Category: ITALY

Nights at the Excelsior

It has been put to me on more than one occasion (by more than one person) that a career in celebrity photojournalism may have been my true calling in life. I have always refuted the notion — frankly, the idea of spending my days hidden behind a hedgerow waiting for the latest B-lister to take out the recycling is less than appealing. That said, should I spot an actor or singer I admire on the street I will happily say hello, much to my wife’s embarrassment. But the suggestion that I would be happy to stalk the rich and famous probably came about because there was a time, around a decade ago, when I did indulge my inner paparazzo far more actively.

Flashback to November 2004. I’d been living in Florence for about a year and in the typical fashion of sporadically-employed Englishmen, often found myself with oodles of leisure time. The Saturday evening in question was no different: I’d spent the afternoon browsing old record shops, taking a few pictures, and enjoying a passeggiata along the pretty streets of the Renaissance city. With nothing else to do and no particular place to go I turned and found myself on Borgo Ognissanti, a narrow road lined with antique stores, though fairly quiet after dark. Turning into the piazza of the same name at the corner of the Hotel Excelsior, I was struck by the sight of an enormous blue-and-black bus parked a few feet in front of me. Standing next to the vehicle was a group of four people, the tallest of whom was wearing a tracksuit that matched the colours of the bus. At this point my mind finally caught up and realised that it was none other than Inter goalkeeper Francesco Toldo! Inter were due to play Fiorentina the next day, a match I had a ticket for; the bus was the team’s transportation and the team would be spending the night at the hotel.

Something of a living legend in Florence, Toldo had spent eight seasons at Fiorentina before moving to the nerazzurri, so I assumed he must still have friends in the city. The anonymous members of the group paused their conversation and turned to look in my direction, clearly waiting to follow Toldo’s lead. I’d always had the impression that the former Italian number one was a pretty down-to-earth guy (he married a supermarket checkout girl and arrived at his own wedding on the back of a Vespa), so I didn’t hesitate to ask him for a photo. He seemed more than happy to satisfy my request, and so I handed my Sony Cybershot-U to one of his friends so he could immortalise the moment. Toldo’s expression was so beaming that after seeing the resulting photo my friend Laura was convinced I’d posed next to a 6’5″ cardboard cutout.

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After that unexpected encounter I wandered around the outside of the hotel for a minute, in the hopes of running into one of Inter’s many other star players. Aside from Toldo the piazza was essentially deserted, but through a window looking onto the Lungarno I did spy club captain Javier Zanetti, coach Roberto Mancini, plus Italian legends Giacinto Facchetti and Gabriele Oriali cheering excitedly in front of a television set. I ran to the nearest bar to see that Juventus had just lost to lowly Reggina. The following afternoon Toldo was back at the Artemio Franchi stadium to face his former club. The match ended in a draw, and the veteran goalkeeper left the field in tears, so moved was he by the home fans’ cries of “Tol-do! Toooolll-dooo!”

* * *

It didn’t occur to me to return to the Excelsior until exactly a year later, when Inter’s city rivals, Milan, came to town. After politely declining an invitation to meet friends at the bar I arrived at Piazza Ognissanti fully prepared for a repeat of my Toldo experience, only to find the square bustling with guests, taxi drivers and doormen. My plan had been to waltz into the hotel as a “guest”; if anyone tried to stop me I’d play the “oblivious foreigner” card. But on this occasion the hotel had engaged an employee to act as security and oversee comings and goings. Dressed in a black topcoat, which he accessorised with an earpiece and walkie-talkie, the young man appeared to relish his responsibility and was seemingly determined to refuse admission to anyone who dared to attempt to breach the lobby’s large revolving door. Alongside me was a young Italian couple whom I soon discovered were there for the same reason as me. I was unsure whether the pair would prove useful sidekicks or draw unwanted attention to my own agenda, but either way my plan was so far being foiled.

I wandered up Via del Moro and around the corner to the nearby Caffè Megara, a favourite locale of mine for having lunch or watching football. The Saturday night match between Roma and Juventus was just starting, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered a chiara media. At half-time I took a final swig of my beer and decided to check back in at the Excelsior. It was now around 9:30pm, the time most people would be eating dinner, and the square was a decidedly quieter place. The hotel’s one-man security team was nowhere to be seen, and as I approached the entrance I was surprised to find the revolving doors completely unguarded.

Now that I’d crossed that initial threshold I immediately set to putting my carefully thought-out plan into practice. Taking one cursory glance around the room to get my bearings, I sauntered over to the front desk, where I made some vague inquiry to supposedly justify my presence. From a selection fanned out on a table the woman handed me a brochure, an ideal prop as it turned out, and I pretended to read it while casually making my way around the lobby, naturally looking up every three seconds to check for passing footballers.

When I reached the far end I came to a set of elegant wooden doors with frosted glass windows leading into another large room. At that moment one of the doors opened, and out stepped Carlo Ancelotti. The Milan coach walked straight past me, across the lobby and into a vacant lift. He’d left the door to the room slightly ajar, and peering inside I saw that the Milan squad was inside eating dinner. Alessandro Nesta and Christian Vieri were seated at the same table in matching red tracksuits, so I began leaning my head from left to right in an attempt to spot other rossoneri players. Just then, I heard a bell ring to my left: ding! I turned as the doors of a second lift were opening: from inside its warm, wood-paneled glow stepped Paolo Maldini.

What happened next is something of a blur, but before I knew what I was doing I’d glided across the marble floor and was a foot away from the great defender, who looked every bit il capitano in his dark Milan blazer. Instinctively I stuck out my right hand, which Maldini received in his, and we made eye contact for a few fleeting nanoseconds. Uncertain how to sum up my years of admiration for the man with the economy that the moment required, I simply thanked him for nothing in particular. According to his profile Maldini and I are the same height, yet he seemed to tower over me — though maybe only because by this point my legs had turned to spaghetti. But that didn’t stop me looking to take things one step further. I reached into my bag and pulled out a pristine, glossy photo of the Milan captain, which Paolino was gracious enough to sign with the permanent black marker I’d brought along for this very purpose.

By now we were in the middle of a suddenly crowded lobby, and Maldini’s attention had already been diverted by someone with whom his relationship was older than sixty seconds. I then noticed that the young Italian couple had also made it inside, but their squeals of excitement were just the kind of behaviour that could jeopardise my progress. When I felt a tap on the shoulder, I knew my fear had been realised. It was the over-zealous security man from earlier.

“How did you get in here?” he asked accusingly.

“Um, the door,” I responded, gesturing towards the giant revolving entrance directly behind him.

Confident I’d committed no crime, I turned away from the hair-gelled pest to find myself face-to-face with Milan’s Portuguese number ten, Manuel Rui Costa. The ex-Fiorentina midfielder was exiting the bar area and had a friend in tow, who happened to be none other than fellow Viola legend, Gabriel Batistuta. Dressed in civilian clothes, the Argentine striker (who at the time was playing in Qatar) had evidently come over to catch up with his former teammate.

“Ciao Rui,” I said, thrusting my hand in his direction. Rui shook it but kept his gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance.

“Ciao Bati,” I said. Batigol grabbed my hand in his, locked eyes and greeted me with a warm and friendly “Ciao!” as if we already knew each other, which, in a spiritual sense perhaps, we did.

I knew my time was running out, so I decided to quit while I was still ahead and leave the premises of my own accord.
Having met three of my idols in the space of five minutes I realised that the evening could unlikely be improved upon. I stepped back out into the cold piazza and began texting everyone I’d ever met.

* * *

Another year passed before I returned to the Excelsior. By now I was a skilled veteran in the fine art of loitering, and felt confident that my mission could be accomplished with the right amount of preparation and stealth. Again the visiting side was Milan, although this time the match with Fiorentina was scheduled for a Saturday night. So on Friday evening I arrived at Piazza Ognissanti to find the square all but deserted. Encouraged by this promising sign, I swept into the lobby fully expectant to be soon shaking hands with more calcio royalty.

Immediately I spotted a young man in a Milan tracksuit reluctantly making conversation with an eager journalist. It was Milan’s centre-forward Marco Borriello, who seemed to be attempting to take refuge between a giant stone column and an enormous Christmas tree. Irrespective of the fact that he was otherwise engaged, Borriello was hardly the calibre of player with whom I’d grown accustomed to rubbing shoulders. Convinced I could do better, I continued past him unchecked. At the far end of the lobby a group of large leather armchairs had been clustered together around a coffee table. In one chair, tapping idly on his mobile phone, sat Milan’s combative midfielder Christian Brocchi. In another, staring into the void, was seated a supremely bored-looking Filippo Inzaghi. Since he seemed like a man whose schedule for the next twenty-fours hours was fairly empty, I didn’t hesitate in asking for a photo. The Italian World Cup winner duly obliged and leaned in for an impromptu selfie with yours truly. Having clicked the shutter and checked that the resulting snapshot was to Super Pippo’s satisfaction, I was about to thank him and leave when I noticed a familiar presence standing to my right. It was my old chum from hotel security, still armed with a walkie-talkie and still doing his best to protect the establishment’s millionaire athlete guests from the persistent swathes of ruffians coming in off the street.

I don’t know if he recognised me, but he insisted on the same pointless exchange as last time.

“How did you get in?”

I began to gesture towards the revolving door but before I could say anything he interrupted me.

“Look, don’t talk to the footballers.”

I turned to my new pal for assistance, but Inzaghi didn’t want to get involved. Brocchi hadn’t looked up from his phone the whole time. The following evening I was at the Stadio Artemio Franchi to see Fiorentina and Milan draw 2-2. Inzaghi came on as a late substitute for Brocchi. Borriello stayed on the bench, Maldini was injured. Rui Costa had moved to Benfica and Batistuta had retired. Toldo was still at Inter, but was no longer first-choice between the sticks. I never went back to the Excelsior.

me and pippo

Verpiana Memories

When I was a boy my best friend was another boy named Joe. We must have met when we were about four or five, and from that point on spent what seemed like most weekends together. Thanks to this near inseparable friendship, Joe’s parents quickly became close friends with mine. Both were artists — his father a sculptor and his mother a ceramicist — and both were pretty successful in their respective fields. My family and his would often go to the cinema or have dinner together at the weekends, and then one of us would sleep over at the other’s house (Joe and I had met before my brother Alex was born, but once he was old enough to walk the two of us became three). Joe and his parents lived in a large house on the corner of a main road. It had three floors and a separate building that acted as his mum’s workshop, as well as a spacious garden, where Joe and I spent whole days doing what probably amounted to nothing much. In the far corner of the garden underneath a giant pear tree was a two story construction made of scaffolding and planks of wood, from the top of which we could see over the fence and into the street. One day we rested a piece of drain pipe across the scaffolding and the fence and poured water onto unsuspecting passers-by. When one particularly irked middle-aged gentleman asked us what we thought we were doing Joe told him we were watering the pavement. On another occasion we spent an afternoon tossing over-ripened pears into the street, which was fun until the police knocked on the door.

Perhaps in an effort to avoid further run-ins with the law, Joe’s dad used the same scaffolding and wood planks to construct a life-size biplane on the lawn. From his workshop down in the basement he’d fashion toy swords for us out of wood. On another occasion he crafted us a pair of walkie-talkies, equipped with a plastic wire aerial and a knob that turned. It’s hard to imagine what kind of fun could be derived from what were essentially two wooden blocks painted black, but somehow Joe and I managed to keep ourselves suitably entertained for hours on end. Joe’s dad had travelled across the western United States, bringing home with him a number of interesting Native American artifacts that adorned Joe’s bedroom. He even had a wigwam out on the lawn that we never dared sleep in overnight. I don’t know how many days and nights I spent in that house but I can still recall every last detail, right down to the pale green sponge-like texture of the upholstery on the sofa and the paisley pattern engraved into the handles of the family’s cutlery.

When I was about ten, Joe’s parents sold their house and moved to another town, some forty minutes away. The new house was much smaller, but with the money they made on the sale they were able to buy a rustic property in the northernmost corner of Tuscany. Joe’s dad wanted to have access to the stone from nearby Carrara, a town known throughout the world for its marble. I remember them going there that summer to work on the house (which from the photographs I’d seen needed some attention). We’d already begun spending long vacations in Italy, and the following year we jumped at the chance to spend a week or two with them, and did so every summer for the next five years.

While the house itself was located in an area of Tuscany called il Lunigiana, in the province of Massa, it was only a short distance across the Ligurian border to La Spezia. Consequently the local license plates seemed to be evenly split between MS and SP. Exiting the A15 Autostrada at Aulla, it was a short drive to a small town called Serricciolo. From there we drove up a winding hillside road to the tiny hamlet of Verpiana, where we turned left around a large brick barn and into the dusty courtyard. The area was dotted with semi-abandoned pieces of farming equipment, hens clucked across the hay and cobblestones and a cat slept underneath the wheels of an already-vintage Fiat. The house was on the first floor: beneath it were three ancient arches under which Joe’s parents’ Citroën was parked. To get up there you had to walk up a semi-covered stone staircase with a wobbly metal handrail, which brought you out onto a spacious terrace. The house itself was extremely roomy with several bedrooms, some of which you could only get to via the terrace. The other details were as one would expect: terracotta floors, whitewashed walls, painted wooden shutters and iffy wiring.

Beneath the house was a maze of cellars and rooms that had clearly not been inhabited in decades, if not centuries. I remember one day Joe and I entered a secret door behind the archways where we’d parked the cars. If we’d explored further we’d have probably walked in on someone having lunch, as it seemed every home in the village was connected, as if buildings had sprung organically from that central point. A long white tunnel — more in the style of the Amalfi coast or a Greek island — extended out of the courtyard and lead to another road. Inside there were several other homes. Occasionally we’d run into other kids, who our attempts to befriend weren’t met with much success. They were quite unlike the other young Italians I’d met. At the other end of the tunnel was an alimentari, a small convenience store, the kind of place you enter through a beaded curtain and where the owner is a woman in slippers. It was a handy enough place to pick up milk or a box of pasta, but for a real supermarket we had to drive down to the next town, Serricciolo.

* * *

Serricciolo also had a bar next to the railway tracks, where we’d often stop for a morning coffee or post-beach refreshment. Joe and I often spent our time playing a football video game that ran on 20 lire coins. In addition to the aforementioned Sidis supermarket, Serricciolo also boasted a florist, a newspaper kiosk, a wedding dress shop, and a hardware store that also sold nice things for the home. Yet Serricciolo’s most important contribution to its range of local amenities was its pizzeria. The place was everything you want in a pizzeria and nothing more: plastic tablecloths, no atmosphere to speak of, and a pyramid of chocolate-covered profiteroles rotating behind the door of a glass fridge. The pizza was so thin it was almost transparent and its circumference so huge that I don’t know why they even bothered putting it on a plate. Always a purist when it comes to pizza I never veered from the margherita. The mozzarella would rapidly melt into the tomato creating a delicious sauce the colour of sunburn. I’d devour the whole thing in about ten minutes.

Sometimes after dinner we’d drive past the pizzeria to Fivizzano. This pretty hilltop town was also damaged during the war and is prone to earthquakes, but its main square, Piazza Medicea, has remained intact. There we’d order un gelato from the bar and eat it by the fountain (commissioned by Cosimo III de’ Medici), distinctive for its numerous carved fish from whose mouths spring jets of water. I loved the energy of those summer nights and the fact that families would be out together after midnight, kids running around in the dark, illuminated only by buzzing fluorescent lampposts.

On the way to Fivizzano was there was a nearby swimming pool, with a great water chute and high diving boards. It was kept in the shade by a forest of pine trees, and I remember one day a bee managed to sing me underneath my watch. Alex’s thick mop of blond hair (a “thatch” as my mum used to call it) meant he always drew attention from Italians. This was especially true at the swimming pool, where he’d quickly impress local teenagers by showing no hesitation in leaping into the water from the highest diving board.

After Serricciolo was Aulla, a mid-sized market town whose old centre was destroyed by Anglo-American bombings in 1943. The modern town that had sprung up in its place was a lot of concrete and marble, and decidedly unpretty. Aulla hosted a bustling market which we’d go to browse and pick up cheap frying pans, flip-flops or unofficial football merchandise. Meanwhile there were the usual shops: Benetton, Stefanel, plus a somewhat no frills sports store, where I bought my Milan 1990-91 shirt. I also have a photograph of myself standing outside the shop next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Franco Baresi. One day we noticed giant posters of football players (Baggio, Gullit, etc.) on display in the supermarket. The cashier explained they could be ours if we saved the wrappers from 12-pack boxes of Kinder Brioche. So for several days, Joe, Alex and me ate more of these apricot jam-filled breakfast cakes than was possibly healthy, but it was enough to earn us a poster each. (Mine, of a 22-year-old Paolo Maldini, still hangs on the wall of my apartment.)

When we weren’t visiting other towns or picking up provisions, we’d invariably spend the day by the sea. A place I loved to visit was Portovenere, a busy fishing town built into the cliffs and best reached by boat from the elegant port of Lerici. There was no beach, just a long cluster of boulders, with steps down to the water. When a boat sped across the bay the water would bounce up against the rocks. Joe and I used to snorkel around the tied-up rowing boats, trying in vain to catch darting minnows with our hands. We also collected broken fragments of old ceramic pots, which we took home and used to make a mosaic on the floor of the house. In the late afternoon we’d walk up to the gothic church of San Pietro, which offered spectacular breezy views of the Mediterranean. My dad used to always point out the grotto named after Lord Byron and tell us the story of how the poet swam across the bay to see Shelley in Lerici, and that Shelley later died in a boating accident just off the same stretch of coast.

There were beaches at Sarzana and San Terenzo but they were a little cramped, and so usually we drove to Marinella. We’d park opposite an Agip station on a road lined with pine trees, and spend the rest of the day there, sometimes until dusk. Unlike Liguria’s rocky coastline, Marinella was a classic Italian beach, packed with multi-generation families gathered under umbrellas and ragazzi spending the afternoon sunbathing or playing volleyball. I’d often run and get ice cream or bomboloni con crema from a little hut. We’d usually pack our own sandwiches, after which I used to begin to doze off on my towel. Through my dreamy state I’d hear the voice of the man carrying a large icebox filled with coconut. “Cocco! Cocco bello!” it would sing, more loudly as it got closer, before drifting away again, getting lost amid the soothing murmur of unintelligible chatter and gently breaking waves.

* * *

Life at Verpiana revolved around the terrace. Joe’s parents had furnished it with several pot plants and safari chairs and fold-up wooden chairs. There was a large table — or rather, a table top and two trestles — to eat at. It was too hot to eat lunch outside but when the sun had shifted the terrace became a lovely place to sit before dinner. Across the courtyard and beyond a neighbour’s clothesline was visible a spectacular mountain range that would turn pink each evening as the sun departed. I often wanted to believe that the central peak was the mountain featured in the logo of Paramount Pictures. (Years later the mountain I was thinking of was pointed out to me in Piedmont.) In the evening we’d hang our beach towels over the wall to dry and play football with one of those mini plastic balls they sell on the beach (one of the goals was the spindly railing at the top of the stairs, which meant every time a shot went in that direction someone would have to chase down after the ball and retrieve it before it bounced into an old cellar or punctured beneath a rusty tractor). On rare afternoons when Verpiana suffered a brief yet biblical rainstorm I’d hole up indoors and spend an afternoon reading or drawing. There was no television and the only place to listen to music was in the car, so we’d instead engage in epic ping-pong or Subbuteo tournaments, for which I remember creating paper advertising hoardings out of Brooklyn chewing gum wrappers.

