Italy wakes up to pair of unlikely sporting successes

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The Independent Online

Italian Sundays are rituals. Families dress for the mid-morning passeggiata, a few attend Sunday mass, before pastries at the café. A marathon lunch, then an afternoon dedicated to soccer, in the stands or on the sofa, or a siesta.

Italian Sundays are rituals. Families dress for the mid-morning passeggiata, a few attend Sunday mass, before pastries at the café. A marathon lunch, then an afternoon dedicated to soccer, in the stands or on the sofa, or a siesta.

But this Sunday was different. Football took second place and Italians walked with their heads higher. Two historic victories in sports scarcely practised here have generated a surge of national pride. The chat in the bars was of spinnakers and of Scotland. And all this on an extraordinary day when 150 city centres were closed to traffic as Italians interrupted their love affair with the car.

They woke to the news that they had become the first European nation to make the finals of the America's Cup. More than two million sailing fanatics and recent converts stayed up to watch the 3am regatta.

In discotheques and bars around the country, the victory of the Prada-sponsored Luna Rossa off Auckland was greeted with champagne and a feel-good patriotic rush. In Naples, home of the Italian skipper, Francesco De Angelis, Saturday night party-goers formed impromptu cavalcades, tooting horns and waving flags as they sped through the city.

"It's not often Italy beats the Yankees," said baggy-eyed Mario, from his pricey gelato van in the via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome. "The problem is we're easily distracted, but when we put our minds to it we are unbeatable."

Despite having 5,000km of coast, sailing in Italy is not much of a sport; yachts are the on-sea equivalent of a luxury villa, with martinis and bikinis. But the regattas in the South Seas, the dedication of the crew and the glamour of the Prada connection have captured the public imagination.

Yet Saturday's surprise rugby victory over Scotland in the Six Nations was in many ways more significant.

Tries, conversions and offside are unfamiliar jargon here, but 34 points to 20 was all most Italians needed to know - confirmation they are sporting giants, not the pygmies portrayed by unfriendly nations. Diego Dominguez, the Argentinian-born fly-half who scored 29 points, is already being likened to Maradona.

And the sense that Italy had made its mark on the world was palpable, in cities free of traffic and smog, where skaters, electric scooters and horse-drawn carriages ruled the road.

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