When I was a kid, Sundays were usually spent having lunch with friends and relatives, and regular appointments with football pool coupons, 90° Minuto1, and the matches’ radio commentaries. Everything was perfect until my father, hearing that some player had kicked the ball wide, started cursing the radio.
Football has always been a complicated matter. Even though I didn’t properly understand what it meant, I became a Juventus fan just because it was my father’s legacy: he was a Juve fan, so I should be one too. My cousin Emanuele thought the same when he received the Internazionale sceptre from his father. He wore the Black and Blues armour to go to the football Crusades, and entered the inner circle of offside rules, open goals missed, lousy defenders, and bloody refs.
The outcome was that Emanuele and I began to quarrel regularly to defend our teams, chanting improbable slogans, and collecting football trading cards, which weighed on the household budgets. All this went on until we got physical, so much for the future violence coming from videogame abuse.
That’s why, in our family pack, football was ranked as an alpha feature, and the right to express opinions on this subject was granted to the strongest individual. We made alliances with our small cousins: the battle for supremacy was fought with unconventional actions, such as sabotage of the trading cards glue, acts of terrorism on Scudetto2 drawings, which were mercilessly tore to pieces, and even the theft of important documents, like La Gazzetta dello Sport3 whole pages. All these actions were followed by the punishment inflicted on us by our parents.
I couldn’t say who was the strongest, if Franz Beckenbauer or Franco Baresi, but my room was covered with Gaetano Scirea’s pictures. My father tried his best to explain that the position of libero4, despite the meaning of the word didn’t imply that this player could do whatever he wanted to. He told me that this player was free from man-marking tasks, that he was the last defender the opponents had to pass before reaching the goalie. My uncle, more expert, used the example of a Middle Age castle drawbridge, which was raised as the last defence if the army failed. However, even this explanation was hard to understand. So I contented myself with the “last bastion” definition, which conveyed also a heroic idea: if I fall, everything – or almost everything – is lost. But Stefano Tacconi was our goalie, and I had no need to be afraid.
Scirea was also a way to make peace with my cousin because, in order to have my player’s cards, I exchanged them with every sort of Black and Blue find I could lay my hands on. Emanuele was so happy with my precious material that he gave me access to his own; this way, despite our differences, we could always stick together. That was how I grasped my first diplomacy notions, and learnt that good commercial relationships can make two enemy countries friends.
And yet, we have never attempted to play football. As far as I know, my cousin, who’s extremely lazy, never kicked a ball and, as for myself, every effort turned out in massive falls, passes to the opponents, and choruses of execration from the stands. The girls, darn them all. My football career ended very soon, approximately when I hit our own right goal post for the fifth time, trying to save the shoots that always crossed the line. After all, my father wasn’t any good as well, but this hadn’t stopped him from being a football fan. Therefore, I accepted my destiny.
When I met Rosy, my Scirea collection had nearly reached its peak level. I had been able to gather fifty identical cards, which I had used to compose his running figure on a plywood ground that my father had hanged on the wall.
The courtship practice is rather simple, when you are 10 years old: Do I like her? Good, now I go and tell her. Does she like me, too? She does? Well, let’s be together. Clean, elementary, like the school we both attended. We held hands. Only hands, because kisses were only for grown-ups. Things of the past.
I loved Rosy’s round cheeks, and her blue eyes which shone, as far as I knew, like the lights of a stadium during an evening match. As we lived next door, we could meet every day at the parish youth club, or in the small park behind our houses. But not on Sundays, as in the mornings they dragged me to the Mass, and in the afternoons I had Scirea, a sheet of paper to draw his moves, and the cards on the table, like holy pictures. A trick I had learnt at the parish. They said it worked well if you had prayed with intensity.
