It is a beautiful day in July, but there is not a soul outdoors. In every café and bar on this street in the centre of the city, the masses, bedecked in blue, all stare at the television, transfixed. The tension in the air is palpable. One penalty shot is all that separates Italy from her fourth World Cup.
The throng watches with bated breath as Fabio Grosso steps up to the spot, the weight of a nation’s hopes and dreams etched on his face. A deep breath, a running start, and then he rockets it into the top-right corner, out of reach of Fabien Barthez. A split-second of stunned silence, and then the crowd erupts with the intensity of Mount Vesuvius.
Il cielo e azzurro sopra Berlino! The man on the television keeps yelling this, delirious in his ecstasy. The sky is blue over Berlin! His words are barely audible above the din. Italy are world champions, again. The crowd in the café spills out into the street, a tidal wave of pure, unadulterated joy. They are joined by what must be hundreds of their flag-waving compatriots, singing, weeping, celebrating. The revelry lasts until the early hours of the morning, and even then the heady morning air is charged with elation.
This scene unfolded not in a piazza in Rome, but at the intersection of Rue Dante and Boulevard-Saint-Laurent, in Montreal’s Little Italy, 6,578 kilometres from la Città Eterna.
On March 17, Italy celebrated its 155th birthday. A country forged from years of wars, revolutions and rebellions, the Kingdom of Italy emerged in the nineteenth century. A political movement known as the Risorgimento unified the city-states of the peninsula, a process declared complete in 1871 when Rome became the capital of the newly formed Italian nation.
Yet the so-called unification of la bella Italia remains more historical fact than actual reality. In the centuries that preceded the Risorgimento, foreign dominance and interference had created profound disparities across the peninsula, differences that still lingered when Vittorio Emmanuel II ascended the throne as Italy’s first king. Even today, the enduring economic gulf between the poorer South and the industrialised North, a plethora of drastically different dialects, and, above all, the absence of any organic affiliation continue to overshadow a cohesive sense of italianità.
Italianità: the Italian spirit, character, or essence; Italianness. What does it mean, though, to be Italian? Even for those not forced by circumstance to divide their loyalties and love between Italia and another interloper, the answer is far from clear.
Migration, though, is quintessentially Italian – as Italian as Fiat, fettuccine, and Fellini. The town of Teggiano, tucked away in a valley in the Alburni mountains, in the province of Salerno in southern Italy, numbers some 8,139 inhabitants. The town’s most notable sight is the Castello Sanseverino, a relic from the days when the Normans ruled the land. Teggiano is where both of my parents were born.
Most Italian immigrants came to Canada, as my family did, via chain migration: sponsorship by family or fellow villagers. New arrivals segregated themselves in clusters within the broader Italian settlements, recreating entire villages. The immigrati defined themselves in reference to their native villages rather than their country of origin. This peculiarly parochial attachment is known as campanilismo, from the Italian word for bell tower, campanile. Even in a distant land, the boundaries of sentimentality were confined to one’s respective hometown, within earshot of the bells of their village church.
The Italian identity may be fragmented, but one unifying symbol has emerged. Every two years, for roughly a month, football transcends the divisions that have defined Italy since its inception, and unites the Italian people.
Stringiamci a coorte. “Let us join in a cohort.” The first lines of the l’Inno di Mameli chorus, or, as it is known to those who are not Italian, the Canto degli Italiani. Chances are, if you’ve watched Italy play, you’ve witnessed Gianluigi Buffon, eyes closed, bellowing the words: the very personification of that most Italian of traits, passione.
Sport traverses cultural and political boundaries in a way that nothing else can. In today’s detached world, sport remains one of the few means of collective identification, be it with one’s city or one’s country. International sport provides one of the few occasions when the diverse citizenry of a nation may band together as a collective entity: one nation, one team. Nationalism is one of the most powerful forces on Earth, and it has survived even as all manner of boundaries have eroded.
