Monday, June 24, 2019

Forza Calcio!

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 9:22 AM

I was in a European soccer riot when I was eight years old.

Okay, this warrants an explanation. My family spent a memorable academic year (1976-77) in Torino, Italy, as my dad pursued his Ph.D. in economics. (He was studying people and policies in the country under Cavour, Italy's first prime minister.) I was in 2nd grade at the time and fell in love with the city's renowned soccer club, Juventus. I Bianconeri ("the Black and Whites") were to Italian calcio what the New York Yankees are to American baseball. No Italian club has won more Serie A championships (35), and no Italian club sports as distinctive colors as the vertical stripes — yes, black and white — on Juve's home kits. Before I came to cheer the likes of Lou Brock and Ted Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals, I had posters of Roberto Bettega and Dino Zoff on my bedroom wall.
click to enlarge img_1145.jpg

In the spring of ’77, Juventus beat Spain's Athletic Bilbao to win the UEFA Cup for the first time. Now known as the UEFA Europa League, this is a competition between qualifying clubs across Europe. It's not the Champions League and nowhere near the World Cup, but four decades ago, let me tell you, it was a big deal, a title that made Bettega, Zoff, and friends kings of the pitch in Europe.

When Juventus clinched the championship in Spain, the streets of Torino — well before nightfall — went wild in celebration, chants of Forza Juve! filling the increasingly smoky air. The air was smoky, as my blurred memory recalls, because of small fires, not all of them celebratory. Torino, you see, has not one, but two major soccer franchises. If Juventus is the Yankees to northwest Italy, Torino F.C. is the Mets. And fans of Torino that May evening back in 1977 were not thrilled about the UEFA Cup coming to town. Not only were trash cans set aflame, there were Juventus flags burning on the sidewalk, some ripped from the hands of Juve fans riding along in trolley cars. It was scary for a boy of my age. And it was exciting. These were "Met" fans attacking a "Yankee" parade . . . but fueled purely by Italian blood. The culture's reputation for passion — passione — is well-earned.

Images of that street riot have danced in my head of late for two reasons. The first: My 16-year-old daughter is in Europe this week, competing and touring with her own soccer club (Memphis FC). She'll be exploring Brussels for much of the trip, but crossing into France for a couple of World Cup games, a live look at the greatest female soccer players on the planet. There won't be any rioting (fingers crossed), and I doubt she'll witness a rivalry along the lines of Juventus-Torino. But Elena will be immersed in a form of international sports culture only soccer — calcio! — can deliver.
click to enlarge The Bluff City Mafia - COURTESY MEMPHIS 901 FC
  • Courtesy Memphis 901 FC
  • The Bluff City Mafia

My Juventus memories are also triggered by this town's very own soccer club, 901 FC. Memphis is struggling in its first season in the USL Championship, having won but two of 14 matches (with five draws). But don't tell the Bluff City Mafia, the band of fans who arrive at AutoZone Park on game night with multi-colored (and quite safe) smoke bombs and enough drums to wake Kong himself. Soccer culture has arrived in the Bluff City and it's a culture that connects us globally in ways that the NBA hopes to someday. (When there's a riot between a city's rival basketball clubs in, say, Munich, let me know.) A few home wins will help 901 FC among casual fans. But the club's mere existence has transformed Memphis sports culture, and for that I'm grateful.

My daughter is likely playing soccer in Europe as you read this column. And I still have Roberto Bettega on my wall at home. It is indeed a soccer world we call home. Glad we Memphians now have a permanent address.

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