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A Farewell to Mixed Feelings

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I love the fourth of July. Because I am a Calcio-centric oriundo and proudly wear it on my sleeve throughout this blog, that fact will easily be lost on these readers. I am, however, proud each year to celebrate this holiday -- "Independence Day," conceptually, can be chill-inducing.

On 4 July 2006, however, my focus was on the country of my parents' birth. I awoke that morning bleary-eyed and dehydrated, head pounding, in the middle of the desert, 3 hours earlier than normal time (zone). Only on that day, the chills began early and were different.

Allow me to backtrack a bit. It was the summer before my final year of law school, and I had arrived in Las Vegas days earlier along with a group of childhood friends. We arrived shortly after midnight, and immediately hit the casinos. Although I've never been much of a gambler, I did discover a penchant for something foreign to me, even from the casinos of my more native Atlantic City -- sports betting.

At a poker table, fellow American patrons without any knowledge of the World Cup began bantering about the next day's games and the potential for wagers. The sports book was in an adjacent room, and staring us all in the face through floor-to-ceiling glass were all of the fixtures and odds. Amidst inquiries, I offered a little knowledge and guidance to my audience. For sure, there were doubts hurled towards me -- "Oh yea, name 3 players on Argentina" (easily I obliged), and subsequent cautions from me about betting against Brazil versus France (okay, I was wrong about that one). There were also the obligatory snide soccer-hating remarks, provoking dispoportionately combative retorts from me. Free Dewers for participants with chips at the table will contribute to any anomicity in any given room; although that night a random Samaratan at the table would offer an olive branch which only King Solomon, in all of his wisdom, could conjure:

Let's all relax and have a cocktail.

The man just wanted to indulge in an American pastime. Like poker.

***

That 4th of July was the last day of our venture. Although, as I noted, I'm not a big gambler, I happen to have a handful of friends who are degenerate partake avidly. We all finished packing, left our rooms, and checked our luggage at the front desk. Our flight wouldn't leave for another couple of hours, so predictably we left the Mirage and walked over to Harrah's where everyone went to the poker room -- the same place which served as the first night's debauchery festivities. Everyone, that is, except for me.

Parking myself at the bar at the sportsbook, I forewent the free cocktails available for those at the table in order to watch the game uninterrupted.

What is it, 11:30?, I thought, probably out loud.

"Jack and coke, please," I asked Tom the bartender, a kind-looking middle-aged guy with a light beard and disarming northern-American accent that only years of saturation in the finest Wisconsin cheddar could soften.

He asked me about my trip, and I explained the situation, and how I was excited -- no, terrified -- about the semifinal match about to kick-off between Italy and hosts Germany.

"Italy gonna win, Tom?" I asked, grasping for some reassurance from someone who likely didn't give a shit about the question being asked. But that's fine, I almost preferred it that way.

"I hope so," answered Tom, explaining to me that he is half Italian himself. Who knew?

Tom was clearly a Wisconsin-cum-Vegas transplant, indicative by an accent still so fresh that he must have followed the Southwestern boom of the 90s, with all of its bubbling labor market promises and accomodating cheap real estate. To my right sat another type of indigenous Vegas breed. I never knew his name, but the manner in which he spoke, his tan, and crow's feet indicated a familiarity with Vegas that only years baking of the desert sun could cook.

"I don't like soccer, I think it's a dumb game. But boy, these guys...they're some athletes," he muttered towards my direction. I wasn't sure if he was trying to spark conversation with me as he nursed his own drinks while I imbibed mine more rapidly, but I didn't care. I didn't give much of a response, but I respected his opinion. I don't particularly enjoy swimming, for example, but was still impressed by Michael Phelps two years later.

To my left was a third type of Vegas-patron -- the typical tourist. He was also bearded, with glasses and a baseball cap as his uniform. I imagined a high-resolution camera on his person, affixed to a strap tucked away in the fanny pack which he adorned. His itinerary, I decided, surely included the Hoover Dam (mine did not). Yet he and his young daughter talked about the game, and actually knew a thing or two. I timidly asked him his two cents. He seemed skeptical about Italy's chances.

