Watching Italy v England with 20,000 friends in Rome

I am dancing the samba in Rome waiting for Italy v England. I am drinking caipirinhas in wine bars. The World Cup has arrived. It may be 9,000 kilometers away in Brazil, but every night for a month I will be in front of a TV screen somewhere, anywhere.

Sunday morning I was in Piazza Madonna di Loreto next to Il Vittoriano, the wonderfully obnoxious pile of white marble commemorating Italy’s unification in 1885. It’s signified by King Vittorio Emanuele, the first father of Italy, astride a horse looking down upon his masses. Ironically, the big screen next to it could unify the country again. It’s showing all of Italy’s World Cup games and started with its opener against England Saturday at midnight. A couple thousand fans had already gathered in front of the screen when I arrived at 11:10 p.m. to watch Italy v England. By kickoff, the crowd swelled all the way to Il Vittoriano’s steps a good 100 meters away. I’ve guesstimated enough stadium crowds in a nearly 40-year sportswriting career to have a good idea and there must’ve been at least 20,000 fans standing in the wee hours watching a televised soccer match.

The crowd was remarkably tame. Romans’ distaste for drunken debauchery is a big reason. A good portion of the spectators holding beer bottles were speaking American English. Some Italian youths sipped passively at smaller bottles of Peroni like they were at their parents’ aperitivo. Italians’ attitude toward the World Cup, however, is different than any other soccer nation. Ask the average Italian soccer fan and the majority will tell you they’d rather win the national Serie A club title. When A.S. Roma won Serie A in 2001, the fans partied in Circo Massimo for a week, even longer than when Italy won the World Cup in 2006.

What’s so important about a club championship no one cares about outside Italy and certain neighborhoods in New Jersey? Remember, this is a nation that wasn’t unified until 1885. There’s a reason the father of this country is riding a horse and not a chariot. Until 1885, Italy consisted of city-states, most with a history of military strength, violence and hatred for their neighbors. Italy v England? It’s a country club bridge game compared to Rome-Milan. Add cross-town derbies such as Roma-Lazio, Inter-Milan and Torino-Juventus and you have seething hatred going back generations. They are cauldrons of violence and filthy songs. The World Cup has nothing on Serie A.

Italian Fans before the Italy v England Match
Some of the estimated 20,000 Italians gathered next to Il Vittoriano in Rome to watch England-Italy.

The Italy v England Football Match

However, soccer runs through the blood of Italians like fresh pesto. It boils every time they put on the blue jersey. The temperature just varies. The crowd united as one in Italy v England pre-game introductions. They went wild when they showed Daniele De Rossi, the brainy midfielder for Roma. They even applauded Mario Balotelli, the polarizing striker who has been the unfortunate victim of numerous racist chants around the country. I heard unusual American-style boos when the camera panned England striker Wayne Rooney. Then again, maybe they were booing his hair plugs. Italians, even the soccer fans, appreciate style above substance. When the stadium in Manaus played Italy’s national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani” (The Song of the Italians), the thousands sitting on the piazza stood and cheered along. It was quite moving even for a non Italian who has heard too many pre-game anthems to care anymore.

The two teams’ styles befitted their reputations. The Italians, despite being loaded with dangerous strikers, were patient. They passed back and forth waiting for a lightning-quick attack. They were like some Italians standing around a caffe drinking a midday espresso before rushing back to work. England, however, played like 11 guys slamming beers before the pub closed. They attacked relentlessly, with deep forays, dangerous crosses and strikers flying through the 18-meter box. Salvatore Sirisu, Italy’s backup goalkeeper, ran as much as Italy’s midfielders.

Balotelli’s eventual winning score in the 50th minute transformed the piazza from a subdued party to a frenzied, collective scream. A shower of beer cascaded down on me and my notepad — I think it was La Rossa by Moretti — and a man in a green, white and blue court jester hat gave me a hug. Even the American tourists more concerned where their wives were than the score raised their arms in triumph.

Later, as I settled into bed at 3 a.m., the usual early Sunday morning chorus of cars leaving the nearby disco district filled my bedroom. But this time I got up. I went out onto my terrace and looked down. These revelers weren’t coming from the discos.

They were coming from Il Vittoriano, their blue flags waving in the warm Italian wind.

 For other insights into life of an expat in Rome, from pickpockets to getting a haircut, check out my website, Dogeared Passport.

About John Henderson


John Henderson worked nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, the last 24 with The Denver Post, including eight as a traveling food columnist. Worked since 1984 as a free-lance travel writer. Traveled to 98 countries and retired to Rome in January 2014. Originally from Eugene, Ore., and also worked in Kent, Wash., and Las Vegas. Graduate of the University of Oregon in 1978. Check out my blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Twitter @JohnHendeRome

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