Retired in Rome Journal: World Cup in Roman piazza a sobering look at Italy’s soccer-mad populace

Italian fans gather in Rome before Saturday's midnight World Cup match between Italy and England.
Italian fans gather in Rome before Saturday’s midnight World Cup match between Italy and England.
The crowd next to Il Vittoriano.
The crowd next to Il Vittoriano.
Some of the estimated 20,000 people in Piazza Madonna di Loreto
Some of the estimated 20,000 people in Piazza Madonna di Loreto


Victor Emanuele II stared down at the mob as last night slid into this morning. Astride his horse atop the giant pile of white marble known as Il Vittoriano (also known as John Henderson’s Favorite Monument in Rome), Italy’s first king was an appropriate spectator for Italy’s World Cup this morning. Il Vittoriano is a gargantuan monument that commemorates Italy’s unification in 1885. Right next to it in Piazza Madonna di Loreto, on a big screen that could possibly be seen from the Pope’s quarters in the Vatican, Italy’s soccer team started its march to unify the country again.

The World Cup in Italy is my ultimate fantasy. It’s my threesome with Miss Sweden and Miss Russia. It’s my winning the Pulitzer and Lotto on the same day. Anyone who has read this blog knows Italy is my favorite country. What people don’t know is what’s my favorite sports event. I’ve covered nine Final Fours, eight national college football championships, six Olympics, three World Series, two Super Bowls and the 2010 U.S. Olympic Curling Trials. (OK, one doesn’t count. Sorry. The Super Bowl is more of a pain in the ass.) By far the greatest event I ever covered was the 2006 World Cup in Germany. People who love and respect different cultures, who believe peace can be achieved through sport, should attend a World Cup. Every game is that nation’s Super Bowl. Every game means everything.

And every night is a party. My favorite Kodak moment of 2006 was seeing a Mexican fan in a sombrero drinking beers in a Munich bar with a German fan wearing lederhosen. No native attire looks more stupid than sombreros and lederhosen. Has a Mexican really worn a sombrero since the start of the 20th century? But somehow, with soccer as a backdrop, these two outfits worked. I remember walking to the stadium in Nuremberg talking to Iranian fans who wished the U.S. good luck. I remember learning all about Ghana, how stable its government and economy were and how happy the people were – before they unceremoniously dispatched the U.S. from the competition. For me, a seasoned traveler who never met a country he didn’t like, this was like traveling around the world within the manageable German borders.

In preparation for the World Cup, I went around the corner from my building where a tiny Sky office sits in anonymity. Sky is the British sports network that televises everything from soccer to snooker. (No, that’s not British porn. It’s a form of billiards.) Sky had a special offer: four months free. All I had to do was pay 77 euros for the installation and I got every World Cup game for a month. It’s the way I’m beating the heat: eating fruit and cold pasta salad and watching soccer. Plus, it’ll keep me off the streets.

Not last night, however. Watching Italy in the World Cup alone at home is like celebrating New Year’s Eve with a transistor radio turned on to Times Square. So after sitting at home watching Colombia blank Greece and Uruguay choke like gagging dogs against Costa Rica, I took the bus up to Il Vittoriano for the midnight — yes, midnight — kickoff between Italy and England. A couple thousand fans had already gathered in front of the screen when I arrived at 11:10 p.m. By kickoff, the crowd swelled all the way to Il Vittoriano’s steps a good 100 meters away. I’ve guesstimated enough stadium crowds in my career to have a good idea and there must’ve been at least 20,000 fans standing in the wee hours watching a televised soccer match.

The crowd was remarkably tame. Romans’ distaste for drunken debauchery is a big reason. A good portion of the spectators holding beer bottles were speaking American English. Some Italian youths sipped passively at smaller bottles of Peroni like they were at their parents’ aperitivo. I really wonder what the scene was like at the same time in London’s Exchange Square. Let’s see, English soccer fans drinking all day for an 11 p.m. kickoff. Outside. Is Exchange Square still standing this afternoon? In Rome, a man weaved through the crowd selling fresh cornettos.

After all, this is Italy.

Italians’ attitude toward the World Cup, however, is different than any other soccer nation. Ask the average Italian soccer fan and the majority will tell you they’d rather win the national Serie A club title. When A.S. Roma won Serie A in 2001, the fans partied in Circo Massimo for a week, even longer than when Italy won the World Cup in 2006.

