“Il Cielo È Sempre Azzurro” by G. Crivello

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010

“Il Cielo È Sempre Azzurro”

I am a soccer fanatic.  There’s no other way to put it.  My passion and devotion for my Italian National team transcends the level of mere supporter and has certainly crossed into the realm of insanity at this point.  It’s been this way since I can remember. The earliest memories I have are those of standing in my playpen, my chubby toddler fingers clutching the mesh caging as my blue eyes reflected tiny soccer players that sprinted across the television screen.  My father’s constant screaming at the display was punctuated with my repeating of the word “ball?”, the new question I taught myself to ask.  On a particular occasion, when our team had blown the semifinal game during the 1990 World Cup, I recall my father coming home from watching the match, with his head slumped in his chest as though he’d been socked.  He came to kiss my peaches and cream forehead as though for comfort and I asked, “Ball?”  He sniffed back his tears of heartache and disappointment and said, “No baby, no more ball.”

That was one of the few times I’ve ever seen my father cry and as I grew older, I too came to feel this heartbreaking emotion.  For years it was a constant yo-yoing of feelings, from euphoria, to shock, to devastation.  We rubbed the round, gold globe of our replica World Cup trophy that sits in our living room as though it were Buddha’s belly, comforting our disappointment and calming the anxiety for four years before the following games in Germany in the summer of 2006.   It was that summer that we at last saw the light at the end of our proverbial tunnel.

June 12, 2006: Italy vs. Ghana

As the winter blanket of fog slowly began evaporating over San Francisco Bay, my family and I prepared for a month of increased heart rate, skyrocketing blood pressure, and flat-out excitement for the World Cup games.  We had Italy’s first round schedules, which included matches against Ghana, the United States, and the Czech Republic, tacked to our refrigerator door, my father’s predictions of W’s, L’s, or D’s (wins, losses, and draws, respectively) scrawled next to each date.  For weeks he and I pored over team lineups, field formations, and starters, as though we were the team’s technical managers.  Arguments ensued over which strikers should be placed where and which defenders were better suited for our first rivals: Ghana.

“He should have Totti, Toni, and Gilardino at the front, and Grosso and Cannavaro defending.”

“Gabrie, what are you talking about? Gilardino? He needs to have Inzaghi out there!” His Italian accent grew thicker with his enthusiasm.

The day of the first match, my parents and I gathered on the couch as the Spanish commentators discussed why this would be a game to watch.  Italy was a known powerhouse in soccer while Ghana had proven its strength in Africa during the qualifying games.  We immediately ceased our debate when the Italian National Anthem began playing and we proudly stood in front of our television, heads thrown back, as we sang along with our team.

The game started slowly, prompting my father to complain that Marcello Lippi, the actual coach, was doing it all wrong and that our team was unworthy of its high placement on the international ranks, until, that is, when we scored.  I believe my dad’s harsh criticism of the team stems from the emotional turmoil he’s had to contend with since his childhood, when he’d crowd around a radio with his brothers, listening as the team battled on some faraway pitch.  He’s given the team his heart and soul; the least they can give back is winning some games.  The game ended up being a stunner, with Italy displaying their skill and dominance in the sport, and we won 2-0.  I was ecstatic that the beginning of our World Cup run was starting so favorably and based on who was next in line on the battlefield, I wasn’t too worried.

June 17, 2006: Italy vs. United States

A week later, my family and I, along with my best friend Rachel who was curious to see whether my claims of “My family goes clinically insane during the World Cup” were actually true, packed into the car, decked out in all blue, and headed toward the Italian Athletic Club in North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco.  Growing up in North Beach, I had spent much time here with my father, who’d pick me up from Saints Peter and Paul school up the block during his breaks from the restaurant and take me to the Club for a Shirley Temple and a game of pool.  The club, though pretty much men-only, was very welcoming to a little girl like me, who used to sit on my dad’s lap and laugh when his friends would start telling hilarious stories of their stint working at the San Francisco shipyards in their early 20’s upon arriving in the America for the first time.  One that particularly sticks out is when my father apparently nailed his sleeve to the side of a ship’s hull and had to be cut out of his shirt.

