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The Italian Job

I still remember the moment I found the religion of Italian football—like all religions a story of obsession, agony, and deceit. It was the 67th minute of the first round match between Italy and Argentina, held at the River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires on June 10, 1978.

I was in Beirut, squinting through the smears of my black and white television, when Roberto Bettega took the ball outside the penalty box. He passed off to Paolo Rossi, immersed in defenders, then ran into the open toward the penalty spot. Somehow Rossi squeezed the ball through and Bettega caught it on the run, sending Filliol, the Argentinean goalkeeper the wrong way: 1-0 Italy, on Argentina’s turf.

There the match would end, and I was hitched, though I had never paid attention to the Squadra Azzura. Perhaps it was the goalkeeper in me who admired Italy’s captain Dino Zoff, his flawless positioning and dour mien of the Friulani, who when hoisting the World Cup in triumph four years later had to be pinched to bring on a smile.

Amid predictions that Spain, Brazil, Argentina, or England, will win in South Africa, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Italy is the title-holder. That’s how it’s always been, or almost. Expect the Italians to do well (as in the tournament they hosted in 1990), and they will wilt like a four-day rose. Heap abuse on them, ensure that key players have just returned from a match-fixing scandal (as in 1982), or are about to suffer retribution from a fresh one (as in 2006), and the team somehow finds its rhythm like an impala fleeing a jaguar.

So what is there to like in Italian football? Quite a few things, I’ve discovered, that most other football supporters hate, which only makes it better. I offer up five here.

First, from this hatred comes an Italian delight in defiance that invariably drifts into self-pity and paranoia. Everyone is against Italy, we supporters and the team know, and have long known, so we take pleasure in our solidarity against a world heartened by our defeats.

But then the divisiveness kicks in. And that’s a second thing I like. Because while we are as one against the world, we will also descend into the most bitter disputation over how to defend Italy’s honor—disputation no less corrosive than that between the Renaissance city states. Why hasn’t Lippi brought in better attackers? Sacchi, what a criminal, a filthy criminal, for not playing Baggio. Damn Maldini’s eyes, if he had any. And so on. And in that divisiveness is true pluralism, infuriating, invigorating, man’s highest condition.

Which leads to a third quality most scorned in the Italians, the pervasive fear and loathing circulating between supporters and the team; fear of defeat and humiliation, which in our Mediterranean culture brings loathing (of the team, of ourselves), since nothing is more contemptuous than a coward. Banish African insouciance, English doggedness, Brazilian inspiration; with Italy, football crushes the lightness of being Italian, invites only anguish. It’s difficult not to like a country that takes its football that seriously.

Then there are the tactics defined by fear, a fourth quality so detested in the Italians: their overreliance on defensive football. Gone, perhaps, is the letter of catenaccio, but not the spirit. And yet there can be much beauty in defense, in the perfect precision of anti-football. Take the dreariest of World Cup finals, that between Brazil and Italy in USA ’94. The match ended in a 0-0 draw and was won by Brazil on penalties. Devotees of offense groaned. The universe fell asleep. But rarely had an Italian team been so faultless in protecting its goal. Defense became the great leveler allowing Italy to stand up to the better Brazilians, a praiseworthy instrument of egalitarianism.

Which leaves us with a fifth object of repugnance: Italy’s erraticism. We might lose to North or South Korea on the turn of a hat, yet defeat Diego Maradona’s Argentina, the indomitable Brazilians of Socrates and Falcao, and Paul Breitner’s West Germany, all in one flourish to take the cup home in 1982. Every tournament brings surprises, but before long we realize, to our consternation, we the faithful armed with the patience of Job, that Italy has won the World Cup four times, and that we were too busy pouring ash on our head to appreciate it.