It’s that time of year again! The flags are waving, and people are showing their pride for the beautiful game of football.
Or soccer if that’s what you prefer to call it.
The 2014 World Cup starts today, with Brazil hosting.
I love this game. And I love the World Cup.
There is always an energy in the air. It’s hard not to catch the fever, even if you’re not a football fan. There are games held every day, on any screen people can get their hands on. People will be listening to feeds on their computers, watching on smartphones and in bars across the city. The people will spill onto patios, and collective groups of people will both hold their breath and cheer and high five each other. Sometimes they will even cry.
If it’s your team playing, it’s usually the longest 90 minutes of your day.
I remember catching this football fever way back when I was 8 years old. Italy was playing West Germany in the final match in Madrid, Spain. My father was pacing the living room, hoping for a win. I can only tell you what the final score of that game was now, after looking it up. That day, I just wanted the Azzurri to win it.
My parents were both born in Italy, and so by default, Italy was my team too. I am proud of my culture and that pride still stands.
That Sunday afternoon, after the final whistle blew, the score was 3-1. My father jumped up in the air, grabbed his keys and told us to get in the car! I don’t remember much after that, except that all those Italy fans (both Canadian and Italian born) made their way to an area of Toronto to celebrate this win.
It was impressive, if you think about it. Hundreds of thousands of Italian fans filled St. Clair Avenue, without any coordinating efforts; no cell phones, no emails, no text messages. It just happened spontaneously.
And it was glorious!
I remember my father squeezing my hand, as my mom did to my brother, and saying to us, “don’t let go.” The fear of being lost in a sea of people was enough to make sure we held on tight. I remember dancing and laughing and waving a flag and thought that was such an amazing way to celebrate!
That was Italy’s first World Cup win in 44 years. They have won four titles in total; 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. They have been to the finals six times. The most heartbreaking trip to the finals took place in 1994, where they lost against this year’s host, Brazil in a penalty shoot-out.
We found ourselves back on St. Clair Avenue, surrounded by friends and family, watching the game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large group of people hold their breath at the same time, for as long as they did. Nor have I ever seen such a collective exhale of disappointment. After regulation time, and then overtime, the game was scoreless. After both sides took their first two attempts on goal, the score was tied 2-2. Italy missed the next shot, while Brazil’s next kick made it past the goalie. It all came down to Roberto Baggio.
Looking back, I feel sorry for the guy. The pressure he must have felt at that moment. I remember feeling sad that he missed that shot, but I felt sadder watching him stand there on the field, as the Brazilians celebrated around him. When I look at the pictures today, I still feel that pit in my stomach.
It took eight years for the Azzurri find themselves back in the finals, and it was an unforgettable game on July 9, 2006 at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. There were early goals from both sides, a controversial headbutt from Zinedine Zidane against Marco Materazzi in extra time and some great defense and goalkeeping by the legendary Gianluigi Buffon. But again, Italy found themselves facing penalty shots.
It was like déjà vu.
This time, the Italians made sure the ball found its way past the goalie.
Every. Single. Time.
Italy beat France 5-3!
We didn’t rush to St. Clair Avenue this time around, although there were many who did. Instead, my husband and I drove around our neighbourhood, a predominately Italian area and honked our horns and waved our flags. It was fun.
I’m hoping we can experience the same type of fun again this year. Show my kids what it can be like to celebrate with strangers, neighbours and the world. Show them my love of football and pride in their culture and heritage. I can hardly wait for the whistle to blow!
It’s time to dust off the jerseys, dig out the flags and show your pride.
To get you in the mood, here is this cup’s official song!
Enjoy the games. And FORZA AZZURI!
P.S. Canada has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 1986, but did not make it past the first round. Note that if they ever make it back, you can be sure I will fly two flags to support my heritage and my country!