“I woke up with the map of Italy on my arm.” I held out my pale arm to my mother, showing her a collection of small swollen dots forming what vaguely resembled a peninsula on my skin. An air conditioning-less house requires open windows and during Italian summers, where there is blood, there are mosquitoes.
It was another mark against the summer of 2006. I was sixteen and miserable to be away from home, stuck in my grandfather’s house in Italy, drowning in boredom. While six weeks in Italy seemed glamorous to my friends, it felt more like time traveling back to a bygone era to sit around doing mostly nothing. While grateful for my great-grandparents’ homeland, my mounting health issues and the woes of being a teenager gave me low hopes for those hot months.
The summer of ‘06 did have one thing going for it: the World Cup. I had just quit playing soccer, as my asthma and health in general became too difficult to manage, so I dedicated myself to watching the beautiful game instead. Without a television in the house, for each match Italy played, my family and I would pack into two cars and drive down the mountain to a local restaurant or bar.
For the first match, Italy was taking on Ghana and I was buzzing with both nervousness and excitement. We all shuffled into a tiny restaurant that held no more than twelve tables, and ours was made up of five. We claimed our seats: adults on one side, children on the other. I stared at the blank white screen in anticipation, waiting for the projector to click on. My family studied the menus and chatted, oblivious to the gravity the tournament had for me. A gravity I’m unsure I even could have explained to myself at that moment.
At some point food made it to the table, but my attention was dedicated to the team donned in blue. In the 40th minute, Andrea Pirlo put Italy ahead and the place exploded with cheers. The rest of my family became more invested in the match, the energy of the match infecting them. In the 83rd minute, Vincenzo Iaquinta sealed Italy’s win with a second goal. The game came to an end and we all got up to leave. I scratched at my arm for the first time, at least consciously, in the past two hours, and followed my family back to our cars.
We were all often at each other’s throats that summer. My cousins, sisters, and I had never been together for so long. Childish fights broke out all the time, but soccer matches offered solace from boredom and bickering alike. We bought knock-off shirts of our favorite players; Gigi Buffon’s name written across my back for most of the matches. Francesco Totti and Fabio Cannavaro also easily made their way into our hearts. For the entirety of each game, everything else faded away. I was happy to be where I was. I was happy to yell with my family and distant relatives and anyone else who happened to be in the room.
Amongst all the drama of the tournament and my life, the Azzurri had to play the United States. As we rapidly spoke in English, questioning looks were directed at us. Who would the Americanos support? While my heart felt somewhat torn, the answer seemed obvious to me: the Azzurri. I’m half-Italian, after all. I’m here. But most of all, selfishly, once Italy exited the tournament it was over for us. We wouldn’t watch anymore of the games. We’d be back to bickering full time. I’d have little relief from everything that plagued me. So I cheered on the Italian men, ignoring the looks and the questions on others’ lips.
The summer took so much from me, but I wouldn’t let anyone take the game nor my identity. I was born in United States, but I was also Italian. I could have hopes for both. I could want Italy to win and still feel for my American men. “Let me be,” I wanted to yell.
The game felt tense, seemingly mirroring my complicated feelings about my birth country and my ancestors’ land. Daniele De Rossi didn’t help matters by elbowing Brian McBride in the face and getting sent off. I needed both teams to leave the pitch with some dignity and they weren’t doing a great job at accomplishing that. The match, however, ended in a draw with goals from Alberto Gilardino and Cristian Zaccardo within minutes of each other. Italy got a point that helped them move on, while the US at least didn’t get home with goose egg to their names.
After Italy beat the Czech Republic 2-0 to make it out of the group stage, celebrations filled the streets as if the Azzurri had accomplished much more. I felt mostly relieved for the lifeline, though while Italy was winning, I was losing against my health. What I thought were mosquito bites, turned out to be hives that spread across my entire body. Creams and medicines were prescribed by doctors I couldn’t understand, but nothing helped. The hot sticky nights were even more unbearable with the constant itching. I was also fighting another unknown foe – depression – which I couldn’t name and didn’t treat until much later.
