Football: I hated Brazil's Nelinho and Dirceu for getting their blasted stupid goals past my Zoff and making him sad and downcast

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The Independent Online
I was 12. He was 36 (I still celebrate his birthday, 28 February). I loved him. Dino Zoff. At the time, goalie for Italy. Big hands, responsive. But I never imagined him doing sexy, romantic stuff with them, like running them through my hair.

This wasn't about smoochie business anyway. It was adoration. He wasn't good looking, particularly, like Rossi or Gentile or Scirea. He was different. Always looking a trifle serious and concentrated. I thought him spiffing.

It was during the 1978 World Cup that I first spotted him. I can still see him now, gently barking orders to his team-mates, pointing with one hand, ball in the other. I would lip read those nice Italian words as I sat cross-legged, head in little hands, staring up at the TV screen.

My papa would be laughing at me from the sofa: "You and tuo Zoff" he would say. Obviously glad that I was worshipping Dino Zoff rather than being out with some octopus-handed real boy.

I started displaying signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder almost immediately. It started with the first World Cup game: Italy against France. I decided to put my palmsized Paddington Bear on top of the television, holding an Italian flag that I had made. I watched the entire game, nervous for Zoff every time the ball came near him. Italy won, 2-1.

Next time against Hungary, another mascot had to appear, to join Paddington on top of the telly, with another home-made flag, because I became suspicious. With each game, another toy, another flag, was added, until all my toys and cuddly things were in use, and my felt tip pens were tired and faint.

When Italy were beaten in the third-place play-off, I hated Brazil's Nelinho and Dirceu for getting their blasted stupid goals past my Zoff and making him sad and downcast. And I didn't eat a nut for years afterwards out of loyalty to him...

I kept a look out for him over the next few years, and any mention in La Gazzetta dello Sport would register a little jump in my tummy. I supported Juventus purely because he was their goalkeeper.

In 1980, aged 14 now, I decided to come out with my love for him. I sewed the letters Z O F F, in pink felt, on to the back of my stone cotton man's jacket. It was really cool, because they were just the right shade of pink and stone. "You look really cool," my best friend Emma would say. I wore it everywhere. "There's that Zoff girl," the shopkeepers would say.

"But he's an old geezer," people would say. "It's not like that," I would reply. No one understood. "Peapple willa wondar whatta this Zoffa thing isa on you jacket," my mamma would say. She didn't understand. I didn't care. I bought some sticky letters, silver on black, and stuck his name on to my stereo. They're still there.

At some point, in some game or other, Kevin Keegan put a goal past Zoff. This sparked a life-long instinctive hate for Keegan. Even now, when I see him, which isn't often, I think "I hate him", although it can take me a while now to remember exactly why.

1982 and - what joy - I was in Italy for the final. No mascots this time, but I was delighted to see them beat Brazil in the second (quarter-final) round (good old Paolo Rossi). Every time the ball went near Zoff, I thought of the pressure he must be under, and I wanted to cry for him.

Later, a Fifa (world football's governing body) spokesman called Keith Cooper, commenting on the time limit a goalkeeper can handle a ball for, said: "In the 1982 World Cup finals, Dino Zoff was holding the ball as if he wanted to take it on a day's holiday." What did he know? I made a mental note never again to speak to anyone called Keith.

But, anyway, the final... I couldn't watch it. Things weren't helped by my uncle, Zio Mimi, who was screaming, red-faced and had all the veins on his neck sticking out alarmingly.

Zoff looked worried. I wanted to die for him. I went out for a walk, and could hear the game's progress because, as Italy scored, the whole village (streets deserted) cheered. Then they won and I joined in the jumping into fountains and horn beeping. It was all over. Football was never the same for me after that. It was time to grow up.

I can still spot his name in a sea of text in a second. Two years ago, some colleagues started a football team and never let me play. I pretended that Dino Zoff was my uncle and, rather sharpish, they were all interested.

Zoff got me interested in football. I even wanted to be a footballer at one point, wearing a football medal that belonged to a cousin, and pretending that I had won it in an under-14 friendly. Zoff was a good thing. One thing makes me sad, though. I never got to see him as his team won in his final World Cup. I wonder if he smiled...

Annalisa Barbieri writes about sport for The Big Issue. Olivia Blair is on maternity leave.

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