I always looked forward to the evenings. I still remember what a blissful feeling it was to be standing in the kitchen under the bright glow of a single light bulb, watching the pasta fall into a vast pot of boiling water. Fresh out of the shower, tanned from the beach, a clean t-shirt and starving from having not eaten since lunchtime, the anticipation of another fun dinner out on the terrace was blissful. Though there were a couple of outside lights, the table was decked with ceramic candle-holders crafted by Joe’s mum, between which Joe and I would try to build wax bridges as the candles burnt down through the course of the evening. In the total silence of midnight we’d be able to spot bats circling around the barn and constellations directly over our heads, which is when my dad would start saying slightly ominous things like, “They’d never find me here.”

One of the neighbours was an elderly war veteran named Guido. He always said hello and sometimes he’d bring us a bottle of his own wine that was probably best described as “rustic”. My dad spoke better Italian than any of us and sometimes chatted with the old man over a cigarette. When my dad told him the route we’d taken to get here Guido opened his eyes with a hint of recognition. “Ah yes, Germany,” he said, as if summoning some vague recollection. “They eat a lot of potatoes there, don’t they?”

I sometimes wondered what Guido and his wife — a typical rural home-keeper who never took off her apron — used to make of us. I’m sure they were utterly baffled why a bunch of foreigners would want to spend summer in a part of Italy that no Italian would ever have reason to visit. Even at a young age, there was something quite embarrassing about it all. In between my fun I felt uneasy being in Verpiana for two sunny weeks when everyone around us had to spend all year there, year after year, and probably hadn’t been anywhere else in a long time. This feeling was exacerbated by Joe’s parents’ other guests, whose visits sometimes overlapped with ours. As nice people as they obviously were, their presence made the house feel like a ready-made facility for middle-class Brits to live some idealized version of a rustic Tuscan lifestyle. Nowhere could have been further removed from Italy’s celebrated tourist destinations. Verpiana, Serricciolo and Aulla were unknown, unfashionable places where real people lived, but have as much to do with my love of Italy as Rome or Venice or Florence.

Our relationship with Joe and his family ended abruptly, the reasons for which I won’t go into here as many details are still unclear to me. I haven’t seen Joe since Christmas 1994, but I understand he’s now married with a young son. His dad died a few years ago, but his mum is still working and as far as I know still visits the house in Verpiana. About six years ago, when I was living in Italy, my girlfriend (now wife) began taking singing lessons from a retired opera singer in Carrara. One Saturday in early summer I went with her on the train from Florence. While she had her lesson I strolled around the town. I had been once before, and remembered how the marble had turned the river water white. It was a warm day, so after lunch we took the bus down to Marinella. We walked past the pine trees, took off our shoes and stepped onto the sand. Many years had past and we were at the opposite end of the beach, but the view of the hills looked the same from any distance. Staring down the coastline I could just make out the yellow sign of the Agip station several hundred metres away, peeking through the haze like a mirage. Then, through the hypnotic sound of the sea I heard his voice, faintly at first, but getting louder: “Cocco! Cocco bello!”. As soon as it had sung, the voice started to fade away once more. And then, it was gone.

 
 
A version of this article, translated into Italian by Elisa Sottana, is on the site of Rivista Inutile.

The Eternity of a Moment

As David Byrne once pointed out, from time to time we’re all inclined to ask ourselves, Well, how did I get here? It’s a universal feeling that strikes the hearts and minds of most adults as soon as they realize that their life is hurtling at a rate beyond their capacity to fathom. Yet as the past begins to stretch away behind me, the easier it becomes to recognize and make sense of the answer. I can pinpoint a moment in my life — a chance meeting with a total stranger over ten years ago — that rapidly sent my life in a certain direction. I can state with some confidence that the ensuing years would have been quite different had this apparently innocuous event never taken place. The funniest part is I wasn’t even there.

The unlikely setting for this encounter was Pisa Airport, officially named Aeroporto Galileo Galilei, where my parents were waiting to catch a return flight home having just spent a long weekend in Florence. If you’ve ever traveled from Pisa you’ll be aware that there’s not a lot to do there besides down an espresso or two and wait to board your plane. My parents were doing precisely that when my father happened to notice a young man across the departure lounge, for the sole reason that he was wearing a Juventus tracksuit. Dad kept his eye on him from afar, and soon discovered he was on the same flight. Though he didn’t recognize his fellow passenger as a player for the bianconeri, he wasn’t about to rule it out either. In any case he presumed he must have something to do with the famous Turin club to be dressed that way. The man in the tracksuit was traveling with another man of similar age. A teammate? A journalist? An agent? My dad usually needs little incentive to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and now his curiosity had been suitably piqued he proceeded to do just that.

Much to my father’s surprise (and perhaps disappointment), the young man did not play football professionally for Juventus, nor did he have anything to do with the club. He wasn’t even Italian. His name was Jamie and he was a former footballer from Wales who had been forced to give up the game because of injury. Now he and his plain-clothed partner, Lee, ran a football academy that offered custom soccer tours to fans and amateur youth teams. They were returning from a visit to Italy where they’d met with former Juventus striker and club director Roberto Bettega. That explained the tracksuit.

This sparked a chat about Italian football, which is when my dad happened to mention me. Evidently intrigued by my apparent interest in calcio and Italy, Jamie gave handed my dad his card and told him to tell me to get in touch. I’d graduated the previous summer and was living back at home without a job or much clue as to how to go about getting one. After hearing Dad’s story I didn’t need much prompting to pick up the phone and rang Jamie’s number. Quite what the purpose of the call would be I didn’t yet know, but the conversation quickly took on momentum when Jamie explained that he might be able to offer me some work in Italy.

A couple of weeks later Jamie and Lee came to visit me at home to fill me in on their project and discuss the idea further. They explained that they had people working for them in Milan and Rome, but their agent in Florence had little time to devote to the project now that she was raising a young family. The pair suggested I go to Florence to help her out, with a view to eventually taking over the operation throughout Tuscany. Having studied in Italy I’d been itching to move back ever since; now I had an excuse in the form of a real opportunity. I could hardly believe my luck that after months of boredom and frustration I was now being handed the possibility of a football-related job in the country I loved.

There was no game plan. Nor had there been any mention of money. Jamie had essentially done little more than ask me to go to Italy and introduce myself to his agent in Florence. Precisely what would happen after that nobody seemed to know, but with appealing alternatives not forthcoming I went along with the idea. Though completely aware that the whole thing could very possibly turn out to be a big waste of time, that wasn’t enough to deter me from finding out.

* * *

Less than two months later I found myself living in semi-rural Tuscany as the semi-permanent guest of a family-friend. When I wasn’t giving ad hoc art history lectures at the local high school or hanging out with the ragazzi at the bar in town, I was attempting to find a real job and a real apartment in Florence, and arrange a meeting with this mysterious agent of Jamie’s. Incidentally she was also Welsh, and her name was Rachel. What seemed a fairly straightforward task proved more complicated than expected, my elusive contact repeatedly postponing our plans for increasingly bizarre reasons. On one occasion she failed to show up at all, later sending me a text with the following as explanation: “I was in my Buddhism class and we were doing our chant.”

Eventually Rachel and I did meet. She came across as a fairly bubbly character, although I sensed an edgier side to her. How she’d ended up working for Jamie I wasn’t sure, but I don’t think it had anything to do with an overwhelming passion for the beautiful game. She seemed wholly disinterested in talking about the job, clearly preferring other topics such as how her husband had written a book about the life of Masaccio and was now in talks with RAI over the film rights.

Though I wasn’t learning much about Jamie’s football academy, Rachel was happy to help me out with other pressing issues in my life, such as accommodation. On one of our first meetings she took me to the American Church of St. James in Via Rucellai. She told me it was something of a hub for Florence’s ex-patriot community (I later found out that it was also where David Bowie married the supermodel Iman). Near the entrance was a small notice board with a smattering of handwritten notes left by people looking for work or roommates. Rachel suggested I leave one myself since I was looking for both. I remember thinking that it seemed a pointless thing to do, that no-one would see it, let alone respond. But Rachel was right. I needed a job and somewhere to live, and the sooner both happened the better. Later, over coffee at Caffé Giacosa, Rachel mentioned she had a friend who was looking to rent out a room in her spacious apartment in the affluent Campo di Marte neighbourhood. Not keen on the idea of sharing a flat with a bunch of students oltrarno I told her to put us in touch. A couple of weeks later I moved in with Rachel’s friend, a divorced doctor named Olivia.

Not two weeks had passed since I’d left small-town Tuscany behind that I received an email from an American student named Jessica. She’d seen my ad at the American church and wondered if I was still looking for roommates. I was amazed that someone had actually read my little handwritten note, and replied explaining that though I’d already resolved my living situation we should meet anyway. Jessica was working at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and the following Sunday afternoon invited me to a screening of Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. I sat through the film waiting for the infamous eyeball scene, all the while looking for my new acquaintance, who’d promised to be wearing a chartreuse sweater. We eventually spotted each other after the film, and after the inevitable exchange about what exactly constitutes “chartreuse” was out of the way) we took a short walk along Via Verdi where we ended up at a café called Riff Raff (I felt this was appropriate since clearly we weren’t). Jessica was not your typical Italian-American: quick-witted, funny and fascinated by the art world, she was a million miles from the provincial types with whom I’d spent the last six months routinely sipping coffee. For instance, during our first meeting she revealed that she slept on a Morrissey pillowcase. After some more correspondence I learned she signed her emails by turns “Jessicroix” and, most intriguingly, “The Director” (a reference that has never been explained to me).

The next time I saw Jessica was a week or two later in her part of town (a ten minute walk away), at a bar called Sant’Ambrogio. She was with her friend Kaitlin, a fashion student from California, who introduced herself however as “a semi-retired contortionist.” Several cocktails later we went back to Kaitlin’s place on Via dei Pilastri, a surprisingly spacious apartment filled with her own artwork, mannequins and various objets. Evidently an appropriate intake of Jose Cuervo was all our wiry host needed to come out of semi-retirement, and we were treated to an impromptu performance. Through the semi-darkness I was able to identify Kaitlin’s legs, which seemed to point in directions that defied anatomical logic. (I grew to discover that shows like this were exceedingly rare, but Kaitlin casually demonstrated her extraordinary flexibility in more mundane circumstances everyday.)

Jessica and I saw each other a few more times, but her period in Florence was drawing to an end. That September she was to embark on a masters degree in museum studies in New York. On her last evening we went to see the Botticelli exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, and when we parted I became sad suddenly. Jessica had been my first new friend after moving to Florence but now, barely a month after we’d first met, she was gone. Such is the transient nature of international twenty-something relationships.

As for Rachel and the supposed football job, things hadn’t worked out quite as any of us had expected. Jamie and Lee did bring a small group of clients over that spring, a trip that I organized almost single-handedly. I booked their hotel in Florence, scored free tickets to a Serie A match between Empoli and Inter, and even arranged for a private visit to the Museo del Calcio at the Italian FA’s headquarters in Coverciano. Once the group had arrived in Italy I was quickly called upon to act as both guide and interpreter. While the trip was a success, similar occasions never materialized, and I slowly let my involvement in the project fizzle out. I now had a steady teaching gig and was also in the middle of writing a portion of a travel book about Tuscany.

Meanwhile Jamie no longer showed the same enthusiasm he had a year earlier. The previous September he’d flown with Lee and their families to Milan for a Euro 2004 qualifying match between Italy and Wales. After the game Jamie’s brother was crossing the street when a car struck and killed him. That spring Rachel had gone back suddenly to Wales, apparently to attend to some kind of family crisis of her own. My attempts to get in touch proved futile, and I never saw her again. Yet in a handful of short encounters she had — though quite unwittingly and unbeknownst to her — changed my life.

* * *

Kaitlin and I continued to see a lot of each other despite the departure of our mutual friend, and over the next two years she became one of my dearest and most loyal pals in Florence. For someone so outwardly eccentric, she was extremely organized and very responsible. She was an early riser and never stayed out too late, and her ability to always show up on time certainly made a nice change (this is Italy, remember). Even when I made an effort to be early I’d find here there waiting for me! Our meetings invariably involved an aperitivo, dinner, a movie at her place, or some combination of all three. Sometimes we’d go down a tiny side street around the corner to listen to live jazz at a dark and smoky subterranean boite, the imaginatively named “Jazz Club”.

A little over two years after I’d moved in with her, Olivia casually announced one morning that she was selling her apartment. Despite her suggestions to the contrary there seemed no possibility of me joining them in their new place. Not only was it further away from town, it would also be significantly smaller. While relieved to be moving out (domestic life had become strained) I’d been given very short notice to find somewhere new. When I relayed this development to Kaitlin she immediately suggested I move in with her. She was about to spend the next four weeks in Barcelona, leaving vacant her studio on Via della Pergola (where she’d moved the year before). That would buy me a little bit of time to find a place of my own. Yet again the timing had proven perfect, and I instantly took her up on her offer.

Though the two apartments were separated by just a ten-minute walk down Borgo Pinti, they may as well have been different worlds. Overnight, my freedom had been restored. I had regained control of both my schedule and lifestyle, and I found the novelty rejuvenating. When Kaitlin returned from Spain she didn’t kick me out. Instead she patiently tolerated my boxes of clutter and even gave up half of her bed. I was hugely thankful to her but was aware the situation could not continue forever, and I began house hunting with greater urgency.

One Sunday night, following a disappointing weekend of several fruitless visits to apartment prospects, I was feeling frustrated and decided to go for a short walk (we were also out of milk). In the hall I ran into a student stacking large boxes into a pile by the front door. Evidently she was moving out. When I asked where she had been living she gestured upstairs to the first floor, and told me that the landlady there now if I wanted to take a look. I hopped up the staircase and knocked on the open door. “Permesso?” I entered a large kitchen and dining area, where I was greeted by a woman in her late-thirties named Paola. She confirmed that the apartment was now vacant, before giving me a rudimentary tour. The place was beautiful, with high ceilings and old stone floors. It also had four bedrooms, which I would have to fill were I to afford to live there. Paola briefly explained the terms and the deal was essentially settled there and then. I returned to Kaitlin’s with a fresh carton of milk and a new apartment.

When I told her about what had happened Kaitlin asked to see the place for herself, and didn’t think twice about moving in with me. Her studio was on the ground floor and I think she was tired of living alone. We’d now have to find only two roommates. The city was permanently littered with announcements advertising apartments, which were usually designed with those little tear-off strips containing the relevant contact details. So I set about making my own. Rather than risk having our flyer become lost in the sea of tatty typed documents, I hand-drew the poster myself, describing Kaitlin as a “fashion student/contortionist” and myself as an “English teacher/writer/deejay” (I had recently begun spinning discs at a popular local watering hole). I threw a stack of freshly-printed flyers and two hefty rolls of masking tape into the basket of Kaitlin’s bike and set off, stopping every few feet to tape our ad to every lamppost, phone booth or billboard that I passed.

My supply of posters severely diminished and my hunger mounting, I returned home for lunch. I’d finished eating and was about to ignite the Bialetti when the phone rang. I picked it up and an American woman’s voice spoke to me. “I saw your poster,” she said, before quickly adding that she was interested in seeing the apartment. It worked! I asked her a little about herself. She was studying Italian Literature at the university and currently commuting from Bologna. Previously she’d lived in Barcelona, to which I immediately jumped on the fact that had Kaitlin had too. We arranged for her to come by the following day. I took down her phone number but almost forgot to ask for her name. It was Hillary. I hung up and returned to my coffee, blissfully unaware that I’d just had a first conversation with my future wife.

Hillary arrived as planned the next day and moved in the day after that. Kaitlin and I liked her immediately, and a rudimentary online search of her name (more out of curiosity than a need to background check) produced only one result: a photo of her playing jazz vibes taken in Jamaica. Such evidence was enough to reassure me that I’d made a good decision. After living with Hillary for a few days I grew increasingly happier that she’d walked into my life. Out of the rolling mountains of West Virginia she had already packed in a lifetime of exotic adventures. In addition to her recent experience in Barcelona she’d spent some of her high school years in Seville, and had also lived in Hungary and Cuba. We shared a lot of tastes: she sang opera and knew a lot about music, especially jazz. Most endearing of all was her love of cheese and preference for drinking Campari Soda straight from the bottle. As was perhaps inevitable given our shared quarters, Hillary and I began an accelerated journey towards domestic routine. It began with one making the other coffee, or a bowl of pasta for lunch. Soon we started going to the supermarket together. Then one afternoon, as I stood pressing a shirt, she dumped a stack of her own clothes for me to iron.

I was the happiest I’d been since arriving in Florence; in the space of a couple of months my life had once again changed dramatically, and for the better. We had such fun in our new place that we soon nicknamed the apartment “Il Teatro”, both as a nod to the famous theatre a few doors down and to the Felliniesque scenes of rampant intellectual debauchery to which we aspired to play host. We threw a long overdue housewarming party in October, after which Hillary and I stayed up until dawn. As we finally retired to our separate rooms she gave me precise instructions as to when she wanted to bring her coffee in the morning. She may have been only half-joking, but when she saw me place the tray down next to her bed at the requested hour it must have been a turning point.

* * *

In December Kaitlin left Florence for good to return to Barcelona, leaving Hillary and I on our own with two roommates, neither of which — for one reason or another — were the easiest of people to live with. Thank God we had each other. We retreated into ourselves, and decided to move out in the summer. We ended up moving in with an acquaintance of mine who sold leather jackets on San Lorenzo market (he’d also deejayed with me before). His apartment was on the top floor of an old building in Via Porta Rossa, literally around the corner from Piazza Signoria. Moving out of Il Teatro into the next apartment was not easy. I arrived home in the late afternoon having just got back from Rome, where I’d spent the week giving art history tours to a group of Mexican high school students. Hillary and I then spent the night carrying our belongings on foot to the new place, which was in a building so old its narrow stone staircases had been unevenly worn smooth through centuries of use, making them all the more arduous. When we eventually completed the job around dawn, Hillary immediately cracked open a beer. We then staggered into the nearby bar for breakfast. Catching a glimpse of myself in the pasticceria’s elegant mirror I was horrified: I looked like death warmed up, and began to seriously wonder what the hell I was doing with my life.

Though I still loved Florence, I felt like I’d outgrown it, and my life there was becoming a parody of itself. For as much as I enjoyed drinking Campari or reading la Gazzetta with an espresso I was barely surviving. Meanwhile, in New York, Jessica had completed an internship at the Museum of Modern Art. On a whim, I applied to the same program myself, and towards the end of the summer they called me up. The next thing I knew I was armed with a J-1 visa on a jet bound for JFK.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, as I anxiously pondered what I was in for stateside, I started to look back at where I’d been. For the first time I was able to trace the most significant events of the last few years back to that meeting between my parents and Jamie at Pisa Airport. As an ardent Fiorentina fan, it pained me almost to concede the role that Juventus had played in the proceedings:

If Jamie hadn’t been wearing a Juventus tracksuit my dad wouldn’t have spoken to him.
If my dad hadn’t spoken to Jamie I wouldn’t have gone to Florence and met Rachel.
If I hadn’t met Rachel I wouldn’t have met Jessica or Olivia.
If I hadn’t met Jessica I wouldn’t have met Kaitlin (nor would I have had the idea to apply to MoMA and therefore wouldn’t be on the plane now).
If Olivia hadn’t sold her apartment I wouldn’t have moved in with Kaitlin.
If I hadn’t moved in with Kaitlin I wouldn’t have found the apartment upstairs.
If I hadn’t found the apartment upstairs I wouldn’t have met Hillary.

