It was a Springfield sky. The full-blown summer, with its deep cloudless blue and the tourists, hadn’t arrived yet….but you could feel it in the air. Reggio was beginning to wake up and the lidos were dusting themselves down for the season. We weren’t pulling up outside Mo’s bar but at the Piper cafe, across from Cesare’s ice-cream stop at the end of Via Marina. Alan and I got out the car and took a short stroll over to the promenade and looked over the straits to Sicily. The car ferry was chugging its way across from Messina while other merchantmen, fishing boats and various pleasure craft criss-crossed the blue-grey water. “It’s a bit like looking across the Firth to Bute don’t you think” I said, feeling a little homesick for the Caledonian waters. “Just a damn sight hotter.” sniffed Alan.
I’m sure this is why I love here so much, the mountains and sea, so much like a Scotland-In-The-Sun. “Ah well”, I sighed, “C’mon, better see if we can get a seat”. Alan had only arrived the day before and it looked like the week ahead was going to be a fine split between Mondiale (World Cup) and site-seeing whilst also trying to fit in some evening invitations that had come our way. This day though, had more significance than most. This was the litmus test, a marker on my road to integration, Tebbit’s cricket test. Was I ready for the ultimate challenge? Would I be nervous, excited? It had captured my heart but how deep had Italy filtered into my veins. As we made our way back to the cafe we could hear the match had already started, Italy v Slovakia in a must-win game to salvage some pride and hope for progress beyond the first stage.
The match was being shown in the raised gazebo that forms Piper’s outside seating area, right on the main junction (during the rush hour it can make you feel a bit like you’re sitting having a drink on a roundabout, but I like it…the world revolves round you for a change). When we arrived the place was packed and the game five minutes old. We stood like a couple of idiots for a moment, surveying the bar to see where we could park ourselves and bothering the customers who were now craning their necks to see round us at one of the two large flat screens.
“Quick” I said to Alan, “follow me or we’ll not be welcome”. I tugged his arm and led him down into the cafe proper, in the hope of finding Salvatore on duty behind the till. Salvatore, the manager, and I have a nice little arrangement. When I finish school in the evening I usually have to wait about half an hour for Maria to finish her work and the Piper is where I always wait. Over time I’ve struck up a good friendship with the staff and Salvatore likes to practice his English whenever he can, so a little refresher for him equals a wee refreshment for me, simple and mutually agreeable.
“Why aren’t you watching the match?” he asked, gesticulating with the Italian thumb to four fingertips. “There are no seats left Salvo, do you know anywhere else we can watch?”
“Scemo, (silly/fool) come with me, I’ll get a seat for you and your friend, no problema!”
He took us back outside and, leading us virtually by the hand, he barked a few orders at some of the customers and the waitress. The customers swiftly obeyed, shuffling and nudging without leaving their seats to create enough space for the two more chairs and table which the blond waitress produced out of thin air. We squeezed in and ordered two beers while I looked up at the screen above Alan’s head and he looked at the one behind mine. We could face each other and both watch the game.
0-0 and everything was quiet.
The ice-cold bottles of Nastro quickly arrived with two chilled glasses and a large bowl of mixed olives. “Have you noticed that we’re the only people drinking alcohol,” whispered Alan without dropping his gaze from the screen. I looked around, it was true. All anyone had on the table in front of them was an espresso cup or a glass of water. Had I fumbled the ball so early? “There’s one guy who seems a little more nervous than the rest though”, Alan continued. “He’s on his third bowl of ice cream already!” I realised that we were sitting next to the bar owner and his group of friends, including Mr. Choc and Pistacchio. I nodded to the owner and he reached over to shake my hand. “Not much happening,” he said. “Still, a draw is enough for us.” The rest of the table nodded sagely. “Indeed, indeed.”
0-1. My heart sank as the bar groaned in unison. “Idiots!”
One by one bottles of beer began to appear at the other tables along with the ice cream so we began to feel brave enough to order a couple more for ourselves without being too conspicuous. Just after the second half had begun a sunken-cheeked lady who looked as if she’d seen the better half of her eighties tottered into a seat beside us and plonked her walking stick on the table. The bar was slightly less busy now as some had had to open their shops or go back to work. The waitress was now running backwards and forwards supplying beers and snacks in equally increasing numbers as the game wore on and the tension grew.
0-2. “Mamma mia, Avanti! Avanti!” Everyone was beginning to get a little more vocally agitated and the hand gestures more animated. But still no one was out of their seat. As more and more snacks arrived at the tables I began to realise that food and not drink is the chosen method of stress control, when watching your team do none of the things you advise them to from your superior viewpoint…4,800 thousand miles away. The waitress made the mistake of stopping for a brief moment in front of the screen to watch, a smile playing on her lips. Bang! The sound of the old lady’s cane smacking the table. She waved her stick and screamed at the girl to get out of the way. “Move you stupid girl, I can’t see!” The waitress turned and smiled sweetly, “Sorry, so sorry,” she said as she returned to her work.
1-2! I was up and punching the air…..on my own. Everyone had stayed seated except me. Red-faced and feeling like a complete fool I fumbled behind me for my chair and sat back down. “Oh nooo!” I thought, “I can’t come back here again” For some reason however, they’d all been more interested in the goal than my display and were concentrating all their efforts on the screens. “Avanti! Move it! There’s only ten minutes left,” they cajoled. The waitress had disappeared.
2-2! We were all up this time. Yeeeeeees! I was hugging the bar owner and jumping up and down with him, two others grabbed me kissing and cheering. It was elation, relief and heart-felt joy….I had passed, it had been spontaneous and thoughtless, I was at one with Italy. Then, silence. It took us a full couple of minutes to realise that the referee hadn’t stopped the game. Disallowed! The only times I’ve felt as despondent as that was each time I’ve read a Scotland team sheet…before a game. I was gutted.
At 1-3 with a minute to go I would have normally given up hope and gone home but there was something new in the belief system, a reason to urge the Azzurri onwards. We were all up and shouting, “Avanti! Avanti!”
2-3 and 2 minutes of added time left. The place went mad then immediately quiet. Unbearable tension filled the room, could they do it? Could they get one more? We urged, we gripped our tables, half out of our seats we willed them on… Oooh, aaaah, now you fool, shoot, Santa Maria shoot!
Final whistle! It’s over!
I didn’t know what to expect then but inside I felt empty and dejected. My “fellow” countrymen and the old lady on the other hand, simply shrugged. “We didn’t deserve anymore, we left it too late.” I suppose when you’ve won four World Cups you can afford to be circumspect at these moments……there’s always the next one. Something that will need a little more culture changing on my part to appreciate. Most people began to get up and leave with just a few tables left to finish drinks or order more. The waitress had reappeared and the remaining clients began to buy her drinks and congratulate her, though we left with the feeling that the compliments were more to do with her form than her team’s. Apparently she’s Slovakian!