marochino. A small cappuccino sprinkled with chocolate, popular with Italian teen-agers and wimpy American expats.

Ristretto. A shorter, very strong shot of espresso and isn’t much more than a sip. It should not be confused with ristretto’s other meaning: What happens to a man’s penis when he comes out of the cold Adriatic Sea.

Americano. A long black coffee that, in more than three years in Rome over two stints, I have never seen an Italian order unless he lost a bet.

It’s a long list. However, it’s nothing compared to that bastion of bad taste, that despicable, grotesque coffee stain on the international coffee landscape.

Starbucks.

A big reason I once thought of drinking coffee in the same terms as drinking snake blood is Starsucks. Its coffee is as bitter as a Hollywood divorce and nearly as expensive. Its coffee menu is longer than Denny’s. Yes, it’s a nice variety but the recipes were contrived in a corporate office in Seattle. Italian coffee has been passed down from generations since it arrived in Venice in the mid-16th century. Go ahead. Walk into a rough-and-tumble bar in Rome and order an “iced, half-caff, ristretto, venti, four-pump, sugar free, cinnamon, dolce soy skinny latte.” (Yes, someone at Starsucks really ordered this once.) You’ll get tossed out right onto your Yankees cap.

My biggest problem with Starsucks is it has ruined nearly as many neighborhoods as crack houses. Starsucks is the Walmart of cafes. Cafes should have a family feel. Each should be different. They should be warm, cozy, with the atmosphere that makes you want to stay and chat or read for a few hours. Starsucks came into my old neighborhood in Denver and bought out the one local cafe down the street. The friendly barrister was replaced by a gum-chewing college-age chick with an attitude as bad as her haircut.

Starsucks isn’t about culture. It’s about profits. They want turnover. It’s why its chairs are so uncomfortable, an Indian fakir couldn’t sit in one more than 15 minutes. Starsucks are like Marriott hotels. Every one looks the same from Barstow to Bangkok. Italy, God love it, told Starsucks it could not open a franchise here. It’s the best decision Italy’s made against American culture since outlawing guns.

If you live in Italy — even if you visit — the first thing you must do is establish a local cafe. It’s where every Italian’s day begins. It’s a slice of true Italian culture as genuine as a British pub. You chat with the owner and your favorite barrista. You pick up a spare newspaper lying around and bitch to the guy next to you about A.S. Roma’s last heartbreaking loss.

Inside Linari on a typical morning.

Inside Linari on a typical morning.


My home away from home is Linari. It is labeled a pasticceria, a pastry shop, and the display cases would make a 5-year-old’s mouth water. Cannoli. Chocolate layer cakes. Cookies. Chocolate biscotti. Eau claires. Gelato. And they have the best cornettos in Rome. A cornetto is basically an Italian croissant filled with chocolate, cream or marmalade. They also have plain, or, simplice. The staff all know my name and don’t even bother looking at my receipt order. They automatically put out two small plates in front of me on the counter. They put a frothy, creamy cappuccino on one and take a cornetto to the back where they fill it with a shot of warm Nutella, the famed, 70-year-old chocolate spread Italians eat like peanut butter. The pastries here are so good it’s part of Testaccio’s gastronomic tour.

Linari was established in 1971 by Giancarlo Linari. He died a couple of years ago and handed it over to his two daughters and two sons. Unlike many cafes where people down a quick espresso and bolt, Linari could be an Italian word for “linger.” I often would get my Corriere dello Sport or La Gazzetta dello Sport newspapers and take my cornetto and cappuccino to one of the outdoor tables. I’d sit with the neighborhood’s old ladies and mechanics and middle-aged beauties and read, eat and sip in the sun.

Claudia, one of the many friendly barristas at Linari.

Claudia, one of the many friendly barristas at Linari.


Try doing that at a Starbucks in Des Moines.

Rome has fierce competition about where to find the best coffee. I put Linari at the top of the list — until one day. I read in The New York Times that the best cappuccino in the world is at Tazza d’Oro (Cup of Gold), near the Pantheon. I don’t like The New York Times. I find it stuffy, heavy handed and elitist. It’s 3 euros for 18 pages. Last month it did a four-page special section on the Singapore Grand Prix, just to appease its wealthy advertisers who follow Formula I. Come on! However, I had to see how far off The Times was on its cappuccino rating. I visited Tazza d’Oro shortly after I returned to Rome last year and I must say …

… The Times was spot on.