Not to say that any of those things couldn’t have happened under other circumstances, but both Jessica and Hillary only came into my life because they responded to announcements I’d left in public places. The chances of either of them seeing the ad let alone responding must have been only slightly greater than zero.

While thrilled at the prospect of what awaited me it pained me to leave Florence so quickly, and I felt awful for having abandoned Hillary. Rather than join me in New York she moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she began training for a job in yachting, eventually being placed on a luxury vessel in the Bahamas, aboard which her responsibility was to cater to the whims of millionaires and clean what was already clean. That November, halfway through my MoMA experience, I went down to see her. We spent a memorable weekend in Miami staying in a cheap bed and breakfast in South Beach. I loved the colours and the laid-back vibe, but the uncertainty of our situation hovered over us like a cloud. Both of our lives had changed yet again. We didn’t know if we would stay together, or even when we’d next see each other. Two months later we were married. But that’s another story.

Black and blue

In August 1990, just weeks after Totò Schillaci’s exploits at that summer’s World Cup, a shared place of birth would have seemed the only connection between the newborn Mario Balotelli and Italy’s Golden Boot winner. Born in Palermo to two Ghanaian immigrants, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, young Mario had a difficult first few years, undergoing a series of intestinal operations as a toddler. Even after being placed in foster care with the Balotelli family in the northern town of Brescia, the idea that Mario would one day wear the blue of Italy, let alone become a national icon, would have seemed unthinkable.

Fast-forward to this summer and Mario Balotelli’s two-goal demolition of Germany in the semi-final of Euro 2012 cemented his fame and sealed his reputation as an explosive yet unpredictable talent. While a highly welcome addition to the Italian national team, his success is especially significant in a country that has often struggled with the concept of national identity as it attempts to reconcile its mixed feelings towards immigration.

Despite its epic history, modern Italy is a young country created from the merging of strictly autonomous regions, and today remains fiercely regional. During both world wars this phenomenon infamously hampered communication between “Italian” soldiers, and it is often stated that the existence of a common language in Italy is the sole result of the development of a state-run national network of television and radio.

For most of the twentieth century Italy was one of the great emigrating nations: between 1876 and 1976 the Italian diaspora numbered over 25 million. During this period the issue of immigration was essentially non-existent. Immigrants did not begin arriving in Italy until the 1960s, and only in the 1980s did their numbers start to multiply. Italy’s unique geographical position has made it a natural port-of-call for those arriving by sea from both Eastern Europe and North Africa. Today Romanians, Albanians and Moroccans make up the bulk of Italy’s legal immigrant population, which currently stands at over 4.5 million, a figure that has tripled since 2003.

The progress of the immigrant experience in Italy has suffered due to government indecision and indifference, as well as general bureaucracy. This combined with a cautious mixture of stereotyping and skepticism have naturally hindered integration and acceptance, while one-sided reporting often only perpetuates the problem. Balotelli himself has frequently been subjected to racial abuse by opposing fans, both in Italy and during Euro 2012. While many Italians recognize the complexities of the situation, many immigrants still find themselves socially marginalized. Yet statistics suggest that those who persevere are ultimately rewarded.

Indeed, Balotelli’s arrival on a global stage comes at a time when Italy finds itself at a turning point in its immigration history. As the children of the first wave of immigrants become adults, so a seismic shift in attitude is forced upon Italian society. Few Italian classrooms are without the son or daughter of an immigrant these days, a fact that can only have a positive long-term bearing on the way the matter is accepted.

The impact of Balotelli’s success with the national team is not lost on coach Cesare Prandelli. Shortly after taking control of the Azzurri he introduced a “code of ethics”, ensuring players representing their country maintained responsible conduct both on and off the pitch. The forward’s eccentric behavior has challenged this code on more than one occasion, yet Prandelli’s faith in the young talent is now being rewarded, and not only in a sporting sense.

Though he is the first black player to score for Italy (against Poland in November 2011) Balotelli is not the first player of African origin to pull on the famous Azzurri shirt. That distinction belongs to former midfielder Fabio Liverani, who was born in Rome to an Italian father and Somali mother. Yet after making his Italy debut in 2001 Liverani represented his country just twice more over the next five years, and despite enjoying a moderately successful Serie A career never became a household name. Likewise Algerian-born defender Matteo Ferrari (whose mother came from Guinea) made eleven appearances for Italy between 2002 and 2004 yet was not an international regular.

Other black athletes have represented Italy in other sports, but only after switching nationality. American-born long-jumper Andrew Howe changed allegiance after his mother’s marriage to an Italian. Similarly another long-jumper, Fiona May, was born in Britain to Jamaican parents, but enjoyed success with Italy after marrying pole-vaulter Gianni Iapichino. Following her retirement she moved into acting, and even starred in Butta la luna, a television drama series that tackled the issues of racism and social integration.

The subject of Italian identity and the national team is not a recent one. Until the 1960s the Italian national team was regularly graced by the presence of so-called oriundi, or nationalized Italians, often arriving from South America. Despite this long tradition, some still oppose the inclusion of such players, a sentiment perhaps fueled by Mauro German Camoranesi’s confession to feeling more Argentine than Italian after lifting the World Cup for Italy in 2006. Prandelli however has embraced the problem, openly welcoming several oriundi into the national fold such as Thiago Motta and Pablo Osvaldo.

But the oriundo situation is different to Balotelli’s, as these players are born with an existing connection to Italy through parents or ancestry. The French, English and Dutch national teams began featuring the sons of immigrants in the 1970s, yet these too were mostly players whose parents had arrived from former colonies. Even Germany’s current multi-ethnic squad cannot boast a player whose chances were as stacked against him as SuperMario.

What makes Balotelli’s case a rarity is that neither of his parents were born in Italy, nor grew up there, nor came from a country that had any significant historical ties to Italy, which is what makes the young Italian striker’s story all the more extraordinary and encouraging. Naturally, his parents’ nationality gave him the right to play for Ghana, but Mario instead opted for Italy, finally becoming eligible after earning his Italian citizenship upon turning eighteen. For Balotelli it wasn’t even a decision to make. Born and raised in Italy, he feels Italian simply because he is — after all, he knows nothing else.

Balotelli represents a new example of the immigrant experience in Italy. He finds himself the most high-profile of an increasing band of Italian-born players of African origin for whom the national obsession — football — is proving a medium with which to successfully integrate themselves (and thousands others) into the country’s consciousness. Torino defender Angelo Ogbonna (whose parents emigrated from Nigeria) was an unused substitute at Euro 2012, while Milan’s teenage forward Stephan El Shaarawy (whose father is Egyptian) looks set to form an unprecedented partnership with Balotelli at international level. That the pair have only one Italian parent between them can only aid the cause of numerous other Italians of African origin currently plying their trade in Italy’s lower leagues, further from the media’s glare.

Incidents of racism in Italian football often cause casual observers to misbrand the sport and its followers. Yet while the stadium is often sadly an outlet for racism, the sport itself cannot be held to blame. On the contrary, young Italians of have discovered that the democracy of the football pitch has provided them with the structure from which to build a positive future and possibly a career. What their stories repeatedly demonstrate, is that when it comes to acceptance, social integration and community, football is actually several years ahead of the rest of society.

In defence of Serie A

On the night of July 9th, 2006 — just hours after Zinedine Zidane had ended his career in infamy, indirectly propelling Italy to World Cup glory — I spotted the following slur freshly scrawled in bright red paint over a shuttered Florence storefront: “LA MAMMA DI ZIDANE E’ UNA PISANA”. That Florentine Azzurri fans could imagine no greater ignominy than to infer that the disgraced Frenchman’s maternal relatives hail from Pisa said everything about Italy’s pervading sense of regionalism, and beyond that, campanilismo, or town-based identity.

For this reason I was surprised to hear the comments of Sam Wallace from The Independent newspaper this weekend. “You go to Stoke, they’ve got an identity,” Wallace opined during a discussion about Serie A on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement video podcast. “You go to Bolton and that club’s got an identity. When I watch Serie A you don’t feel that so much about the smaller clubs there.” This stunningly ill-conceived statement reminded me of the joke about the tourist who visits Paris only to complain that everyone’s speaking French. Obviously, if you’re not Italian, if you’ve never spent time in Italy nor choose to read La Gazzetta dello Sport on a daily basis, you can’t expect to have the same cultural awareness of the game in that country as those that are, have and do.

Though less expected from the mouth of a journalist from one of Britain’s most respected liberal-leaning newspapers, Wallace’s highly ignorant take on Italian football is indicative of opinion at large among soccer fans in the UK, where Serie A is routinely dismissed as defensive, cynical and boring. As is often recalled, this wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago Serie A was widely regarded as the greatest league in the world, and in the mid-1990s Channel 4’s coverage of the Italian championship regularly drew more viewers than the Premier League on Sky Sports.

In the ensuing years, sponsorship, multi-million television deals and an influx of foreign talent have ensured that the Premier League is today the richest and most popular football league on the planet, making it one of the UK’s greatest exports. In the meantime Serie A has, as Shaun Custis of The Sun newspaper put it, “dropped off the map.” But how exactly did this once universally admired league fall out of favour? Though it is impossible to pinpoint a moment precisely, the tide seemed to be turning by the new millennium, and several individual matches certainly may have helped swing the tide in the minds of British fans.

The first incident worth citing is ten-man Italy’s elimination of hosts Holland at Euro 2000. Despite the Dutch missing five penalties during the game (two during the 120 minutes and three during the shoot-out), the BBC’s Barry Davies still summarized the match with a condescending dollop of disdain: “Who says cheats never prosper?” Two years later a series of bizarre refereeing decisions throughout the tournament led to Italy’s ultimate undoing at the World Cup. The erratic performance of referee Byron Moreno during the defeat to Korea provoked fans to speak of a possible conspiracy against the Azzurri, a notion dismissed by many in the British press as a case of sour grapes. Meanwhile Moreno has since served several suspensions in his native Ecuador, and in 2010 was arrested at New York’s JFK airport with six kilos of heroin packed in his underwear.

England fans should know better than most that the domestic game should not be judged by national team performances, yet it seems these two globally-televised matches were enough for many in the UK to form their own assessment of Italian football in general. The fact that Italy had provided both finalists in Europe’s premier club competition in 2003 might have suggested an upturn in Serie A’s fortunes. But for many observers the Champions League final at Old Trafford — a tensely fought affair between classic rivals Juventus and Milan — seemed ample confirmation of Serie A’s demise, a conclusion apparently drawn from the fact that the game ended goalless after extra-time.

Around this time Spain’s La Liga began to take the place of Serie A in the hearts of British fans who like their soccer spiced with a little Mediterranean glamour. Of course, the fact that La Liga was broadcast on Sky Sports also helped, as did the transfer of David Beckham to Real Madrid. By this point the Premier League was already starting to enjoy its new-found status as a global luxury product, garnering new admirers but also encouraging the attitude of the insular English soccer fan. Britain as a society watches far more television than their counterparts in southern Europe, making them especially susceptible to the excessive and manipulative levels of hype surrounding football coverage in the UK media.

I don’t believe the changes in attitude towards Serie A can be based purely on football. What no-one seems to have picked up on is that the general disregard for Italian football these days is mirrored by a cultural-economic shift in Italy’s standing in the world, and a definitely detectable downturn in the country’s image abroad. Though still a highly desirable destination for Brits, Italy as a nation was once more revered than any other for its art, fashion, food and, of course, football. Thanks to cheap air travel all of that has now been conquered, and suddenly Italy is no longer di moda. Just as many journalists use Silvio Berlusconi’s careless remarks and behaviour to depict an entire country as ignorant and corrupt, so soccer fans, sports writers and even casual observers let their perception of a country as a whole to subconsciously influence their take on every product coming out of Italy, especially football.

Italian fans have sometimes been accused by British visitors of aggression, particularly during matches in European competition. Whether occurring in Italy or anywhere else, problems with violence in and around the stadium have little to do with football, and much more to do with society at large. Whatever you want to call it — sporting pride, peer pressure, twisted machismo, boredom — when a Sicilian teenager feels compelled to throw a fatal flare at a policeman in Catania, a nation and its national game can hardly be held responsible.

I’ve attended home matches at the two biggest and best-supported teams in Spain, and in both cases the match-day experience was underwhelming in comparison to what I’ve seen in Serie A stadia, at least in terms of atmosphere. While the Premier League has been extremely successful in refashioning the stadium as a safe and lucrative venue for all the family, at the same time something has been lost. The last time I went to a game in England I was greeted with a lengthy list of objects which weren’t permitted inside the ground, including flag poles and cameras. Fan participation is integral to the stadium experience, and Italian supporters use a colourful combination of flares, flags, banners and sophisticated choreography to galvanize each other and their team. You can learn a lot about a place and a people by spending an afternoon on the terraces.

The 2006 World Cup began with Italy crawling from the debris of a match-fixing scandal that rocked calcio to its very core, lending further heat to the foreign scorn to which the Italian game had by now become used. Italy’s subsequent triumph in Berlin was a significant, if short-lived, rebuttal to fans and press that had spent the previous months dragging the country through the mud. Unfortunately, calciopoli’s intermittent aftershocks — the most recent occurring only last summer — have hindered Serie A’s potential for returning to the forefront among football fans outside Italy. Naturally, many often connect the scandal to the loss of Serie A’s appeal. While it has certainly damaged the credibility of the league and the sport’s governing bodies, the problem of corruption in Italy is hardly a new development — that it should extend sometimes to football is inevitable. Do people think Italy was some clean and wholesome place during the Baggio era? Most hypocritical however, is the high-minded attitude that such a situation could never happen anywhere else.

Italian football would stand a greater chance in the UK if it were shown regularly on British television. Sadly, since Channel 4 ceased to broadcast Serie A in 2003, the league has been passed between various terrestrial and cable networks without ever finding a settled home. The resulting effect is that British viewers have mistaken the absence of Italian football from their screens for their own choice not to watch — a case of not wanting what isn’t put in front of you.

Perhaps inevitably, the fiercest criticisms of Serie A come from those who don’t watch it. Whether or not it’s a preference for remaining oblivious to what they might be missing out on, it’s frustrating to hear the Italian game belittled by those without the facts or experience to back up their claims. I’ve been watching Italian football on a weekly basis for almost twenty years: on Channel 4 as a teenager, while living in Florence during my twenties, and now from my home in New York, where multiple live Serie A games are beamed into my apartment every weekend. Italy may no longer be a haven for the world’s elite: today’s top players are more evenly spread throughout Europe, but this has more to do with a leveling of football’s economic playing field than a case of Serie A having lost its appeal. While the Premier League has been undoubtedly enriched by the arrival of top-quality foreign players (many of whom continue to arrive directly from Italy), the actual quality of Italian football has never waned. It remains a highly competitive and notoriously tough league, populated by technically gifted players and coaches whose tactical awareness is unparalleled.

Some anti-calcio commentators cite a lack of competition in Serie A, another inaccurate assumption vastly outweighed by the frequency of one-sided matches in both the Premier League and La Liga. In Spain, Barcelona have racked up a 5-0 scoreline on three occasions already this season, and even fired eight without reply past poor Osasuna. Likewise, rivals Real Madrid’s wins so far have included a 6-0 and a 6-2. In England, Manchester United recently demolished Arsenal 8-2. The last time that scoreline was registered in Serie A was sixteen years ago. In the first five weeks of this season, no team in the Italian top flight has won a match by more than three goals.

The golden era of the sette sorelle — when Serie A boasted up to seven sides likely to challenge for the scudetto — may have passed. Modern football deems that Europe’s top leagues are ultimately dominated by the usual two or three powerhouse teams. Certainly some of famous Italian clubs, such as Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Napoli and Torino have endured a turbulent last fifteen years, all spending time in lower divisions. But recently, the relatively cautious approach employed by Italian clubs in the transfer market has promoted a stronger league of competitive sides, while encouraging the emergence of local talent. In Italy, perhaps more than anywhere else, it seems no team is impervious to defeat, even against the most unfancied opposition. Early last season eventual champions Milan were beaten by newly-promoted Cesena, while just last month Inter suffered a 3-1 loss at Novara, a provincial side playing their first Serie A home game since 1955. I doubt the Novara fans suffered a crisis of identity that night.

The complete reversal in UK attitudes towards Italian football over the last decade seems unfounded and essentially without substance, appearing instead to be based solely on conjecture and common misconception. How could the game have changed so much, so rapidly? The ball is still round. The Independent’s Sam Wallace — and other narrow-minded journalists and soccer fans — would do well to buy a plane ticket to any city in Europe, or even simply pick up the remote. They’d find a host of channels besides Sky Sports, and a whole world beyond our shores playing their own beautiful game.

Friday night lights

Where were you ten years ago tonight? I was at San Siro.

“Luci a San Siro di quella sera
che c’è di strano siamo stati tutti là
ricordi il gioco dentro la nebbia
tu ti nascondi e se ti trovo ti amo là”

There’s a very special moment when you enter one of the world’s great football stadia for the first time. You’ve not even begun to look for your seat yet; you’re pacing around the external perimeter looking to match the apparently random series of numbers stenciled onto concrete to those printed on your ticket. Fans hurry past you in the opposite direction and you begin to move more briskly because you fear kick-off is approaching when, through a break in the concrete, you catch a glimpse of what awaits on the inside. The crowd, the grass, the noise. I still remember that moment at Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, better known as San Siro, where, having undergone a routine frisking by the carabinieri, I climbed up the stadium’s vast swirling ramps and spiralled staircases to reach the second tier. Finally locating my section, I stepped out into the blinding glare of the floodlit arena just as the away team was being announced. I looked up and saw the smiling face of Barcelona full-back Sergi being projected from the scoreboard, a beaming mug-shot that provoked nothing but a cacophony of furious whistles from the 80,000 home fans. I gathered my bearings and found my seat. I’d seen innumerable matches at San Siro from the comfort of my living room, and one hot day in August as a fourteen-year-old I’d even implored my dad to take a detour off Milan’s tangenziale, just to spend ten minutes wandering the dusty car park of the deserted stadium. But none of that prepared me for my first experience inside this storied venue which was, and remains, indescribable.

Television does not convey even half of what goes on inside the stadium. San Siro is built with steep tiers that put you on top of the action, and every tackle or attacking move is met with deafening roars of furious disapproval or wild applause. Despite the undoubted glamour of the fixture — Milan vs. Barcelona in the Champions League — I remember little about the match itself, which finished 3-3 (Rivaldo scored a hat-trick and Albertini hit two memorable goals from outside the box). For the bulk of the ninety minutes I was mesmerized by the Curva Sud, where Milan’s strongest supporters’ groups, the Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den) and Brigate Rossonere (Red-and-Black Brigade), congregate. Gigantic flags were unfurled and waved at intervals, huge drums were pounded throughout the match, and goals were celebrated with unruly pink flares. Throughout the evening my gaze became fixated on the top of the curva, where on a plexiglass partition separating the second and third tiers sat a row of a hundred, maybe two hundred pairs of denim-clad legs belonging to calcio-obsessed ragazzi like myself. I went to bed that night with the noise of the crowd still ringing in my ears, unable to quite comprehend where I’d just spent the evening.

ticket

I was twenty-one, and studying for a year in the university town of Pavia, just south of Milan. It didn’t take me long to lose interest in the routinely shambolic Italian higher education system, and I instead began devoting as much time as possible to more pressing cultural opportunities, namely learning Italian and watching calcio. The first of these goals was achieved with minimum effort, as my roommate, a devout milanista named Federico, and I, hit it off immediately. The second required little work on my part either, as Pavia was just a thirty-minute train journey away from Milano Centrale, from where San Siro was a simple ride away aboard Milan’s basic metropolitana.

To my surprise tickets for games at San Siro were easy to obtain, and considerably cheaper than those for matches in the Premier League. I bought a season ticket for the second group stage of the Champions League for 90,000 lire, roughly the cost of a single ticket for a pre-season friendly at Leicester City. I had discovered that Milan tickets could be purchased at my local branch of the Cariplo bank, one of Milan’s sponsors. So as soon as tickets were made available (often less than a week before the match), I dutifully waited in line with local pavesi women in fur coats looking to pay a bill or collect their pension. At the counter I was met with a bleary-eyed cashier, who removed the cigarette from his mouth just long enough to ask me if I had a seating preference. I felt I must be inconveniencing the poor banker who’d been lumbered with the additional task of dispensing football tickets, and I was always amused by how, with a quick tap on the keyboard, his monitor switched from a checking account to a colourful San Siro seating chart.

Considering I wasn’t an account holder, over the next few months I found myself visiting that bank fairly frequently, and I was soon able to tell the cashier precisely where I wished to be seated: secondo anello rosso, preferably right of centre, which was closer to the Curva Sud but still central enough to watch the game closely. I became drawn to San Siro in a way that even drew bewilderment from my football-loving Italian friends. I remember a group of ragazzi looking at me incredulously one cold wet night in January, when I declined their offer of dinner in favour of Milan’s Coppa Italia semi-final with Fiorentina.

I made a habit of seeing Milan more than Inter, primarily because I’d always been simpatizzante towards the rossoneri since I’d fallen in love with calcio a decade earlier. The team coached by Sacchi and Capello had dominated Italian and European football in the late-eighties and early-nineties, and I’d grown up watching Baresi & Co. carving victories out of the Milanese fog. Plus Federico was milanista, and he’d have probably thrown me out had he found out I’d paid to watch Inter. Of course, thanks to my ties to Florence my real team was Fiorentina, who I saw beat Milan 2-1 at San Siro. Against Inter, I wore my Viola scarf defiantly, trying to ignore the stares of the several thousand nerazzurri fans that surrounded me. Perhaps fortunately for me, Fiorentina were hammered 4-2. Away from the bright lights of the stadium it was a different story, and I always removed my scarf or anything that would signal my allegiance before returning to the station around midnight.

It was a far from vintage season for either Milanese club. Milan had slid out of the Champions League at the second group stage after drawing three home games with Galatasary, Paris Saint-Germain and Deportivo La Coruna, thus ending their hopes of disputing that year’s final at San Siro. Despite some impressive earlier results — including a 2-0 victory over Barcelona at Camp Nou and a convincing 3-2 league win over eventual scudetto winners Roma — this was the final straw for Milan president Silvio Berlusconi, who’d never truly warmed to Zaccheroni nor his insistence on a three-man defence. “Zac” was replaced in March by former Milan captain Cesare Maldini (Paolo’s dad), who immediately reintroduced a 4-4-2 system.

Inter’s season had been thrown into jeopardy as early as August, when they suffered a humiliating exit from the preliminary round of the Champions League at the hands of Swedish minnows Helsingborg. A 1-0 defeat at Reggina on Serie A’s opening day led to Marcello Lippi’s resignation; 1982 World Cup hero Marco Tardelli took over the reigns of what would prove to be one of Inter’s darkest seasons in living memory. Having been relegated to the UEFA Cup, the team was knocked out of that competition too by unfashionable Spanish outfit Alaves, after which fans demonstrated their disapproval by burning stadium seats and launching a makeshift incendiary device at the Inter team bus. Domestic results hadn’t helped matters: the entire Curva Nord boycotted the first half of a league match with Atalanta, returning in the second half with a banner that read “Sorry we’re late: did we miss anything?” The afternoon concluded in infamy when a group of Inter fans hurled a motor scooter from the second tier of the stadium onto seats below.

Consequently, by the time the second Milanese derby of the season came around, both sides were effectively out of the title race. In truth, neither side had ever really looked like challenging for the championship. Roma had led the way since the autumn, with Juventus and Lazio in closest pursuit. Although both Milanese clubs were still looking to secure a place in the following season’s Champions League, unusually this derby would not have a direct bearing on the outcome of the scudetto. Yet so much of Italy’s media is based in Milan that the match was still awarded the usual high dosage of hype and hyperbole.

The Milanese derby is known locally as Il Derby della Madonnina, after the little gold Madonna that sits atop the main spire of the city’s Duomo. Due to the upcoming general election on Sunday, unusually the match had been brought forward to a Friday night, and weekend optimism bounced through the sunny May evening as I stepped off the train just in time for aperitivo. It was still light when I strolled from the Lotto metro stop to San Siro. Inside, the stadium was bulging. Clearly more tickets had been sold than actually existed, as myself and a pair of teenage girls wearing Inter scarves found ourselves sharing two seats between the three of us in the front row of the second tier. At my feet a Milan fan lay horizontally so as not to obscure our view, his head propped up by his elbow as if watching television on the living room rug.

Milan and Inter fans are renowned for their generally amicable coexistence, though the derby is always a little different, and the usual deafening atmosphere inside San Siro was spiced with a unique sense of anticipation unlike any I’d experienced during previous visits. The stadium choreography for which Italian fans are known takes months of preparation in secrecy, and Milan and Inter ultràs go to extraordinary lengths to out-do each other in what is an integral part of the pre-derby show. Each curva reveals its efforts shortly before the teams take the field, inciting fans and lending the game further sense of occasion. Milan began by unveiling the giant head of a salivating devil which spanned the height of the second tier, while fans either side held up red and black paper to make a checkerboard effect. Fans cheered and applauded. Inter responded with a gigantic version of its logo and club symbol, il biscione, the snake. Underneath a banner read: “F.C. INTER: ETERNO AMORE”. More polite applause. But Milan’s fans weren’t quite finished. As Inter’s applause faded they unfurled an extra banner off the edge of the tier, in which the hands of the devil were seen to choke the life out of Inter’s snake. Cheers and laughter filled the stadium. 1-0 to Milan, and the teams hadn’t even kicked-off yet.

curva

The pre-match formalities out of the way, all that remained was the game itself, and suddenly I remembered why I was here. Perhaps ceding to fan pressure, coach Maldini had dropped the out-of-favour German striker Oliver Bierhoff, instead partnering Andriy Shevchenko with Gianni Comandini. The young Italian forward had made only a handful of appearances so far, so it appeared unlikely that he should be thrown into the mix in such an important match. But before anyone could begin to question the decision Comandini was already on the scoresheet, having latched on to Serginho’s defence-splitting pass to slide the ball past Inter goalkeeper Sebastien Frey with just two minutes and forty seconds on the clock. The early goal settled Milan, and Inter struggled to react. Shortly afterwards, Serginho found space again on the left wing. The Brazilian winger’s inviting cross was met at the near post by Comandini who doubled his tally and Milan’s lead. Less than twenty minutes had passed and Maldini’s gamble looked to be already paying off.

Derby matches are historically tight affairs, so it in some ways a surprise when Milan added a third goal shortly after half-time. Federico Giunti, starting only due to Albertini’s absence, curled in a dangerous free-kick from the right. Neither attackers nor defenders got a head to the ball and it bounced once in front of Frey, wrong-footing the keeper and landing in the unguarded net. Giunti correctly claimed the goal, the nature and the circumstances of which immediately reminded me of another match on which Milan had imposed a total domination. In the 1994 European Cup final against a strongly-fancied Barcelona, the rossoneri had raced into a two-goal lead through Daniele Massaro, before Dejan Savicevic had scored his side’s third goal with a deft lob from a similar position to Giunti’s on the right wing, effectively ending the contest. Milan ended up 4-0 victors that night in Athens. Where would the scoreline end tonight?

comandinigiunti

The fourth goal wasn’t long in coming. Once again Serginho showed his pace down the left flank, beating Matteo Ferrari to the ball by leaping to swing in a cross with both feet, as if his legs were bound together like those of a table football player. At the far post, Shevchenko got his head first to the ball to put the result beyond any lingering doubt. By now Inter fans had begun to leave the stadium in droves, their home derby having turned into a festa milanista. “Siam’ venuti fin qua, siam’ venuti fin qua, per vedere segnare Sheva!” (“We’ve come here to see Sheva score”) sang the rossoneri faithful, to the tune of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. It was all too much for one overly sensitive Inter supporter, who ran onto the pitch and attempted to altercate with Alessandro Costacurta as he prepared to take a free-kick. Milan’s veteran defender barely reacted, and the fan was escorted swiftyly from the playing field to a chorus of whistles and derision.

For Inter’s shell-shocked players the final whistle couldn’t come soon enough. Television cameras next to the Inter bench caught Tardelli mouthing “Mamma mia…” while looking to the heavens. Yet again the club’s summer spending had failed to generate results. Ronaldo had missed the entire season through a second injury to his patellar ligament, and despite a potent strikeforce comprised of Christian Vieri and Alvaro Recoba, a supporting cast of newcomers such as Farinos, Dalmat and Gresko had failed to have the desired impact. Milan took full advantage. The Georgian defender Kakha Kaladze had slotted instantly into the side since arriving from Dynamo Kiev during the January transfer window. It was Kaladze who made Milan’s fifth goal, drilling in a low cross from the left which Shevchenko pounced on before the oncoming Frey.

San Siro was now quite literally rocking, and I felt the concrete stands vibrating under my feet. Few Inter fans probably saw the sixth goal, their numbers having begun to dwindle rapidly around the hour mark. Milanisti meanwhile had begun to cheer every pass, leaping on the terraces, their arms locked in unison, enjoying chants of “Chi non salta nerazzurra è, è!” (“Whoever’s not jumping is an Inter fan”). There was a pause in their celebrations just long enough to witness man of the match Serginho burst through Inter’s tired back line and end the rout. Six-nil, sei a zero.

* * *

“MILAN 6 STREPITOSA!” screamed the front page of Saturday’s Gazzetta (the number six, or “sei”, is also Italian for “you are”). It was Milan’s first derby win in the league since November 1993 (although they had beaten Inter 5-0 in a Coppa Italia fixture in January 1998). The result sealed Inter’s miserable season and allowed Milan to end their season on an unforgettable high-note. Ironically, Inter actually finished two points ahead of Milan in Serie A, yet both teams failed to qualify for the following season’s Champions League. Not even Silvio Berlusconi’s election victory over Francesco Rutelli (a Lazio fan) two days later could divert attention away from the biggest story of the weekend.

Inter struggled to recover: thumped 4-2 in the next derby, they lost the 2001-02 scudetto on the last day of the season with a shattering defeat at Lazio. The inerazzurri were further frustrated by consecutive Champions League exits in 2003 and 2005 against a Milan side that now included Dario Simic, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, all three of whom had been sold to their city rivals. Inter’s fortunes were resurrected in the wake of calciopoli, the team winning four consecutive titles and racking up a 4-0 derby win in 2009. Milan won the Champions League under Carlo Ancelotti in 2003 and 2007, a trophy which continued to elude Inter until Jose Mourinho led the club to a treble success in 2010.

But the night of May 11, 2001 is hard to forget for either club’s many ardent followers. Less than half an hour after the match had ended I remember seeing a fan already sporting a “6-0” t-shirt on the red line back to Milano Centrale. Today memorabilia commemorating the occasion can still be seen for sale outside the stadium and around the city, while fans and pundits still recall that historic night with a degree of disbelief, suggesting the result has never truly sunk in.

comandini

And what of Gianni Comandini? The two-goal hero of the derby didn’t quite lived up to expectations as one of Serie A’s most promising strikers. In June 2001 — just a month after the derby — Milan sold their number nine to Atalanta for 30 billion lire. He spent the next four seasons at the Bergamo club, with loan spells at Genoa and Ternana, before persistent injuries forced him into retirement at the age of 29. In 2006 he opened a restaurant in his hometown of Cesena, where he has been known to make appearances for Polisportiva Forza Vigne, an amateur club founded by his father, Paolo.

Comandini’s career at Milan can be summed up in that one night at San Siro: his brace against Inter constitutes his only two league goals for the club. I returned to San Siro one last time that season for Milan’s final home game against Brescia (primarily to see great Roberto Baggio in the flesh). I left Pavia, graduated, and moved back to Florence, where one summer evening my wallet was stolen as I was exiting a supermarket. I didn’t care about losing my Italian social security card, bank cards or even the sixty euros I had on me. But the plastic Champions League 2000-01 season ticket that bore my name, and that I’d carried around with me for three years, was gone forever.

In the last decade I’ve watched countless more matches from San Siro on television, both Serie A and Champions League, in bars in Florence and on my sofa at home in New York. Even today, when it’s a big game, I recall instantly the relentless sound of that chanting crowd, their beating drums reverberating through the red mist and fog, and I still can’t quite believe that I too was once there. I wonder if Comandini ever feels the same.

“Ma dammi indietro la mia seicento
i miei vent’anni ed una ragazza che tu sai
Milano scusa stavo scherzando
luci a San Siro non ne accenderanno più.”

–“Luci a San Siro”, Roberto Vecchioni

Ciao Vecio: Italy mourns the end of an era

In Italy they call him “il Vecio”, the old man. But in 1982 Italy coach Enzo Bearzot was a tanned, lithe 54-year-old in the prime of middle-age, a newly-crowned world champion who had led his team to the most unlikeliest of achievements. The nickname (from his native friulano) never had much to do with age but rather a unique Italian personality. Cool, educated and deeply spiritual, Bearzot was an icon of the Italian game who in some ways seemed to belong to another time. An avid fan of music and literature, before the World Cup celebrations had even subdued he’d already hopped a flight to New York to hit some jazz clubs. As a football coach he was incredibly self-confident but never arrogant, instilling in his teams “la forza del gruppo” or group strength, a model on which all top sides are today built. Though he made occasional contributions to La Gazzetta dello Sport, in the final months before his death in Milan yesterday Bearzot only left the house to attend mass or buy the newspaper. Il Vecio had finally become an old man.

Coincidentally, Bearzot died on December 21 just as Vittorio Pozzo — who masterminded Italy’s first two World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938 — had forty-two years ago. Yet nothing about Bearzot’s unremarkable playing days hinted at the success that awaited him as a World Cup-winning coach. Born in Aiello del Friuli in 1927, Bearzot enjoyed a modest footballing career with Inter, Catania and Torino. His role was that of defensive midfielder, known in Italy as mediano, an unfashionable position generally reserved for those blessed with a strong willingness and work ethic rather than any particular flair or natural skill. Over the course of eighteen years he earned just one appearance for the national team, in 1955 against Hungary in Budapest. Italy lost the match, but the Italian marked the legendary Ferenc Puskas out of the game.

After “una vita da mediano” he quit the game in 1964 and immediately went into coaching, beginning as an assistant at Torino before taking over at third division Tuscan side Prato. Prato’s ninth place finish in Serie C Girone B at the end of 1968-69 season would be his last involvement with club football. Instead Bearzot fell into the fold of the national team, with which he embarked upon a seventeen-year odyssey that saw him rise to a role of true protagonist in a period marked by various disappointments and one unforgettable accomplishment.

Bearzot coached Italy’s under-23 side for six years before being brought in to assist existing national team coach Fulvio Bernardini in 1975. Essentially it was Bernardini who remained as Bearzot’s assistant until 1977, when the Friulan unabashedly took sole control with a World Cup less than a year away. Some accused him of weaving a takeover plot behind Bernardini’s back, and skeptics continued to cite a lack of experience as Italy prepared for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Bearzot’s slim CV did not seem to overly concern him: “You don’t need a degree in cibernetics to coach the national team,” he once retorted. Though he’d never coached in Serie A, he was already a veteran of two World Cups, having travelled as assistant coach to Ferruccio Valcareggi to Mexico in 1970 and West Germany in 1974.

Criticism rarely bothered Bearzot. At Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, during Italy’s final friendly match before the 1978 World Cup, he had endured chants of “Sce-mo! Sce-mo!” (Stupid! Stupid!) directed at him by the few thousand fans who’d shown up to support a sterile national team. But though he claimed to give little weight to popular opinion, Bearzot’s inclusion of the youngsters Antonio Cabrini and Paolo Rossi in his 22-man squad suggested the coach had finally succumbed to outside pressure (a theory he always denied). Surprisingly, on the pitch it mattered little. In Argentina an attractive Italy side beat France and the hosts before eventually losing in a third-place play-off, a fourth-place finish they equalled two years later at the European Championships held in Italy. Despite the usual reservations, Italy produced arguably the best football of both tournaments. The 1982 World Cup was still two years away, but the groundwork for that remarkable victory had been laid.

bearzot tardelli

Though Italy’s win in Spain came as a beautiful surprise to most, Bearzot exuded a calm confidence from the outset. “I believe in the spirit I’ve infused in my group of players,” he said, a month before the tournament started. “I’m convinced we might struggle against Poland, Peru and even Cameroon, but we’ll do much better in the next round. In the end my winning mentality will triumph.” However prophetic this statement would prove, to his closest confidants the coach confessed to feeling like Gary Cooper in High Noon: a lonely man with the entire world against him. Not even he anticipated just to what extent Italy would struggle during the group phase, managing only to grind out three uninspiring draws.

Not for the first time, Bearzot’s selection process had raised eyebrows. A preference for Paolo Rossi was primary cause for concern. The striker had shone in Argentina four years earlier but had missed the last two years following a ban from football for his alleged involvement in a betting scandal. Meanwhile Serie A’s top scorer for the last two seasons, Roma’s Roberto Pruzzo, had failed to even make the squad. On such matters il Vecio was typically of one mind. “Gossip, rumour, Italian chitter-chatter,” he said, dismissing accusations. “I don’t chit-chat — that’s what makes me different from other Italians.” Tension with the Italian media had reached an all-time high, resulting in Bearzot’s enforcement of an infamous silenzio stampa which vetoed all outside communication. Many still point to this unprecedented act as the turning point in Italy’s campaign, as it allowed the players to train in peace and focus on their path to glory.

In the second group phase Bearzot’s decisions were quickly forgotten as a revitalized Italy disposed first of holders Argentina, and then tournament favourites Brazil in a match which many still rank as the greatest ever. Stopper Claudio Gentile was praised for effectively marking (by any means possible) Maradona and Zico out of both games. Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick against Brazil and two more goals in the next match as Italy brushed aside Poland in the semi-final. Suddenly, Italy were in the World Cup final against a bulky but tired West Germany, and by the time his team took to the field in Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu Bearzot’s confidence in himself and his players had peaked. Not even Cabrini’s first-half penalty miss could veer the ship off its course.

What followed on the evening of July 11th 1982, has entered into Italian footballing folklore, and the sights and sounds of that night in Madrid are etched upon the country’s national consciousness. Marco Tardelli’s crazed sprint following his team’s second goal (to this day referred to in Italy simply as “l’urlo”), President Sandro Pertini (who many observers called Italy’s political answer to Bearzot) waving his arms in the stands, RAI commentator Nando Martellini’s triple cry of “Campioni del mondo! Campioni del mondo! Campioni del mondo!” at the final whistle, the famously documented game of cards on the plane home. After netting his sixth goal of the tournament in the final, Rossi finished the competition as winner of the Golden Boot. “I am what I am because of him,” he said today of Bearzot. “He was like a father to me.”

