Ever since I hurt my ankle and gave up football, 18 months ago, I have been wanting nothing more than to kick a ball. It’s as if my heart defies what the body knows: I’ve hurt both ankles twice. Last time it took me over a month to walk, and I can still feel that my ankle is weak, probably permanently. But I sometimes go to bed and the moment I close my eyes I make that killer pass from right-back all the way to the winger. It can’t be helped. I’ve been playing the game ever since I can remember. Some of my first memories are of the World Cup of 1978, with that fantastic poster. I remember my dad going to the coffee house to watch games with the other men in Ayia Phyla, that’s about it.
I even vaguely remember Aston Villa’s 1982 European Cup
win. But my first, big football memories were from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The images flood back: naranjito
, the mascot, the brilliance of Brazil
with Socrates, Zico and Falcao. Everyone around me loved Brazil and wanted them to win it. But I somehow rooted for Italy. Our local grocer’s was giving away world cup posters of teams, and I landed one of Italy, clad in their away white strip
. It’s funny, but that simple coincidence in the course of my childhood, one of many, has determined my support for a national team which never plays attractive football. And then there was Marco Tardelli. In the final against Germany he scored, and produced the most passionate celebration of all time: he turned and ran towards his team’s bench, screaming ‘goal’ and crying tears of joy. That image has remained etched in my memory, the explanation to why football inexplicably becomes the passion for millions of people. That was it. I’ve been supporting Italy since.
As a player I was never great. When I was in school there were no real positions-everybody followed the ball, wherever that was, to form a huge scramble of feet, elbows and heads in search of the goddess. We used to play in a dusty field next to my mother’s house, clouds of dust rising. I remember taking a bath afterwards, and the water turned red in the tub, the colour of the soil, blood from my knees. We’d have matches with teams from other neighbourhoods, with all the hostility seen in a Barcelona-Real Madrid classic.
A stint in the youth team of my village didn’t really last all that long. I guess, as Roberto from Byzantium
said to me once, “the mind is quicker than the body”. He of course meant that we were getting old. I think it also means that some people can produce on the pitch something resembling the brilliance we saw on the screen. I couldn’t. I was useful I guess. I could kick the ball, and as I grew older, I developed a good sense of positioning and passing, to compensate for my complete lack of pace and mobility. I also gradually developed the ability to pass and shoot with both feet, so I could play anywhere on the pitch. Except goal.
In the meantime I began to worship the divine ponytail, Roberto Baggio. He represented all I loved about football. Talent, commitment, work ethic, but most of all he was a sound character in a sport where these were rapidly disappearing. I started playing for the uni team as an undergrad, and then when I came to the UK I bumped into the Byzantine Roberto, another one who ‘excelled’ on the pitch after the age of 30. By then I’d moved to defence, using my ‘wisdom’ as a counter to the lack of physical condition. I began to play hard, but also developed my passing based on the Italian defenders who never ever hoofed the ball, but rather patiently brought it out and started counter-attacks. I hated giving the ball away more than anything. Roberto, like his Buddhist namesake, played in attack. His ‘genio Italiano’ as Captain Steve called it, served him well, and he went on to score goal after goal for our struggling team. Bizzarely I never scored, not even when we (rarely) came up against teams considerably weaker than ours whom we thumped. And then, when I went to Italy for Roberto’s wedding, I bagged the perfect hat-trick in a match among his friends the night before his big day. I bagged one with the right foot, a screamer with my left, and a header in the first half. And that was the last time I scored.
And now I just watch. I thought of taking up coaching. Archery. Something. But nothing is like it. No matter how many hours I play the guitar, the buzz is never the same.
Clubs and national teams I love and have loved
I am sure Roberto will remind me the ones I forgot…
Dedicated to Eduardo Galeano, whose writings on the goddess are the best tribute to the passion.