Watching the Azzurri go out – in Italy – softened the blow of our early World Cup exit

Football does the same dumb things to people all over the world

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I realized much too late that, by some appalling clerical oversight, we had booked our summer holiday this year to coincide with the World Cup. Instead of sitting by a television in Kentish Town, I would be sitting by a pool in Italy. There are many worse fates, I realize, and I don’t mean to overstate my misfortune. But my ideal plan for the duration of the tournament is to cancel all social plans and only stray out of range of a screen for fresh underwear, snacks and essential bathroom visits, so it came as a blow.

I don’t exactly know how I managed this, except to say that it’s not the first time: I often astonish myself with my ability to run two parallel calendars simultaneously, such that I can look forward greatly to a party on Friday and a dinner on the 27th and only notice that Friday is the 27th on the day itself. As the same sinking realisation hit me about this trip to Italy, and all the blood drained from my face, I dug out the tournament schedule and did some frantic mental calculations.

Well, I would probably be missing the processional victory over the Costa Ricans – a shame, but not a total disaster. The real pity was for the first knock-out round. The delicious sense of communal anticipation, St George’s flags everywhere, agonised debates as to where Rooney should play – and I’d miss all of it! Would I be home in time for the game itself? That depended – win the group and my Sunday flight home would get me back in time to head straight to the pub for the second round. Finish as runners-up and I’d be watching it in an Italian bar on Saturday. That could be fun, of course – but the truth is you want to be with your people for such a grand occasion. Would my Italian hosts be offended, I wondered, if I did a runner?

It is possible, I concede, that this interior monologue was the source of all our problems, and England’s failure is the result of some celestial force trying to teach me a lesson about counting my chickens, and not underestimating the footballing abilities of Los Ticos; at any rate, I really, really needn’t have worried. The good news: the dreary obligation I felt to watch the blooding of youth in our final group match was scotched by the fact that Italy would be playing Uruguay at the same time. So it was that we headed to the nearest village and found a bar where it would be on.

As we sat down with our beers, I cheered up a bit. The Italians have won umpteen tournaments, are secure in their sporting identity, don’t even find it remarkable that a man as urbane and dreamy as Andrea Pirlo should be marshaling their forces from midfield, since men equally urbane and dreamy are cleaning toilets and cataloguing library books. Win or lose, they know they don’t have all that much to worry about. At least we would be spared the full force of the infantile psychodrama that haunts England fans as we watch our players fluff their lines on the grandest stage of all.

This bar, it wasn’t exactly the Odeon, Leicester Square. A tiny cathode-ray TV sat under a crucifix; for most of the match, the only person watching it apart from us was the guy who owned the place, a middle-aged geezer who sported a deep tan and a fantastically droopy moustache. His entrepreneurial policy was to leave all the work to his wife; he sat about four feet from the screen and focused intently as she served the other customers and brought him pasta, followed by an enormous veal steak. For the most part he ignored us completely, and seemed serenely unmoved by the action, his interest almost abstract, save the occasional muffled grunt at a missed opportunity. This, I reflected as the first half ended, was how grown-ups deal with football: no excesses of excitement or despair, no invective when chance swings in your favour or against. Just shrug, and get on with your veal.

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Then the second half began. Balotelli had been substituted, and sat glowering on the bench. While I didn’t understand a word the commentator was saying, the pained staccato of his delivery gave me a dim sense that Super Mario occupied a similarly fraught place in Italy’s footballing discourse to that which Rooney holds in our own.

Our companion’s moustache twitched a bit, but he more or less kept his composure. But then the balance of the game changed: Claudio Marchisio was sent off for what looked to me like a very nasty challenge, and Italy’s grip on the draw they needed to secure qualification suddenly appeared tenuous. Somewhat to my surprise, rather than continuing to project tranquil indifference, the bar owner waved emphatically at the screen and tutted. As the replays showed Marchisio’s studs dig firmly into Egidio Arevalo’s right knee, he moaned as if at a great injustice, and looked to us for affirmation. Suddenly, things felt eerily familiar.

Then Luis Suarez took a chunk out of Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder and got away with it; with the Italian players still raging at the referee, Uruguay won a corner, and Diego Italy's Giorgio Chiellini (L) claims he was bitten by Uruguay's Luis Suarez (R) during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group D preliminary round match between Italy and Uruguay at the Estadio Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil Italy's Giorgio Chiellini (L) claims he was bitten by Uruguay's Luis Suarez (R) during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group D preliminary round match between Italy and Uruguay at the Estadio Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil Godin scored. Any remnants of self-control in the bar-owner faded away. He drummed the table urgently as Pirlo lined up a free-kick, and threw up his hands as he missed. Noticing us almost for the first time, he struck up some distracted chit-chat as the match reached its inexorable conclusion. Perhaps he thought that our long experience could provide a few lessons in absorbing defeat with dignity. Some hope. What was the score in the Costa Rica game, he asked? “I hope,” he said, “that England… vince!”

England did not vince. Neither did Italy. Disconsolate, the bar owner stood and went to the window, where he stood tapping the pane and staring into the middle distance as his wife continued to serve the other customers.

Soon, Cesare Prandelli was offering his resignation. I felt guiltily pleased that the Italians were out, a sense of shared disappointment with our hosts that made England’s failure seem suddenly less disastrous. At home, in the grip of the mania that the World Cup brings, it is all too easy to feel uniquely cursed. But the truth is, football does the same dumb things to people all over the world.

As we left, we passed a mournful looking teenager slumped against his parked moped, idly wheeling an Italian flag over his head. I suppose he was feeling vaguely that no football fan anywhere in the world quite understood the depths of his despair at that moment. Had he only known it, he might have found some curious relief in the fact that in England, and also in Croatia and Cameroon, in Ivory Coast and Australia, and even in Spain, there were others feeling the same thing. We might not have the mopeds or the moustaches. But the gloom, the sense of betrayal, the lack of perspective – those are sentiments we know all too well.

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