On Soccer and Suffering

Like millions of other Italian Americans, I rejoiced in Italy‘s dramatic penalty-kick World Cup victory over France.  For a country that has given us little to cheer about recently, it was a welcome and much-needed celebration, a festival combining benign patriotism, wistful nostalgia, and a release for long-suffering fans.

In fact, both the country and its fabled soccer tradition has given us much to grieve over for  years.  Millions watching throughout the tournament could not forget Italy’s exit from the 1990 World Cup (held in Italy) on penalty kicks in a game in Naples against Diego Maradona‘s Argentina  (Maradona twice won  the scudetto for Naples; no wonder there are thousands of Neapolitan teenagers today with his name); nor our bitter defeat (again by those damn penalties) to Brazil in the 1994 final (a game I witnessed live, only to have to fly back to New York with hundreds of Brazil fans).  1998 also  saw the Italians departing after penalties (a loss to the eventual victor France) and in 2002 they were  sent home by a golden-goal, sudden-death overtime goal by a Korean player who played in Italy for Perugia (the club’s owner immediately fired the offending forward).

I was only a child of five in 1970 and so ignorant of Italy’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Brazil in the World Cup final in Mexico City.  Many years later, reflecting on that stunning humiliation, I began to see it as more than just a defeat in a single game.  What could have been a transformative moment for Italian soccer instead simply reinforced all the negative qualities of calcio italiano.  Instead of abandoning the obsessively defensive style of play known as catenaccio (from catena or chain) and  embracing the joyous dance of modern soccer, the Italians seemed to retreat into an even more defensive style of play.  For many years, it seemed as though the national team took to the pitch more concerned about not losing than with winning or playing flowing, attractive soccer.  Italian defenders soon acquired a reputation as being cynical, Machiavellian manipulators of the game, as adept at pulling an opponent’s shirt unobserved by the referee as in stifling the offense of their adversaries by utilizing a blockade mentality.  If it is true that a nation’s soccer team reflects its character, then gli azzurri often mirrored the essentially conservative nature of Italy, only occasionally demonstrating flashed of daring, brilliance, improvisation, and child-like joy.  We saw  some of those flashes in Argentina in 1978 and again in Spain in 1982 when Italy finally won its third World Cup playing well after a dismal first round, defeating Argentina, Brazil, Poland and, in the final, West Germany.  Since then, Italian international soccer distinguished itself at the club level, but the national team floundered.

It must be said that this Italian national team displayed only a few instances of their past  indiscretions (Daniele Di Rossi’s elbow to Brian McBride being the most egregious example).  No doubt defender Marco Materazzi was talking trash to Zinedine Zidane before the now notorious head butt.  But the Italians took to the field playing a more open, attacking, attractive, soccer, (as did the Germans), and fans responded.  The slow, methodical, patient buildup from the back was abandoned in favor of a more quick-paced game.  Late in the tournament, with favorites Brazil and Argentina and  Spain gone, the press generated the master narrative of a resurgent France, lead by the enigmatic, Algerian-born Zidane.  In a country torn by ethnic and religious strife, Zidane and the multi-cultural bleus offered France and the world a counter-narrative to the front pages of the daily newspapers’ bombings, riots, beheadings, and war.  So it was almost inevitable that Zidane was to garner the Golden Ball award for most valuable player in the World Cup.  (Most journalists voted at halftime during the final, before the infamous head butt.)  But this master narrative obscured another compelling story: that of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and captain Fabio Cannavaro.  While Zidane had a poor first round showing, missing a game because of yellow cards, only one exceptional game (against Brazil), and finally a red card, Cannavaro  played seven outstanding games, leading a defense that let pass only two goals (one an own goal and one a penalty awarded after a phantom foul), without receiving so much as a caution.  So much for the argument that Italian defense rests only on fouls.  On the night when he hoisted the World Cup trophy in triumph in Berlin, Cannavaro convinced the head of the security detail to allow him to take the Cup to bed.  There, it spent the night nestled between the Italian captain and his seven-year-old son.

It is often said that the Serie A in Italy is the most competitive soccer league in the world, with the Italian national team the only one fielding all its players from their domestic league.  Perhaps.  It was the expansion of television coverage and the rise of Silvio Berlusconi that further undermined the beautiful game in Italy. Top level teams became trapped in a system that demanded qualification to the lucrative European-wide competitions, in order to generate television revenue that would be used to buy the top players from around the world.  Berlusconi, the billionaire magnate who controls most of the mass media in Italy, brilliantly converted his ownership of A.C. Milan into political power.  By transforming A. C. Milan fan clubs all over Italy into what were in effect political action committees, he catapulted himself into the prime minister’s office, not once, but twice.  A shrewd, if  unorthodox politician, Berlusconi managed to get the VP and CEO of Milan, Adriano Galliani, named  to vice president of the Italian soccer league: a conflict of interest as clear as Zidane’s head butt.  But  Berlusconi by himself cannot be blamed for the sorry state of Italian soccer.  The influx of obscene amounts of cash began with the Agnelli’s stewardship of Juventus.  (Agnelli to Turin is like Ford to  Detroit; the family owns FIAT).  In Italy, soccer is never divorced from politics: conservatives tend to support A.C. Milan and liberals cheer Juventus.

My confession: after many years of watching Italian Serie A soccer every Sunday morning with more conviction and fervor than I could muster for my other religious commitment in Church, I began to become disillusioned.  Although my family and friends are evenly divided between supporters of Turin powerhouse Juventus and Milan juggernaut A.C. Milan, I began to feel like Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer: a beggar for good soccer.  “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.'”  I became a tifoso (only in Italy could soccer  enthusiasm be compared to an infectious disease like typhus) of second-tier clubs like Lecce, Sampdoria, and Chievo Verona and disgusted with the neo-fascist posturing and racist chants in some Italian stadiums.  When my young son, who always watches games with me, would ask: “Dad, which team are you rooting for?” I always answer (perhaps ungrammatically): “Whoever plays better,” thus sending him into a frustrated scowl.  Alessandro made me realize that we are torn between a lover’s desire for his obscure object of desire (beautiful football) and a primitive, atavistic, thoroughly  delicious need to belong to a tribe, sharing in its suffering and, occasionally, its orgiastic explosions of release and redemption.  Although I will never, like Cannavaro, be able to sleep side by side with my son and the World Cup trophy, I can at least accompany him along on a journey that teaches us about suffering, sadness, companionship, camaraderie, and, if we are really blessed, joy.

Stanislao G. Pugliese

Stanislao G. Pugliese, professor of European history at Hofstra University, plays forward on an amateur team, Hewlett United. “On Soccer and Suffering” is the second and final part in a series on soccer, popular culture, and  politics by Antonino D’Ambrosio and Stanislao Pugliese.  The authors are currently working on a  series of documentaries based on Pugliese’s books including Carol Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile