That was a bloody tough World Cup to live through as an Italokiwi. I wrote at the time of the draw that Italy and New Zealand finding themselves in the same group had left me feeling gutted. But I really had no idea how gut wrenching it would truly be. My disappointment then seems silly now. I was upset about superficial fluff. I would only have one group to take a keen interest in instead of two. I would feel torn. I would not be able to properly enjoy the team I was so overjoyed to watch qualify live in Wellington.
As the sunscreen song tells us, “the real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday”
Close. It was around 4am on a Monday New Zealand time when the final whistle blew at the end of the match between the All Whites and the Azzurri. I watched the game where many in Auckland’s small Italian community go to watch all of Italy’s World Cup and Euro games – Gina’s Restaurant. The place is always packed full of Italians, even in the wee small hours and there is only ever one team being supported. This time though, much to my shock, the place was packed with confident, shrieking, slightly drunken kiwis who had decided it would be a really fun idea to come and give us heaps. How I wanted to put them in their place.
What did they know about the beautiful game? These rugby heads. These people whose idea of sport is thirty men (occasionally women) rolling around on top of each other. Who sit in stadiums and think that atmosphere is when everyone in the crowd quivers their stiff upper lips in unison. They all discovered football ten minutes ago and now they think the All Whites can win the World Cup! Yes, a lesson is what they needed – a reality check. It never came.
The game was not the prettiest exhibition of football you are ever likely to see. The Italians had a game plan that involved drawing fouls at every opportunity and there was a fair bit of what some politely call ‘simulation’. Chiellini in particular I thought gave a performance that if Sandra Bullock was watching, she might have picked up some useful tips to assist her in her quest for back-to-back best actress Oscars. De Rossi, the man sent off in the corresponding fixture four years earlier (vs USA) for a stray elbow was doing his best to get Rory Fallon to follow in the master’s footsteps. There was a penalty awarded to Italy that if I had been the ref I probably wouldn’t have given and New Zealand scored from an offside position. All very disappointing, but nothing at all out of character with football in general for my money.
Other teams dive. Other teams go into games with tactics geared towards having players they know are prone to it, booked or sent off. But Italy always seems to be the butt of jokes for it. The focus of hatred for it. Defined by it. Unfairly in my view. The aftermath of this game was no different. Not helped by the lack of football knowledge most display when you try to have a rational discussion with them about it.
And this is the truly upsetting part. More upsetting than Italy’s first group stage exit since 1974(!) The knowledge that Italy and Italians – all Italians – are now being characterised unfairly, even rascistly (on the off chance that’s a real word) by many a New Zealander as a nation of filthy, stinking, diving, cheating mama’s boys. My country hates my country!
At the end of those harrowing 90 minutes with the score at 1-1 “LIFT YOUR EXPECTATIONS” was the chant of the kiwis at Gina’s. I’m still not quite sure if they were referring to themselves or the Italians. After all, they were the ones celebrating a draw. And, grudgingly, I say well they should have celebrated. It was an incredible result for New Zealand. But at any rate, I have taken their advice. I have lifted my expectations. I expect New Zealand to qualify for the next World Cup. And the one after. And the one after that. I expect them to win, lose and draw. Be unlucky. Be lucky. Be both. Play well. Play poorly. Play fair. Cheat. Ride the rollercoaster we all ride not at one World Cup, but over several. Experience it all and accept it all as part of a truly beautiful game. This is the path to becoming a real football nation. I’ve always wanted to live in one of those.
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/