When the final whistle blew in the Bernabeu, Bearzot turned to his assistant coach Cesare Maldini and yelled, “I’m never leaving the Italy bench! I’m never leaving it!” After such a long and strained rapport with both press and public, the temptation for many would have been to bow out as world champion and national hero. But Bearzot had forged a rare and oddly personal bond with his country’s national team, to which he always remained connected and associated more than to any club. Despite the tournament’s happy ending he refused to forgive his detractors, who now invited the victorious coach to speak at the post-match press conference. “Don’t you have any more questions for me?” was his response. Of course, leave his position as coach he eventually did, four years later after the World Cup in Mexico, where a lethargic-looking Italy’s lacklustre defence of their title saw them topple to European Champions France in the last sixteen. This time Bearzot had relied too heavily upon the players who’d excelled in Spain, and a cycle which had begun eleven years and 104 games earlier, had finally come to its inevitable conclusion.

Such tenure at the helm of one of toughest jobs in soccer would appear unthinkable in today’s footballing climate of instant gratification and knee-jerk reactions. Instead it took Bearzot seven years to win over press and fans, and then only after having claimed the sport’s ultimate prize, after a forty-four-year wait. It was a victory for a team which spanned generations. For forty-year-old captain Dino Zoff the World Cup put the seal on a terrific career. Zoff had made his Serie A debut before the teenage Giuseppe Bergomi was even born; the Inter defender only retired in 1999. The success helped galvanize a nation that was still reeling from the anni del piombo, a bleak and tumultuous period in Italian history characterized by social turmoil, political corruption and violent acts of terrorism. For once the Italian people were united in a wholly positive way, and the country entered a period of fresh hope and economic prosperity which continued for most of the rest of the century.

The performance in Spain dispelled many attitudes towards the Italian game, reversing a trend for defensive catenaccio-based tactics which had prevailed since the sixties. Few goals in World Cup finals involve two defenders exchanging passes in the opposition’s penalty box, but Bergomi and Gaetano Scirea did exactly that before laying the ball out to Tardelli to drive home perhaps the most memorable goal in Italy’s World Cup history. By the mid-1980s Italy had become football’s spiritual home thanks in large part to a sudden influx of new money and world talent, a period for which the 1990 World Cup held in Italy was an apex. Only around the turn of the millennium did this view of Italian football shift back again, as the game in Italy began to be viewed with less praise than scorn. By the time the Azzurri conquered the world again in 2006, the bubble that started with Bearzot had burst.

Parallels between Italy’s World Cup feats of 2006 and 1982 are obvious. Both were born out of the rubble of domestic scandal, while both coaches relied on a collective group strength rather than the talents of any one individual. Sadly, there were also similarities in the way both titles were relinquished: just as Bearzot’s aging World Champions had appeared sluggish at Mexico ’86, Lippi’s heroes of Berlin failed to ignite South Africa in 2010. But there the comparisons end. The Italian public never warmed to Lippi or his winning team as they had for Bearzot’s Italy twenty-four years earlier. The rakish, fresh-faced calciatori who beat the world’s very best in 1982 seem like a different species to 2006’s squad of professional athletes, with their shaven heads and tattooed torsos, who combated their way to an intense shoot-out victory. Despite the more recent title, Italians still recall 1982 with fondness, but not simply out of nostalgia. They consider the success more real, more human, more Italian. There were no fireworks at the Bernabeu in 1982, no novelty hats, no headbutts: just emotional embraces and azzurro blue jerseys soaked through with sweat and spumante.

Not long after I moved to Florence I got to know Dott. Fino Fini, Director of the Museo del Calcio at Coverciano (the Italian Federation’s training headquarters). Dott. Fini had been the Italian national team doctor from 1962 to 1982, and the museum was packed with memorabilia from that fertile period. The blue shirts of each player from Bearzot’s winning team were hung in hinged glass frames which swung to reveal the shirt numbers on the other side: 14 Tardelli, 16 Conti, 20 Rossi. In another frame was Bearzot’s entire outfit from that jubilant night in Madrid: grey trousers, blue shirt, navy tie, and the famous blazer, complete with embroidered ITALIA crest. It had always appeared plain white to me on TV, giving its wearer the air of a medical professional, a mediterranean doctor of soccer, but on closer inspection the jacket was made up of narrow navy pinstripes, almost like seersucker. It was a strange feeling to see something in the flesh I’d seen on television a hundred times, like seeing a costume or prop from a favourite movie. Also on display was Bearzot’s trademark pipe, without which he was rarely photographed. “If there was no smoke emanating, that’s when you knew he was a little ticked off,” said Giancarlo Antognoni, who missed out on the 1982 final through injury. Bearzot’s World Cup winners were all quick to recall the human side of il Vecio. “I’d like to remember him sitting on a wall,” said Tardelli. “Smoking his pipe, alone.”

In his later years, Bearzot had become disillusioned with all aspects of the modern game. “I haven’t been to the stadium in a long time,” he revealed a few months before his death. “The stands have become a platform for shouters to hurl the most ferocious insults.” He didn’t much enjoy watching football at home either. “The TV is less likely to make me angry when it’s switched off,” he quipped. His principal complaint arose from a perceived lack of respect among those involved. “It irritates me when former referees insult referees, or when coaches insult other coaches. I’ll never understand those who insult their colleagues.” But Bearzot also expressed concerns over the business of the sport. Speaking of his decision to retire, il Vecio explained, “It appears that money has moved the goalposts. It seems football has become a science, though not an exact one. For me it will always be a game.” Bearzot’s death signals the loss of one of international football’s legendary figures. But perhaps more significantly, it also comes with the undeniable realisation that the game he spoke of is well and truly over.

Enzo Bearzot, 1927-2010

My pink pages

“I don’t understand people who don’t read La Gazzetta dello Sport. Men, at least: I don’t understand them. I just don’t get it.”

— Sandro Veronesi, writer


It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Italy. It took me a little longer to fall in love with football. You’d probably find it hard to believe if you met me today, but in 1988 I was quite indifferent about The Beautiful Game. That was the year I first visited il bel paese (I’d been to Sardinia five years earlier but that doesn’t count, as any Sardinian will tell you). Strolling with my parents through the streets of Florence, Rome and Venice, I was too preoccupied with gelato or the Colosseum or whether to blow all my lire on a die-cast scale model of a Ferrari 308 GTB to notice that I’d stumbled into soccer’s spiritual home. My only football-related memory of that summer is the replica shirts on display at market stalls outside the Uffizi, and being drawn to the azure blue of Napoli — not due to Maradona, but because the team’s jersey was emblazoned with the logo of my favourite chocolate bar.

I was lucky enough to return to Italy the following year, and the year after that, and the one after that, until the question as to where we’d spend our summer holidays was no longer asked. Meanwhile somewhere along the way a light-switch had been flicked and by the time the 1990 World Cup had started I was a borderline soccer obsessive. I don’t know how it happened. The transformation came almost overnight, like magic.

My family had made several Italian friends, and they all loved indulging me in conversations about Gary Lineker or Totò Schillaci. Some friends of ours had a house near the coast of northern Tuscany, not far from Massa-La Spezia. On our way back from the beach we’d often stop for a late afternoon drink at Bar Sport, a dusty little café located between a fork in the road and a railroad crossing. It was operated by a woman and her daughter, and was the kind of place where old men sat and drank aperitivi while kids in flip-flops played videogames in the back. It was here one sultry afternoon that I first came across a newspaper called La Gazzetta dello Sport. I probably first picked it up because it was printed on pale pink paper, something I considered to be most unusual. Once unfolded it covered the entire table, forcing others to lift up their drinks. Most interesting to me however, was that it appeared to be devoted solely to football.

Of course, as its name confirms la Gazzetta is technically a sports daily, but anyone who’s been to Italy knows that sport means 90% football and 10% everything else. That’s how it was for me too. I immediately became fascinated by this alluring and exotic publication, a pink-and-black window into the culture of calcio. It became my portal into a world – Italy, football, Italian football. I already knew I wanted it, and had now been presented with a chance to get to know it better.

Suddenly my visits to Bar Sport became less about liquid refreshment and more about whether or not Sampdoria were really going to sell Gianluca Vialli. My Italian at the time being limited to the usual first words (ciao, grazie, margherita, gelato), I was initially drawn not to the speculative articles but to the daily double-page spread highlighting the goings-on in Serie A’s summer transfer campaign. This section featured a complex table which detailed the players each team had already bought and sold, who they were still hoping to buy, and what the probable starting line-ups would be come the start of the new season.

Soon my first task upon entering a bar, any bar, was to scan for la Gazzetta, which usually lurked folded on the counter or at an empty table. At this point I still didn’t have the money or language skills to justify purchasing the paper for myself, and when the bar’s copy remained occupied I’d sit and fidget impatiently without touching my glass of acqua minerale. But quickly, out of a sheer desire to understand, I picked up the meanings of several words and began to grasp phrases in Italian, albeit most of them football terms and sporting jargon: acquisti, cessioni, trattative, probabile formazione

Obviously, Italy in the summer is great for lounging poolside but as any Inter fan knows the game isn’t played under the ombrellone. La Gazzetta takes on much greater relevance once the season has begun and there’s some actual football to talk about. Monday’s issue traditionally sells the most copies, since it contains all the reportage and post-mortem of the weekend’s games. My Dad used to travel to Italy for work once or twice a year, and he began bringing Monday’s Gazzetta home for me. This is when I first became aware of le pagelle, the paper’s individual reviews and votes for each player’s performance after each match. According to common pagelle thought, a six is considered sufficiente. Several players have received a nine, but not even Platini, Maradona or Van Basten ever scored a perfect ten.

In 1992 the British terrestrial network Channel 4 began televising live Serie A matches, a decision which initially coincided with the transfer of English stars Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Des Walker to Italian clubs. The show quickly transcended these players’ activities however and stuck around long after their Italian adventures had ended. A new legion of Italian soccer fans in the UK were rapidly converted by what was at the time universally considered “the best league in the world”. Particularly popular was the Saturday morning highlights show Gazzetta Football Italia whose host, the peerless James Richardson, would present an irreverent and informed perusal through the week’s football papers from an elegant piazza somewhere in Italy. When I wasn’t hatching a plan to steal Richardson’s job, I was delighted to have a slice of the Italian life I yearned for beamed into my living room.

My family returned to Serriciolo, the town where I’d first picked up la Gazzetta, during the World Cup of 1994. The day we drove down through Switzerland Italy were playing Spain in the quarter-final. I remember because the man in the tollbooth was watching the match on a portable TV and told us the latest score as we exited the autostrada (“Uno-zero, Dino Baggio”). We watched an inspired Italian team dispose of Bulgaria in the semi-final at Bar Sport, where for the final against Romario’s Brazil they moved the TV outside into the car park and set up rows of seats for locals to come and watch. I sat wearing my blue Italy shirt holding a tricolore flag on a stick which I’d bought six years earlier in Siena. I felt a strong connection to the Azzurri — after all, the country had played as much a part in my football life as anywhere else. When Roberto Baggio’s penalty sailed over the bar into the southern California sky those feelings grew even deeper. Women and children were in tears, and powerless ragazzi began hurling plastic and wooden chairs over the fence and onto the train tracks out of sheer frustration. The next morning la Gazzetta had sold out at the local newspaper shop, so the woman who ran the bar gave me her copy as a souvenir. It was stapled, and the front page read “Poker Brasile”.

After high school I began studying Italian at university, and a couple of years later I embarked on a study abroad program in the northern Italian town of Pavia. I moved in with another student named Federico who as luck would have it was a fellow soccer nut, and an avid Milan fan. After our first weekend in the apartment together, he turned to me over breakfast. “It’s Monday,” he said. “Which means there’s something very important you have to do this morning.” “What’s that?” I asked, imagining some typically Italian bureaucratic nightmare I was unaware of, with long queues and unhelpful clerks. Federico’s eyes widened. “Buy la Gazzetta!”

I was delighted to have found a like mind with whom to share my passion for calcio, which had now become a full-blown obsession and a personal area of encyclopedic expertise. In Pavia I’d leave the house each morning with 3,000 lire: 1,500 for la Gazzetta and 1,500 for a coffee at the bar. I’d then come home and read the paper cover to cover at the kitchen table until lunchtime, when Federico and I would eat spaghetti or tortellini and discuss the day’s big stories.

Sometimes we’d even buy Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based rival to Milan’s Gazzetta. Italy actually has three sports dailies, although I considered Turin’s Tuttosport shameless in both its outlandish front page stories and clear bias towards Juventus. By now I had become fiercely loyal to la Gazzetta, or “la Rosea” as Federico sometimes called it. Both Tuttosport and Corriere are printed on plain off-white newspaper, and neither could entice me as la Gazzetta first had all those years ago.

I spent most weekends in Milan, either shopping or attending a game at San Siro, where la Gazzetta served as both half-time entertainment and a handy seat cushion. Whether on the train or at the stadium I soon realised that carrying la Gazzetta in Italy provided me with a sort of camouflage, a quick and easy prop for instantly fitting in. Just as I’d always been able to identify Italian paninari in London by their 501s and Invicta rucksacks, surely no-one would peg me as a tourist with la Gazzetta tucked under my arm.

Now fluent in Italian, I returned to Cambridge where I was able to continue reading la Gazzetta on a daily basis. Happily for me, more often than not it was the only newspaper left unread at the Italian coffee shop where I’d stop for a macchiato each afternoon. After graduation I moved back home where foreign newspapers are harder to come by. As I result I’d even resort to taking the twenty-minute train ride to the next big town to get my hands on Monday’s Gazzetta (on Tuesdays, since it always arrived a day late).

My future uncertain (apart from knowing I didn’t want to live in small-town England), I moved back to Italy with the hope of making some kind of life there. I had one or two work prospects and stayed with a family friend in the town of Borgo San Lorenzo, an hour north of Florence. Borgo was a quiet town — fortunately I knew a lot of people and was quickly introduced to more. I even began giving English lessons and Art History lectures at the local high school, where I learned that my favourite newspaper was a useful social tool with which to ingratiate myself to the local ragazzi, affording me minor celebrity status among under-25s in the Borgo San Lorenzo area. For hoards of small-town Tuscan teens I wasn’t just the English guy, I was the English guy that reads la Gazzetta and supports Fiorentina.

For work (and social life) purposes I moved to Florence, where I was one of thousands of foreigners, but still probably the only one with a folded Gazzetta permanently in his back pocket. By this time the paper had become such a part of my life that I even brought my copy with me when purchasing a bag at Emporio Armani, just to make sure it would fit snugly inside. The newsstand on the corner of Viale Matteotti was my first stop every morning; after a few weeks I no longer had to tell the guy which paper I wanted. He even saved the issues I’d missed when I went home for long weekends. We never chatted for longer than thirty seconds at a time, and subjects didn’t extend far beyond the plight of Fiorentina or the weather. Imagine his surprise when after several months he discovered I was English! Over a period of a couple of years I can recall not buying la Gazzetta on only a handful of occasions: once when I overslept, once when staying in the remote countryside and once after the most severe snowstorm to hit Florence since 1985. Not counting those rare exceptions I was never without it; just as Linus had his security blanket, I had my Gazzetta. It was quite literally la vie en rose.

The twenty-first century Gazzetta now cost one euro, and had begun to enhance its own legend with full-colour graphics, a glossy Saturday supplement called SportWeek, and limited edition DVDs celebrating the soccer’s former greats. One day I was stunned to see that the paper had turned green to promote the release of the movie Shrek 2. Inside I learned that when it was formed in 1896 la Gazzetta had originally been printed on green pages, before switching to pink three years later. Undoubtedly, its distinctive colour has helped it stand out from the competition, but also seep into the Italian consciousness as a beloved national institution, even among those who’ve never read it in their lives.

Though I never missed an issue, my life — both professional and personal — had become so busy that I rarely had time to open it. Some days I’d only get the chance to unfurl the morning’s Gazzetta after getting into bed at night; in extreme cases I’d reluctantly place it atop a growing stack of newspapers that had been saved for a later date. I began to question my motives for buying la Gazzetta every single day. Was it because I wanted to, or because I felt I had to? That pink newspaper had become such an everyday part of me I didn’t even think about it. It was a piece of my personality I had to maintain. No longer just a morning ritual, it had become a habit, and when I calculated how much I’d spent on it down the years I felt like a total idiot.

Giving up la Gazzetta in a World Cup year was always going to be tough, and let’s say that I failed miserably. In the summer of 2006 I watched every Italy match at the same café, where the paper sat carefully folded on my lucky table #5 during the Azzurri’s dramatic and unexpected road to glory. The celebrations lasted all night, and by dawn Piazza Duomo was a sea of green broken glass. At around 7 o’clock a truck pulled up and dumped bundles of newspapers onto the ground, each one featuring the same front page photo of a jubilant Fabio Cannavaro holding aloft the World Cup trophy. The truck driver cut open the package and handed me la Gazzetta: it was still warm, like the fresh bomboloni at Pasticceria Donnini.

Suddenly my unwavering devotion to La Gazzetta seemed less foolish. It had taught me more about Italian culture and history than any textbook, and it was precisely for moments like this that I’d read it with almost religious regularity for so many years. Italy’s fourth World Cup victory had come after years of hard luck and controversy — I wasn’t even Italian, but I felt like I’d earned it.

It’s easy to live in Italy, it’s much harder to stay there. Not because life isn’t pleasant — it’s rarely anything else, and therein lies the problem. I knew if I ever left la Gazzetta would be one of the three things I’d miss the most (panettone and Campari Soda are the other two). In New York I can still live like an Italian to an extent, except here few people want to talk about football, and a black-and-white version of la Gazzetta on darker pink paper now costs three dollars. Not long after I moved to America the paper underwent a radical transformation from broadsheet to tabloid format, a revamp which was accompanied by a high-budget television commercial and a guerilla advertising campaign in which pink confetti fell like snow onto Milan’s centro storico. The effect was like seeing a best friend who’d undergone an ill-conceived cosmetic procedure. In the last few years La Gazzetta has seen more changes at the top than Juventus since calciopoli, and each new director has tampered with both its appearance and philosophy. I ended my readership on principle (the exorbitant cost may have also had something to do with it) and instead began consulting gazzetta.it for my Serie A news. I’m the first to admit that a flickering LCD screen can’t beat crisp newsprint, but knowing that la Gazzetta was no longer the same made me miss it a lot less.

Last month I returned to Italy with work. It was my first time back since leaving Florence, and I was excited to indulge in old pleasures. It was a Saturday morning when I arrived at Malpensa airport, and I was already glancing through la Gazzetta with a coffee at the bar as my colleagues waited at the carousel for their luggage. Driving through the foggy plains of Lombardy — where a decade earlier I’d lived as a student — I began thinking about Italy, and how the country had shaped my adult life over the last two decades. I’ve certainly spent significantly more of my “grown-up” years there than I have in my own country. It’s where I got my first real job, where I first paid a bill or monthly rent, where I learned to make a devastating spaghetti carbonara, where I once shook hands with Paolo Maldini. I even met my wife there.

It occurred to me that the one constant through all of this has been pink soccer daily la Gazzetta dello Sport, to this day the only newspaper I’ve ever bought with any degree of frequency. Much has changed in the last twenty years — Italy certainly has, and in many ways so have I. But my love for that country and its calcio has never waned. Call it nostalgia or a simple passion for a certain modo di vivere, but whenever I wake up in Florence or Milan or Rome my first thoughts are always the same: Gazzetta, cappuccino, brioche — in that order.

