Every four years, for one month in the summer, Italy truly becomes one nation, united under one jersey. It’s World Cup time! Almost every single Italian living on Earth has a memory tied to “i Mondiali” — be it the “Notti Magiche” of Italia ’90, or the heart-stopping penalty kicks against France that led the Azzurri to win their fourth World Cup in 2006.
My first vivid World Cup memory dates back to the summer of 1994. The soccer tournament was being held in the United States, and Italy had been led by my hero, Roberto Baggio, all the way to the final.
Under the pounding heat of the California sun, the Azzurri fought a grueling match against Brazil. At the end of regulation, the teams were still scoreless, so penalty kicks were up next. I didn’t see half of them.
That summer, my parents took us, along with my cousin and my Nonna, to spend some time in a mountain town in the north of Veneto. The television reception was horrendous, but it held for most of the match. Franco Baresi, the veteran captain, shot the first penalty kick … way over the goal post. Our desperation quickly turned to joy, though, as goalie Gianluca Pagliuca made a save right after.
Then, all of a sudden, the screen went blank. My cousin launched such a high-pitched shriek, I’m sure it has gained legendary status among the forest animals. The light had gone out and we were all alone on some mountain, on the Sunday the World Cup final was being played. Forget about finding an electrician. Oh, and we couldn’t listen to the radio in the car, because for decades my father had staunchly opposed having one.
The seconds ticked as if they were ages before the light came back on and we all quickly huddled around the TV screen. Italy had scored its next two goals, but so had Brazil. It was now the turn of Daniele Massaro. The striker took a long run-up, but then fumbled the ball that was readily rejected by Brazil’s goalie. Our hearts sank.
All of Italy’s hopes rested at the feet of Baggio. He had made dreamers out of all Italians, single-handedly bringing down Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria to catapult the Azzurri to the coveted final in Pasadena. And then, just like that, he kicked over the goal post and the World Cup was over.
The anticlimactic moment sucked all the air out of me. I pretended everything was OK, and stoically went to brush my teeth and crawl into bed. Then, and only then, I wept like a baby. At 12, my dreams had been crushed. Luckily, at that age you find new dreams quickly enough. The next day, everything outside was pretty much the same, and I went to play with some newfound friends.
Baggio remained the player that most inspired me while I was growing up, even though I ended up playing as a goalkeeper in high school. Looking back at that game, I realize it taught me an important lesson. We are always looking for a hero, a Garibaldi, to show the way and lead us to victory. But the hero can only do so much on his own, and defeat lurks around every corner if there isn’t a team effort. That’s why, perhaps, Italy won the World Cup in 2006. There was no lone hero in that World Cup team, but individual heroes that played as a team and made it to the top of the soccer world.
We’ll see how this year’s tournament goes. The Azzurri will face some tough teams in Brazil. To move on, they will have to win against Costa Rica, England and Uruguay. No easy task. But Italy knows what it takes, having won four times before, and having reached the final six times. All I know is that I will be heading down to the North End to cheer on the team alongside hundreds of other Italians.