I started to understand how much Scirea influenced my love life on the 9th of January 1983. My father’s oaths against that 0-1 away game defeat with Genoa were muffled, and moreover I was a little disappointed because my champion’s name had been mentioned only a few times on the radio. So just to feel better, I decided to go see Rosy, and told her about the match. She retorted very seriously that I hadn’t even noticed her new shoes, and that her friends were right. When asked to explain, she revealed that they thought I was a real blockhead. At that age the girls’ opinions could cast a very bad light on my reputation.
The fierce argument that followed, and the door she slammed behind her back disheartened me more than ever, and not even my new poster with Scirea hoisting the World Cup could give me strength. However, this sight carried my mind away for a few seconds with that night confused memories. I only remembered that my father, who was in the balcony in his underwear shouting his joy to the neighbourhood, woke me up.
The next day, I wrote her a letter, and after a week of silence she accepted my point of view. So we got back together, at least until May Day.
There was a devastating draw with the hateful Inter, worsened by my cousin’s presence at home. That 3-3 draw fuelled another fight, which was quelled by the parents’ jokes. I was too upset to stay, so I went see Rosy, and obtained another argument because I hadn’t noticed that her mom had taken her to the hairdresser for the first time.
Back in my room, I asked Scirea what I had to do. He, looking inscrutable, made me understand that the answer was inside myself. I thought about it all night long, and even the next morning at school. When I went back home and saw a small tear on the poster, I realized what the matter was: no doubt there was a connection between my team’s results and my relationship with Rosy.
I sacrificed my maths exercise book, and started to use it for my notes. That’s why I realized that whenever Juventus tied a match, or Scirea’s performance wasn’t good, I had an argument with her. There must have been a reason for this.
At the end of September I had the full picture: football was controlling my destiny. This was demonstrated by a shameful draw with Pisa, after which Rosy threatened the breakup.
I had to do something.
My first move was to keep myself informed of all the events: championship matches, friendly and Cup games, injures, Giovanni Trapattoni5’s press statements, and even the gossip (which was very meagre at the time). It was a hard job. My mother accused me to neglect my studies for that nonsense and, in turn, she accused my father to cast a bad influence on me. Under these circumstances, it was easy to convince him to buy me a shirt with the sponsor’s logo on, lest he felt himself too involved into all this.
Sundays became sacred. I always went to church, stayed there ten more minutes, and spent some of my allowance for a candle, because Father Oreste had told me that this could prolong the effect of my prayers. I asked my grandparents about all the superstitious practices they knew: so I avoided black cats and stepladders carefully, and stopped using salt, for fear it could fall. These traditional or often unconventional rituals accompanied the 90 minutes plus injury time of the matches. Therefore my mother took me to a paediatrician, suspecting some sort of disorder, such as my grandfather’s nervous tics: in fact he used to move his fingers on and on, hoping to reduce the pangs of arthritis. Moreover, at that time I had seen all Bruce Lee films on TV. The fights with my cousin were unavoidable, and therefore I had to be well trained.
My enthusiasm would have overcome the problems of the team. I made that promise to my champion who was hitting the ball in an athletic pose, in a precious picture, a gift from the Enemy, Emanuele’s father. He would have regretted it, poor fool.
My relationship with Rosy was great: if Scirea didn’t play at his best, or if Juventus didn’t win, I avoided her with some excuse, an imaginary illness, or homework. I was proud of my intuition and my father was so happy about my passion that he was never short of Juve-theme gifts, such as banners, scarves, caps and even a great flag that we hung to the ceiling, so that I could contemplate it before going to sleep. My collection of Scirea’s cards amounted to 500 units, and some of them were sacrificed on my room’s furniture, despite my mother’s complaints.
The 11th of November 1984 was the day when my life did end.
I couldn’t believe that. The radio commentary was a deliberate insult on my morale, after the dreadful Inter 4-0 easy win over my Juventus. Inacceptable, devastating from every point of view, even from my cousin’s. Actually he got slapped across the face after he had come to fool me for the tenth time (Bruce Lee did work!).