Livin’ la dolce vita

Florence, Fellini, farfalle: David Rocco stirs up some memories Read more

Not quite the end of the world

Remember the name: Kamil Kopúnek. For Italian fans the Slovakian can now take his place alongside Pak Doo-Ik and Ahn Jung-Hwan on the Azzurri’s podium of World Cup infamy. It may seem an unlikely trio, but all three players have in their time put paid to the Italy’s World Cup hopes, and in doing so represent the lowest points in the four-time winners’ otherwise impressive tournament record. But while defeats to North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002 sent shockwaves reverberating around the football world, Italy’s lacklustre performance and ultimate capitulation in 2010 had a certain inevitability. After disappointing 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, a win – while not essential – was certainly the Italian objective in their final group match against Slovakia. Instead, the Azzurri found themselves two goals down after 73 minutes, and despite rallying a late fight-back, Italy’s elimination was effectively sealed the moment late substitute Kopúnek burst between two defenders to lift the ball over Fabrizio Marchetti with his very first touch of the game. So low were expectations surrounding the defending champions’ campaign in South Africa that reaction to Slovakia’s third goal was less one of outrage and more a collective groan of relief and resignation.

Italy’s disastrous exit from the World Cup in 2010 made the euphoria of Italy’s victory in Berlin – still fresh in the memories of all Italians – suddenly seem every bit four years ago. In 2006, few would have predicted both finalists in Germany crashing out at the first hurdle in South Africa. And yet while the French can point to internal struggles and their federation’s misguided faith in an increasingly eccentric coach, whose bizarre alienation of fans, press, staff and players is reason enough for their shambolic demise, the Italians have fewer excuses. Certainly that was the view of fans, who on Italy’s return from South Africa, subjected their fallen heroes to a tirade of jeers and abuse as they trudged with hung heads through the arrivals gate at Rome’s Fiumicino airport.

To assess just how Italy went from World Champions to national disgrace requires a quick rewind to Berlin four years ago, when, just as in 1982, Italy’s national team emerged from the wreckage of domestic scandal as unlikely but worthy World Cup winners. The Italian coach Marcello Lippi had already decided not to renew his expiring contract with the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio), and three days after enjoying what he described as his “most satisfying moment as a coach”, was replaced by former Italian international Roberto Donadoni. It was a surprising choice: Donadoni’s greatest achievement as a coach so far had been to lead unfashionable Livorno to the top half of Serie A, and he certainly lacked experience at a major club. He was also faced the unenviable task of taking over a winning team in which any negative result is bound to be greeted with criticism. With the team still riding the highs of Berlin, Donadoni’s side’s performances were always going to compare unfavourably with Lippi’s, and the new coach struggled to assert his own identity on the world champions. It was a reign which seemed doomed from the start: Donadoni’s contract contained a clause stating it would only be renewed should Italy reach the semi-finals of Euro 2008 — when Italy were eliminated in a penalty shoot-out by Spain in the quarter-finals, everyone knew the game was up.

More surprising was what was to follow. The FIGC, in an unexpected move, recalled Lippi, who had spent the two years since the World Cup on the beach and at home in the Tuscan coastal town of Viareggio, basking in his new life as a national hero. Arriving at his first press conference since being recalled out of retirement, Lippi appeared tanned and relaxed, happy to once again don the federation blazer and “ready to pick up where [he] left off.” This statement of intent sent a twinge of discomfort down the spines of watching fans. The phrase “minestra riscaldata”, literally “reheated soup” is used in Italian soccer circles to describe the ill-conceived return of an ex-player or coach to his place of former glory, the idea being that it’s never as good second time around. Keen observers had to ask why Lippi, having achieved the sport’s ultimate accolade, would choose to give up a life of permanent hero-status to take Italy to another World Cup? The Azzurri’s victory in 2006 may have seemed unlikely at the outset, but even less probable was a repeat in 2010. Only Vittorio Pozzo, Italy’s coach in 1934 and 1938, had led a team to back-to-back successes, and not since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 had a nation won two World Cups on the bounce. Yet Lippi seemed happy to risk forever tarnishing his image of cigar-chomping hero of Berlin by attempting this extraordinary double.

Italy’s World Cup-winning captain, Fabio Cannavaro, was guilty of a similar arrogance. Unlike former captain Paolo Maldini, (who retired from international football after the 2002 World Cup, only to watch his would-be teammates lift the trophy four years later), Cannavaro had won it all but still wanted more, just like Lippi. Majestic at the World Cup four years ago, his performances in Germany were enough to earn him the Ballon d’Or in 2006. A World Cup victory seemed like a natural moment to call it a day, yet Cannavaro continued to lead the Azzurri, despite showing inconsistent form since returning to Juventus from Real Madrid. Once one of Italy’s quickest defenders, Cannavaro’s rapid decline culminated, sadly, in being made to look every bit the 36-year-old in South Africa.

The defending champions qualified for South Africa relatively comfortably, yet Lippi’s dependence on the core group of players that had triumphed in 2006 spoke volumes about not just his short-term priorities but also his obsession with Italy’s World Cup win four years earlier. Many questioned the reliance on certain players from Juventus: given the Turin club’s poor season the inclusion of wayward stars Camoranesi, Iaquinta and the aforementioned Cannavaro this time around seemed to have more to do with Lippi’s strong ties to his former employers. Lippi’s coaching philosophy emphasises team spirit and unity, but while the heroes of Berlin still had a role to play, many had lost the form they’d showed four years ago, and – perhaps more importantly – all were four years older. Lippi’s responded to critics by reminding them of his World Cup pedigree, and to those who raised concerns over the age of the squad pointed out that its average age was actually younger than in 2006. But in Germany Lippi had struck upon a group of top professionals players at their peak, in 2010 the gulf between levels of experience was startling.

Perhaps in an attempt to silence doubters Lippi selected several younger players who shared just a few caps between them as late inclusions into the squad. All had enjoyed positive domestic seasons yet none had been used regularly during Italy’s qualifying campaign and all lacked international experience (the fact that most were plucked from Serie A’s smaller clubs meant they were unfamiliar with the kind of pressure reserved for top-of-the-table clashes or matches in the Champions League). Though their selection seemed a knee-jerk reaction by Lippi, some of these players were immediately thrown into the deep-end in South Africa. Genoa left-back Domenico Criscito and Fiorentina’s elegant playmaker Riccardo Montolivo acquitted themselves well in tough circumstances, but others, such as Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio and Cagliari goalkeeper Fabrizio Marchetti, appeared out of their depth. Montolivo and Marchetti only became first choices due to injuries to otherwise certain starters: Milan’s regista Andrea Pirlo damaged a calf just days before the tournament, while Gigi Buffon bowed out at half-time in Italy’s opening match after aggravating a problem with his sciatic nerve, an injury which ruled him out of the rest of the competition.

Though injuries to key men naturally proved a massive blow for Italy, the team was further hampered by Lippi’s disparate squad, which consisted of too many players unused to performing at this level. For a country with a long history of world-class playmakers, Italy went into this World Cup without an out-and-out number ten, a designated trequartista or fantasista in the Roberto Baggio mould. Without a player with such qualities, in all three of their matches Italy looked desperately short of creativity in the final third. At 35, Alessandro Del Piero was judged past his prime, while Francesco Totti’s protracted retirement from international football had effectively excluded him from rejoining the squad. Lippi’s stubbornness is perhaps most evident in his failure to call temperamental forwards Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli to the international fold. While Balotelli still shows regular signs of immaturity, Cassano has consistently impressed for Sampdoria over the last two seasons, helping the Genoese club to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in eighteen years. Yet Lippi continued to ignore him to the frustration of fans, often refusing to answer the press’s questions regarding the player’s exclusion.

The attitude of Italians — coaches, players, press, fans — before a World Cup is typically one of cautious optimism (or false pessimism). You may say Italians love a crisis: it takes the pressure off and makes an ultimately positive campaign all the more enjoyable. The national team is a notoriously slow starter in major tournaments, and most fans expect a rocky road to success. Yet this year Italy started poorly and only got worse, and there was a pervading sense of imminent failure prior to the defeat against Slovakia.

South Africa 2010 officially ranks as Italy’s worst ever World Cup performance. Just as in 1966 and 1974, the Azzurri failed to progress from the group stage, but this year they were unable to record a single victory in three matches — against Paraguay, New Zealand or Slovakia — finishing bottom of Group F. Following the disastrous elimination, it was Lippi who predictably received most of the blame. The coach even shouldered all responsibility in his post-match press conference.

Certainly Italy’s notorious press was quick to pounce. Alberto Cerruti, chief football correspondent of the Milan-based daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, described Italy’s performance as “unwatchable”, but seemed particularly disappointed with the casual manner in which Italy’s hard-earned title was relinquished. The director of Rome’s Corriere dello Sport, Alessandro Vocalelli, was more scathing, appearing on an online video just hours after the final whistle to bemoan Lippi’s “incomprehensible selections and inexplicable tactics” which had resulted in a “total, humiliating failure, from which nobody should be exculpated.” Yet others saw a greater issue with Italian football at large. Former Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi, himself no stranger to the scorn of critics, felt the root of the problem lay in Italy’s culture of “ignorance and violence”, citing a “crisis in the Italian system.”

Sacchi may be going too far by condemning contemporary Italian society, yet the state of the country’s game has been in decline for several years, to the extent in which it has become almost de rigeur to disparage Serie A, Italy’s domestic championship, once the most admired league in Europe. Sacchi pointed to the fact that Italian clubs crashed out prematurely in European competition last season. The one exception, Inter, have a foreign coach and an almost completely foreign squad. Indeed, of the twenty-three players Lippi took to South Africa, not one hailed from José Mourinho’s treble winners, the first time ever an Italian World Cup squad has not contained a single player from the nerazzurri. The conclusion one takes from this is that there is an excess of foreign players in Italy, whose presence denies promising Italian youngsters the chance of breaking through at the biggest clubs. Consequently, Italy’s 2010 squad included players from Genoa, Bari, Udinese and Cagliari, clubs hardly renowned for providing members of the Italian national team.

There are those in Italy that have suggested the return of a restriction on the number of foreign players a team may field at one time. But Italy is definitely not the only nation with a strong domestic league faced with this dilemma. England has also discovered that top-class foreigners may make for an entertaining league but their presence can be detrimental to the national team’s success. Spain – despite the plethora of foreign players in La Liga – seem to have solved this problem by selecting a squad mostly comprised of players from the two biggest clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid. In contrast, German clubs work in closer conjunction with its federation, and their philosophy of investing in youth rather than spending heavily naturally encourages a strong national side.

FIGC president Giancarlo Abete has already announced an inquiry into Italian football’s “structural crisis”, but to suggest a shake-up of Italian system is excessive. The problems cited as causes of Italy’s poor displays in 2010 were already in place in 2006, when Italian football was also still reeling from the aftershocks of calciopoli. Some claimed it was this scandal which galvanized the team to victory in Germany, and Italian players certainly appeared lacking in motivation in South Africa. But Lippi was correct to blame himself: his return was gearing solely towards this event, and so he had no interest in making long-term plans and no vision of the future since it did not concern him. He was obsessed with the victory of 2006, and intent on repeating it all costs, at the expense of his own better judgment. Sadly for Italy, he did not have the means — either tactically or technically — to realize that dream. The FIGC showed desperate short-sightedness in rehiring Lippi, who in turn showed an alarming degree of footballing-masochism in attempting a second win in succession. For all Donadoni’s inexperience, had the Italian federation stuck by him Italy would have probably arrived in South Africa with a more balanced and settled side. Likewise the younger players who did not appear ready at this tournament would have no doubt been groomed specifically in preparation for the World Cup stage.

The effects of calciopoli have tempered spending in Italy, and over the last two seasons the biggest Italian clubs –Inter, Milan, Juventus, Roma, Fiorentina and Sampdoria — have put their faith in local young players who have grown into first-team regulars. Lippi’s replacement, 52-year-old Cesare Prandelli, has been selected by the FIGC specifically for his proven track-record with younger players. At Verona, Parma and Fiorentina specifically, Prandelli had built attack-minded teams around the promise of youth. Though he spent six seasons as a player at Juventus, Prandelli may benefit from having never coached one of Italy’s biggest clubs, and his lack of close connections to Italian football’s superpowers may work in his favour. Certainly he will employ a fresher, more open approach to player selection, already stating that Cassano and Balotelli will figure in his plans. More unexpected were his comments surrounding the sometimes controversial oriundi (naturalised citizens eligible for the national team) whom he declared “new Italians.”

While Italians may be Italy’s biggest fans, they’re also its harshest critics, and once the dust settles on Lippi’s second era in charge they’ll probably realise the future doesn’t appear quite so bleak. It would take a brave man to bet against Italy going far in Brazil in 2014. As this World Cup has already proven, four years can be an awfully long time in football.

San Siro send-off turns sour for capitano Maldini

It was a sunny afternoon in Milan last Sunday as Paolo Maldini led his team out onto the San Siro turf for the final time. The Milan captain was greeted by the fervent roar of home support from a crowd of over 70,000 that had gathered to cheer their hero one last time and to honor an extraordinary career. Each fan waved aloft a special scarf commemorating the occasion, and even the players of Roma, Milan’s opponents for the day, wore GRAZIE PAOLO t-shirts over their playing jerseys as they took to the field.

As the teams lined up, an emotional Maldini saluted his family in the stands, before glancing to catch teammate Andrea Pirlo wiping away tears: “Ragazzi, let’s not start now, eh?” Indeed: despite the celebratory atmosphere, there was a game to be won, and for the victor a potential spot in next season’s Champions League beckoned. Yet it was at this moment that the Curva Sud, the area behind the goal on the second tier which is home to Milan’s most fanatical followers, chose to have its say, by unfurling a large banner which controversially criticized the man of the hour:

“Grazie capitano: sul campo un campione infinito
ma hai mancato di rispetto a chi ti ha arricchito”

“Thank you Captain: on the pitch an ageless champion
but you have shown a lack of respect towards those who made you rich.”

The celebration had been marred by a small section of Milan supporters, who chose Maldini’s farewell home match to turn on their loyal captain. For one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors, a model of service and fair play, it was a shocking reception.

The match kicked-off, and Milan came twice from behind before eventually losing 3-2, a defeat which has thrown their hopes of playing in Europe next season into jeopardy. At the final whistle, all twenty-two players ran to embrace Maldini, who then, at the encouragement of his colleagues, somewhat reluctantly embarked on a weary lap of honor. As he approached the curva, the same disgruntled fans took its second dig at their captain, unveiling a second banner.

“Per i tuoi 25 anni di gloriosa carriera sentiti ringraziamenti
da chi hai definito mercenari e pezzenti”

“For your glorious 25-year career you’ve received praise and thanks
from those you once defined as mercenaries and tramps.”

Spray-painted banners, known as striscioni, are a common sight in Italian soccer stadia, and play a significant role in ultrà culture. Gli ultras are Italian teams’ most die-hard supporters, the kind of people for whom being a football fan is a full-time job. Often topical and usually humorous (ultràs love a good play-on-words), striscioni can be used to great effect in rallying home fans or breaking the tension in an important game. If critical, they generally target the club’s upstairs management or a teams’s poor performances. Rarely do individuals come under personal attack. But in Maldini’s case, it was clear the milanisti had old scores to settle. To further rub salt into Maldini’s wounds, they even dusted off a giant red-and-black striped flag with a huge white number six, the shirt number (since retired) worn by former Milan legend Franco Baresi, from whom Maldini inherited the captain’s armband in 1997. The bitter disappointment was etched on Maldini’s face as he shot a sarcastic thumbs up to his critics on the second tier on the curva — he could even be seen mouthing the words “figli di puttane”, though after the game his only official comment was “I’m proud not to be one of them.”

“It’s my home — it always has been, it always will be.” This is how Paolo Maldini once described Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, more commonly known as San Siro after the area of the city from which its imposing twists of concrete spiral into the Milanese fog. For decades it has been home to both Milanese clubs, Milan and Inter, but far more than just a historic soccer ground, for Maldini the famous stadium has also been his place of employment for the past twenty-four years. Maldini made his Serie A debut for the rossoneri in January 1985; he has since pulled on the red-and-black number three shirt 901 times, collecting seven scudetti (the Italian league championship title) and five European Cups/Champions Leagues in the process. He also won 126 caps for Italy between 1988 and 2002, playing in four World Cup tournaments. Maldini’s berth in football’s hall of fame has been assured for some time. Famed not only for his success but also his longevity, today the Italian is internationally adored and universally recognized as one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game. After extending his contract for one final season in 2008, the Milan captain finally announced his decision to retire from playing at the end of this season, just four weeks before his forty-first birthday.

So why the sudden backlash, and from his own fans no less? Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport tried to get to the bottom of the affair on Monday, even reporting comments of members of those responsible. “We just wanted to make a few things clear to him,” said Giancarlo Lombardi, leader of Milan’s organised support. “Maldini hasn’t always been respectful towards us in the past.” Nicknamed “Sandokan”, Lombardi claimed to be on his way to a bar just yards from Milan’s administrative headquarters in Via Turati. With him was Giancarlo Capelli, also known as “Il Barone”, historic capoultrà of the Curva Sud. Neither man was at Sunday’s game since both are already banned by Italian law from attending sporting events, but their orders had clearly been carried out.

Their grievance goes back to May 2005, when Milan dramatically lost the Champions League final to Liverpool after a penalty shoot-out, despite having galloped to a comfortable 3-0 lead at half-time. On Milan’s return from Istanbul the team ran into a group of hostile fans at Malpensa airport, who told the players they should ask for forgiveness. It was at this moment that Maldini, who had scored the game’s opening goal after just sixty seconds, responded with his now infamous “tramps” remark.

The second incident was before the 2007 Champions League final, in which Milan got their revenge over Liverpool, winning the match 2-1. A large portion of the curva ran into problems with the law in Athens, and did not appreciate Maldini’s decision to distance himself from the issue. As a consequence, the following August the entire curva refused to support the team at the 2007 European Supercup in Monaco, even preventing the more casual fans to cheer as the rossoneri ran out 3-1 winners against Sevilla. The surreal atmosphere continued at Milan’s home games for several months during the 2007-08 season.

“I don’t know why they decided to dredge up these things now,” said Maldini, recalling the incident in Wednesday’s Gazzetta, his first interview since the Sunday’s controversy. “I’ve never had a close relationship with the fans,” he told Giovanni Battista Olivero, “But not out of snobbery — with my last name I always had something to prove, and so I wanted to be judged solely by what I did on the pitch.” Maldini was referring to his father, Cesare, who captained Milan to its first European Cup success, over Benfica at Wembley in 1963. “I guess there are those who interpret this as arrogance or disregard.”

Asked about his strong comments immediately after the match, the Milan captain stands by them. “It was an instinctive response to an act which had been premeditated for days, months, maybe years. I didn’t have the chance to think. I was a wounded man.”

More than the attack itself, what hurt Maldini most was the silence of the club itself. “I don’t like the way they haven’t taken any position on the matter,” he explained. “There hasn’t been one comment. From the president down, not a word of solidarity towards me. Call me an idealist, but I believe that a club like Milan should disassociate itself from certain episodes.”

Italian fandom, like Italian politics, is an extremely complex world, both nationally and within the confines of a city or club. So complex in fact, that most outsiders (including the majority of the foreign press) too often resort to fulfilling lazy stereotypes rather than trying to fully understand the socio-cultural make-up of a club, city or nation. Though not a violent incident, Sunday was the latest poor advertisement for Italian fan behavior, in a week when Manchester United fans travelled for the Champions League final to Rome, dubbed “Stab City” by the Times of London. Of course, these same knife-wielding thugs are also responsible for the intricate and spectacular choreography common in Italian stadia, and so admired across Europe.

