What some call soccer is called football, and calcio, and life.
In 1990, Italy was destined to win the World Cup and the U.S. National Men’s team qualified for the first time in 40 years. That same summer, my grandfather, the one who introduced me to soccer, passed away. As the 12-year-old son of Italian immigrants, these events shaped my understanding of tradition, the game, and life.
What we call soccer is usually called football—that’s what the English call it. Though sometimes countries like Canada and Australia call it soccer too.
In Spain they call it fútbol. In Germany they say, Fußball, which actually sounds like foos-bile. The Portuguese and Brazilians take cue from the Spanish, but avoid the flair of an accent mark and instead add an e. The Dutch say, voetbal, and that actually sounds a lot like football, only if you can imagine what it would sound like if it were said by someone who is Dutch. Like the English, the French use the word football, but this time, make your mouth pucker when you say it like you want to kiss the word. The Mexicans, like the Spanish and much of Central and South America, say fútbol. One Mexican I used to work with calls it “fútbol soccer” when talking to Americans. Mexico has never won a World Cup.
A lot has been said about what to call the game, especially in the U.S. In my family we call soccer, calcio. The word calcio literally translates to kick. Though sometimes calcio is also referred to as pallone, which actually translates to the word ball, in the way sometimes we refer to playing an American sport to “playing ball.” Pallone is also the Italian word for the ball used in calcio. So you could say, “pallone di calcio,” but you wouldn’t say “pallone di pallone.” One time while playing calcio in the yard beside my family’s restaurant, one of my uncles kicked a metal sewer vent instead of the pallone. He cursed in multiple languages.
When it comes to most things I am American first, but with calcio, it’s a little more complicated. I root for the United States National Team, and I root for the Italian National Team. When the two countries play against one another my heart breaks into tiny pieces that sink toward the floor. I want them both to win, or maybe I just don’t want either to lose. In calcio a match often comes to a draw—pareggio—and maybe that’s the way it should be every time the two play. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to choose. In a perfect world, Italy would have five World Cups instead of Brazil, and the United States would have one or two as well. The United States hasn’t been in as many World Cups as Italy, so that seems fair.
During this most recent World Cup, I have been asked numerous times whom I’m rooting for. I’ll be talking to other parents, maybe while picking my daughter up from a play date and, of course, that’s where the conversation goes. “That game with Portugal, my God.” And in the same breath I can’t help but show my equal exasperation with the Italian first round performance. Part of me feels like a traitor. I care just as much about both. I just do.
The problem is, I want USA to win because I feel the most loyalty to this country. I was, after all, born here. I made my first friends here, I learned here, grew here, first kiss, all that. I know some of the words to the “Star Spangled Banner,” and none of “Il Canto degli Italiani.” My experience, while sprinkled with an Italian upbringing, is American. I have no real interest in the politics of Italy, how the culture there has changed, what the young folks are doing. Even Italian literature, while something I’ve enjoyed in an academic sense, has never moved me because of its connection to my heritage. But, when gli Azzuri take the field, I feel a deep pulling in my gut, an emotional sentiment that is all pathos. I’m trying to make sense of this feeling.
To understand why calcio matters, I go to an early memory of my grandfather, nonno Nino, who only got to see the U.S. national team qualify once. He was proud of that team, though he was a diehard Italy fan. We’d be in the basement of our old house, the one my parents bought in the development outside of town. It would be that house before the remodel, before the area where the console TV that made gli Azzuri look like they wore green shirts was blocked off to make an office—before the kitchen was torn out because we already had another kitchen on the second floor and most Americans only need one kitchen. This was the kitchen where my grandmother’s sister, zia Maria, cooked the tiny snails she’d smuggled in a suitcase from Sicily. There was a time when smuggling snails, and cheeses, and an entire octopus in a solid block of ice in a suitcase didn’t seem so crazy.