However, the worst came after I had received the bad news, when Rosy called me and insisted we met. I tried to find an excuse, I was ill, and so were my parents. There was an epidemic going on, she might as well get infected. She was adamant, or she didn’t believe me, so I gave up.
We met in the small park. I was glad to see her and started to think that all that stuff about destiny and Scirea was complete nonsense. For just a moment I deceived myself, in the hope that she would comfort me. Then she told me:
«We have to split up».
I knew that, if I still had doubts about it, I lost them all in that very moment. The world collapsed on me, the buildings were reduced to rubbles, and bricks and debris turned to footballs, hitting my head. The curse was real, that was the punishment for my lack of faith. Destiny, Juventus and above all Scirea’s punishment.
I tried to work it out, asking for a reason. I apologized for whatever crossed my mind. I even told her that I had been naughty only to ask her to forgive me, I am sorry, believe me, you are my life, and all that stuff that a 12-year-old boy can say to his girlfriend just to humiliate himself.
It was no use. She turned around and, before leaving, she whispered, «Goodbye».
I cried for hours and hours before recovering and going back home. I was mad at everyone, and I even railed against my champion, but I knew it was not his fault. So I spared his posters and took my anger on an Ilario Castagner6 card.
I lost faith in supporting Juventus, but retained interest in my collection of Scirea stickers and pictures, because everything has its bounds. The relationship with my cousin improved, he perceived my gradual disaffection for the team, and we only fought about toy cars and to videogames, our new passion. Anyway, I didn’t share with him the football videogames, just for my sake.
I didn’t receive any more phone calls from Rosy. I repeatedly tried to make some, but at the other end I only heard something like, “Mh, yes, ok, hello”, and eventually I gave up. When I saw her in the street and tried to get closer, she walked away, or joined a group of girlfriends who surrounded her for protection, as if I were the devil.
However, Sundays became an excellent way to get good marks at school. As I didn’t listen to the matches’ radio commentaries any more, I devoted myself to study and got the reputation of a Juve fan nerd, which would have followed me for the rest of my life. My football interest was restricted only to results: I listened to them on the TV sport reports after the end of the matches, and said to myself well, that’s ok for today.
Some months passed and my father started to think he had lost his influence on me, or perhaps he feared that I was about to surrender to the Enemy. So he bought two tickets and invited me to go to the stadium, since I had never been there before. Despite this tempting offer, I didn’t want to go see the match. But when I noticed the word “Turin” on those things, I was speechless. Love had forced me to leave football behind, but football cheer is a deceitful thing, it steals silently under one’s skin, and waits there for the right moment to attack.
That’s why, on 24th March 1985, I saw my first match at the stadium, sitting on a very hard seat and with my sponsored shirt on. I feared it, because it was the return match of my beloved Juventus against Inter, blast to them and to my cousin. I cannot describe the enthusiasm and the involvement of that experience on me. Months spent to sink Scirea into oblivion, and now I saw him running as fast as a rocket towards the goal. Once, twice, three times, until Massimo Briaschi decided that it was enough, and obviously scored the third goal. Anyway, Scirea was the day’s hero, the player who had always hit the ball down the pitch, and had even arrived alone before Walter Zenga, who had spared no effort to resist. The match might as well have ended 2-1, but Juventus insisted for a larger score, after last November’s humiliation.
Going back home, I felt happy like in the past, I was looking forward to call my cousin and to make fun of him. But, when I was home, my mother informed me that Rosy had called many times.
Before calling her back, despite my own dignity and self-respect, I thought about it, should I say, for some nanoseconds.
We met at the usual place, and she had puffy eyes from crying. I tried to soothe her, and our hands touched again. She said that she wanted to get back together with me, that she was wrong to break up. So I discovered that she’d had a crush on Antonio, a mutual friend I never spoke to anymore, for that reason, and also because he was an AC Milan fan, a passion I had never really understood.