For several years the positions taken by Milan’s organized support have become increasingly unpredictable, and its relationship with the club’s management evermore turbulent. The notorious Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den), the first ultràs group founded in Italy, was dissolved in 2005 almost overnight, following political disagreements with other fan organizations and an alleged collaboration with Digos, a special operations branch of the state police. The inner-politics of the various curva groups and their relationship with the club and the team has been strained ever since. The ultràs‘ biggest gripe, perhaps justifiably, has been Milan’s reluctance during recent transfer campaigns to invest in younger talent, instead opting repeatedly for established stars on the wrong side of thirty. This policy is perhaps harder to take given the fact that since the late-1980s until recently Milan — under the financial backing of media tycoon and current Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi — had spent large sums of money each summer on some of the world’s finest players, resulting in the most sustained period of success in the club’s history.

Maldini himself has faced criticism before. “It’s not the first time the fans have turned on me,” he recalled. “During the 1997-98 season, I’d been captain for six months when they began suggesting I wasn’t worthy of the armband. They even painted a banner outside my house which read, ‘Less Hollywood, more hard work.'” (Hollywood is a famous discoteca in Milan, and a popular hotspot where footballers, models and stars of TV can rub shoulders. Ironically, Maldini, his wife Adriana, friends and teammates spent the evening at the nightclub after Sunday’s game.) Perhaps due to his stature at Milan, and within the sport as a whole, Maldini has the mental capacity to render himself impervious. “These things make you grow,” he said. “I’ve developed an intellectual freedom and a freedom of expression which I’ll never give up.”

Over the course of the week the international football community has been quick to leap to Maldini’s defence. On Thursday, the morning after Barcelona’s Champions League victory over Manchester United, Barça coach Pep Guardiola dedicated the triumph to the Milan captain, saying, “He has all of Europe’s admiration.” The same day Milan’s general director Adriano Galliani officially responded to Maldini’s criticism of the club’s handling of the affair and lack of support towards him in the form of an open letter, which appeared on the club’s official website:

I read your interview and I understand your sadness: as you know, I’ve been under escort for the last two years because of the very same people who contested you.

It was me who took the decision to remain quiet: not just because I’d been advised, but because I believed, and still believe, that silence is the most effective weapon, and I did not wish to give these people further exposure after what happened on Sunday.

Maldini has routinely stated that he does not plan to go into coaching following the end of his playing career. Having played under his own father for both Milan (2001) and the Italian national team (1996-98), he has witnessed first-hand what effect that job can have on a man and his family. Paolo’s eldest son Christian is currently working his way through Milan’s youth ranks, and has by all accounts already developed many of his Dad’s signature defensive attributes. Milan have already made public their plan to resurrect the number three shirt (set for retirement along with Paolo) should another Maldini make the first-team squad.

Some feel that this final ugly act may push Maldini even further away from the game. He certainly has other interests outside of football, most notably the popular casual clothing line Sweet Years, which he founded with former Inter striker Christian Vieri in 2003. Though inexorably associated with one city and one club, Maldini clearly sees a world beyond the confines of Milan, both the team and the city. He has often expressed a desire to live in the United States –- he already owns a vacation home in Miami and is a regular visitor to New York.

On Sunday Maldini will play his last ever professional game against Fiorentina, a match which essentially has become a play-off for third and fourth place in Serie A and an automatic Champions League position. Whatever happens in Florence, Milan will begin next season with a new coach, the Brazilian Leonardo, a new captain,

Room with a view

When I moved to Italy in the autumn of 2003, I was lucky enough to be offered a place to stay by an old friend of my parents, a retired English teacher named Bibi. That isn’t her real name: she’s actually called Fortunata Maria, but for reasons unknown people have always called her Bibi, so that’s what we called her too. Bibi lived in a small town called Borgo San Lorenzo, in the Mugello valley, roughly an hour north of Florence (or half an hour if you’re being driven by an Italian). I’d first met Bibi when I was eleven — my family and I had spent many summers on holiday in Italy and had stayed with her on most of those visits. Consequently I had a lot of friends in the town, and was certainly taken care of at home: Bibi’s live-in help, a Neapolitan woman named Tina, would serve me an industrial quantity of pasta twice a day, and if I didn’t eat with them it was because I’d been invited to dinner by someone else.

Despite the relatively easy life I was leading in Borgo, there was little to do there, and like most small Italian towns this one became somewhat deserted every afternoon. A typical day generally consisted of meeting friends at the bar, reading La Gazzetta dello Sport, eating a big lunch and taking a nap, before getting up and doing the same thing all over again until bedtime. As much as I genuinely enjoyed watching television dramas most nights with Bibi, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that I couldn’t stay there forever, and that for all my young person’s needs — social, cultural and professional — Florence was where it was at. I’d begun working in the city after Christmas, and the daily commute on bus and train was beginning to take its toll. Though they were little more than an hour away, the difference between Florence and Borgo was more appropriately measured in light years. By the early spring I decided that five months was about all I could take.

Through a colleague I’d been given the number of a doctor in Florence — let’s call her OC — who as luck would have it was looking to rent out a room in her apartment, which had been described to me as “gorgeous”. While sharing a house with a Florentine divorcée perhaps wasn’t my ideal living situation, it made marginally more sense than staying in a sleepy Tuscan town with a reclusive former English professor and her hyperactive cat. When my colleague began describing the spectacular view from OC’s apartment my initial hesitancy began to wane and I decided it was an opportunity I had to investigate.

OC was on the island of Capraia that afternoon when I called to introduce myself, but we arranged to meet at her apartment a week later — by which time my already overly active imagination had begun to visualize a new life in Florence, complete with all its glamorous trappings. It was a decidedly unglamorous wet spring afternoon however the day OC and I finally met. Getting off the bus in Piazza della Libertà, I walked on Via Pier Capponi for several minutes in the direction of Piazzale Donatello before successfully locating the address through the drizzle. Realizing I was half an hour early, and with no bar in sight, I was forced to take cover beneath a concrete overhang protruding from the adjacent apartment block. Opposite was a non-descript yet quite desirable row of mid-century residential buildings, of which number seventeen was arguably the largest: a big yellow construction with a pizzeria on the ground floor and a hotel next-door. The top floor apartments were graced with a long balcony running the width of the building; trying to remember what vague information I’d been provided with I suspected one of those was OC’s.

At three-thirty I made a dash across the street and buzzed: a voice responded, I pushed open a heavy metal door and entered a small lobby decked in marble and glass. The elevator had a manual wooden door with a round window like a ship’s porthole, then two narrow doors with even narrower windows. The interior of the lift was covered in a red carpet, except for a bathroom-sized mirror attached to the back wall. Arriving at the sixth floor, I pulled open the thin double doors and saw OC beaming at me through the porthole window.

The first thing I noticed were her black leather pants — more Joan Jett than medical professional — which she paired with a white boat neck long-sleeved t-shirt. Streaks of grey ran through her shoulder-length brown hair which was pulled away from her face, as though she’d just showered. I guessed her to be in her early-fifties, though her youthful manner — and wardrobe — seemed to defy her mature visage.

OC and I shook hands and entered the apartment through double wooden doors, upon one of which was a plaque engraved with “Dott.ssa” (Dottoressa). We entered a dark and roomy hall dominated by a huge wooden dresser, possibly the largest piece of furniture I’d ever seen, itself half-hidden beneath a mountain of clutter. She then led me through frosted glass doors into a spacious living room. Despite the overcast weather, light poured in through sheer curtains covering glass doors leading out to the balcony. In front of the curtains was a huge potted plant, its droopy leaves partially covering one of two comfy beige sofas. Still wearing my raincoat, I sat down in the middle of the other one, directly beneath a giant canvas depicting a barnyard scene in the moments which followed the birth of Christ. OC revealed that it was a reproduction of a Ghirlandaio fresco in the church of Santa Trinità. She said she didn’t much care for it, but since it was the work of a friend of hers she felt somewhat encumbered by it. It wasn’t the only item of interest: two giant lanterns sat in the corners of the room which had originally been used on steam engines (OC’s grandfather had worked on the railways). She then offered me a choice of coffee or limoncello. I chose coffee; moments later she returned from the kitchen with both.

OC sat down in an armchair directly in front of me, and placed a tray between us on a matching ottoman. She then proceeded to talk. And talk. And talk — until I realized I’d finished both my drinks without barely having uttered a word. She appeared perfectly happy to skirt conventional conversation starters — who I was, where I’d come from, what I was doing in Florence and how I’d ended up in her living room. Instead she soon began to ramble almost absentmindedly about her vacation home on Capraia, right down to its shoddy plumbing. I tried listening to her with intent at first, but soon my eyes began to drift around the room, observing the hand-painted wooden panels which hung on the wall behind her, and even glimpsing the hilltop town of Fiesole through a gap in the curtains. Though bemused by OC’s complete disinterest in her potential housemate, this wasn’t enough to put me off. Her apartment was the kind of vast, sprawling, Manhattan-style pad I’d only ever seen in old Italian movies, and having got through the door I was not about to give it up. Besides, as far as I was concerned the less interest OC showed in my life the better.

I hadn’t even yet seen my room, but really I didn’t need to: one glance at the view from the kitchen sealed the deal for me. More French doors gave way to another balcony, and beyond a row of trees the city’s mighty Duomo rose up defiantly through the afternoon drizzle. I couldn’t possibly turn down this opportunity, if only to make my friends eternally jealous. We agreed on a monthly figure for rent: €350, bills included. I couldn’t believe my luck.

* * *

Less than two weeks later I arrived back at OC’s, this time with two large suitcases in tow packed with all my worldly possessions. OC welcomed me with open arms and introduced me to a friend with whom she was enjoying a post-lunch cigarette. The friend offered me something to eat — some kind of sausage and salad — which I politely accepted. She seemed more interested in me than OC had on our first meeting, who again paid me scant attention, as if twenty-something British men move into her home every week, and I got the impression I was merely a footnote upon the epic nature of her own daily concerns.

The neighborhood — Florence’s affluent Campo di Marte district just outside the centro storico — was perfect. The languages school where I taught was a short walk away, as was the football stadium, which to my delight was even visible from OC’s living room. A door off the kitchen led to my room, although I should really say quarters, since I had a hall, bedroom, bathroom and balcony (which shared the same spectacular view as the kitchen) all to myself. The room was furnished with a beautifully carved wooden bed, a large wardrobe, a small chest of drawers, an antique bookcase and a brand new IKEA desk. That night I went to bed early but was kept awake by the incessant drone of traffic emanating from Viale Matteotti, the wide tree-lined boulevard running behind the next row of buildings. I’d never lived in a town even half the size of Florence, and arriving directly from Borgo made the transition even more dramatic. From my new bed I gazed at Brunelleschi’s cupola (which appeared to loom even larger at night) as the sound of buzzing Vespas peeled up and down the street. At last, urban civilization — modern and not so modern — could be seen and heard, and the next morning I felt reborn, as if I’d just awoken from a five-month socio-cultural slumber.

OC had two beautiful children from her dissolved marriage, a girl and a boy. Though their father lived just a five-minute walk away, only one divided his time between both parents; the other (the daughter, who was older) had chosen to live permanently with her mother. Their dad lived a short walk away in Piazza d’Azeglio. I spoke to him a couple of times on the phone, and even met him once. He wasn’t particularly friendly, but then his ex-wife had suddenly taken in a foreign man half her age, so I couldn’t really blame him for being skeptical. I remember a divorce lawyer coming to the house a few times, but I never asked OC about him or why they separated. She once suggested it was because she liked to watch Stargate and he didn’t, which I supposed was as good a reason as any.

OC’s daughter was a typical Italian twelve-year old, her interests revolving mainly around horses and the British boy band Blue, yet she was sassier than most kids her age and seemed genuinely excited by this unconventional domestic set-up. Her son turned ten shortly after I moved in, and life was certainly more hectic (and louder) when he was around. Mealtimes were particularly chaotic: all three would eat at the kitchen table, and from my nearby room it seemed at times as though they were competing with the TV to see who could make the most noise.

I would often be asked to join them for dinner, an offer I readily accepted out of polite gratitude but also based on the fact that the combined din of two excitable kids and the blare of Italian primetime television made it impossible to concentrate on anything, despite the two doors which separated us. OC herself was the possessor of a booming, almost manly voice: when my Dad called the apartment and she answered the first thing he said to me was, “Who was that bloke?” Needless to say her regular breakfast phone calls to patients and colleagues soon meant I no longer required a conventional alarm clock. OC could whip up a pretty tasty pasta or roast pork, and was also fond of cooking homemade hamburgers. When the weather got warmer she regularly made gazpacho or panzanella for lunch. I enjoyed eating and watching cartoons with the kids, and in those early months we’d often engage in epic after-dinner soccer matches in the hall which would last until bedtime (or until somebody got hurt by slipping on the tiled marble floor). This was certainly preferable to spending the evening trapped with OC, for once the kids were out of sight I began to understand just what kind of person she was.

As was my initial impression, it was soon confirmed to me that OC did not excel as a conversationalist. What she did do well were monologues, and could talk quite happily for long periods without interruption. Of course, any interjection on my part was unlikely as she limited herself to discussing subjects which I knew little or nothing about: Etruscan ceramics, the commercially unsuccessful films of Gérard Depardieu, or her trip to Greece in 1971. It soon became evident that any topic in which I might offer any relevant input was strictly off-limits. When talk did turn to the everyday my opinions on food or life in Italy held absolutely no weight whatsoever by pure virtue of my being British. Conveniently, OC claimed not just her Florentine status, but thanks to her parents was also equal parts Roman and Venetian, and despite never having lived there seemed to understand everything there was to know about Naples too. With four of the country’s major cities among her areas of expertise, any comment I had to make about Italy could be dismissed in an instant. Meanwhile, OC remained completely oblivious to my own life and background.

I soon realized these were the classic traits of a very insecure person, and I began to feel some pity towards her. There was something sad about the fact that all her lengthy anecdotes recalled events which took place at least twenty years ago, as if her life had somehow stopped after having children. Sometimes her stories weren’t even first-hand: I remember one evening she recounted a lengthy tale about a friend of a friend who’d become involved in a complex romantic triangle while living in Brazil (which wasn’t as exciting as it sounds). OC’s highly elevated sense of self-importance was evident not just from her choice of subjects but also her preference for the supposedly intellectual channel Rai Tre (the third station of Italy’s state network RAI), as well as her refusal to let others speak. When a lengthy story finally drew to a close she would abruptly switch off the television, utter a one word goodnight (“Notte!”) and march out of the kitchen, like a performer exiting stage right as if to deliberately avoid the scorn of critics. Of course, there were no critics, just a speechless and weary audience of one.

After dinner OC and the kids would get ready for bed almost immediately, so by ten o’clock each night I pretty much had the run of the place. They never sat in the big living room where OC and I had had our first meeting, and rarely did I, preferring instead to work in my room, or practice my saxophone. Sometimes late at night I’d sit on the balcony with a cup of tea and admire the breathtaking panorama of floodlit Renaissance architecture. To my good fortune the other bedrooms were on the opposite side of the apartment from mine, so I could even listen to music at night without disturbing anyone. Rather than use the large double-doors, OC gave me keys to a side entrance into the kitchen, allowing me to come and go as I pleased. This arrangement worked just fine, although in the first three months I became locked inside the apartment on two separate occasions.

OC’s huge bedroom with en suite was dominated by a large bed, giant wardrobes and the strong pervading essence of Chanel. Despite the ample closet space her shoes and clothes were routinely strewn about the room like those of a messy teenager. Both kids had their own rooms and shared a bathroom, which was inevitably something of a disaster: clothes, toys and dirty towels littered the blue-tiled floor and the mirror was smeared with pre-adolescent messages scrawled in lipstick. It did not take me long to discover the kids took after their mother, at least as far as general tidiness was concerned. OC’s organizational skills left much to be desired, even for an Italian. Her office, or study, or whatever you wish to call it — personally I considered “bombsite” a more apt term — was the area worst hit. An explosion of open drawers overflowed with countless white boxes of drugs and pills, while hundreds of white paper sticky notes bearing the name of various pharmaceutical companies (the kind that doctors are given free bundles of at conferences) were scattered throughout like fallen leaves. There was a dining table in the middle of the room which was never used for dining, or anything else for that matter, as every inch of its surface was covered in the same mess.

Likewise, the kitchen table had to be cleared of bills, homework, junk mail and more of the same sticky notes each day before it could be used for eating. Most of this clutter would be unceremoniously dumped onto the nearest chair, which meant in order to sit down the same clutter in turn had to be placed onto the kitchen floor, where invariably it would remain, sometimes for several weeks. Incredibly, this untidiness had apparently extended to the interior of OC’s car — a white ’95 Honda Accord — which was identifiable by the mountains of mail and sticky notes piled upon the passenger seats. Ironically, despite all those sticky notes OC was forever without a scrap of paper to hand, so whenever she needed to jot down a phone number or an appointment — or even when helping with math homework — she would simply take a pencil and write directly onto the white kitchen table. Her later attempts to clean her scrawled notes only transformed them into unsightly grey smudges.

OC appeared equally comfortable writing on any surface of her home: upon the white-washed kitchen walls she would record her kids’ heights — and mine — at monthly intervals. I had several years (and feet) on these two Italian tykes, but unlike them I wasn’t getting any taller, so my height remained represented by a crude unwavering pencil line six feet off the ground, next to which OC scrawled my name erroneously as JAMENS. This proved another ridiculous burden I had to live with. What began as an innocent child’s mistake (my name had been entered with an unwanted “N” as we played a computer game) soon took on a life of its own, and I quickly became known as “Jamens” (pronounced Yah-mens) by the entire household. While I initially took it as a sign of affection the habit soon began to grate, particularly when OC called me by this name in front of people or when discussing more serious matters.

* * *

After six months OC and I had settled into a pretty comfortable routine, though we led completely separate lives. I ate with her and the kids less and less, for fear of being subjected to another installment of The OC Show. Instead I’d eat in a hurry before they did, often twice a day, making sure instead to always take advantage of the rare occasions when they were out. As soon as the weather warmed up, OC and the kids would spend entire weekends at their holiday villa on the island of Capraia, a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride from the Tuscan port of Livorno. Sometimes they invited me to come with them, usually at the last minute, by which time I’d usually already have social or work commitments. On the occasions when I had no weekend plans I declined the offer anyway: though the thought of relaxing on a Mediterranean island was hugely appealing, spending an intense weekend in OC’s company was considerably less so. I’d begun to value my infrequent moments of personal time more highly than anything, and those weekends home alone were more fun than I’ve ever had on any beach.

One Saturday morning in early June OC and the kids left to catch the ferry for the weekend. They wouldn’t be back until Sunday night, and so I’d decided to make the most of their absence by hosting a little party. The second they were out the door I set about getting the apartment into shape: I removed the mail and sticky notes from the kitchen table, and cleaned the kitchen floor, off of which I recovered (in addition to the usual paper products): a stale, gnawed piece of bread, assorted shapes of dried pasta and a stray pair of girl’s underwear. Having finished scrubbing every surface I had just begun preparing food when I heard a key in the front door. Panicked, I had no time to react before OC was standing in the kitchen. Turns out they’d missed the boat, literally. “Abbiamo perso la nave!” she bellowed, almost proudly, like a tipsy old sea captain bursting into the harbor tavern. Naturally, she was oblivious to how her disorganization had ruined my own weekend. (When I finally got the chance again to throw the party — almost a year later — I named the event Mamma, ho perso la nave, literally “Mommy, I missed the boat”: a direct reference to my previous hampered attempt to play host and to the movie Home Alone, which in Italy is called Mamma, ho perso l’aereo.)

