Three years ago, in a dingy Pitu bar in Natal, the northeastern-most edge of Brazil, a full-grown adult human being in his late 50s called Giuseppe—a man who had recently become a grandfather, if you must know—buried his face in my shoulder and wept. And no other soul in that bar (including his wife) threw an embarrassed look our way. For, earlier that evening at the Arena das Dunas, Italy had lost 1-0 to Uruguay in their final match of the group stages and had crashed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Now, later that night—so late that it was in fact day—Giuseppe’s Category 2 tickets for the knockout stages (conditional on Italy making it through to the next round) were worthless coasters, soaking up the sweating Pituglasses. And why was he crying on my shoulder? Because I too was draped in an Italian jersey (2006 edition, three stars on the chest), just as I was for the entirety of the month-long tournament, proud of my allegiance even at a point when Italy’s presence at that World Cup felt like an afterthought.
In the years that have since passed, Giuseppe and I have kept in touch, on and off, most of those emails exchanged during his beloved club Juventus’s unexpected appearances in the UEFA Champions League final, in 2015 and earlier this year. And in each of these mails, Giuseppe would invariably mention our first meeting in the Pitu bar, a day he calls ‘the single worst his life’. Until, he emailed me earlier this week, on Tuesdayafternoon to be precise, where he wrote and I quote: Today I wake up and feel shame to be Italian. Nothing is (sic) same again.
On Monday night, Giuseppe, and millions of other supporters of Italian football, tuned in to the San Siro in Milan, where Italy were out-Italyied by a defensive Sweden in the World Cup qualifiers, holding them to a 0-0 draw on the night and a 1-0 aggregate loss over two legs. The result ensured that one of the behemoths of the game – a team that hoisted the most important trophy in the most popular sport on four occasions (joint second with Germany, only one behind Brazil with five) -- didn’t qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, and a nation spiralled into mourning.
“Apocalypse, tragedy, catastrophe,” a headline of a national daily in Italy wept. More apt was the single-word on the cover of La Gazzetta dello sport, Italy’s leading sports daily, whose shares in the Milan Stock Exchange plummeted by 8.83 per cent in the aftermath – “Fine”, or “It’s Over”, it read.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving an invitation,” an insight that Italians are now coming to terms with. A non-entry to a party, after all, is far worse than an unceremonious exit from one. Which is perhaps why Argentina appreciated Lionel Messi’s effort of dragging his nation (they were in Italy’s do-or-die situation just a month ago against Ecuador, where Messi scored a hattrick) into the 2018 World Cup in Russia a whole lot more than in the occasions when he led the team, with both mind and feet, all the way to the final of a World Cup and a Copa America. You’d probably have to be an Argentine, or a fan of the Albiceleste, to understand just why.
Apart from the die-hard hockey supporter in our country, who had to live through the ignominy of an eight-time gold medalling nation not qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, fans of Indian team sports generally don’t get to know what it feels like to be in Giuseppe’s current predicament. But those of us who have adopted international football teams as our own – and we are now many – find ourselves susceptible to emotions, ranging from elation to devastation, just like the indigenous fans. And I have often wondered why.
Why was I batting back tears when Italy’s captain and the greatest goalkeeper of all time, Gianluigi Buffon, wrestled his soul and found the courage the speak into a mic and repeatedly said he’s sorry and ended his 20-year top flight career with the line ‘I’m not sorry for myself but all of Italian football because we failed at something that also means something at a social level’? Why do I feel anything for this team at all when I have nothing in common with Italy, except for a Bialetti and a DVD of Ladri di Biciclette?
Yet, somehow, even before I had heard of Italian food, the Azzurri was always my team. And it perhaps had something to do with an eight-year old boy falling in love with the most clichéd reason to fall in love with the Italian team in the early 90s, Roberto Baggio, the Divine Ponytail himself.
I can recall the precise moment when the football team chose me, rather than the other way around. It wasn’t Baggio’s glut of goals (two against Nigeria in the pre-quarters, one against Spain in the quarters and two in the semis versus Stoichkov’s Bulgaria) that clinched it for me. It was the one he missed, the all-important penalty in the final against Brazil, the sailing kick he would forever be immortalised by, that arrested me--and several others with an affinity for flawed heroes--into becoming a lifelong tragic. Of Baggio. Of ponytails. Of the country he represented.
In the 2000s, Italy produced a clutch of greats we could adorn as posters on our hostel walls and their names on our backs; chief among them, from defence to attack, Gigi Buffon, Maldini, Nesta, Costacurta, Cannavaro, De Rossi, Gattuso, Pirlo, Totti, Inzaghi and Del Piero. In 2006, each of those names, barring Costacurta, kissed and caressed the World Cup trophy in Berlin, at the Olympiastadion (Many years later, I even made the pilgrimage to a remote, western edge of Berlin to stand outside a massive wrought iron gate framed by five wrought iron rings, hands folded in obeisance). Many thousand miles away in Bombay, Azzurri fans broke curfew (Meenatai Thackeray’s statue had been desecrated earlier in the day) in their beer-soaked jerseys and cried. Happy, frothy tears.
Since then, the tears haven’t ever been happy. Apart from a brief spark called Mario Balotelli at the 2012 European Championships, there has been little to cheer about. Still, as tragics, we tend to search for a ray of light in the darkest hour, and every Azzurri fan will tell you that they found that moment of solace even in the horrific moments before Sweden brought to an abrupt end the careers of Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi.
Sometime during the second half of the match at the San Siro, De Rossi, a holding midfielder and the moat before Italy’s two high walls at the back, was asked by his coach Giampiero Ventura to get ready for a possible entry as a substitute. To which De Rossi was caught on camera replying: "Che cazzo entro io? Non dovemo parregià, dovemo vince!" Or, “Why the fuck should I come on? We don't need a draw, we need a win!" He then pointed towards Lorenzo Insigne, the more attack-inclined midfielder on the bench, and asked Ventura to bring him on instead.
Ventura, quite easily the most out-of-depth manager in the history of the Italian national team, brought neither on and immediately after the final whistle, De Rossi retired. To see a legend put his mates, his team, his country above all else—including making an appearance in what he knew would be his final match were Italy not to qualify for the World Cup—reminded me of just why I care so much for this team. And unlike my now email-pal Giuseppe (perhaps because I am not Italian), I am not ashamed. Devastated, that’s all.