The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Watching Italy Fail

Posted by steigs on May 2, 2008

Euro 2008 is around the corner.  (Woo-hoo!  Can’t wait!)  As we assess who might be ready to win the tourney, it’s worth remembering that things can change fast in the world of top-level international soccer, where national teams are all-star collections that don’t play together nearly as regularly as club side. 

As World Cup champions, Italy are an obvious Euro 2008 favorite.  But two years can be a long time in international soccer.  In fact, I was at the Euro 2004 game where Italy was eliminated — at the group stage!  It’s a thin line between triumph and tragedy in these tourneys.  What’s it like to watch Italy fail?  In the rain?  With Bulgarians?  Read on after the jump.

Guimaraes — June 2004


I drive north.  The countryside is Mediterranean — sun-baked, orchards, brown and gold hills, tile roofs.  It could be Italy or Spain…or California.


Guimaraes is a small city today, an hour north of Porto, inland and nestled in hills.  Once upon a time, however, it was much more.  Guimaraes was the birthplace of the nation of Portugal and served as the country’s original capital.  The capital moved south with the king over the years, as the land was taken from the Moors, until it came to rest in Lisbon.  Guimaraes is left with a minor castle, a historic center and a soft spot in the heart of the Portuguese.


The weather is misty.  The north is Portugal’s rainy region and the hills rising above the town are greener, forested.  Guimaraes itself is on a slope — I spend most of my time walking uphill or downhill, depending on the destination.  It can feel like the slanted sets of the old “Batman” show.


The air of the city is one of surprise and bemusement, as if the circus has arrived, sparking an improvised midweek festival.  The game tonight is Italy against Bulgaria.  Italy has not played that well in the tourney so far, earning only draws against Denmark and Sweden.  Both of the Scandinavian teams have beaten the Bulgarians, meaning Bulgaria has been eliminated and has only pride to play for.  So much for my dark horse.  The Italians, on the other hand, must win and hope that the Denmark-Sweden game, being played at the same time, has a loser.  Such a result would send the winner of that game and the Italians to the knock-out rounds.  If the Italians don’t win, they’re out.  And if they do win but the Swedes and Danes tie, well, then it gets complicated, coming down to tie breakers like goal differential.


Once this situation became clear in the aftermath of the previous games the Italians immediately sensed a fix, charging the Scandinavian neighbors will collude to eliminate them.  The notion horrifies the Danes and Swedes — who are actually serious rivals — but is second nature to the Italians.  How these cultures work out their differences in the European Union must be fascinating as a matter of sociology.


I wander the narrow streets, popping into hole in the wall cafes and bars.  As the Rough Guide puts it, “the old centre of Guimaraes is an elongated kernel of small, enclosed squares and cobbled streets.”  In the square at the end of the Alameda Resistencia do Fascismo, a group of Bulgarian fans have set up shop.  All wearing similar outfits, frequently using their flags as capes, they appear to be on a package tour.  A bold drummer beats out a pattern for their cheers. 

I move on to a square further up the hill, the Largo Da Oliveria, which fronts on the narrow church of the same name.  A corner bar has speakers pointed out, letting everyone listen to Eminem — you can even hear it in the church.  The square is charming but I am particularly amused by the Rough Guide’s story about the canopy structure in front of the church.  “[It] marks the legendary spot where Wamba, unwillingly elected king of the Visigoths, drove a pole into the ground swearing he would not reign until it blossomed.  Naturally, it sprouted immediately.”  Now that’s a good place for a beer!  But what sort of person is “unwillingly” elected king?  Surely, it is the kind of job one seeks out.  (Sadly, I learn later that Wamba’s 7th century miracle was more likely to have occurred over the border in Spain — it did the Visigoths little good, however, since they were soon swept aside by the invading Muslim Moors.)


Looking around, I see, as in Coimbra, a most international array of fans.  There are Germans and a healthy number of English and Irish, along with a couple of sets of Wales supporters.  I even see a brave set of Spanish fans, still wearing their jerseys despite the loss to Portugal, which eliminated their team.  Good for them, although I suppose they are used to the disappointment.  A Japanese guy walks by wearing an Italian jersey.


The most popular fans are a multi-generational collection of Mexicans occupying a set of tables outside a bar in a corner of the square.  They are all, from teenager to grandfather, outfitted in Mexican national team jerseys, and one is — I swear — wearing a sombrero.  They prove special favorites of the Bulgarians, probably because of the similarity in colors (green is prominent for both) or perhaps a simple feeling of mutual underdog-dom.


I watch a pair of Bulgarians in folk costumes, complete with furry hats, get interviewed for television.  The crew moves on — the rest of us are insufficiently interesting.  Watching the Italian fans, I start a little game “find the fat Italian in a national team jersey.”  I can’t do it, not a one to be seen.  Many Italian fans are sporting those familiar blue jerseys but they are invariably thin, or at least muscular.  Their sense of style must warn them that the jersey, which is of an especially skintight nature, is unbecoming on the unfit.  Looking around, I conclude that the makers of the English jersey would go bankrupt if such a view took hold among their fans.


Game time approaches.  The mist is becoming a light rain.  I head down the hill.  The stadium is right downtown, taking up most of a park.  It is named, in rather noble fashion, Estadio D. Afonso Henriques and after the tourney it will host Vitoria de Guimaraes, a better than average Portuguese team, the kind that makes brief UEFA Cup appearances from time to time.  I think Guimaraes would make for a pleasant away trip, inviting and historical without being intimidating.  Not one that a foreign fan would be initially excited to see come up in a draw — unlike, say, Rome or Amsterdam — but any who make the trip would be most pleasantly surprised.


My seat is behind one goal, close to the Bulgarian ultras.  Led by a drummer, perhaps the same one I heard earlier, they are already warming up.  They chant “Bul-ga-ri!  U-not-si!” or something quite like that.  I try to get a translation and fail.  Few speak English and they seem rather determined to chant, perhaps because they are outnumbered.  I am later told it means something like “Bulgarian heroes.”  In the soft rain a pre-game show involving a flag team is going on, although few pay it any attention.

There are a lot more Italian fans in the stands than Bulgarians.  The goal opposite us is a wall of blue as are much of the main stands along the sides of the field.  The myriad banners represent a host of Italian cities — Firenze, Roma, Verona, Vicensza.  It is like reading an itinerary for a fabulous vacation.


The rain gets harder.  We retreat under cover, by the concession stands, as the game kicks off.  I end up directly behind the goal, on the outskirts of the Bulgarian ultras, who find rain no impediment to their fun.  They tend to be stocky men who have shed their shirts, often revealing ambitious tattooing, and continue to chant in time with the drummer.


At the other end of the field, a few flares sparkle for a moment through the rain.  Ah, the Italians and their inevitable flares.  No matter the security.  No matter the conditions.  The Italians will manage to set off their flares.  It doesn’t feel like a real football game to us without the national anthem.  I think Italians feel that way about flares and soccer.


Italy, needing a win, comes out attacking for once.  They move the ball fluidly and create a handful of chances.  They are without stars Totti and Cannevaro, due to suspensions, but they look good.  Italy rarely lacks talented players.


The Bulgarians defend well, however, and nothing results from the chances.  The rain is coming down steadily.  Banners are pressed into service as shields.  Much of the crowd retreats to covered areas in the back part of the stands or to the walkways by concession stands.  The Bulgarians keep chanting.  I can hear Italian songs indistinctly in the distance, more diffuse and changeable.


The game shifts just before half-time.  The Bulgarian forward Berbatov goes down in the Italian box, taken down by defender Marco Materazzi.  (The same Materazzi later to become world famous after being head-butted by Zidane in the 2006 World Cup Final.)  Penalty!  The Bulgarian ultras go berserk.  Then comes a moment of stillness in the wet as we wait while Petrov prepares.  Then…it’s in!  1-0, Bulgaria!  It is a very happy bunch of Bulgarian fans at half-time, with a lead on the mighty Italians.


Of the Bulgarians still wearing shirts, several are wearing replicas Hristo Stoichkov jerseys, fans of the fire-tempered forward who led Bulgaria to its brightest soccer moment, the run to the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup.  They defeated the feared Germans along the way, before losing in the semi-finals to Roberto Baggio and Italy, by the way.  Stoichkov won the “golden boot” at the 1994 World Cup, meaning he led the tourney in goals.


I had actually watched Stoichkov play his farewell season recently…as a member of DC United.  Nearing 40, he was no longer able to run much and often only played a portion of the game, using the year as a way to ease into coaching.  Hristo could still send remarkable cross-field volleys, more bullets than passes.  He also managed to break the leg of a college player during a scrimmage, a sign he had mellowed little with age.


I had worn my DC United jersey with the thought it might draw comment from the Stoichkov fans.  However, there is no recognition of it.  The Bulgarians speak little English and seem unaware of their hero’s sunset sojourn in America.  Or perhaps they simply prefer to remember him at his peak with Barcelona and the national team rather than toiling away in the soccer hinterland of MLS.


The rain continues into the second half and it is having an impact on the game as players slide about.  No matter.  The Italians score quickly after the half begins.  Perrotta gets to a rebound of a shot off the bar and we are tied at 1-1.  The Italians continue to play with urgency after the goal.  There has been no word on the scoreboard about the other game and the Bulgarians have no interest in it so I have no idea if the Swedes or Danes are leading.


The rain continues and the play is intense.  The Bulgarians bunker back in defense.  They start going down and rolling around whenever given an opportunity, wasting time, entirely happy with a tie.  The Italians get irritated, demanding yellow cards.  The fouls are more and more frequent.


I get distracted from the time wasting by the shoes of Italian forward Christian Vieri, a hulking bull of a striker and long a star in Serie A.  The shoes are florescent green, as if he has been wading in some radioactive substance.  Do they distract defenders too?  Do they reflect Italian flamboyance?  Can they actually sell such things to kids because someone like Vieri wears them?


It is still 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes.  But in punishment for all the Bulgarian play-acting, the referee calls for five minutes of added time, two more than average.  In the fourth minute, the Italian Cassano gets on the end of a low cross and scores.  2-1, Italy!  A last gasp victory!


The Bulgarian fans deflate.  The Italian fans cheer.  Cassano sprints to the Italian bench to celebrate and then collapses in despair.  Huh?  I soon learn that Mattias Johnson had scored in the 88th minute for Denmark in the simultaneous Denmark-Sweden game, making the final score of the other match Sweden 2, Denmark 2 which…eliminates the Italians anyway, on goal differential. 


The final whistle blows, leaving no one happy.  The Italians are out.  The Bulgarians lost their moral victory of holding out for a draw.  Meanwhile the rain continues and the night is getting cold.  Some nights, I suppose, there are no winners.  The bars in Guimaraes are subdued.  Well, subdued and busy.  There is much to assess and critique but little to celebrate.


One Response to “Watching Italy Fail”

  1. Good story.

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