Back in my room, I stared at Scirea for hours: it was all true, if you win, I win. Anyway, it couldn’t last forever. I loved Rosy, so I begged Scirea not to intrude so much. To be sure, I did my best to make her happy, and it worked so well that even when Juventus was defeated or Scirea’s performance was not excellent, I could avoid any argument with her. Every time we met, I asked if she had gone to the hairdresser, and paid careful attention to her shoes. Then I tried to be nice to all her girlfriends, Heaven forbid some shouldn’t like me. On a Saturday afternoon I kicked Antonio, just for social liberation and to demonstrate that, once again, Bruce Lee did work.
The years went by, carefree and relaxed. When I grew up, I started to doubt the curse, but it regularly came back only to remind me not to lay my guard down. My relationship with Rosy was just great: sometimes we had silly arguments or skirmishes, which were always preceded by Juventus defeats. But, after all, we were in love, and never had a real period of crisis.
In 1988, when Scirea announced his retirement, I called her at once and said I had pressing commitments for the day. Then, I went to the bar to talk it over with my friends, all strict Juventus fans, who I had met in the first two high school years. Now he’s 35, he’s not young, Franco said, he can’t run on the pitch like he did before. No, I retorted, look at him: he’s in his prime. And so on, until the night came.
On second though, that was the hardest day of my fan’s life, even though it was partially relieved by the ticket for the 1st November farewell match. Together with 15.000 other overenthusiastic fans, with the tears in my eyes, I saw those wonderful last 90 minutes: the 1982 Italian National Team against the Rest of the World.
But he couldn’t leave us high and dry. So, when he became the team’s assistant manager, I bought a bottle of Muscat, invited my friends, and even Rosy, who patiently endured my unbridled joy.
The 3rd September 1989. Less than one year later, even that dream came to an end. It ended in a fire, with the dismay I felt when I heard of his death because of a car accident that even today I can’t, and don’t want to, understand.
Other players had already taken his place on the pitch and in the fans’ hearts. That’s why the news had a rather low profile for some of them. I wondered what was more important, his death or the life he’d had before, but I couldn’t find an answer. Perhaps time had passed for me too. Of course I couldn’t ignore what had happened, but I felt guilty to experience a kind of emotion which was somewhat weaker than the one I’d had on the day of his retirement.
After these reflections, another thought struck me: Rosy!
I gathered my wits and went to her. Would we break up once again? Had she left for Asia, the North Pole, or another damned faraway place?
When we met, she was a little surprised and worried about my concerned look.
«What happens?», she asked me. And then, putting her hands on her chest: «Oh, dear! Do you really want to leave me?».
«What? No! You want to leave me!».
«Are you crazy? Why should I leave you?».
«Why should I?».
«I heard that Scirea died… every time your team loses a match you get depressed and make me feel guilty. And he was so important to you…».
«How do you know?».
«You’re always talking about him!».
«Why haven’t you ever told me? I can stop, I can change! I, I would do anything for you!».
Rosy smiled, took my face in her hands, and said it:
«My love, it’s because I’m an Inter fan».
And we kissed, for the first time.
«And how did it end, Dad?».
«Well, we’ve been together so long that eventually we got married».
«But you hardly talk about Juventus and this fellow… Schirea».
«Scirea. I didn’t want to influence you too much, or to upset Mom. You know, she loves Mourinho, blast to him».
My son smiles, and once again he looks at the old card I’ve given him.
«Now I understand».
«That’s good, Gaetano».
1 A popular sports TV program, aired on Rai1 on Sunday evenings during the football season, showing highlights of the day’s matches in Italy’s top division, Serie A.
2 Literally, the little shield. It’s the symbol of the annual victory of the Serie A championship. It is worn by the champions on their shirts.
3 The most important Italy’s sport newspaper.
4 Literally, the free man. It’s the Italian word for the sweeper, a highly specialized defensive position.
5 Juventus head manager from 1976 to 1986.
6 Internazionale head manager from 1984 to 1985.