It’s at about T minus ten days when I start to notice them: the jerseys; they’re everywhere. Vertical stripes of pale blue and white, and that eye-popping yellow with the green collar… They walk past me on the sidewalk, and I see them in multiple shop windows, often with a token “other” jersey hanging alongside—Spain perhaps, or England. But here in Nepal, for as long as I’ve lived here, the twin obsessions of Argentina and Brazil have reigned supreme, with the former always ranked slightly higher, and it doesn’t look like this World Cup year is going to be any exception.
One of the country’s biggest dailies put a countdown to the big day on their front page. On the back pages current teams are dissected, famous old ones reminisced over. The others probably do, too. A group of models were in my office last week, clad in colorful jerseys one and all, their faces being turned into national flags, none of which belong to the nation they’re from and that we live in. They were here to shoot the cover for the entertainment mag my company publishes. Yep, it’s official: World Cup fever is in full swing.
When I first moved here in 1996, it was a surprise to discover that Nepal was so football-crazy. Most of the neighboring South Asian countries favor cricket, particularly years ago when I got here. But no, every World Cup and Euro the flags come out, a beer company or two inevitably runs some kind of promotion, and everyone (who can afford it) buys a new TV.
We’re never really in the right time zone, though the Japan-South Korea bash was pretty close; the second game of the day ended about two or three in the morning, and you could always tell who’d stayed up for it by their brave attempts to not fall asleep at their desks. This year it isn’t too bad—most of the games begin at either 5:45 pm or 11:45 pm (yes, bizarrely, Nepal is 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT)—which puts that last game’s final whistle sometime around 1:30 am if there’s not much extra time.
Why the love for Argentina and Brazil? I don’t know. I take a straw poll in my office. S—, the layout guy, supports Germany, surprisingly. When he hears I am an Italy supporter, he laughs: “They don’t have luck this time,” he explains matter of factly. “Germany will win again this time. Germany or Argentina.” K— is hard at work on her phone, tousled boy-cut curls falling into her eyes. “Spain. Or England,” is her reply. “I won’t ask you back because I know you support Italy.” She’s considerate like that. I’ve begun to wonder who then buys and wears those many, many knock-off Argentina jerseys when I run into S— from finance. Sprightly, tiny, she seems always dancing on her toes. She does what might be an approximation of a samba before telling me “Argentina.” When pressed as to why, she says maybe it’s because their jersey looks so good.
A garish green jersey is held aloft, leftover from the photo shoot earlier in the week. “Whose is it?” I ask. “Germany.” We all agree that it is ugly and I’m hoping that it’s just a really bad locally-made rip off, that the Germans are not really going to go out on the field wearing something that looks like that. Of course you know I’m about to Google “Germany 2018 World Cup kit”—and up comes the familiar white with detailing, plus yes, there are a few of those horrid green shirts—they must be their away ones—though fortunately the green is slightly darker and a little muted; whatever the local tailors have used for this incarnation—and they’re usually very good—is something you could use in an emergency to signal a search aircraft above.
Quietly, I sigh to myself. I would love to unexpectedly catch a glimpse of the Azzurri blue, but I know that wouldn’t be likely even if Italy was participating. Most people I know who aren’t wearing Argentina and Brazil’s colors are supporting England, or Spain, or perhaps Germany, like my office co-workers. I’ve rarely met Italy supporters here, if ever.
Italy is, however, the country where I spent the majority of my childhood, from the age of about three until eleven. If there’s one thing it’s taught me, it’s that you never really move on from the experiences of that age. Italian food is still comfort cooking to me, a plate of pasta what I throw together when I’m sad or sick or just don’t have much in the cupboard—and Italy is the only team I’ve ever followed with any passion.
That euphoria when they win, followed by that almighty crash when they don’t—it just doesn’t happen to me with any other team or in any other sport. I can appreciate skill and enjoy a good game, but I’m not invested. It doesn’t mean anything to me. And as there’s never been a World Cup in my lifetime where this has happened, when Italy wasn’t there—the last time was in 1958—I have no idea how to respond. I’m used to them not going far, of course. I am also used to them making it all the way to the semis or finals only to falter within view of the finish line.