Though usually private building used for parties and banquets, the club was opened to the public to watch the game on a huge screen in the ballroom.  Settling ourselves at a round table right in front of the screen, we wiggled with anticipation, watching the various Italian and American fans gathering around us.  When the first whistle blew, we leaned back in our seats and waited for the Italian-induced beating, which was to incur on the U.S. team.  Now before you write me off as a traitor to my home country, I must take this moment to defend myself.  I could not be more proud of being born and raised in the greatest country in the world and growing up with the freedoms promised me by our founders.  But when it comes to soccer, my allegiance shifts.  I’ve been conditioned to want to crush any team that plays against my Italian squad, which unfortunately includes the United States.  So sue me.

Unfortunately, the game wasn’t the runaway we Italy fans had anticipated. In fact, it was a fiasco.  For the entire first half, we groaned and fidgeted each time a shot was launched into the goal area, only to hit a crossbar, fly feet above the net, or be swatted away by an all-too lucky American keeper.  Finally, the life was put back in the game when my favorite player, Alberto Gilardino, headed a brilliant shot into the back of the U.S. net after a perfectly placed corner kick from Andrea Pirlo.  We erupted in celebration but were quickly shot down when the ultimate sin of soccer was committed by one of our own—he scored in his own net.  We had pretty much just given the American side an early Christmas present and I watched dazedly as the group of American fans broke into chants of “USA! USA!”  And it only got worse from there.  Daniele DeRossi was sent off and banned for four games for elbowing Brian McBride in the nose, causing blood to pour in spurts over his white jersey.  Then two U.S. players were sent off for diving and unsportsmanlike conduct.  And thus the game ended 1-1.  For the rest of the day, every person I saw wearing a U.S. jersey made my skin prickle with anger, particularly the ones who felt the need to go, “Boo Italy,” when they saw my jersey.  And the odd thing was, I liked the U.S. team!  But when it came to my true loves, the Azzurri, they were the enemy.  I went to bed that night with a bitter taste in my mouth.

June 22, 2006: Italy vs. Czech Republic

The final game of the group round was against the Czech Republic, and since the number of goals scored during each game is calculated in some Einstein-esque mathematical equation in order to determine who plays who in the round of 16, it was crucial that the Azzurri win by at least two goals in order to avoid playing the feared Brazil.  Being the team with the most World Cup titles, Brazil was once again hawked to be the favorites to win, and while beating them is not impossible, we preferred to avoid them until it was necessary.  Rachel came over again to watch with me, as both my parents were at work, and I spent much of the game alternating between watching the screen and watching her out of the corner of my eye.  As someone who had never watched nor been interested in soccer before that summer, she was very much getting into the game, yelling at the screen at appropriate times, throwing her hands up in rage or anticipation, or exhaling with relief when a shot was saved.

“Rachel, you’re really getting into this, aren’t you?” I asked her slyly.

“Guess so.  Damn, this is killing my nerves!” she exclaimed, clutching a throw pillow as though it were a life preserver.

I smiled to myself and felt a surge of pride swell in my chest.  I had created a monster.

We had a blast watching the game together, specifically because it couldn’t have gone any better—Italy easily beat the Czechs, winning 2-0, therefore systematically avoiding Brazil.  We celebrated by pulling out a bottle of Asti Spumanti, the Italian version of Champagne, drinking out of my mother’s fine crystal flutes.  While the slight panicked voice in my head urged, “Your mother is going to kill you, Gabrie!” the fanatic voice just kept repeating, “Shut up! We won!”  Although of course, once my mother came home later that day, her glasses were washed, dried, and back in the China cabinet, and the empty Asti bottle was in a dumpster blocks away.

