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Football: The father of football

Andrew Baker finds Little Italy is making big plans for Wembley
Football has always been a unifying force within communities, a role that becomes more important when the community concerned is expatriate. Euro 96 brought many such briefly into the public eye, and the visit of the Italians to Wembley for this week's World Cup qualifier has reawakened interest in Britain's Italian enclaves in London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester and elsewhere.

The spiritual home of London's Italians is St Peter's Church in Clerkenwell, where Father Roberto Russo has been a familiar figure for 20 years. A kindly, rotund man, he proudly showed off the community centre next door to the church, where on Wednesday football fans of all ages will gather to watch their heroes in action. Fr Russo himself will be appearing on Channel 4's late-night television phone-in programme Under The Moon to justify, celebrate or forgive the performance of the national side.

"This is where we will be," he explained, pushing open the door to a long, spacious room with a giant television at the far end. "We call it the sala rossa - the Red Room. Because of the carpet," he hastily added, in case there should be any more salacious explanation.

That lunchtime the room was packed with elderly Italians, all tucking into risotto and insalata tricolore. "Do we think that our team will win?" Fr Russo enquired. Much eloquent shrugging of shoulders, rueful grins. "We hope so," he translated.

Most of those present would be watching the match at home, it seemed, and one charming old gentleman mentioned a domestic problem. "In my house we will watch on two televisions in separate rooms," he said, before explaining with a grin: "My wife is English."

Fr Russo is not only concerned with the older members of his flock. He must appeal to the local youth as well, and on Wednesday night a younger crowd will be in the sala rossa, attracted by the twin appeals of football and romance. The poster on the notice-board by the door noted the near- conjunction of the World Cup game and St Valentine's Day, and was decorated with a football flanked by two scarlet hearts, an accurate expression of the national passions. Fr Russo reckons that the turn-out will be as good as it was during Euro 96, when the sala rossa was packed to the rafters. "That was a wonderful time," he recalled.

Half-an-hour's walk away across the centre of London is another focal point, this time secular: Bar Italia in Frith Street in Soho, a kind of unofficial Italian embassy. In this narrow room, with a giant television at the far end, the crowd was so tightly packed during Euro 96 that espressos had to be passed overhead to thirsty customers. Demand will again be high on Wednesday.

"What time is the kick-off, 5.30?" Kerim, the chief coffee dispenser, asked himself. "Oh yes, it will be busy. Busy busy. We will have Italians and English, anybody - but mostly Italians." What was the feeling in Bar Italia about the new coach? "Sacchi could not go on. But Maldini is a careful man. We will win 2-0."

Andrea, on the cappuccino machine, begged to differ. "Vialli is not playing," he wailed. "How can we score goals? It must be a 0-0 draw."

Similar scenes will be taking place in restaurants, bars and community centres all over the country. In Manchester, for instance, the staff at the Cocotoo pizza joint are preparing for a hectic Wednesday afternoon. "I have 100 people coming in to watch the match on our big screen," Alfiero Centamore, the manager, said. "All sorts of Italian people in Manchester - businessmen, delicatessen owners, all sorts, all my friends."

Centamore reckons that such occasions are good for the community, cementing friendships and giving everyone a chance to let off steam. "It is great for us all to get together, to have a few drinks, and a few screams, depending on what is happening on the pitch." But like the old folk in Clerkenwell, Signor Centamore was not confident of victory. "These days, it is hard to say," he sighed. "We hope for the best."