“Forza Italia.” That’s the homemade sign I made with magic markers and posted outside my house before the 1994 World Cup Final between Italy and Brasil.
Enough time has passed that I don’t feel too bad about sharing this. When Roberto Baggio skied his decisive penalty kick at the Rose Bowl that fateful July afternoon I crumpled to my knees bawled my 14-year-old eyes out.
A lot of the tears stemmed from the other teams I rooted for (Tigers, Jets, UConn basketball) who had always come up short in my lifetime. With Italy – the place of 50 percent of my ancestry — there was a chance to finally experience the thrill of winning, albeit vicariously.
This was going to be it, but no, Baggio and his silly rattail had to screw it all up.
Fourteen years are a long time, and suffice to say my feeling toward ‘The Boot’ and its football team has changed considerably. Maybe any part of me that wanted to root for Italy disappeared when my grandfather, Frank Cardillo, passed away in 1999. He always loved ‘calcio’ and coached Italian ethnic teams in America for many years. I was too young to recall his joy at the Italians World Cup triumph in 1982. Instead, my grandparents were in Italy for the 1990 World Cup, when the hosts were knocked out in the semifinals and according to my father – via trans-Atlantic phone calls – all of Italia was on collective suicide watch.
Though it’s an affront to my grandfather’s memory, nowadays I find it very difficult to root for the Italian national team. This has nothing to do with the stateside guidos that wear ten pounds of hair gel and skin tight Azzuri shirts who wouldn’t know Dino Zoff if he fell on them.
Basically my new-found hatred of Italy came from the 2006 World Cup, when I watched first-hand from Kaiserslautern all their flopping and anti-tactics against the United States in a memorable 1-1 draw. I was just a rube from the States. I had nothing in common with these underwear models in blue shirts.
Oh, and the fact former Prime Minister Silvio Burlesconi stole his Meadiaset mascot Gabibbo from Western Kentucky’s Big Red played a factor.
It’s probably an overreaction, but I’ll forever hold a grudge against Italy. Still, Tuesday afternoon I found that dormant Italian-centric gene bubbling toward the surface when Italy took on France in an Euro 2008 win-or-go-home match in Zurich. Maybe it was more a reflection of my American roots and, hence, my dislike of France at all costs.
Was I thrilled when Eric Abidal gave a Ken Shamrock leg-drag on Luca Toni inside the box, setting up Andrea Pirlo’s first-half penalty kick? Not really, though it was a wonderful first touch control by Toni.
Did I jump for joy when Daniel De Rossi’s freekick took a deflection off Thierry Henry’s foot for the clinched? Meh, a little bit.
On Tuesday I found myself wishing more and more my last name began with a Van or had a couple ‘o’s in a row, as once again the Dutch ran rampant, this time with a easy 2-0 win over Romania. Despite Romania having more to play for, every time I flipped over to ESPN Classic it was the guys in Oranje making plays without so much as breaking a sweat, finally breaking through by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar early in the second half.
The Netherlands had earned the right to rest its players thanks to its collective 7-1 thrashings of Italy and France, and even though Marco van Basten fielded a second-choice side, the XI Dutch on the field weren’t exactly mugs. This is a European Championship, and the players had enough pride to give a game effort, even if comes back to bite them by playing Italy later in the tournament.
Robin Van Persie summed up the Dutch attitude when he scored out of nowhere in the 86th minute and celebrated by swinging his arm in the fashion of a conductor wrapping up a symphony.
In short, I’m Oranje with envy. Sorry gramps.
Tuesday’s hero: Daniel De Rossi, Italy. The man of the match winner, and well-deserved. Beside his goal he was a terror going forward all night. Makes you wonder why he wasn’t in the first game against the Dutch. It also makes you forget his horrific elbow that bloodied Brian McBride two years ago in Germany.
Au revoir: France, we hardly knew ye. It boggles the mind that a team stacked with world-class talents could put together 270 minutes of such putrid play. Blame coach Raymond Domenech’s star charts. Blame the uninspired players. Blame the refs or the wet grass. Blame everything except the retirement of Zinédane Zidane two years ago.
But hey, at least the 56-year-old Domenech proposed to his 31-year-old gal pal after the match, bizarrely saying, “You have to tell people you love them. In such difficult moments, you have to go to what's important. I wanted to show some emotion.”
No one is going to miss the French, but when the creative Franck Ribery got stretchered off in a shock blanket after getting tangled up with Gianluca Zambrotta and suffering a severe leg injury, you knew it wasn’t in the stars. (It was like a bad ‘Rescue 911’ reenactment.)