June 26, 2006: Italy vs. Australia (Round of 16)

Once again, inflated by our last spectacular win, we expected our next game against Australia, a country more known for its rugby than its soccer, to be pretty winnable.  But again, we were a bit too overconfident. My parents were at work and Rachel was unavailable so I watched the game at home alone, my dopamine and serotonin levels spiking and crashing with every play.  As I think back on being alone that day, I wish someone had hidden a camera in my living room and filmed my reaction.  As a psychology major, it would’ve been fascinating to watch, as I am sure I must have displayed symptoms of various psychological disorders, among them paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  I talked to myself out loud, I laughed and grinned when my team played well and yelled angrily when they didn’t, and kept clutching and then releasing a throw pillow over and over. I wrung my hands, and twirled strands of hair around my fingers until it knotted, and was unable to remain seated on the couch without jumping up seconds later, like some sort of self-propelled yo-yo.  All of these actions I inherited from my father, no doubt.  The moment of ultimate stress came when Italy was awarded a penalty kick, which was to be taken by Rome’s hero Francesco Totti.  As he placed the ball at the 12-foot mark in front of the goal, I fell to my knees and clenched my eyes shut, my mind somewhat believing that I was unworthy of watching this intimate moment between Totti and the rest of the world.  Then I heard the scream of the crowd and knew it had gone in.  I leapt up and performed a manic celebratory dance around my living room, almost knocking over my mom’s prized Murano vase.  She should know to put any fragile items away during World Cup time.

We were in the quarterfinals.

June 30, 2006: Italy vs. Ukraine (Quarterfinals)

Fratelli d’italia, d’italia sedesta… I sang along with my boys as they wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders in solidarity and brotherhood.  As I sat on the couch waiting for kick-off, that familiar and uncomfortable tingle of anxiety began to crawl up my spine, causing my hair to stand on end.  I had already found what I thought were three gray hairs within the last few weeks and at the age of sixteen that was quite a troubling discovery.

The game was a runaway right from kick-off: it seemed as though Italy just wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible, as they were firing shots one right after the other, shocking that poor Ukrainian defense.  In the sixth minute of play, Gianluca Zambrotta fired a stunner into the back of the net, causing me to jump up in joy and scream ecstatically.  I secretly hoped that none of my neighbors would be inclined to call the authorities in fear that I was being attacked.  Imagine having to explain that to the police: “Oh, no, officer, everything’s fine.  I’m just watching a soccer game.”  They probably would have had me committed. By halftime the score remained 1-0 and I took the time to send up a little prayer for a victory.  I suspected God was getting tired of these requests.  After the start of the second half, it was obvious the Ukrainians would be going home, as Italy was unstoppable, scoring another two goals within ten minutes of each other.  We won 3-0 and were now in the semifinals, where we would meet our biggest challenge yet—playing the host team and known Italy rival, Germany, in a stadium where they had never lost.  But, I thought, there’s always a first time for everything.  Donning my Totti jersey, I ventured out shopping, bragging to anyone who would listen that my team was now in the semifinals.  And I guess I just had to share in my euphoria as I even found a fellow tifoso or fan wearing an Italy jersey at Target, who grinned and asked for a high-five as we passed each other between the cleaning supplies and the dog food.

July 4, 2006: Italy vs. Germany (Semifinals)

While the rest of the country was celebrating America’s birthday, my family and I were donning red, white, and green and preparing for the most important game of the World Cup tournament thus far.  That week, my father, along with my uncles, cousins, and family friends, was invited to his friend Joe’s home to watch the match and I was excited to finally get to watch the game with a big group of people who were just as fanatical as I was.  It made me feel less crazy.  When we arrived at his house, we were greeted by a gorgeous spread of gourmet food from Italy and Argentina (Joe, although an Italy fan, hailed from Argentina) that was set up in the kitchen nook, beckoning my hungry stomach to dig in.  But I refused to succumb to my hunger pains.  I vowed not to eat a bite until the game was over, not in fasting, but in fear that my nervous insides would not be able to handle the intense emotions that would no doubt come from this game.