Many years ago a friend called me up, drunk, late at night, just before a match that Italy was playing, to tell me they’d put the equivalent of about $70 on Italy to win the match. “I chose Italy because of you!” came the shout. “No, no… don’t do that. They won’t win. They always lose.” It was too late for the bet to be changed, but it didn’t matter; they won the game. Was that was the time they pulled it off, the year they won the the whole thing, or was it just that one match? Honestly, I can’t remember. I have sat through so many Italian losses, cringed through so many penalty shootouts, always hoping and praying and wishing on a star while bracing for the worst.
When they finally won that shootout in 2006, Cannavaro’s body language mirrored my own as he hid his face in his teammate’s shoulder: he wanted to see, he couldn’t bear to look, he couldn’t imagine that we could win this. But they did. We did. And they didn’t have to win again this year, I’d have been okay with that… but I just can’t seem to get around them not being there at all. I’m disappointed that Gigi Buffon will not add to his many on-pitch records, which you know he would’ve if they’d qualified. I want to see those handsome-even-when-ugly, bearded men run around the pitch. I want to lip-read the Italian they shout to each other, even though these days audio acoustics on the pitch are so good you can actually hear what they’re saying most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for Peru, Australia, Belgium, South Korea—ok, maybe not South Korea, don’t get me started (2002 anyone)? To citizens of these nations and more, I know what it will mean to them and I don’t begrudge them it. But Italy, what were you thinking? How could you not be there for this, the biggest party in the world? We, your fans, need you to be there so we can celebrate it, too. It’s just not the same without you, and us. For a country that I have often found divided into cities, regions, north and south, and so on, an event like this is one of the few times when most every Italian puts it all aside and just celebrates everything that is good about being… Italian.
Admittedly, when I first heard the news, I’d been so punched up by much more serious and immutable things in my life that I barely reacted. Oh well, that just figures, doesn’t it. But once we got within day of the kick-off, I found myself wishing for it, this guilty pleasure, this distraction from all the truly big things in life we have no control over. Not that we can control this, either. I guess that’s the point.
* * * * *
So what I’ve wondering, as the country gears up for and then plunges into World Cup euphoria, is if I can enjoy this party for what it is—a game, with no emotional investment. Quite honestly, I haven’t been certain of it.
The best answers, if they make an appearance at all, tend to come when you least expect it. I was no longer expecting a real answer to the why-does-everyone-love-Argentina question when I sat with an old friend for a beer and snack on my way home. But the World Cup came up, and I asked the question half by rote. (I tend to be persistent that way.)
“I think it’s because, when Nepal TV began broadcasting the World Cup for the first time ever here, in the ’80s, Maradona was big. Argentina, Maradona, those are the first games we ever saw. It’s like…” he groped for an apt term “first love. It was our first love.”
This unexpected and truly quite perfect response got me thinking—because that’s what Italy is to me, too: my first football love. Nothing’s ever quite as good as the first time. Oh wait, no, lots of things are better farther down the line (!) but that nostalgia, that secret memory that brings a smile to one’s face when you remember it: that’s your first time. And idealized and unrealistic as it might be, those are my feelings for the Azzurri.
(And yes, I have written this entire Italy-focused article without once mentioning Paolo Maldini’s blue, blue eyes, not even once. Until now.)
* * * * *
On June 14th, I found myself with several friends and many more strangers, watching Robbie Williams give the world the finger and oh, yes, sing, as the World Cup kicked off. We were eating and drinking a bizarre combo of foods and beverages that combined represented nearly as many nations as those playing on the screen in front of us, we were laughing and talking. The monsoon season is nearly here and part way through the game, the rain moved in. Still laughing, people grabbed their cups and plates and moved closer together under the huge umbrella in front of the screen. A smaller, human-sized regular umbrella was propped up over the projector itself. We kept watching.