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World Cup 2006
This is the first in a series of stories about soccer in anticipation of World Cup 2006.
DECEMBER 25, 2005 - Italians have many things to look forward to in 2006 - from the elections to the 20th anniversary of Dolce and Gabbana's partnership. But probably nothing will be more anticipated than the World Cup in Germany, set to begin in June. As Italy pursues the World Cup, ItaliansRus will document its journey. Consider this the introduction in a series of stories that will occasionally run from now until the World Cup final on July 9, 2006. Think of it as my Christmas gift to you.
Those who are not intimately connected to Italy or Italians may not understand the significance of the Italian national soccer team. They are a living, breathing picture of the national anthem, Fratelli d'Italia. They ignite the hope, faith, passion, love, devotion, and anger for which Italians the world over are famous. In a country that is unified in name only, the Italian national soccer team has the power to bring together the people - from Milan to Sicily - like nothing else. During the World Cup, people stop being Calabrese or Piemontese and start being Italian. Nothing more.
History and tradition play a large part in Italy's devotion to the national team. Italy has won three World Cups in 1934, '38, and '82. When the World Cup rolls around, Italians love to reminisce about these victories, and clips of the 1982 celebration are endlessly rolled out on RAI. Striker Christian Vieri even joked at the last World Cup in 2002 that it was time to replace the footage with a new championship. The last laugh was on him because Italy was humiliated by underdog South Korea in a controversial second round match.
Despite the many, many recent disappointments - from Roberto Baggio's missed penalty kick at the 1994 World Cup final to the overall make-me-sick-to-my-stomach performances at the 2002 Cup - Italians are sticking with their team. It's a matter of national pride, after all. Now, the boys have to make up for the last decade of misery.
A few fresh faces might do the trick. For the last few World Cups, Italians have been relying on overblown, overrated celebrity soccer players - from Alessandro Del Piero to Francesco Totti. Although some of them will still be making the trip to Germany (and have had much success on their club teams despite failure on the national side), they'll be joined by formidable newcomers like Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino, who have the talent but haven't been plastered on every billboard in the country - at least not yet.
The problem with the old guard was that there was always drama - from rumors about infighting to everyone wanting to be top dog. The younger players are reaching their pinnacle at a time when there's less money to go around, a desire to keep smaller club teams strong, and no chance to be a diva in the locker room or on the field. Let's hope it stays that way.
A small part of me is sad to see the end of the soap opera that was Italy's national soccer team. It fed me for a while, and I grew up with the cast. But I'd much rather ditch the drama in favor of a World Cup win that I can celebrate and someday tell my children and grandchildren about. And I'm sure all of Italy would agree.
Many Americans can't understand that. They say soccer is boring compared to football or baseball or even hockey. But soccer, known as calcio to Italians, is poetic and awe-inspiring when done right.
As a writer I appreciate all forms of communication - and soccer is the most mysterious and intriguing because it's disguised as sport. Those players are talking to each other with their feet. They intimate where they're going, what they're strategizing, and who they're relying on with one simple flick of the foot. They have to understand each other and be ready to receive a pass or a shot on goal (depending on their position) without ever speaking a word or even making a motion with their hands. Some of the world's best pairs were found on the soccer field, and many in Italy - Baggio and Beppe Signori, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, Gianluigi Buffon and the whole team, especially the back line. It's magic. Pure and simple. Watch one game in 2006 and you'll be hooked. I promise.
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