Claiming a seat between my cousins, we watched as our boys and their rivals walked out onto the pitch and line up for the national anthems.  After some recaps from the announcers about what exactly was at stake in this game, it started.  And it started well.  Italy was playing with such determination that the poor Germans always found themselves various paces behind any Italian who dribbled the ball at his feet.  Some nice shots were made and saved and we could tell Italy was ready to beat this German side.  By half time, I had gotten out of my seat dozens of times, nervous twitches taking over the muscles in my legs.  In an effort to calm me down, Joe took my cousin and I out into his colorful and fragrant garden, picking out roses for each of us.  The peacefulness and sudden quiet of the garden was a stark contrast to what was happening inside the house and so startled me at first.  I was very antsy and Joe was trying all he could to calm me down.  As I wrapped my arms around his neck in thanks, he whispered to me, “Don’t worry, it’s going to happen.”  I smiled and went back into the house, only to find my father and uncle arguing about each play of the first half.  Suddenly Joe’s wife announced that the second half was set to begin so we settled back in our seats, each of us antsy for the first goal of the game.  Unfortunately, the second half passed with no score so the game was forced into overtime.  If no one scored after 30 extra minutes, the game would be decided on penalty kicks, and we dreaded those like the plague.  See, Italy has a notoriously bad track record with penalty kicks and many hearts had been broken over the years because of them.  It was also a known fact that the German team had considerably better luck with them.  As they loomed nearer and nearer, I began to feel a sense of panic, and in desperation I broke down in tears.  This match was going to kill me, I was sure of it!  Then, two minutes before the penalty kicks were to happen, Fabio Grosso received a rebound from teammate Andrea Pirlo and sent it curving artistically into the German net.  They really should have renamed that Beckham movie after that shot.  For a second the room was silent and numb with shock and confusion until, like a bomb blast, we got to our feet and hollered in celebration.  By this point, I was inconsolable and my father ran over and wrapped his arms around me telling me it was okay.  Still hugging me, I watched the screen from over his shoulder and saw the brilliance of my team unfold once again.  After an exciting sequence of passes starting from the back field, Gilardino made a forward pass to Alessandro Del Piero who chipped the ball into the back of the net, officially crushing Germany’s hopes of making it to the final.  It was glorious.  My father, whose back was to the screen missed that second goal because he was still trying to console my tears and I apologized profusely.  He grinned and said, “Let’s go celebrate.” Pulling out my face paint, my cousins and I drew Italian flags on our cheeks before packing into the car to North Beach.  When we arrived, the party was well underway, the streets blocked off so the Italian fans could chant, dance, and cheer.  Partway through the celebrations, my cousin and I noticed a Channel 7 news crew make their way through the crowd toward us.

“Excuse me,” the reporter asked me, “would you mind saying a few words about the game?”

I was so taken aback by her question that I stared wildly around for my father, who grinned and urged me to say something.  Wrapping my Italian flag around my shoulders like a shawl I started,

“It was amazing!  We played so well and we won! I haven’t slept for days waiting for this game and now we won! WOOOOO!”

Laughing, the reporter thanked me for participating and told us to watch the 11:00 news later that night.  My mother still likes to pull out that tape every once in a while.

July 9, 2006: Italy vs. France (Final)

The unthinkable had happened: we were in the World Cup final.  After a month of near heart attacks and desperate pleas to the soccer gods, we had finally reached the peak of our World Cup journey.  Our final foes were to be France, a team that had caused numerous nightmares and broken hearts for Italy over the years, partially due to Zinedine Zidane, their star player.  We considered the upcoming game a rematch for the 1998 European Cup final, where France scored late in overtime and crushed us with penalty kicks.  It was on.

My uncle Matteo invited the family to watch the match at Caesar’s, his restaurant in the heart of North Beach, and so we drove to the city, our car packed with flags, face paint, red, white, and green Mardi Gras beads, and the one item reserved solely if Italy makes it to the finals, our 7-foot tall Italian flag. I could feel the electric currants of excitement run through my body as we danced and sang along to various Italian pop songs, which were blasting from our car’s stereo, including a remixed version of the Italian National Anthem.  When we arrived in the city, we made sure my dad drove up Columbus Avenue in North Beach so we could see our fellow tifosi preparing and packing into the tiny cafes that lined the street.  I made a point of screaming “Forza Azzurri!” at the top of my lungs out our car window when we passed the Steps of Rome café and received some “Viva Italia’s” in return.  “Ahh, this is family,” I said to my parents, laughing.  For that one day we were all connected in our deep devotion and obsessive love for our team.  It was true what the ESPN announcers said:  for Italians, soccer went way past being just a game.  It was religion and that day was our Easter Sunday.  Except we wouldn’t know if our Messiah would be resurrected until the final whistle blew.