On a cold night in December 1957, my maternal grandmother, Maria, arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, continuing onwards by train to Montreal. She, her husband, Carmine, and their only child, Nicolina, journeyed from the port of Naples after being “called over”, as they say, by Maria’s elder brother, Giuseppe. My father, Michele, disembarked in Halifax on an even colder night in January 1964. Flabbergasted by the foreign white substance on the ground and chilled to the bone by the icy winter air, his first thought was that he wanted to “go home”. Indeed, these families, like so many others who had emigrated from Italy, intended their time in Canada to be but a temporary sojourn. They planned to toil away for a decade or so in this land of perpetual winter and then return to Teggiano, where they would live the good life on land purchased with the wealth they had amassed abroad.
In 1974, Michele and Nicolina, then in their late teens, crossed paths at the wedding of a fellow villager. A few weeks later, Michele, in need of a date for his high school prom, worked up the nerve to ask Nicolina, by all accounts a ravishing beauty in her youth. They were married in 1977. Children came a few years later. They never returned to the old country. Neither did their parents. Nor did the millions of their fellow Italians who packed up their lives and took up refuge in Canada.
On October 8, 1971, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau announced Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, enshrined in law in 1988. The Multiculturalism Act was a rejection of the notion of two founding nations in favour of cultural pluralism. Canada would be different from the American melting pot that erased ethnicity. Instead, the country would be a mosaic that both reflected and preserved the vibrant cultural traditions of the many peoples that had come to call Canada home.
And so the first generation of Italo-Canadese spent their lives with a foot on either side of the Atlantic, straddling two countries, two cultures, and two different notions of identity. Their children inherited this dual identity.
“Italy”, my mother once told me, “is the only place you will never be ethnic.” My identity has always been dualistic, fluid, mutable. I am both nationally and culturally ambiguous, as proud to be Italian as I am to be Canadian. A flight across the Atlantic is more than a holiday; it is a sacred journey, a pilgrimage to la patria. On paper, where such facts must be transcribed in ink, I am Canadian; in my veins, however, I am Italian: born of one country but bred of another.
I was eleven before I first set foot on Italian soil, but ten-year-old me wept when Roberto Baggio skied that penalty at the Rose Bowl. My love for the Azzurri is not a matter of national pride. As a child of the diaspora, it is what created, what made truly real, my own italianità. They may be but games, but they are one of the few instances in which I can partake in a shared experience with my compatriots, from whom I am separated geographically by an ocean.
Football is of the utmost importance in Italy, whose national fabric, pieced together with the thinnest of thread, is distinguished by the holes therein. The Azzurri’s penultimate World Cup, in 1982, was a salve that healed the wounds of two decades of trauma. Italy had just barely emerged from the Years of Lead, a period of turmoil marked by terrorism carried out by paramilitary groups on both ends of the political spectrum. The indiscriminate violence created a pervasive climate of fear that divided the nation, threatening the precarious existence of Italy’s democracy. When the tournament began in Spain, the scars had far from healed.
Italy defeated West Germany 3-1. The victory prompted an outpouring of national sentiment the likes of which had not been witnessed for decades. No event since the war had engendered such patriotic fervor. When then-President Sandro Pertini received the nation’s heroes at the Palazzo del Quirinale, he told them the occasion was the greatest day he had lived as President. Paolo Rossi, the man who had propelled the Azzurri to victory, wrote a few years later in his autobiography that “the world title awakened feelings of national pride, dignity, cohesion, and confidence.” Italy’s third World Cup was more than a moment of sporting triumph. It was a catalyst for national catharsis.
Once exploited by the Fascist regime as a mechanism of propaganda, international football has become Italy’s primary source of patriotism. It is during these fleeting moments of collective experience that Italians turn their backs on their campanile. Though not always crowned with victory and, especially in recent times, often excruciating, those watching join, as Gigi implores us, in a cohort, in an expression of unity that belies the country’s ever-imperfect integration. When gli Azzurri take the field, Italians remember they are Italian. For a brief interlude, they cease to be Romani, or Milanese, or Napuletan’.
“We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians”. These words were made famous by Massimo d’Azeglio, a pioneer of unification. The Azzurri’s most impressive accomplishment is not represented in any of the four stars on their kits. They have accomplished a feat that has eluded Italy’s political elites for centuries: they have created Italians.
“Imagined communities,” a term coined by Professor Benedict Anderson, explains a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves a part. Every two years, my imagined community becomes real. It is for this reason that I will once again subject myself to the ecstasy and the agony that is loving gli Azzurri. They are my birthright, my allegiance, my very being. Italia chiamò.