I’d brought my friends over to watch as the snails climbed the side of the stainless steel pot to avoid the boiling water. Later, those friends squealed watching my family pick the tiny, shriveled bodies out of their shells with toothpicks. Zia Maria popped the snails in her mouth making exaggerated faces like she was in ecstasy, saying “mmm-mmm-mmm,” while my friends gagged and rolled around on the floor. This was the eighties—long before anyone in my little town had ever heard the word escargot, before Internet, back when most of our neighbors were convinced we were in the mafia.
Nonno sat in the brown, corduroy recliner, sometimes with me on his lap, and we watched as la nacionale tried to recreate the glory of 1982. In 1982 gli Azzurri had gone all the way after a 44-year dry spell. The legendary Paolo Rossi had appealed his three-year suspension for game fixing down to two and went on to score six goals, three of them against Brazil in the second round. He had been redeemed because sometimes, good people do bad things too. And if you score lots of goals and help your country win the World Cup, i mondiale, people can easily forget the bad stuff.
Rossi was back in the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico. All eyes were on him, and as far as anyone was concerned, the Italians had the team to repeat the glory of 1982. Italy had also won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938 and was itching to do it again. But, in 1986, gli Azzuri, along with Paolo Rossi, barely made it out of the group stage—they then lost to France in the round of 16, 2-0. That year Argentina went on to win the final against Germany, then West Germany.
Calcio is about patience. Sometimes two teams will fight for ninety minutes without scoring. Sometimes you can control the whole game and then the other team breaks late in the second half or slides one in for the win during extra time. Sometimes it can feel unfair, because sometimes you wait four years for the World Cup and your team gets sent home early. Italy, after winning the World Cup in 2006, hasn’t made it out of the first round for the last two. The United States has.
In 1990, Italy was the host country for the first time since 1934, when they’d won their first World Cup. They were the favorites to win again, and even though teams like England, Germany, and defending champions Argentina, all looked strong, the quality of the squad and advantage of being the host country were sure to be enough. That summer I was 12, and I remember a strong connection with the idea of being Italian. I wore an Italian replica jersey and nothing but Diadora shoes and rode a Bianchi bicycle. It’s the first World Cup I can really remember paying close attention to and being excited about. I was also playing soccer for local club teams.
We had family staying with us from Italy that summer (aunt, uncle and two cousins), in addition to one of my father’s cousins and my grandparents who had always split their time between our home in the U.S. and theirs in Sicily. Overall there seemed to be a strange sense of constant celebration in our home. I remember it as a time of cooking, and laughing, and other nearby Italian relatives stopping by for late-night dinners and parties. I say strange because I realize now this sense of celebration is a construction of memory, a façade created to blanket the inevitable. What felt like celebration and tradition at the time was actually people coming together to bring joy, and pay their final respects, to a man who was soon going to die.
By the summer of 1990, Nonno’s cancer had returned. He had fought through previous bouts, but now he was in the thick of chemo treatments and had taken to wearing a tan coppola most of the time to cover his once full head of thick hair. His body had shrunk and become frail, and I can only visualize him now in loose slacks and a white, v-neck undershirt that seemed to hang on him. The house had been remodeled; the main living room was now on the second floor of the split-level. The brown lazy boy had been traded for a beige leather recliner, a chair I cannot imagine without seeing my grandfather sitting in it.
Even in the midst of his pain and the chemo-induced nausea that took his hair, his strength, and his appetite, nonno watched every second of that World Cup he could, tracking scores and goal differentials on little slips of paper with the red carpenter’s pencil he always had nearby. He watched calmly, enjoying the skill of the greatest players in the world, regardless of team. The only anger I remember him showing at the time came when, TNT, the station airing the World Cup, cut to commercial in the middle of live action and Italy had scored a goal. The U.S. was still learning how to televise soccer in 1990.
In 1990, the U.S. National Men’s team had qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. The fact that the U.S., my family’s adopted county, had made it to the world stage opened a new world of emotional turbulence. To make matters worse, the Americans were in the same group as the Italians, meaning they’d play each other in the first round. Italy only beat them 1-0, and I remember that at the time that seemed like a good way for things to end. No one expected the U.S. to go far that year, so we were happy see the team hold its own again the Italian side.