My Zio Matteo had decorated the restaurant with Italian flags draped along every window and corner, including painting the keys of the piano in the bar red, white, and green (don’t worry, it wasn’t permanent) and proudly displayed his replica World Cup trophy that he also painted.  Soon it was time for the anthems, both teams holding their heads high, a visual acceptance of the mission to bring the ultimate honor to their countries.  For the last time, we sang the Italian National anthem, arm in arm, letting the words wash over us in emotional waves: Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’È desta, dell’elmo di Scipio s’È cinta la testa. Dov’È la Vittoria? Le porga la chioma…

We settled into our seats as the game began, all of us on pins and needles awaiting that first goal.  It started slow, as both teams were pretty matched, skill-wise, until I saw the referee pointing to the penalty area.  He had awarded France a penalty kick, which was to be taken by Zidane himself.  Needless to say, he made it and we were down one for the first time in the tournament.  My boys responded almost immediately when Marco Materazzi fired a stunner into the back of the net.  Our faith was restored.

The score remained tied at halftime and I must have walked the length of the restaurant hundreds of times in an effort to make time go faster.  It did the opposite.  Finally, my mother called me back into the bar area to watch the second half, which proved to be pretty uneventful in terms of goals.  We were forced into overtime once again, with the penalty kicks looming nearer and nearer.  In the second half of overtime, tensions began to run high on the pitch, particularly with France’s star.  After having a brilliant shot miraculously saved by the god of all goalkeepers, Gigi Buffon, he began to get aggravated and late in the half committed a terrible foul.  I had not been watching since I had my tear-stained face buried in my folded arms and was broken out of my desperation by the uproar of the people in the restaurant.  Both going for the ball, Materazzi and Zidane had pulled on each other’s shirts.  Zidane and Materazzi exchanged some words and began to walk off when Zidane turned and violently head-butted Materazzi in the chest.  He was immediately red carded, and for a minute I felt a pang of sympathy for the French fans as they watched their hero strip off his captain’s badge, walk defeated past the World Cup trophy, and descend to the locker rooms.  I had to wonder what Materazzi could have said to make Zidane lose control like that.  Smack talk always happens on the field so what could be so horrible as to elicit that sort of reaction?  But there was more game to be played and my questions of Zidane’s motive were pushed aside.

We had a feeling that it would end with penalty kicks.  It had been written in the stars and was a curse that needed to be broken for Italy.  It was determined by coin toss that Italy was to shoot first and Andrea Pirlo easily sunk his first shot.  We cheered as Buffon made his way to the open goal and laughed when my Zio Matteo climbed on the bar and chanted, “Buffon! Buffon!” But our cheers died away slowly when the score was even again.  Next up for us was Daniele DeRossi, back from his four-game suspension, who scored again.  Surprisingly, the next French kick taker missed his shot, his face falling as he watched the ball fly feet above the net.  The next two Italian and French kickers sank their shots and the game-deciding goal was to be taken by Fabio Grosso, the man who broke Germany’s heart.  Tears streaming down my face, the entire room went silent, the ball seeming to fly through the air in slow motion.

It was in.

Italy had just cinched their fourth World Cup title.

Completely shocked and euphoric, I fell to the ground, crying hysterically.  I remained on the floor until a pair of hands lifted me to my feet—to this day, I still do not know who it was.  My father kissed my face repeatedly, “one for each goal,” he said, and I laughed. Complete strangers who had wandered into the restaurant hugged me genuinely, fellow tifosi congratulating each other as if they, themselves had just scored the winning goal.  Unfolding our giant flag, I waved it proudly, the entire restaurant, now bursting with Italian fans loudly singing the Italian National anthem.

“Gabrie, let’s go celebrate!” I heard my cousin Sal call and we sprinted up the hill to Columbus Avenue where flags, jerseys, and people were filling every crevice of the square.  I had never felt so connected to thousands of strangers as I had that day.  We all had a reason to be proud of our heritage and our team, even those who weren’t of Italian descent.  And damn, we know how to throw a party!  We were thousands of people together screaming, chanting, and cheering, all swimming in a giant pool of Azzurri blue.

—written by Gabriella Crivello

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