You may wonder why I put up with such limited freedom (not to mention OC’s eccentricities) for so long, but for all the valid reasons for moving out there were others which kept me at Via Pier Capponi. That view for starters. Plus, I was paying less in rent than everyone else I knew in Florence and had no utilities. Best of all, in summer OC and the kids would relocate to Capraia for most of July and August, leaving me free to bask in a sun-kissed, Mastroianni-inspired, fantasy life. On Saturday mornings I’d buy La Gazzetta and La Repubblica and read them (and their glossy magazine supplements) over breakfast in Piazza Strozzi, before heading home for lunch and an afternoon tanning on the balcony. In the evenings I’d pour myself a Campari Soda while preparing dinner (a luxury in itself), after which I’d retire to the soft grandeur of the living room, where I’d listen to music, watch meaningless pre-season soccer friendlies or even indulge my passion for classic Fellini. OC had left me the keys to her bike, which meant if I wanted to meet friends for a drink I could be on the other side of the Arno in less than ten minutes. One Sunday morning I woke up early and rode into town. I circled the narrow streets and vast piazze, usually thronging with tourists but now instead deserted, as if I’d stumbled upon an abandoned film set.

The pleasure of those two months was enough to keep me in that apartment for over two years, even though I knew my idyllic lifestyle was destined to end as soon as OC & Co. returned to Florence. In their extended absence the apartment had become all mine, a spotless paradise cultivated in my own image. I even transferred my stereo into the living room, where I’d lounge and plunder through my collection of classic albums. Sadly, this perpetual bliss was punctured the second OC’s front door key twisted the lock. Immediately, it was as if they’d never left: bags were thrown on the floor, clothes were dumped on the backs of chairs and clutter — keys, mail, toys, whatever it may be — were laid to rest on any available surface. I retired to my room and began calling up my friends in search of an escape.

Having become so accustomed to having the place to myself, when OC and the kids returned I’d look for any opportunity to stay out of the house. When friends suggested meeting for dinner or a drink I never hesitated; when no such offer was forthcoming I’d be content to roam the streets for as long as I could, until, defeated by cold or hunger or both, I’d reluctantly return home. If I could wait until ten I’d generally be guaranteed to avoid running into OC, which in part made me quite willing to work long hours at the languages school where I taught. Sometimes I’d go out for a drink or a pizza with students or colleagues, other times I’d go directly back to a now silent apartment. If OC did happen to still be up past ten, I’d often walk into the kitchen to find her watching TV, at which point she’d thrust a glass of limoncello into my hand. “Chi non beve in compagnia o è un ladro o una spia,” she’d say to me, which literally translates as, “He who doesn’t drink in others’ company is either a thief or a spy.”

Before I could respond, or escape, OC would launch into one of her famous monologues, perhaps a predictable anti-Berlusconi tirade or simply a depressing review of contemporary Italian society’s general malaise. Let’s just say OC didn’t do small-talk. As a self-proclaimed Florentine, she was the first to criticize the city for its problems and shortcomings, but also quick to defend it. If I’d been to a restaurant for dinner, rather than ask me where I’d eaten or how the meal was she’d simply scoff, “Ha! Us Florentines would never dream of eating out in the centre of Florence!” Once she asked me completely out of the blue if I’d ever been to Venice. I had, though not in about fifteen years, but thinking fast I answered, “Yes, many times.” I could actually see the disappointment on OC’s face, as this meant she had to limit her speech to just five minutes, and the hour-long lecture to which I would otherwise have surely been subjected would have to wait for another time, or another unsuspecting victim.

Any pity for OC this scene may invoke should be disregarded immediately. I did pity her, but her situation was caused purely and solely by her complete social ineptitude. The few friends of hers I did meet were very nice, and always showed a much greater interest in me than she ever did. They never failed to compliment me on my Italian, something OC herself never once acknowledged. Perhaps predictably for someone with such vast insecurities, she clearly began to resent me for having any kind of social life of my own, and on the rare occasions when my friends and OC did cross paths she was usually rude or at the very least inappropriate. One stormy Sunday night a colleague, SM, an at times painfully polite British woman and a dear friend, came over to pick me up on the way to the movies. OC was ironing in the kitchen when I introduced the two women to each other. “Have you come to prepare lessons together?” she sniggered between drags on a cigarette, before letting out a nicotine-induced chuckle. SM, clearly taken aback, seemed forced to defend herself. “Actually, we’re just going to the cinema.” Sadly OC’s pathetic comment was pretty typical, which is why I avoided inviting people over unless I could guarantee that she wasn’t going to be around.

I’d been at Via Pier Capponi for little over a year when I became involved with JP, an American woman whom I’d originally met in the spring of the year before, just a couple of weeks after moving to Florence. JP was visiting Florence for the summer, and spent several nights at the apartment, though we usually only returned home after midnight. One Saturday afternoon we ran into OC as we were leaving the house, just as she and the kids were sitting down to lunch. The kids waved ciao and OC herself seemed perfectly at ease with the fact that a girl had spent the night in my room. I was twenty-six after all — could she really be surprised?

The summer rolled on and JP and I spent many more nights in the apartment together, including whole weekends while OC was in Capraia. Officially, JP was staying in the apartment of a mutual friend, who was also out of town, so other nights we’d stay at her place. JP left Florence at the end of June, by which time OC and the kids had moved to Capraia for July and August. When they eventually returned from the island, almost two months later, OC took me aside as I boiled water for a cup of tea. “James, don’t bring people into the house,” she told me coldly. “It’s a problem for the kids. And a problem for my ex-husband.” It struck me as extremely inappropriate that her ex-husband might be weighing in on my private life, and I knew for a fact that the kids had no problem with it (they’d even asked me excitedly about it). Of course, OC had neglected to mention the real issue, which was that it was a big problem for her. What really irked me was her use of the word gente (“non portare gente in casa” was what she’d said) as if I was picking people up off the street each night. She’d never mentioned anything about me having people over, but I don’t know what else she expected. Maybe it had never occurred to her. At that point I vowed (to myself at least) never to bring anyone else into the apartment, and to begin actively seeking alternative accommodation.

* * *

By now my motives for moving out were beginning to outweigh the reasons to stay. Though the apartment belonged to her, OC had never once attempted to adjust her lifestyle to suit the fact that I was now also living there. She showed little or no respect for my needs, and it seemed both unfair and ridiculous that I shouldn’t be able to indulge in normal social activities. And as spectacular as that view still was, it certainly wasn’t enough to make me put up with everything else. I’d also now come to the realization that OC was not just untidy and disorganized, but actually dirty. Mystifyingly, she seemed incapable of using an ashtray, and would routinely flick ash into the kitchen sink, where it would fall onto the stack of dirty dishes which remained from lunch. Once, as I attempted to clean the living room, I came across an upturned ashtray under a coffee table, its grey, powdery contents now embedded into the rug. On one unpleasant occasion I even found a partially used cigarette in my own bathroom: evidently OC had been smoking while doing laundry (my bathroom also housed the apartment’s only washing machine), and had simply extinguished it in the nearest receptacle.

Meanwhile, OC’s now teenage daughter had also become less pleasant to be around. I’d somehow been oblivious to her transformation from pony-loving child into sulky adolescent, which she’d managed to complete in the space of just a few weeks. Only months earlier I was being dragged into town by her and her friends to go shopping or helping her choose an outfit for a party at her behest. Now I barely saw her, and only reluctantly would she acknowledge me when I did. I put this down to teenagerdom but it was clear I was no longer a novelty in the household. Even OC’s generosity toward me had waned. When my wallet had been stolen a few months after I moved in she’d lent me the €60 I’d lost, now she barely gave me the time of day.

Whether she knew it or not, OC was headed fast for another divorce, this time without even getting married. By the spring I couldn’t wait to move out, and nothing about her behavior looked likely to make me change my mind. In March I left to visit JP in New York, just days after learning that my grandmother had been hospitalized having suffered a severe stroke. When I returned to Florence there was a message from my Dad telling me she’d died. “Yeah, a patient of mine died the other day,” was OC’s immediate and thoughtless response, which only demonstrated that she was even more self-absorbed than I’d originally thought.

Immediately I began consulting friends about alternative living situations and scouring the hundreds of apartment ads which litter Florence’s streets and lampposts. That summer’s World Cup gave me the perfect excuse to be out all night watching football and was a welcome distraction from apartment hunting. One weekend in June I took the train up to Milan to visit a friend on Lago Maggiore. I had no idea of the surprise which awaited me on my return.

I had an early start on Monday and was in the middle of making breakfast when OC breezed into the kitchen, still wearing her dressing gown and enjoying an early cigarette. “Buongiorno, Jamens,” she said. We never ran into each other in the mornings so I should have perhaps known this time would be memorable.

“I’ve got some news for you,” she announced, as I stood eating my cereal. “We’re moving house!” I spluttered milk onto my tie. I was genuinely shocked, and had so many questions, mostly of the what/when/where variety. OC helpfully filled me in and told me the address. “Number eleven, like the bus. We move at the end of the month.” I assumed this had all happened suddenly, but in actual fact it turned out OC had been negotiating the sale of the apartment for some time.

“I’m so glad it’s all over,” she confessed. “Because the whole situation has caused me a lot of stress.” Naturally, OC failed to acknowledge the stress that had suddenly been placed upon me, as I now found myself with less than two weeks to find a new place to live. To my astonishment, it evidently had not occurred to her that I might see this as a healthy opportunity to move out.

“Obviously, you can come with us,” she explained. “The new place is smaller, but you can share with one of the kids.” Her suggestion was so preposterous as to literally leave me speechless. My current living situation was already less than ideal; I definitely wasn’t about to make it worse by sharing a room with a twelve-year-old. Instead, I declined OC’s offer, explaining how I wish I’d had more time to figure out just what I was going to do.

That afternoon I met my friend KO for a coffee, who generously suggested I move in with her. She was about to leave for Barcelona for a month, so it seemed like a handy stop-gap solution. I began packing up my possessions into large boxes, and the night before she left moved the first of them into her studio. The new apartment was only a ten-minute walk away but it took me the best part of four days to transfer everything. Most of this work had to be carried out either late at night or early in the morning; it was the last days of June, and by mid-morning simply too hot to be walking under the beating sun, let alone with luggage in tow. On the fourth day, a Sunday morning, I ran into OC in the kitchen as I lugged the final few boxes to my new lodging. Still in her robe, cigarette in hand, she seemed confused.

“Wait,” she said, apparently struggling to grasp what was happening. “Are you moving everything on foot?” With a wine box full of paperbacks in my arms and a giant Benetton duffle bag over my shoulder I could only muster a shrugged “Yeah”. Exhausted, I slumped my cargo onto the kitchen floor, expecting her to offer to help me take the rest of my stuff in her car, which was parked downstairs. It would have been great had she suggested it earlier but I wasn’t about to refuse. At that point she continued. “Well, think of the money you’ve saved instead of going to the gym.” OC turned on her heel and exited the kitchen, stage right. It was the last conversation we ever had. I hauled the remaining bags and boxes into the elevator and left Via Pier Capponi for the final time.

The next two months were spent living in a tiny studio which could barely contain all my possessions, and when KO returned from Spain we were forced to share everything, including a bed. My attempts to find a place of my own proving frustrating, in the end we both wound up moving into a new apartment together, by miraculous convenience located directly upstairs. It was a beautiful, four-bedroom property, and the size of the place meant we had to find two extra roommates. By extraordinary serendipity the first person to answer our ad was HG, an Italian literature student who soon became my girlfriend. My new landlady, a highly strung and heavily pregnant woman clad head-to-toe in checkered Burberry, was, in many ways, the exact reverse of OC, yet together with our new roommates, still proved capable of causing me bundles of unwanted stress (but that’s another story). I finally felt my luck was changing: I was enjoying my new life and the undoubted freedom it brought me. Meantime still I had heard nothing from OC.

The months went by, then one early summer evening I was on my way to a Fiorentina game when not far from the stadium I noticed a white Honda, not unlike OC’s, caught in the matchday traffic. The car passed me as I prepared to cross the street, but the low sun’s glare gave me no chance of identifying it as hers or not. When I’d reached the other side I turned and saw a dog stick its brown head out of the backseat window, before the car itself disappeared quickly around the corner and out of view. Knowing OC didn’t have a dog, I could only assume it had been somebody else.

The following afternoon, I was sitting reading the paper when my phone beeped. It was a text message from OC! Turns out the white Honda had belonged to her after all:

“Evitare il saluto è un gesto scortese privo di buoni motivi. Buona fortuna.”
“Avoiding a greeting is an impolite gesture without motive. Good luck.”
(It should be pointed out that to genuinely wish someone luck in Italy one says “In bocca al lupo” or “into the mouth of the wolf”, to which one always should reply “Crepi” or “Death to the wolf”; OC’s use of the literal term “good luck” was clearly meant in a less than positive, dismissive sense.)

Almost a year had passed since I’d moved out and this was the first time I’d heard from her. Not a phone call to see where I’d moved, not an invite to their new place for dinner, not even an SMS to check I was still alive — until now. I debated over replying for several minutes; on the one hand it was such a resentful message I didn’t want to give weight to it, but at the same time I didn’t want her to go through life thinking I was the one with the problem. So I wrote back explaining that I hadn’t seen her and if I had I’d have naturally said hello. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never heard from her again.

HG and I moved out in June, and it wasn’t many months later that we found ourselves in New York. Sometimes, when I’m watching Fiorentina on cable television, or even if I hear an Italian voice on the street, my mind drifts back to Florence and begins to reminisce. I wonder what OC and the kids are up to now. I think of her blaring voice, the cigarettes and those endless monologues. I remember scorching, Campari-drenched afternoons on the balcony, and long winter nights with just Chet Baker and Amaro Lucano for company. You might call such recollections of Via Pier Capponi affectionate, nostalgic even. And maybe that’s what they are. But the only thing I ever really miss is that view.

 
 
 
 
+++

Raising the bar

The life of a young writer is a hectic and stressful existence, often involving long hours of frantic typing as a deadline fast approaches, time which could be better spent sleeping or enjoying a proper dinner. However, occasionally we must abandon the iBook (or 1960 Lettera 32 Olivetti typewriter) and venture into the real world, all in the name of “research”. This usually means checking out a new bar or club, a task which has the added incentive of perhaps getting a free drink and/or meeting some girls.

Thanks to their brief mention in Elle Decor magazine, I had recently become aware of two designer hotels, The Continentale and the Gallery Hotel Art, each styled and owned by the Salvatore Ferragamo family. Elle boldly describes these establishments as “the jewels in Florence’s hotel crown” — both hotels sit opposite each other in a tiny piazza neatly tucked behind the Ponte Vecchio called Viccolo dell’Oro (literally “Little Street of Gold”).

I wander through the sliding door of the Continentale Contemporary Pleasing Hotel (to give it its full name) and enter into a chic Hepburn-inspired ’60s fantasy world, though it’s much too tasteful for the term “swinging bachelor pad”. Resembling 007’s secret love nest, the lobby is a series of wooden logs, kitsch lamps and plush pink chairs. A smart man and woman stand poised like mannequins halfway up the steps, who then immediately spring to life, inviting me to take a look around the building’s several floors and mezzanines. I glide up a short flight of stairs where I arrive in what appears to be a mini-movie theatre, where the final rain-sodden frames of Breakfast at Tiffany’s play out on a large plasma screen. For a moment I almost wish I didn’t already live in Florence, just so I could come and stay here. When I return to the reception, the blonde woman awaits with a brochure, which takes the format of a selection of large-scale postcards slipped inside a clear plastic envelope.

I stroll across the piazza, and pull open the heavy wooden door of the Gallery Hotel Art. Inside, the staff is older but equally responsive to my polite inquiries, and once again I am encouraged to admire the lounge and restaurant. I am offered a drink at (The Fusion Bar) attached to the hotel, which from what I can gauge is a pretentious hangout for Florence’s superficial elite. The sign outside is enough to tell you that (The Fusion Bar) perhaps takes itself a little too seriously: the very name of the bar has to be contained within the safety of parentheses.

I perch on a chunky leather stool, order my usual Campari Soda, and begin to browse through the numerous design-related coffee-table volumes displayed by the bar. Several minutes later, the barman presents me with my drink. I don’t know what he did to it or why it took him so long, but it’s the best Campari Soda I’ve ever tasted. A long oblong dish of unidentifiable edibles arrives, which I prod at cautiously with an extra-long cocktail stick. As I mix my aperitivo and nibble on what I think is sushi, I turn to admire the blown-up photograph of a woman in her underwear answering the telephone on her hands and knees, which covers the back wall. “This is my kind of place,” I think.

continentale 2

It’s true that such places of luxury are often over-priced, overwrought and over-rated, but they do know how to treat you well and the staff have a habit of making you feel like the most important person in the room. After I’ve finished my drink and am about to leave, the concierge asks me if I’ve yet had the opportunity to see the roof terrace of the Continentale. I respond with an enthusiastic no, and he leads me to a trio of elegant young women who stand chatting by the potted plants on the decked entrance to the bar. The dapper little man picks out one of the group. “Stefania,” he interrupts. “Can you please show James to the roof terrace?” I’m so instantly enamoured by Stefania I forget to ask how he knows my name. “Certainly,” Stefania says, and with a swish of her raven ponytail she escorts me back to the Continentale. “Follow me.”

We return past the candy-coloured seats and split-screen Audrey prints and enter a stark white cube. Lit from all six sides and possibly deriving from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this futuristic box turns out to be the elevator. Stefania presses an invisible button and a few seconds later we step out at the top floor, where walk onto the Contintentale’s roof garden, also known as the Sky Lounge. OK, so the name sounds like one of those crappy bars at Heathrow where holiday-makers drink Budweiser at ten in the morning, but I am willing to forgive that oversight. Not five minutes ago (The Fusion Bar) had seemed to be the epitome of cool, but this place is on another level, literally. I think it’s what they call “raising the bar”.

The square wooden terrace is lined with a crisp green hedge and a pale cushioned bench, upon which lounge a dozen or so people apparently well-accustomed to this lifestyle, as not even the presence of Stefania garners a reaction. A vast canopy keeps out the low sunlight, and the tables — which are made of steel framed boxes — each have a bulb gently glowing inside. The overall look is slightly Scandinavian, but something tells me none of it’s IKEA. With a subtle wave of her slender hand, Stefania presents the stunning panorama, pointing out the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. “You can probably see my balcony from here,” I suggest, failing to impress her.

continentale sky lounge

This is such a magical setting, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Sky Lounge has witnessed over two dozen marriage proposals since its refurbishment in 2003. I am about to get down on one knee in front of Stefania when she turns and says, “I’ll leave you to enjoy yourself.” I thank her for the ride in the elevator and tell her I’ll be back on Saturday. It’s at this point I become aware of the intoxicating and sophisticated groove which seems to emanate from miniature speakers discreetly hidden within the foliage. I take in my surroundings and decide I’m not quite ready to leave just yet. Feeling slightly under-dressed but blending quite well in my faded t-shirt and retro adidas, I order another drink, which I sip in the company of skinny foreign models as the setting sun glistens on the Arno.

Twenty-four hours later I’m back at my usual bar for a routine aperitivo. My Campari has a slice of lemon instead of orange, floating between two rapidly melting lumps of ice which I poke at aimlessly with a straw. Needless to say this place does not enjoy the distinction of punctuation around its name. I’m sitting on metal garden furniture while munching on bits of mini pizza, the CD keeps skipping and there’s no sign of a roof terrace. My mind continues to drift back to the Continentale, where I can’t help but look forward to my next trip with Stefania in the white cube. But tonight I’m with my friends and don’t feel at all out of place. Still somehow I’m not satisfied. Something’s missing. It’s too late — the bar has been raised.