Triumph Among the Ruins

Remembering the summer when Italy ruled the world

By / October 2012

Whenever I think of that July night, I think of a girl. Her hands were pressed flat and firm one against the other, her thumbs raised to her lips as if she were entering into fervent prayer. She was one of the 300,000 Italian faithful who had gathered at the ruins of Circus Maximus, the ancient stadium turned scorched field where bloodthirsty Romans once cheered violent chariot races, to watch Italy meet France in the championship match of the 2006 World Cup. With wide, uncertain eyes and a stress-creased brow, the girl stared toward the giant screens that had been erected on the derelict hill above the ruin. The night ahead would bring triumph or disaster, tears of sadness or tears of joy. Now the wait was nearly over, the expectation was torturing her.

In a country inundated with, and increasingly ambivalent towards, religious pageantry, the 2006 Italian squad’s surprise run through the four-week tourney had amounted to something like a revival. Earlier in the season, the national team had been thrown into disarray by a nasty match-fixing scandal. Dismay if not outright depression had spread through the masses like an air-borne virus. But as the team rebounded to earn a spot in the final match, the normally fatalistic Italian population had re-embraced the team of relative underdogs and begun to fiend for their first championship in 24 years.

While the sun set in the distance behind St. Peter’s Basilica, a crushing quiet possessed the crowd as the hillside screens flickered to life. Soon the silence cracked under stampeding cheers. There they were, the Italian National Team, lining up on a field in Berlin: Totti, Pirlo, Buffon, Toni, Zambrotta, Del Piero, twenty-three heroes of the people, preparing to battle the determined French team for glory. Italian flags metronomed across the crowd, which erupted in singing when Mameli’s Il Canto degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem, coursed through the speakers. The players sprinted into position, whistles blew, a toe lightly tapped a ball. It was no ordinary tap. It was, in truth, a spark that ignited a frenzy that would not wane for more than a week.

The passion of the fans was palpable; I could not keep from getting swept up in the mania. This solitary American, green to the world of soccer, began to scream and cheer, curse and plead, stone cold drunk on the raucous atmosphere. The French scored first. The crowd moaned and fretted until the nineteenth minute, when Italy’s firebrand mid-fielder, Marco Materazzi, leaped high over the defense and headed a beautiful Andrea Pirlo corner kick into the back of the net to tie the score at 1. In the minutes that followed, both defenses clamped down. Each time the Italians fired a shot, a swell of excitement rose into the sky, only to come crashing back to earth seconds later as balls sailed wide or got punched away by the goalie.

This unbearable tension continued for the remainder of the 90-minute match and into the first fifteen-minute extra period, both of which ended in a wash. The second, and final, extra period began. If no goal was scored in this fifteen-minute window, the match would be decided by a shootout. The Italian national team was famously winless in shootouts throughout their 120-year history. This disastrous reality was not lost on the players. They mounted one viscous attack after another, firing shot after shot toward the obstinate goal, which seemed to have shrunk to the size of a tennis racquet. With each stop, hope evaporated into the steamy July night.

And then came the head-butt, the infamous head-butt. Marco Materazzi and the Frenchman Zinedine Zidane had been going toe to toe the entire match, jockeying for position and trash talking up and down the field. Evidently, one of Materazzi’s verbal dart found its mark because as time was ticking down in the second extra period, Zidane launched across the pitch and torpedoed his head into Materazzi’s chest. The cameras captured the blow full on, and zoomed in as the Italian crumpled to the ground. The crowd at Circus Maximus exploded in fury and roared obscenities at the jumbo screens. They wanted the Frenchman’s head, and they wanted to take it themselves.

The referee whipped out a red card and waved it in the air as the two teams collided at mid-field, ready to brawl. The officials separated the players, and tossed Zidane from the game. Head sagging, towel over his shoulders, without looking back even once at his stunned teammates, he exited the stadium. It would be the last match of his celebrated career.

The press of people around continued to scream for blood as the last seconds of the final overtime slipped away. The match would be decided in a shootout after all. The crowd bellowed a collective wail of anguish. It had come down to the dreaded shootout. The legion of fanatics descended into a deathly hush as the teams lined up. Five players from each side would take a shot against the opposing goalie, with the highest score deciding the champion. Thousands of spectators watched with dread, faces covered, while others trembled and bit their knuckles.

After three kicks, the score was 2-1, Italy. The next man up for the French was David Trezeguet. His shot hit the crossbar and missed. If the Italians nailed the rest of their kicks the championship would be theirs. The air grew heavy, tense. I could hear my heart in the back of my ears. People had given up breathing all together and stood, white-fisted, with eyes fused to the screens. The score was 4-3 when the Italian Fabio Grosso stared down the French goalie, measured his distances, raced toward the stationary ball, and fired a laser shot at the intersection of the bars. The French goalie, Fabien Barthez, dove for the ball, but the shot was too good, too fast, too far, too strong. Barthez landed mutely in the grass. Fabio Grosso had scored the winning goal!

Reader, in that moment, years away from a euro crisis and a worldwide economic downturn that would leave Italy bankrupt and millions of young Italians out of work and irresolute about the future, it felt as if Rome was once more the envy of the world. Close my eyes today and I can still hear the noise of 300,000 people screaming themselves into delirium. I see the smoke of hundreds of firecrackers igniting. The colors of thousands of Italian flags. The red and green of flares exploding into the night sky.

Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do next. We would convene, as crowds had in centuries past, at Piazza Venezia. A wave of rabid spectators began to nudge me to the south and I drifted with them from Circus Maximus up the cobbled street toward the Arch of Constantine and the Coliseum and along the Roman Forum, which ended at the piazza, the center of the city.

The piazza was already an ocean of people; thousands more were streaming out of every street and alley that emptied into the square. Police, having lost control, retreated high onto the Vittorio Emmanuel monument. Young men disrobed and jumped into fountains. Concussion bombs erupted. Grown men embraced and wept openly. Daredevils climbed the speaker towers. Others scaled the ruins of Palantine Hill. The celebration would continue for the next four days. Shops were shuttered. Buses could not pass through the streets for the people. Parliament declared a national holiday.

But what I remember most of all is this: standing there in Piazza Venezia that evening, surveying the crowd of almost a million, I spotted, of all people, the girl from before the match. Somehow she had ended up no more than fifty feet from me. Her look was very different now. Surrounded by friends, she was leaping up and down, belting Mameli’s hymn: Let Victory bow down her head, for God has made her the slave of Rome!

Her cheeks were tear-streaked, her eyes cinched tight, and in her right hand, the same hand that had rested against the left one hours earlier in a fleshly confluence of hope and fear, was an open bottle of wine. She thrust it high into the air. She took a long, deep swill. On that manic summer night, back when Italy was young, carefree, and alive, she was, she is, she always will be, at least in my memory, the picture of triumph.


Chris Watts is a contributing writer to EthnoTraveler.