Domenech, who is under contract two more years, will rightly be slaughtered for his commitment to a defensive-minded team, and the easy target is gray-haired 24-year-old Jérémy Toulalan, who in two games did two things – put his uniform on twice. Domenech also replaced Lilian Thuram in the center of the defense with Abidal, which obviously didn’t work out. There’s a chance Toni beats Thuram in that spot, but it’s unlikely Thuram adds insult to injury and draws the red card. Even then, Domenech never threw caution into the wind, sticking with his defensive-minded approach.
If I cared about the French or was a supporter, the most disconcerting aspect of the tournament was the lack of urgency. Never did the French have the look of winners. They simply waited for something to happen.
It never did.
Hate to delve into this lowest common denominator stuff, but the French truly were, ‘cheese-eating, surrender monkeys’ at this tournament.
It’s his world: The view from my television tells me Gianluigi Buffon looks mildly nuts. He’s got the crazy eyes. If he shook your hand, he’d break it in five places. After Italy scored he ran into the net and shook the netting like Charlton Heston rattling his cage in “Planet of the Apes.” The thing is, he’s proven himself the world’s best shot stopper so he can do whatever he wants, even if that includes wearing a blue skiing vest under his uniform shirt.
16 minutes in heaven: Unforgettable day for France youngster Samir Nasri. The Marseilles midfielder got subbed on for Franck Ribery in the 10th minute and then was gone in the 26th when Domenech reshuffled the deck due to Abidal’s sending off. His replacement? The immortal Jean-Alain Boumsong.
If you don’t know about Boumsong, his name is essentially a walking punch line to the British football media. It’s not like Boumsong is good, but he’s not the worst player of all time either. Is it his fault Newcastle United shelled out £8 million bid for him and signed him for 5½ years? It’s weird; if you make a mistake in England, it forever haunts you. No matter what else you accomplish you’re forever linked to one mistake, like how a pederast has to go door-to-door and introduce himself when he moves.
Worst, celebration, ever.: Antonio Cassano, Italy. The Italian nutter walked off the field in nothing but his underoos and socks. Thank me for no linking it. And while we’re on Cassano, nice dolphin tattoo.
Thanks for playing: Romania. Perhaps in a different group the yellow-men could have gotten into the knockout stages. It was an accomplishment for Romania to even be in Austria, but meh, one goal in three games is nothing to hang your hat on.
Keep in perspective: Yes, defending world champion Italy is in the quarters. Not to rain on their parade, though, but the Azzuri aren’t long for the tournament. Yes, they looked good after scoring the first goal vs. France, and Fabio Grosso did hit the post on a freekick, but they will be without Gennaro Gattuso and Pirlo for the quarters. Spain can’t catch a break, sure, but this is a year it really ought to get past Italy, which will need every brain cell from Roberto Donadoni to formulate a gameplan.
Today’s games (Group D):
Simple equation today. Spain has already won the group and Greece is out. Sweden gets through via win or draw, Russia advances with a win. Easy.
Russia v. Sweden, Tivoli Neu, Innsbruck, Austria; (2:30 p.m, ESPN): If you’re a fan of large, square-jawed men hacking at each other from countries usually associated with ice hockey, this is your match. Sweden looked quite comfortable sitting back and absorbing the pressure in the second half Saturday vs. Spain. That should be a much easier prospect against a Russian team that lacks the quality of the Spaniards. On the other side, Russia is going to have to put a couple more attackers on the field, because its preferred 3-6-1 system might not do it. Sweden may rest its top player, Zlatan Imbrohimovic, setting up an easy second-guess for coach Lars Lagerbäck (who appears to have given up shaving) if they screw up. Russia isn’t bad, but it’s going to have to pound away at Sweden from the start in hopes of squeezing one past Andreas Isaksson. Underrated subplot: Who does Dolph Lundgren support here? He’s a Swede, but most famous for playing Soviet superhuman Ivan Drago. Decisions, decisions.
Guy to watch: Andrei Arshavin, Russia. The one-time Russian captain was out through suspension for the first two matches and should be deployed in this game as they need at least one goal minimum to have any hopes of moving on. He’s scored 11 times in 34 international matches, which isn’t terrible.
Score guess: Russia 1, Sweden 0
Greece v. Spain, Wals-Siezenheim Stadion, Salzburg, Austria; (2:30 p.m., ESPN2): Barring injury to a Spanish starter, this one means next to nothing unless you like shots of Greece coach Otto Rehhagel’s helmet hair. Spain knows it gets Italy on Sunday, so they’ll be on cruise control.
Guy to watch: Dani Güiza, Spain. Considering most of the Spain first choices will be getting facials, why not spotlight Güiza, whose wife — Nuria Bermúdez is apparently ‘road beef’ for most Spanish players. Apparently she used to run with Cristiano Ronaldo and tried to start rumors that she and David Beckham hooked up.
Score guess: Greece 1, Spain 1