"Well, they typically have Germany's number in World Cup play," I threw out there. "Besides, whenever Italy make it to the semi-finals -- the last time included -- they typically advance."

"Last time, they had Roberto Baggio," he responded.

"But this time," I reminded him, "they have Fabio Cannavaro. And he's playing out of his mind right now."

He smirked.

***

By the time regular time ended, it was time to get to the airport. I was pissed. I'm not sure if it was the frustration from not being able to crack the German line despite what I legitimitely felt was an aytpical Italian onslaught. It could've been the gaggle of Bavarian-American fans at the end of the bar who would cheer obnoxiously for the slightest, most innocuous of German touches, yet would look at me sideways when I cheered, clad in my vintage Euro '96 jersey, even louder during the legitimite near-misses that culminated from a smooth-moving Azzurri machine. It was probably both. But the point is, I had to grudgingly climb into a cab and hope that we could get through baggage check and TSA (what could possibly go wrong?) as quickly as possible.

By the time we arrived at the Chili's near our gate, the second overtime period was beginning, still without any score. It looked as if it would remain that way.

"They're going to tie, aren't they?" one of my soccer-ignorant friends asked me.

"Yea," I admitted, dejectedly.

"If they tie, they go to penalties, right?"

"Yea."

I'm not sure if it was the despair in my voice, or the fact that he had known me long enough to at least understand a modicum of the international soccer scene, but he knew enough to ask the death blow:

"Italy isn't going to win if that happens, are they?"

"No," I admitted. "Not against Germany."

***

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Everyone knows what happened that day, and everyone knows what happened five days later. But while the image of Fabio Grosso's curling shot is the iconic one from that night -- for anyone familiar with my vernacular, the B.I.T.C.H. moment of that night was ADP's nail in the German coffin.

Anyone watching the replay can clearly see that the catalyst for that moment was il Capitano.

I don't care how late it is into a game, a 1-0 lead is the most dangerous in all of soccer. Especially against the Germans. But that night, that second goal ensured there would be no home team lifting the World Cup. Not this year. Sorry, Deutschland. We're very proud that hosting this tournament and performing so gosh-darn admirably helped rekindle your sense of national pride. We really are. And look, you did it all without engulfing most of Europe in a land war. Great job. But this was not yours to win.

The bottom line is that one play which people often don't recognize him as the impetus for, could have epitomized Cannavaro's performance for the entire tournament. With just about 120 minutes played in the sweltering July heat, he managed to hold his ground, win a header against a much taller German at his own penalty spot, and still quickly sprint -- as fast as I'd seen him all tournament -- halfway up the field and feed the counter-attack.

Cannavaro...Totti...Gilardino...Del Piero...GOL!!!

As that second ball hit the back of the net, the bar again erupted. A random woman approached me speaking Italian. We embraced. Seconds prior to that, I punched my friend in the head. I honestly don't remember doing it, and certainly don't know why I did it, but I did. Phone calls to my parents' house lead only to busy signals, as more people had the same idea that I did. When I finally got through, I heard my mother's voice on the other end. "Isn't it beautiful?" she asked. It was.

***

The rest, as they say, is history. That one play included, the undisputed rock throughout the entire tournament was Fabio Cannavaro. It's belabored, it's been cliched to death, but it's true.

Five days later, he capped off a tournament that would be the icing on a Ball'on d'Or winning year, in what was probably the greatest month of his career.

The North Ward, 2006

The North Ward, 2006

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Camera phones weren't what they are now back then, huh?

Camera phones weren't what they are now back then, huh?

***

The details of the final don't need to be repeated. For those of you without knowledge of Newark, New Jersey, its North Ward was once booming with Italian immigrants. It hasn't been that way for decades, but it was on that day.

Together with friends and my family, with Bloomfield Ave. completely shut down for blocks amid floats, DJ stands, huge television screens, and outdoor vendors and cafes serving free food, beer, and wine to anyone who came, we watched Italy (finally) earn the right to stitch a fourth star on its shirt. Yet just like with the semifinal, the image of Il Muro di Berlino would be overshadowed -- this time by a flopping Marco Materazzi post head-butt. Nevertheless, Cannavaro remained the rock he had been the entire tournament.

