To the expatriate-heavy crowd that ogles Cafe Milano’s television each Sunday during the season, il calcio is a religion. Religion of the sort Jim Jones preached.
“Va fanculo!” swears Riccardo Vezzosi, an Italian national now studying at George Washington University, as the ref on the TV signals fuori gioco, or offsides. Vezzosi rarely misses the Georgetown eatery’s live satellite transmissions of games of the Italian League, the world’s foremost soccer confederation. On this particular Sunday, the featured game pits Parma against Fiorentina in a battle for second place. Fiorentina hails from Vezzosi’s hometown of Florence, which explains why he and cousin Marco Morresi came to Cafe Milano wearing the luminous purple of their cherished club. And why Vezzosi, an English major, blasphemes in his native tongue (usually as part of a lyrically blasphemous chorus) whenever the referee makes an adverse call—its appropriateness notwithstanding.
“I’d be at the game right now if I were home,” Vezzosi says during a break in the action, longingly pointing at the screen. Every other male member of his family is there in person, he adds. The matriarch of the Vezzosi clan is also a soccer aficionado, the loving son explains, but stays away from the live action for the most noble of reasons: “She brings Fiorentina bad luck if she goes,” he says. (Thanks to Ms. Vezzosi’s selflessness and the play of forward Batistuta, the Florence squadra beat Parma, 1-0.)
Were he back home, Vezzosi would be unable to view Italian League soccer live on free television, since that is a luxury available only outside Italy. Just after 2:30 p.m. Italian time, every Sunday except high holy days during the 34-game season, all but two of the 58 teams in the Italian League’s first, second, and third divisions kick off. The government-owned network that holds the league’s broadcast rights permits only tape-delayed showings. If, however, you can get to a satellite-ready television at 8:30 a.m., D.C. time, you can catch live telecasts of the games from across the pond.
“I’m always up for a game,” says Denio Zara, a native of Treviso now living in northwest Washington. “I don’t care if it’s at 5:00 a.m., I’ll be watching it.” Zara, a satellite-owning follower of league-leading AC Milan, is one of many Italians in the area who regularly host early-Sunday morning viewing parties during soccer season. This year, Zara’s gatherings have been especially intense, thanks to a soap opera that parallels the recent goings on in the NFL: Just as the NFL has been dominated by the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, the Italian League’s upper reaches are owned by Juventus (a club based in Turin) and AC Milan, the team nicknamed I Diavoli Rossoneri (“the Red and Black Devils”).
As everyone knows, Dallas regained the NFL title from the 49ers this season by throwing millions of dollars at San Francisco star Deion Sanders, among others; AC Milan took the title two years ago, but Juventus won last year’s championship. So Silvio Berlusconi, the now-indicted former prime minister of Italy and broadcasting magnate who now owns AC Milan, responded in Jerry Joneslike fashion by paying multimillions to seize Roberto Baggio from Juventus. Before the finals in 1994, Baggio’s hamstring pull was the subject of global concern, and Italians watched in horror as he missed his penalty kick in the tiebreaker, giving Brazil the title. With the ponytailed Buddhist striker in its lineup, AC Milan has been in first place throughout the entire season and is favored to recapture the league championship.
“I pray that’s what happens,” says Zara.
Last year, the Italian League added a game-of-the-week series, and that nighttime contest (8:30 p.m. in Italy, 2:30 p.m. EST) is now the only match televised live inside the country, though just on a pay-per-view basis. But at Cafe Milano, soccer fanatics can watch gratis, paying only for the eats and drinks that they partake of along with the soccer.
Stateside luxury or no, anybody who’s ever seen an Italian League match in person can understand Vezzosi’s melancholy over having to watch his team’s big game on TV. Come game day, the ambience inside a soccer stadium is part Rose Bowl, part Armageddon. There’s pageantry and singing aplenty, but the incredible conspicuosity of machine-gun wielding carabinieri, the Italian national police force, mitigates the frivolity.
Given the sport’s occasionally bloody sideline confrontations, the locals were fearful of soccer-crazed Eurotrash wreaking havoc during the World Cup here in 1994, even though England wasn’t participating in the tournament, meaning the internationally reviled British hooligans wouldn’t have to be dealt with. But the Metropolitan Police Department nevertheless demanded that World Cup organizers construct an 8-foot-high cast-iron fence at RFK Stadium, one of several host stadiums. As things turned out, no anarchy made its way through customs: According to cup officials, all but three of the 35 arrests made at RFK during the five games here were for scalping tickets.
Because of the grand success the World Cup enjoyed here, the professional variety of the sport will soon return to Washington. In April, D.C. United, the local entry in the new Major Soccer League (MSL), debuts against the Los Angeles Galaxy. All MSL teams are at least partially owned by the league, to make sure the talent pool was split in such a way that drawing power was maximized. That means ethnic considerations went into the apportionment of foreign-born players that have agreed to come to the U.S. to play. Marco Etcheverry and Juan Berthy Suarez of the Bolivian national team, along with Salvadoran hero Raul Dias Arce, were assigned to the D.C. team in hopes of creating interest among the Mount Pleasant set.
D.C. United will also have John Harkes and Jeff Agoos, both University of Virginia alumni and teammates on the U.S. national squad, which made such a strong showing in the last World Cup and in more recent tournaments here and in South America. The most eminent American futbolista, defender Alexi Lalas, has been playing for Padova of the Italian League for the past two years. But Lalas will come back to his home country when MSL kicks off—he’s been assigned to the New England Revolution.
The alien fervor that made the locals so anxious prior to the World Cup leaves D.C. United officials licking their chops.
“Foreign nationals now living in this city, people who grew up with soccer as the sport handed down to them by their parents, are unquestionably going to be critical to the success of D.C. United,” says Beau Wright, spokesman for the team. “The passion these people put into following their team as it courses through a season…well, obviously, the attachment Americans feel for their sport pales in comparison.”
But don’t expect even soccer-mad Italians to admit that their Sunday obsession gives them a skewed worldview. I asked a diplomat at the Italian embassy which was closer to the heart of his homeland, food or soccer? “That is not a fair question,” said the Rome indigene, and after a pause, “Soccer or food? Why you no include women? CP