The World Cup semi-final between France and Portugal had just kicked-off when I stumbled into the business lounge at New Delhi airport. Normally three-quarters empty, it was standing-room only. Any seat from which you could catch even a sliver of one of the two wide-screens was occupied. All other seats were occupied by bemused women. One seat did have a male fixedly reading a large book, back to the TV and wearing earplugs. It was that rare male subspecies: homo sapiens antifootballius.
I watched France score the game’s only goal. But I wasn’t to know. Half-an-hour before the whistle, grim-faced airline staff herded me off for the security check.
But the result was more than academic. Whoever won would play Italy to be world champions. And I was flying to Italy. Sure enough, minutes after we were aloft, the Italian captain spoke to each of the business class travelers. He had only one message: “The final. It is Italia versus Francia.”
There were still two days to go before the showdown. Italians at my conference said I shouldn’t expect too much excitement. “This is Florence. Tuscans are cold, not like us Romans,” said one. Prime Tuscan example: the poker-faced, yacht-loving Italian coach, Marcello Lippi.
Italian flags could be found hanging from the balconies north of historic Florence and south of the Arno — the native haunts. One horse carriage rider yelled, “Italia” at a group of Frenchmen easily identified by the drapeau on their guide’s stick.
Most souvenir booths now had a line in football jerseys and scarves. Besides the obvious, the colours of Brazil, England and others were available. But not those of France. Nowhere. I checked almost 10 booths. You could get shirts with the name of French striker Thierry Henry only in the colours of Arsenal, his English club.
The conference ended the evening before the big day. Again I was warned, “Florentines will stock up on beer and stay home. Rome’s Circus Maximus is where the action will be.” One American said he had been in Naples years ago when Italy lost a match. “I was in this alley and then these television sets began flying out of third-storey windows.”
Bars reacted in two ways. Some set up projection TVs and charged a 20 euro cover. But most put up signs: “Excuse. We close 6.30 for calcio final.” Florence was going home.
I was staying at the Grand Hotel, a former Renaissance palace filled with frescos and stained glass. The hotel had arranged for the nearby Westin to do the needful.
The audience at the Westin was tourist-heavy. While many had adopted the Italian team and were wearing the Azzurri jersey, they wouldn’t genuinely have their heart in their pasta during the match.
The waiter asked if I wanted to eat. I said, “No. Just a Guinness.” He smiled. “Perfect. Good for us.” Less to serve meant time to watch. I wasn’t asked again.
One Italian sports channels had two benches of three commentators each. It had another set of talking heads on screens. How would anyone get more than a minute to speak? Solution: Have three speak at the same time.
As the match unfolded, it became obvious that Italian TV coverage was not about neutrality. Offside calls against the Italian team were rereplayed. French ones were never seen again. It didn’t matter whether the referee got the latter wrong; Italy had got it right.
The game was riveting, but my audience had too many faux Italians and ersatz football fans. When Zinedine Zidane took the early penalty shot, there were claps and hoots as the ball hit the crossbar. But the Italians knew better. They watched Zidane raise his fist. They grimaced. He had scored. Italy’s equalizing header left no room for doubt. But as the sands ran down, both sides became more desperate.
I wondered if Lippi would do a repeat of the semi-final and unleash four strikers. I asked an Italian when that had happened last, given Italy’s defensive football culture. “Never. When he took off defenders, we thought the linesman had got the numbers wrong.” But the French counter attack was too strong in the second half. When Henry made a few nimble moves, an Italian grudgingly admitted, “Henry is a snake.”
With the game heading for extra-time, an American asked, “Does a corner mean the ball is kicked into the corner of the net?” Faced with another half-hour of batty questions, I headed back to my hotel. The lobby staff, all Italian and sans guests, were congregated around a flat screen on the reception desk.
Zidane’s head-butt elicited a few hand gestures. The shootout was met with silence. The women shut their eyes each time an Italian stepped up. Just before the winning kick, a doorman wiped his brow with his coat tails. Victory saw bellboy and lobby manager locked in embrace, yelling: “Campioni del mondo, campioni del mondo!”
I ran outside to see fireworks silhouette Florence’s skyline. The chapel bells rang, but were soon blotted out by flotillas of two-wheelers carrying youngsters waving flags and blaring horns. The statues of Michelangelo looked on as their countrymen formed amoeba-like circles, jumping and chanting.
At the city’s main piazza, the occupants of one eatery ran for cover as the exuberant owner sprayed everyone with champagne. Unfortunately too many of the spontaneous mobs and impromptu football games were smothered by herds of camera-clicking tourists.
I had been told to reach Michelangelo Park to find the rowdiest crowds and biggest screens. But as the scooter gangs got wilder and faster, I decided the risk of grievous bodily harm was too great.
As dawn approached, smaller groups marched around, waving flags and crying “Po-po-po-po.” Walking back to my room, I came upon an formally-dressed elderly Italian, looking out on the Arno. He said, “This is our dream.” He was old enough to remember the last two times Italy had won the World Cup. But it had been 24 years, a long wait to relive a dream.