***

The story behind the story, of course, was the kangaroo court going on behind the scenes known as the Calciopoli "investigation." The end result was the immediate mass exodus of players from our beloved Juventus -- Cannavaro included.

And thus, the hero of Berlin became one of several public enemies #1 for Juventus fans. I've grappled with this myself. Buffon, Nedved, Trezeguet, Camoranesi, and Del Piero all stayed, I know, while others fled. I understand that the "right" thing to do would have been to go down with the ship, and resurrect the beloved Old Lady from purgatory.

Yet, the club was reeling, and no one man could have saved them. An estimated 200+ million Euros would be lost due to the bullshit scandal. Cash was at a premium, and Juve were able to sell Cannavaro at a moment when his value was arguably at its highest -- two years after he was signed in exchange for a reserve goalkeeper. At least he mitigated the damage, opting to leave the country all-together, unlike Vieira and Ibrahimovic who both jumped to Inter. Besides, headed towards 33 years of age, the window of his career was rapidly closing.

And besides, isn't it better that we got to experience moments of revenge in the Champions League two years later?

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***

When he returned, there was outrage. I wasn't surprised, but I didn't share it. I was kind of excited, albeit naive. I thought maybe, just maybe, coming home to overly-tactical Serie A, from a league where nobody values defense, would do him well. At first, despite jeers from his own fans each time he touched the ball, it looked as if I was correct. Quickly, however, things fell apart. Quickly, I realized this was a reunion that should have never been.

***

In the post-Berlin era, another iconic image stands out in my mind -- that of Captain Cannavaro at the World Cup final again, four years later, only this time he traded in his blue shorts and jersey for a finely tailored black suit. Appropriately, it would be the only way an Italian player would set foot on the pitch amidst two worthy finalists. The symbolism couldn't have been scripted better.

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Ultimatley, many things went wrong with that Italy squad during the 2010 World Cup. Coach Lippi made some suicidal choices with his insistance on nepotism, ignoring what an eternity four years can be in the life of a footballer. And Cannavaro undoubtedly stuck around far too long. I truly believe that had it not been for that freak training incident before Euro 2008, that would have been his last international tournament. Maybe a lot of the subsequent fallings-apart would have been avoided.

Perhaps he would have never returned to Juventus, maybe retiring a little bit earlier instead. Perhaps he wouldn't have become a symbol of everything wrong with that season -- in which hopes buoyed by new, expensive signings, Champions League participation, and Scudetto contention "status" quickly fizzled with Cannavaro's performances.

But perhaps not.

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***

If there's one thing that I've learned so far in life, it's that things are not black and white. Reality exists in all sorts of shapes, colors, and shades of grey. Cannavaro left Juventus post-Calciopoli, breaking black and white hearts on his way out. But let's be honest, he mitigated the damage by going to Real Madrid. I forgive him, but I don't blame anyone for holding a grudge.

With or without him, Juve's 2009-10 season certainly would have still been a flop. I'm pretty sure Italy's 2010 World Cup would have been as well -- Canna wasn't the only old Azzurri holdover who overstayed his welcome.

Would Italy still have won the World Cup in 2006, though? I'm not sure about that one. I'm not a gambling man, however I'd wager that they wouldn't have done it without him.

The 2006 World Cup meant too much to me, and he was too big a part of that. For the look on my father's face on that Sunday in Newark -- a look I wouldn't see until almost a year later on the day that I graduated law school -- much of that team, and especially Fabio Cannavaro, can do no wrong.

For the two Scudetto he contributed to, that Juventus won legitimitely, on the pitch, I am grateful.

And although my days of traipsing around Vegas with friends have passed, it's just as well. Anyone who has been to Vegas more than once can confirm that no other time will be as much fun than your first. And because of Cannavaro and the 2006 Azzurri, that's doubly true for me.

I've tried to hold a grudge as much as most rank-and-file Juventini, but I can't. No, I won't.

It's no coincidence that Fabio chose July 9, the fifth anniversary of the triumph in Berlin as the date to announce his retirement. And it's no coincidence that this blog is coming a few days late, relative to the announcement.

For many reasons, his retirement was late itself.

Buona fortuna.

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