What’s so important about a club championship no one cares about outside Italy and certain neighborhoods in New Jersey? Remember, this is a nation that wasn’t unified until 1885. There’s a reason the father of this country is riding a horse and not a chariot. Until 1885, Italy consisted of city-states, most with a history of military strength, violence and hatred for their neighbors.

Italy-England? It’s a country club bridge game compared to Rome-Milan. Add cross-town derbies such as Roma-Lazio, Inter-Milan and Torino-Juventus and you have seething hatred going back generations. They are cauldrons of violence and filthy songs. The World Cup has nothing on Serie A. Shortly before kickoff, three of the very few English fans held up England’s white and red flag and yelled some indecipherable chant. Italian fans yelled back, “NON VU CI VINCETE MAI! NON VU CI VINCETE MAI!” (YOU WILL NEVER WIN! YOU WILL NEVER WIN!”)

Huh? This pseudo children’s playground tease before the most important game since losing the European Championship two years ago? Where is Roma’s great chant, “LAZIO! LAZIO! VAFFANCULO! LAZIO! LAZIO! VAFFANCULO!” (LAZIO! LAZIO! GO FUCK YOURSELF! LAZIO! LAZIO! GO FUCK YOURSELF!)? Two young Italian fans leaning up against Il Vittoriano’s base chanting, at the octave of two guys hailing a bus, “Ingla. Ingla. Vaffancolo. Ingla. Ingla. Vaffanculo,” didn’t have quite the same spank.

However, soccer runs through the blood of Italians like fresh pesto. It boils every time they put on the blue jersey. The temperature just varies. (Oh, worthless trivia that will impress drunks in a soccer pub but not a soul in a cocktail party with any class: Do you know why Italy’s national color is blue? It dates back to 1366 when Conte Verde of Savoy, the oldest ruling family in the world with roots in the Alps, went on a crusade organized by Pope Urbano V. On his flagship he put a blue banner next to the Savoy coat of arms, declaring the blue a tribute to the Madonna, “as the color of the sky consecrated to Mary and, as it seems to me, the origin of our national color.”)

The crowd united as one in pre-game introductions. They went wild when they showed Daniele De Rossi, the brainy midfielder for Roma. They even applauded Mario Balotelli, the polarizing striker who has been the unfortunate victim of numerous racist chants around the country. I heard unusual American-style boos when the camera panned England striker Wayne Rooney. Then again, maybe they were booing his hair plugs. Italians, even the soccer fans, appreciate style above substance. When the stadium in Manaus, Brazil, played Italy’s national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani” (The Song of the Italians), the thousands sitting on the piazza stood and cheered along. It was quite moving even for a non Italian who has heard too many pre-game anthems to care anymore.

The two teams’ styles befitted their reputations. The Italians, despite being loaded with dangerous strikers, were patient. They passed back and forth waiting for a lightning-quick attack. They were like some Italians standing around a caffe drinking a midday espresso before rushing back to work. England, however, played like 11 guys slamming beers before the pub closed. They attacked relentlessly, with deep forays, dangerous crosses and strikers flying through the 18-meter box. Salvatore Sirisu, Italy’s backup goalkeeper, ran as much as Italy’s midfielders.

Italy’s flair, brilliance and overall superior athleticism eventually paid off in the second half. Andrea Pirlo, its heady captain, stepped over a soft pass over the middle giving Claudio Marchisio, his teammate with Juventus, a clear shot which he rifled into the left side of the goal. Italy won it on a brilliant, lofting pass over England goalkeeper Joe Hart to the waiting head of Balotelli who poked it home. How loaded is Italy? Balotelli almost didn’t start.

Balotelli’s score in the 50th minute transformed the piazza from a subdued party to a frenzied, collective scream. A shower of beer cascaded down on me and my notepad — I think it was Birra Moretti Doppio Malto — and a man in a green, white and blue court jester hat gave me a hug. Even the American tourists more concerned where their wives were than the score raised their arms in triumph.

Later as I settled into bed at 3 a.m. and finished Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the usual early Sunday morning chorus of cars leaving the nearby disco district filled my bedroom. But this time I got up. I went out onto my terrace, buck naked, and looked down. These revelers weren’t coming from the discos.

They were coming from Il Vittoriano, their blue flags waving in the warm Italian wind.