The best cappuccino in the world: Tazza d'Oro near the Pantheon.

The best cappuccino in the world: Tazza d’Oro near the Pantheon.


Tazza d’Oro’s cappuccino is creamier, richer, sweeter and more luscious than any I’ve ever had. Every time I go back I swoon like I’m drinking it in bed with a beautiful woman and not with a pack of Japanese tourists. It’s also only 1.10 euro. Tazza d’Oro is a beautiful cafe. It’s a long, bending bar with stained wood paneling and a shop in the back selling Tazza d’Oro coffee to a steady stream of customers. I asked the barrister, a young, burr-cut man what its secret was.

“Nothing,” he said with a shrug as if he’s been asked it numerous times. “Good coffee.”

Tazza d'Oro.

Tazza d’Oro.


He said they take coffee beans from eight countries in Latin America, from Brazil to Mexico. “And also,” he said with a smile, “I prepared it.”
Sant'Eustachio church has stood for 1,000 years. Notice the stag head on top.

Sant’Eustachio church has stood for 1,000 years. Notice the stag head on top.


Arguably Rome’s most famous cafe has received more press than Fellini. Caffe Sant’Eustachio opened in 1938 just on the other side of the Pantheon. It was named after Eustace, a general under emperor Trajan in the 2nd century A.D. A pagan, Eustace converted to Christianity one day when he went hunting and saw a vision of a crucifix between a stag’s horns. Sant’Eustachio church, across the piazza from the cafe, has stood for 1,000 years and doesn’t have a traditional cross on top. It has the head of a stag.
Caffe Sant'Eustachio began in 1938 and may be the most famous cafe in Rome.

Caffe Sant’Eustachio began in 1938 and may be the most famous cafe in Rome.


The cafe has numerous outside tables, nearly always full. The inside still has the original mosaics and furniture. It feels like old Rome. However, the surly cashier who took my 1.50 euro for a caffe killed my coffee buzz and so did the barrister who put in sugar instead of allowing me like every other cafe in Rome. The caffe was totally ordinary and I walked out wondering about all the fuss.
Caffe Sant'Eustachio still has the original mosaics and furniture.

Caffe Sant’Eustachio still has the original mosaics and furniture.


But I understand the fuss about coffee in Italy. La dolce vita isn’t just a lifestyle. It’s a flavor, too. Italy is a country built by conflict, enriched by art and fueled by wine. No matter where you are in Italy, stop. Then smell. Somewhere there’s a cappuccino with your heart in it.

A.S. Roma draws with Barcelona and gives a city hope

A packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836, decorating the stadium in A.S. Roma colors, watched their team tie defending champions Barcelona as the Champions League kicked off for Roma Wednesday night.

A packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836, decorating the stadium in A.S. Roma colors, watched Roma tie defending champions Barcelona as the Champions League kicked off for Roma Wednesday night.


September rocks. It’s my favorite month of the year. Two months after I sweat through July (https://johnhendersontravel.com/2015/07/09/july-is-worst-time-to-be-in-rome-or-anywhere-else/), Mother Nature’s cruel joke on mankind, I am in bliss. And I always have been. Here in Rome it’s when
most of the backpackers have gone home, the weather has cooled, all the restaurants have re-opened and, for the 38th straight year, I am reminded I am no longer in school.

However, the biggest reason is one of my favorite sports events of the world kicks off. The Champions League soccer tournament has replaced college football as my fall passion. I covered college football for 19 years. No other sport in the world has more riding on each game. Twelve games. Twelve games to bid for a national or conference title and more money than most South American countries’ military budgets. And one loss to blow it all. Coaches have been fired, non-revenue sports have been cut, on one missed field goal.

But the Champions League takes it one better. It’s Europe’s annual soccer club championship. The best 32 teams, all based on where they finished in their leagues the previous season, square off in eight groups of four. Each team plays a home and home with the other three in their group. The top two in each group advance to a 16-team knockout stage. The final is May 28 in Milan.

