I spent this past semester in Ferrara, Italy, learning the language, exploring the culture and, of course, experiencing a new world of sports. Here are a few of my stories.
I am not sure whether I feel safer or more anxious because of the row of 50 police officers in riot gear, their tightly linked shields and curved helmets stretching in front of the rowdy crowd like a massive bullet-proof centipede. I am not at a protest. I am not at a riot. I am at an Italian soccer game.
The violence of soccer – not just in Italy but throughout the world – is something that doesn’t translate into American sports. The mob mentality of the riled-up fan club, the intense and historic rivalries and tension with the police all combine to create a particular brand of dynamite that simply doesn’t exist on this side of the Atlantic.
This fall, two groups of fans of different teams argued at a rest stop. A police officer across the highway saw the squabble from afar. The story differs after this point, depending on who you talk to, but the cop fired his gun, and a young man sitting in his car was killed. Fans at soccer matches all over the country began rioting, retaliating against police officers everywhere. This fan and many other people before him – both other fans and police officers – are victims of the violence that plagues soccer.
Olivier hates Italy. He is French, and when I meet him in Paris and told him I was studying in Italy he grimaced like I’d just asked him if he wanted a Big Mac. As we crossed the Pont Neuf he explained: Italian style is tacky, Italian men follow women around like stray dogs and the food is inferior to French cuisine. As he rants and carps on everything about Italy, I am impressed by his mastery of English profanity.
I asked, “So you don’t hate America?”
He shrugged, very French-ly. “No, I love America,” he said. “I hate only Italy. It is the one country in the world in which I would never step foot.”
I was not surprised by his distaste for a foreign culture, but the strength of his opinion caught me off guard. I expected to experience anti-American attitudes but not this. “Why do you hate Italy so much?”
Finally he spilled the truth. “I hate them because they beat us in the World Cup! Materazzi is [something that cannot be published in The Villanovan]. And, oh, Zidane …”
It all made sense now.
The most noticeable difference between the Serie A Game (the best of the best in Italy) I attended and the games I see at home has nothing to do with the fact that I’m watching soccer instead of football or baseball. This game was different because I had to squint to see the spectacle. No, my seat was not terrible. But there was no massive TV screen showing me closeups of the players as they were introduced, their names streeeeetched for miiiiinutes and the whole ordeal punctuated by a modest fireworks display. In fact, the players were not introduced at all. There were no “win a car by sinking a shot with a ball too big for the basket” challenges, no marching bands and very few advertisements. Halftime was truly a bathroom break – not an occasion to wheel out a pop tart wearing a jersey as a minidress on a stage to keep us amused.
I must look closer to see the spectacle. It was there, in the way the players grimace and scream with each trip and touch like they just mistook a wood chipper for a hand dryer. It was there, of course, in the obscene gestures and chants performed by the fans. It was there, but it wasn’t shouting in your face, lit up in neon. Spectacle can be fun, but it can also be distracting. Some American sporting events have come to rely on histrionics to entertain. We forget that the sport can be enough.
Imagine if the CEO of TimeWarner purchased the most prominent and profitable sports team in the country. This is not unrealistic. Visualize, then, this person utilizing his control of the media – as well as his presence in it – to gain the highest office of political power.
Imagine something like U.S. President George Steinbrenner.
This seems both strange and impossible to us, but in Italy, it is reality. Silvio Berlusconi runs the nation’s largest media company and owns the soccer club A.C. Milan. He gained much of his political support from his connection to the country’s most cherished pastime; he was instantly recognizable and relatable. His party’s slogans are reminiscent of soccer chants. They sound familiar to people the first time they hear them. Politics often seem foreign and intimidating to the average voter, but Berlusconi does not. People connect with sports, so people connect with him.
My friend from New Zealand sipped his beer as he explained that his national rugby team just lost to France in the Rugby World Cup. Australia lost to England, as well, and both games were massive upsets. The Kiwis and the Aussies dominate the sport of rugby, and these losses were disappointments and embarrassments.
His pain felt remote. If he were talking about American football teams, I could relate. I could understand the magnitude of his expectations going into the game and the shock of losing to a team that is (usually) far inferior. But I know nothing about rugby. Tell me “France beats New Zealand” in Swahili, and then say it in English. The effect will be the same: a blank stare. Tell me a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and maybe it’s just as likely as the French victory, but my reaction will be much different.
My friend’s explanation of rugby and its matches between countries from all over the globe gets me thinking. In America we play our own games. Basketball, baseball, football – these sports may not be played exclusively in America by Americans, but to be at the top of one of these games, one must play in the States. We crown “world” champions in competitions within our nation, and we have little interest or success in the sports that obsess the rest of the world.
And yet we obviously obsess over sports. We don’t have the violence problem, but we do have the passion and much of the rivalry. Old Italian men gather in the café and sip espresso while they watch soccer matches and argue about the teams and players. Americans gather in the bar and sip beer instead, but we do the same thing. Almost everyone else in the world uses Celsius and centimeters; we use Fahrenheit and inches. But we all measure things.
In my semester abroad I learned that people around the world may be different, but there are some things that are simply human. Everyone needs a game to watch, a team to root for and someone to talk about it with afterwards. It doesn’t matter what kind of football you’re watching. Sports are local, but sport is universal.
Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]