That summer, two U.S. players got my attention. Alexi Lalas, with his long curly red hair and goatee, was a tough defender who carried himself with an air of rebellion. He wore Doc Martens at press conferences and played in a band—the grunge rocker/soccer player I would emulate later as I listened to Pearl Jam and Nirvana on my Walkman while riding on the team bus to games. But in 1990, in the height of my Italianess, before grunge changed my identity, one player stood out above the rest.
Tony Meola was the son of Italian immigrants. He wore his thick black hair in a spiky mullet like so many of the young Italian males I knew. In my eyes, he was just like us. His family was like ours, Italian immigrants raising a family in the U.S.A. We even played the same position. As a chubby Italian kid raised on a steady diet of carbohydrates and soda, supplied mostly from my family’s pizza restaurant, playing in the keeper position seemed the natural choice for me. And to hear my folks describe the story to family and friends, the similarities were enough; I had an idol. Look through pictures of me in the years following that World Cup and you will see me in both the Meola 1990 and 1994 replica keeper jerseys.
No one had expected the U.S. to be competitive, but the fact that they were there, playing in Italy was enough. Fifteen years after my family had arrived in the U.S., after declaring themselves Americans, their two identities were coming together as one. Their hearts may still have been rooted in Sicilian soil, but their feet were planted in the country that held their future.
That Italy should have won that World Cup is unquestionable. I was convinced it would happen, even with nonno calmly trying to prepare me. “You never know which way the ball will roll,” he’d say. But I was sure of it. And in retrospect, with nonno nearing the end of his life, Italy hosting the tournament with a team capable of winning, Italian family and friends coming together to celebrate a life, celebrate a victory that would have brought a dying man so much joy, it should have happened. In a just world, a world where things align and the good guys win, it would have happened. But retrospect is often selfish like that.
Gli Azurri made it through the entire tournament without letting in any goals, a record held to this day by the Italian goalkeeper, Walter Zenga. Leading the charge was that year’s top scorer and Golden Boot winner, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi—a Sicilian and special point of pride for our family. Somewhere, stored away in a box I have his autograph, acquired by a relative who ran into him at the Palermo airport later that year.
The Italians started the semi-final match against the defending champions in top form. Argentina was having a great tournament as well. And when gli Azzuri scored in the 17th minute, a goal by Schillachi no less, the team went into the famous catenaccio style of play.
Catenaccio is the Italian word for dead bolt. The term is used for a style of defense meant to keep all attacks out. While more stressful than exciting to watch, the strategy has proven successful in wearing down opponents who spend most of the match relentlessly struggling to break through the barrier of the defense. Most teams become exhausted and frustrated, while the Italians are content to sit back and defend that single goal, patiently waiting for the clock to tick by. But most teams are not Argentina in 1990—a team filled with great players, including Diego Maradona, who played club soccer in Italy’s Serie A. In fact, the semifinal match was played at Stadio San Paolo, where Maradona played his home games and had become a hero to the people of Naples.
That’s of course not an excuse for why in the 67th minute Julio Olarticoechea was able to cross a perfectly-placed ball into the box and Claudio Caniggia, an Argentine with an Italian name, guarded by two defenders, was able to skim the ball off the top of his head and past the keeper. The game went into overtime, and then a penalty shootout where Italy lost, sending Argentina to the final against the Germans.
Since 1990, gli Azzuri has made it to a final and lost on penalty kicks against Brazil in 1994, had decent knockout stage showings in 1998 and 2002, won the Cup on penalty kicks against France in 2006, and suffered eliminations in the group stages in 2010 and 2014.
Two months after the World Cup ended in the summer of 1990, after the U.S. had returned to the world stage of soccer, and after having his heart broken by Argentina, nonno Nino passed away. He’d put up his strongest defense for a long time. He’d won some matches along the way, and at times the ball didn’t roll his way. But in 1990, even when everything seemed to be written in the stars, no amount of catennacio defense proved to be enough.