This is arguably the toughest soccer tournament in the world. Yes, it’s even tougher than the World Cup. There is no North Korea in this tournament; no Australia, either. The clubs have no citizenship limitations, no salary caps. Despite annual player movement that rivals Major League Baseball, the core of the European powers remain year after year after year. How tough is this tournament?

My prized press pass.

My prized press pass.


In the 22 years since it changed its name from the European Cup, no team has defended its title.

This year, the Champions League schedule is marked all over my cell phone calendar. In red. Why? My beloved A.S. Roma is in it. This isn’t news. This is the 19th year it has made it but it has never gone past the quarterfinals. But this season, Roma is the best it has been in years, possibly as good as the team that won the last of its three national “Serie A” titles in 2001. I sense it. The city senses it. So does my neighborhood, Testaccio, the former gritty, working-class “quartiere” where the team was formed in 1927. When Roma won its Serie A title, known as the “Scudetto,” fans poured into Testaccio and partied for a week. Juventus, the four-time defending Serie A champion from Turin, lost three of its best players, all aging, is not the same, hasn’t won in three games and already lost to Roma last month, 2-1.

This is Roma’s season. In my refrigerator, chilling well, is a large bottle of Prosecco.

The Champions League, however, is what draws attention from the entire world. And on Wednesday night, the world’s soccer fans bored their collective eye on Rome’s Olympic Stadium. It was the opening game of the Champions League group stage and in town was the greatest team in the world, the defending champion, boasting the best player in the world.

F.C. Barcelona.

Barcelona, or “Barca” as fans and headline writers call it, is the most famous sports team on the planet. Please tell all the American sports talk show hosts who say it’s the New York Yankees to get a passport and a life. No one in Africa, in South America south of Colombia or Asia outside Japan, South Korea and Taiwan know or give two grains of rice about the New York Yankees. Yes, people in Europe were Yankees caps. It’s a fashion statement. Derek Jeter never wore a Yankees cap that was pink. I once asked a woman in Rome what the “NY” on the cap meant.

“New York,” she said.

“But do you know what the cap represents?”

“No.”

“The New York Yankees.”

“Who?”

Ask anyone in Africa, Asia or South America what F.C. Barcelona is and you won’t get “Who?”

I get a press pass for the game and my bus reaches Olympic Stadium plenty early. Built for the 1960 Rome Olympics, it’s on its last legs. A new $340 million stadium is planned south of me and is only a corrupt city government and a few greased palms away from the first shovelful of dirt being overturned. Still, I love to walk past the marble Roman statues that line the path from the Foro Italico tennis complex, home of the Italian Open, and “Stadio Olimpico.” The classic stadium roof is lit up from above. Beautiful women in tight jeans and red and yellow Roma jerseys walk to the gates in heels totally inappropriate for a sports event but totally appropriate for Rome.

I went early to catch warmups. I wanted to see what the world’s best player acts like when the cameras aren’t on him. Lionel Messi looks about as much as a world-class athlete as I look Italian. I saw him walk onto the field and from the press tribune he looks, even at 28, like one of the little boys who holds players’ hands on their way onto the field. He’s 5-foot-7 and his boyish, round, clean-shaven face is topped with a bad, short haircut cropped close on the side. His small eyes look like buttons. He walks with short, quick steps as if his legs aren’t long enough to go fast. The only thing that makes him look older is his right arm. It is covered in tattoos, including one of a lotus and Jesus’ face. With his left arm clean, he looks as if he’s wearing a shirt with one long, multi-colored sleeve. Frankly, he looks like a moron. But it’s hard to throw the moron tag on maybe the greatest player in the biggest sport in the world.

In January this unimposing Argentine will likely win his fifth FIFA Ballon d’Or, given to the best player in the world. He’s already the only player to win three. He has scored 77 goals in 100 Champions League games and has a record 287 goals in 318 games of Spain’s La Liga and a record 50 in 37 games in 2011-12. Many already call him the best who ever lived and if he ever leads Argentina to a World Cup title, don’t ever bring up the debate in any bar from Barcelona to Brisbane.

And right now, Leo Messi is practicing free kicks right below me.

ANSA's Alessandro Castellani and me before the game.

ANSA’s Alessandro Castellani and me before the game.


