Regardless of which club you watch in Europe, every few weeks, per international rules, comes a break in the action of your beloved team. Sometimes it's a fixture which actually means something -- a World or regional cup qualifier, specifically -- but often it's a simple friendly. You know how they are. A glorified Sunday morning, local-park, pickup game, with virtually unlimited subs, indifferent coaches, and barely coherent fans, a typical chance for "experimentation" (unless you're Marcello Lippi, ca 2009-10).
Today, however, the two bulls will collide when Italian National Team will face off against the United States Men's National Team. Just another pit-stop en route to Poland/Ukraine, you say? Well, yes, it is. For me, however, it's a bit more. And that's aside from the seven (7) Juventus players called up by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. It's a bit more personal. And difficult.
I grew up the son of Italian immigrants at a time where "US Soccer" was an oxymoron. As a child, Sundays consisted not of football but rather futbol, or more accurately calcio. To write that I felt like an outcast for being unable to participate in discussions regarding the NFL standings on Monday mornings would imply that I cared about them at the time. Don't get me wrong -- I always had a healthy appreciation for baseball, and football would follow. For my childhood house, however, soccer was king, but it was all Italian. Rai was part of the basic cable package, and Serie A was the strongest league in the world. At age 7, Italy hosted the first World Cup that I can remember. And although that would mark the first time during my own lifetime that the country of my parents' birth would face off against the country of my own (and result in another victory for Italy), I have no memories of that game. Instead, the images of Diego Maradona's Argentina eliminating Italy in penalties in Naples are my only memories from that World Cup.
And, that's about it.
It would be another two years until the two teams would face off again. I wasn't there, but a few days earlier I watched my first ever live international game. My dad and my uncles drove my brother and I up to Connecticut to watch Italy play Portugal, a country which I was surprised to learn wasn't in the Caribbean. Actually, I still have the Italian flag that my uncle Gennaro bought me that day.
A few days later, John Harkes would cancel out Roberto Baggio -- a man who two years later would serve as my childhood idol again on American soil -- and the United States would crown themselves champions of the inaugural "US Cup," in the rich American tradition of inventing one's own competitions in order to win them (see football, American).
In the intervening years, there would be no meaningful interactions between the two countries and certainly, no rivalry. Italy would continue its steady course of clinical, tactical, near-cynical play, while hovering around the apex of the world's teams. The United States would continue to grow more into the sport, far beyond the point to which its very name attached to the sport was no longer considered "oxymoronic," if not still a bit of a joke. The U.S. got better and better, slowly and rather quickly, and has come a long way since. It's also since plateaued. The US is certainly not at the point that matches its hype prior to the 2006 World Cup, when it was absurdly ranked 4th in the World -- although it's at a tipping point now. Years of over-hype, mixed with mediocrity threaded with flashes of overachieving have taken it to a point where it's at a crossroads. There's a fork in the road: remain stagnant, or progress. The Federation is perhaps hoping that a shiny new European coach with a European pedigree can get them over the hump. Here's hoping to the latter, I guess.
As far as I'm concerned, I'm sort of stuck in this no-man's land. I've traditionally rooted for the United States in head-to-head matchups. It's a weird dichotomy I've created in my mind, sort of like my defense-mechanism of choice -- the sarcastic humor / constant facetious behavior which I've dug myself into since adolescence. I remember the 1994 World Cup, in which the USA qualified by default. That opening weekend, they faced off against Switzerland, and I can still remember watching that 1-1 draw in my living room. Meanwhile, Italy would be horribly upset by Ireland in my own backyard, Giants Stadium. However, Italy would go onto the finals, and I would follow them the rest of the way. Way more passionately and painfully than the former team.
2006 was no different, only that marked the next time the two sides would meet. Again, it was weirder than kissing your cousin. Arguably knowing more about the Italian team, I felt this strange compulsion towards the United States. That game ended 1-1, and both teams would go onto their last game in group stage with something to prove. When finally the US would go onto lose to Ghana I turned and said to my friend Paul, as we sat watching on TV from his deck in his backyard -- "well, I can root for Italy now in peace" -- as if some burden was lifted off my shoulders.
I want the United States to do well. I really do. Perhaps it's because I was born here, and have a sense of gratitude towards the country my parents came to in order to improve their lives and my own. Perhaps it's because I love soccer, and I am still holding out hope that a quality product will eventually make its way within driving distance, and not just once every 20-or so years, but in a regular, seasonal format. I've thought it was perhaps a product of the "children of 9/11 syndrome" which I've theorized about, at times when feeling intellectual. However, I was a month shy of 19 when that happened, and my US-Soccer-centricism far predates that. The truth is, I root for US soccer over Italy without actually preferring the US better. Not its style, players, or history. It's irrational, but at least I can admit it.
And then, when it's time for the European Cup, I feel happy that I can enjoy Italy, my mistress first love, without any guilt. When it's World Cup time and unlike in 1990 or 2006, the two teams pass like ships in the night , I can ignore that they both exist in the same stratosphere, while simply watching each as if they both exist exclusively in a vacuum -- one secretly loved more than the other, like the older child with all the trophies on the mantle.
But, when they play each other, I feel like Archie Manning watching the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants (led by two-time Super Bowl Champion/MVP Eli Manning, by the way) play each other. It's fun, but it's not.
And yet, I feel as if it's a bit worse for me. My cousin grew up with Giuseppe Rossi. Their families remain friends to this day. To my family, I'm an Americentric pseudo-intellectual with the habits of a neanderthal, in regards to soccer -- sorry, calcio -- at least. I just don't get it, I'm naive, blah blah blah blah blah, Italy is the best, and the US is inferior. And far more so to them than they actually are. I get the sense that they're afraid the United States will ever be close to being as good as its fans think it is. Because then it's something, nay, the one thing that they have over this great, big, colossal country of mine, that they'd no longer have anymore. Even though they live here too. Weird.
To my US Soccer fan friends, I'm a Eurosnob, an apologist for a diving, cheating, whining team, resented by them because most of their followers around these them here parts (present company excluded) are generations removed from the old country. Oh, right, I nearly forgot to mention -- according to US Soccer fans, whenever your team loses to another team with a superior talent pool, built upon years of superior coaching staffs and thus tactics, tradition, etc., it's almost always the fault of the referees, and/or the players on the other team cheating in some form or fashion, both in which obviously go hand in hand.
Anyway, I'm not generations-removed like most "Italians" around here as I'm a first-generation, but that's virtually ignored. Oh well.
I simply can't win.
And I won't be able to tomorrow either.
Oh yea, this is a Juventus blog. Tomorrow, 7 1/2 of our guys have been called up. Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Marchisio, Pirlo, and Matri.
The remaining half is being represented by Sebastian Giovinco, both by ownership rights and physical stature.
Have at it, folks. This is a Juventus blog, remember?