[This piece was originally written with the intention of submitting it to The Football Express for their ‘Hakuna Matata’ series. But after setting off in a blaze of enthusiasm and writing over 90% of it, I suddenly realised I hadn’t read the brief properly – it needed to be a defining *childhood* memory. Bollocks. Oh well, here it is anyway.]
“Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’è desta, dell’elmo di Scipio, s’è cinta la testa”
Dov’è la Vittoria?
The last time New Zealand had played in a World Cup was 1982 – I was 6. But my love affair with football was still just a twinkle in Roberto Baggio’s eye. It was born in 1994 – USA ’94 to be precise, when I first followed Italy properly. From the typically Italian loss to Ireland in their first game, right through to the heart-breaking penalty shootout loss to Brazil in the final, it was then I began learning to both love gli azzurri with all my heart, and to understand the kind of suffering that love would cause me over the years to come. There was so much more to experience and learn along the way, but one thing I knew right then and there was if Italy ever played New Zealand at football, in the battle for my affections, there was only ever going to be one winner.
“Same old ‘eye-tyes’ – always cheating!”
It’s not always easy being a New Zealander of Italian descent. First, there is the funny name that people can’t say or spell. Then there is the awkwardness of preferring wine, a so-called woman’s drink, over the symbol of kiwi manliness – a cold beer. Being confronted, on a semi regular basis, with the sickening sight of the crime against humanity that is tinned spaghetti on toast, without any recourse to the Human Rights Commission let alone The Hague. Liking football, when the rest of the country is rugby union bonkers. But, worse than all of that, was the treasonous day in 2010 when I had no choice but to cheer for ‘the enemy’ as New Zealand played Italy in the World Cup. For on that day, for once in a lifetime, New Zealanders cared about football. In fact, they cared a great deal and they saw their unlikely draw with the reigning World Champions, not as an astounding Davd vs Goliath giant killing feat – no! They saw it as a bunch of greasy, slimy, dirty, rotten, cheating eye-tyes robbing them of a much deserved scalp and knobbling them on their otherwise unstoppable rampage towards winning the whole tournament!
And just like that, my country hated my country…
One of the many things that made that day so surreal, was the very thing that made it possible, just seven short months beforehand – one of the happiest days of my life.
“Oh New Zealand! (oh New Zealand)
Is wonderful! (is wonderful)
Oh New Zealand is wonderful…
We’ve got the sheep, more sheep and the All Whites!
‘Coz New Zealand is wonderful”
As I walked into Westpac Stadium in Wellington to watch the All Whites play in the second leg of the playoff to determine the final remaining qualifier for South Africa 2010, I was, for once in my life, proud to be a kiwi. The All Whites had managed a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Bahrain. So here they stood, on the verge of being only the second New Zealand team ever to qualify for a World Cup, and what’s more, it felt just like it should – a party atmosphere. I have been to plenty of top level rugby games in New Zealand. They have a very different feel from real football. Kiwis expect the All Blacks to win every game they play. Arriving at a rugby game, you are surrounded by quiet confidence verging on smugness. I thought a big New Zealand football crowd would be something like that too – essentially a whole lot of big old sour faced fish out of water. But somehow, by osmosis perhaps, everyone got it. There was singing, there was chanting, there was dancing, there were funny costumes and there was nervous excitement. Everyone got it that our world ranking was in triple digits, and they got it just how high the stakes were. World champions at rugby or not, if we won this one game of ‘wogball’, simply by qualifying for a world cup, tens of millions of people around the globe would hear the words ‘New Zealand’ for the first time in their lives.
“He’s big, he’s bad, he’s better than his dad! He’s Rory Fallon!”
The opening stanza was tight and tense, as you would expect. But then, right before the ref was due to blow his whistle for half-time, Rory Fallon, son of ’82 All Whites Assistant Manager Kevin, went and did this:
As things stood, the tie was ours – all we had to do now, was keep a clean sheet. We had managed it for a whole game in Bahrain. Surely we could do it for half a game at home. We can’t throw it all away now, can we? Can we? And even more importantly than that, DID I JUST SAY “WE”?!?!?!?!?! Could I possibly be cheating on my dearest beloved azzurri?
In the 51st minute, it seemed as though it was all academic anyway. The All Whites did the unthinkable and conceded a penalty. Our hearts sank. Nobody in the 35,179 strong crowd was under any illusions as to just what this meant – Bahrain only had to convert, and the tables would be turned. The away goal rule would give them the upper hand. But cometh the hour, cometh Kiwi goalie Mark Paston!
“I wanna know!
Have you ever seen Bahrain,
score a goal on a windy day?”
And there, in that stadium, at a game of football in a country that might as well be called New Rugbyland, I hugged perfect strangers – every single man, woman and child in my immediate vicinity. I hugged them and they hugged me. We were delirious. But the game still had 40 minutes to go. It ebbed, it flowed. Bahrain had their chances and the tension just grew and grew as the amount of time we would have left to salvage the tie should they score shrank away to nothing.
But in reality, their spirit was broken by that penalty. The result was never in serious doubt again. The Wellington Phoenix FC have a tradition. When they are leading a game with ten minutes to go, the fans all take their shirts off and wave them in the air until the final whistle. What it must have looked like to the Bahrainis, used to a hot climate in the Middle East, on a cold evening in the early New Zealand spring, in a town known as ‘windy Wellington’, to see 30,000 bare chested maniacs dancing around in the the stands… I suspect they wanted to get out of there as soon as humanly possible.
I celebrated hard that night. I was blissfully unaware of what Sepp Blatter was going to pull out of the pot when he conducted the World Cup draw. I didn’t know that the day I found love for the national football team of the country of my birth was going to be so profoundly a once in a lifetime event. That night, I lived in a football nation. I had always wanted to be a part of one of those.
“The All Whites rocked the casbah! Shareef didn’t like it…”
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: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/