This is the biggest game to come to Rome in years and Italy’s manic press is all over it. “SENZA PAURA” (WITHOUT FEAR) screams the banner headline on the front page of Wednesday’s Corriere dello Sport. My best friend, Alessandro Castellani, is covering the game for ANSA, Italy’s wire service. I ask him about Roma’s chances.

“I don’t like them,” he says without going into detail. No need. When Roma has stepped up in class in the Champions League, it is the sacking of Rome revisited. Last season it lost, 7-1, to Bayern Munich — at home. It lost at Manchester United 7-1 in 2007, when I got heckled out of Denver’s British Bulldog pub by frontrunning American ManU fans who don’t even know what country Manchester is in. Barcelona has the same team that won last season’s treble: the Champions League, la liga and Copa del Rey, Spain’s national competition including all divisions.

Despite the strong start in Serie A — Rome is 2-0-1 — the buzz around the stadium isn’t one expecting an upset. Roma fans look at their team as they look at their economy. They hope for the best but expect the worst. Either way, there’s a bottle of Montepulciano waiting for them.

However, the game illustrates how far Roma has improved and may be foreshadowing of a season for the books. In front of a TV audience from 142 countries, Roma is taking it to the defending champions. Mohamed Salah, Roma’s new Egyptian striker on loan from Chelsea, has two breakaways and can’t do anything with either one of them. Two more breakaways wind up kicked away by Barca’s desperately retreating defense.

But Messi isn’t sharp. He is curiously left unmarked much of the first half and his shots are flying high. He’s like Michael Jordan who can’t find his jump shot. Then in the 21st minute a long Barca pass is sent toward Roma’s 18-meter box and Roma defender Lucas Digne falls backing up on Messi. The ball falls to the right of the goal. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic makes a pretty soft pass just over new Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and right to the waiting head of Barca striker Luis Suarez. He scores easily. Barca 1, Roma 0.

It strikes an extra blow to the heart of the packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836. Suarez was Uruguay’s thug who bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in last summer’s World Cup. FIFA suspended and he left Liverpool for Barcelona this season on a $106 million deal. He was booed every time he touched the ball. He was booed every time he tried helping up a Roma player. He is being booed now, as you read this, by somebody.

The game turns. Barcelona uses its trademark short, beautiful passing game to drive Roma nuts and put the stadium to sleep. At game’s end, Barca would dominate the time of possession with 72 percent. But it was one possession in the 31st minute that cost it. On an innocent run up the right side, Roma defender Alessandro Florenzi dribbles past midfield and just before it goes out of bounds, he looks up briefly. He launches a prayer, a shot from 48 meters. It’s the equivalent of a basketball player throwing up a shot from halfcourt midway through the first half.

However, this shot catches Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen way out in front of the goal. All he could do was look up at it like a kid watching a kite. The ball floats with eyes right into the left crossbar and into the net. Tie game. In all the games in all the world, this is likely the best goal in the world this year. It was certainly the best I’ve ever seen. And it holds up.

Messi can’t find the mark even after Suarez lived up to his rep two minutes into the second half and stepped on Szczesny’s fingers, forcing in Morgan De Sanctis, last year’s oft-embattled starter. But De Sanctis played like the best goalie in Europe stopping shot after shot. Rarely as a tie produced such an applause at game’s end.

Defender Sergi Roberto was the only player who talked for Barcelona after the game.

Defender Sergi Roberto was the only player who talked for Barcelona after the game.


Afterward, European’s soccer inane soccer public relations kicks in. I go to the mixed zone with a mob of Italian and Spanish reporters waiting for players to come out. They all do — and keep right on walking. Only one player for either team talks. Even De Sanctis made a sharp left out of sight. No wonder the Italian press never quotes players. No one talks.

“UEFA (European soccer’s governing body) doesn’t care about the press,” Castellani tells me later over a beer. “They only care about TV. They want players to speak to TV. The press? Fuck you!”

The Champions League is a long, tense haul. Also in Roma’s group is Bate, the Belarus champion, which hosts Roma on the 29th. Then there’s Bayern Munich, again, waiting for Roma in Bavaria Oct. 20. I hear Colorado, the college football team I covered for seven years, plays Colorado State today. I wouldn’t know.

I’m gearing up for Roma’s home Serie A match Sunday with Sassuolo. Nope, I’m no longer in school.