One day, after much coaxing, I agreed to play a mock World Cup game with my cousins and sister. I objected because we were playing on tile surrounded by concrete pillars and marble. “Someone will get hurt,” I argued. But with nothing better to do, I eventually gave in and chose to represent the Republic of Ireland, the other half of my heritage. Poor Ireland. My cousin slid in front of me as I sprinted towards goal and my ballet-slippered foot connected with his bare, bony leg. “There’s nothing you can do about sprained toes except let them heal,” my aunt declared after examining my foot. So I limped for weeks.
Italy versus Australia served as a worrying distraction. Ninety minutes went by without a goal. We were faced with more play and perhaps even those dreaded penalty kicks. Then Totti, who had become the number one favorite of my family and number two for me (Buffon was always first) went down in the box in the 95th minute. I held my breath as he stepped up to the spot. The ball went in and I could breathe again. The games would go on for me, amidst the debates of whether the penalty was deserved.
After that somewhat unsound performance, Italy easily defeated Ukraine with three goals and a shutout. The confidence that had grown in the hearts of Azzurri fans felt justified. There were only two games between the Italians and the World Cup trophy. That euphoria lifted my spirits.
The dramatic girl, who joked about wanting to leap off the mountain, had hope. Hope for a team and hope for a summer and hope for a life. Every day I waited for my grandfather to finish reading the newspaper, so I could cut out the articles about the Azzurri. I couldn’t read them, but I liked the photos and the player rankings. I used the clippings to decorate the walls of the room I shared with my sister. I discussed the games with my cousins, with the inherited trait of talking with my hands. Could Italy really win it all?
The semifinal was a nailbiter, again with no goals in 90 minutes, but Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero both found a way around the German defense in extra time. My Italians were going to the final and I would get to see the tournament out. The glee left little room for fighting with my cousins.
Unfortunately, France also made it to the final. Italian-French relations are tense as is and we had a French rental car. Our loyalties needed to be clear so I promptly crossed out the French sticker with tape and applied a makeshift “I.” We took the patriotic car back to the same restaurant where we watched the first match. The chaos and the stress wipes most of the final match from my memory. But I remember pure adrenaline, the absolute joy of winning. I remember the headbutt we complained about for days. I remember the moments of peace and the reminders of hope.
For a silly sixteen-year-old girl, World Cup 2006 took on meaning beyond any other sports event in my life. More than any of the tournaments I played myself and won. The Azzurri carried me that summer. It brought me back into a sport I thought I lost and reconnected me with an Italian identity that sometimes felt like it was slipping away. Most of all it served as a message to keep going, when everything else felt like it was crumbling around me.
Sports fans can be a little dramatic, but it’s because we inject meaning into a game we love when we need to. When the horrors of sports culture are getting to me, I turn to the 2006 Azzurri. I love soccer for many reasons, but mostly because I can make it what I want when I need it. 90+ minutes can be a necessary escape, win or lose. And if you’re lucky, sometimes your team wins on penalties in the world’s biggest tournament and you can treasure that memory for life.
When I arrived back in Philly, I nearly kissed the ground. I survived and made it home, the home my Italian great-grandparents chose for me. My sprained toes had healed, but the hives had not gone away and it would be some time before the doctors figured out I had a hypothyroidism. Depression was something I had yet to figure out. But I did return to the States with a renewed love for a sport I thought was lost to me.
Sitting on my bedroom floor, unpacking my suitcase, I pulled out my folder of newspaper clippings and flipped through them. I pulled out a front page piece of the Azzurri lifting the World Cup with the headline Adieu France, which hangs on my wall to this day. Italy won the world’s biggest tournament and that happiness wasn’t going to wear off so easily. As any teenager, I had a lot to figure out about myself, but the team in blue helped me establish a few things.
That I could be both Italian and American without anyone’s permission. That a silly game could turn into much more. That I was still a soccer fan despite no longer being a player. That sports can be whatever I want to make them.