Summer of 2006, Boston, Massachusetts. A group of college friends and I were crammed into our flat in the historic North End, a predominantly Italian section of town. And by predominantly, I mean 99.9% old school Italian. Sit and drink espresso, smoke cigars, wave scarves, scream at the flat screen playing the latest Juve or AC Roma game kind of old school. It was the final and we were packed into my living room. I lived above a fantastic Italian restaurant (like most other residents of the North End) called Limoncello, where the owner chain smoked outside and knew everyone’s name. I’m also technically half Italian as my family and its name hail from a little village, San Giovanni In Fiore, tucked away in Calabria proper. But. I am also half Argentinian. And I must confess, my allegiance can’t exactly swing both ways. So when the Italian squad came out victorious, and thousands of people rushed out of their cramped quarters, jumping, screaming, celebrating, a mini cultural microcosm of what we had begun to experience in Boston all too often due to the Patriots and Red Sox, I felt a bit empty. I had every right to don my Italian heritage hat and revel in the greatest sports achievement possible, but something was missing.
My father may have been one-hundred percent Italian based on his blood, but having been born in Buenos Aires, there was no question where his allegiance lied in the world of sports. He was an ardent supporter of the albiceleste. He even played for the “Red Sox” of Argentinian Soccer, Boca Juniors, albeit in the very minor single or double a capacity. But Argentinian Soccer, I mean, Football.(he’d whack me upside the head if he heard me calling it Soccer) was the most important thing that could ever happen in our household when it was on. I always looked at my American friends and their sports rivalries as such a Junior Varsity version of Football rivalries. Yes I grew up a Red Sox fan, much to the chagrin of my father, who thought baseball was “a game for pansies…I mean what, a guy walks up there in tights, waves a piece of wood around, and unless anything happens, the crowd just sits there, c’mon, gimme a break with you and your baseball” (all of this was said in Argentinian spanish, which is a super arrogant version of actual spanish). And even though we lost some heartbreakers in the past, and yes the yankees suck, nothing has ever come close to watching Argentina play Football, on the world stage every four years. And I learned this early.
I saw my Father cry twice in my entire thirty two years of knowing him. My mother left us when I was four years old, leaving him with a small child to care for while working 80 hours a week. We were hit head on by a drunk driver when I was nine years old, causing my head to shatter the windshield and scarring me for life. We suffered through hurricanes that destroyed our homes, sickness that rendered my dad an amputee, and many failed business ventures that almost left him bankrupt, time and time again. But not a single tear was shed through any of that.
We’ll go backwards so as to leave this on a happy note.
July 8th, 1990. Our bodies were technically in North Andover Massachusetts, in our humble little apartment, glued to the Television set. But our minds and soul had been vacationing in Italy for the last 4 weeks. And right at that very moment we had the best seats at the Stadio Olympico in Rome, a few hours from San Giovanni In Fiore. This was pure heaven. The greatest Football player to ever lace up the cleats (Pele was the only word not allowed to be uttered under my Father’s roof) was in his prime chasing near immortality. Diego Armando Maradona, pre drugs, scandal, gastric bypass and general fall from grace, was on the pitch against the evil Germans. Historic events notwithstanding, they were evil purely because they were the only thing standing between Argentina and an echelon only enjoyed by that team north of our country, with that guy with one name. A victory would give the albiceleste 3 World Cups in 12 years. 3 Cups out of the 14 that had been played would secure us as one of, if not the greatest Football team ever. But today would not be a repeat. Today would not be the same as the same matchup 4 years earlier, when we vanquished the deutche machine with a little help from God and his hand a match earlier. Today wouldn’t even be decided by Football playing. Today would be decided by a referee. The worst possible way to settle a game of such magnitude.
Everything was going as planned, and as time wound down, the prospect of penalties played very much in our favor. Our goalkeeper had been majestic and downright heroic in his stopping earlier throughout the tournament, much to the chagrin of the host nation. With a few minutes left in regulation, we all actually made the cardinal mistake of looking ahead. “Bring on the penalties! Goycochea (our keeper) will win it again!” my Father decreed. But there was still time, and a we’ve learned time and time again, it really isn’t over until it’s over, or until the paid off bitter Mexican referee sings. Conspiracy theories abound but one could argue both ways, since we did win the cup in Mexico 4 years earlier. But, as I did point out to my Father, Mexico was in fact eliminated by Germany through penalty kicks. But what would happen in the last 2 minutes of the Final, that was probably the worst thing to happen to my Father in his 86 years of life. Never mind the fact that Argentina only managed one shot on goal, while becoming the first team to not score in a final, never mind that 4 players were out, due to injury or red cards. What happened seconds before the end of regulation would change my life for ever.
As I’m sure you know, since you’re a Football fan, In the eighty-fifth minute, referee, Edgardo Codesal, awarded Germany a penalty kick. Practically giving the cup, title, vengeance, bragging rights for four years, to Germany, effectively eliminating any idea of a Maradonian dynasty. When it happened, I could have sworn an explosion of seismic proportions ripped through my neighborhood, with the epicenter being my fathers screams of incredulity. After the call, we all stood and watched as Andreas Brehme converted the kick, fooling the once inhuman Goycochea. And with that, we sat down, hoping that the next 4 minutes would last an eternity, or long enough for us to equalize the stunner that had just been gifted to the German side.
It never happened.
And as the referee signaled the end of the match, a hush fell over our household. No one dared uttered a word. The delicious smells of the feast my father had prepared by hand after slaving away in kitchen turned sour and bright eyed 11 year old at his side experienced what bloodshot eyes felt like for the first time.
But none of that mattered. What mattered was what I saw when I looked up at my Father. He sat there, in his chair and with his pursed lips, said everything without saying a single word. His eyes blinked at times, and he rubbed his forehead, massive paws that he had for hands covering his eyes. He kept his hands there, for what seemed like ten minutes, and then I saw it. He removed his callused, blue collar, proud hands and there it was. A continuous stream of tears coming from his eyes. At first I thought, is it hot in here? But I knew once he looked away from the view of the entire family that had been gathered to celebrate with the then 64 year old. My Father, the man of stone who had soldiered on through any possible kind of adversity I could have dreamt of, the man who never complained and just worked harder than anyone I have to this day ever met, was crying. And it was ok. This was his country, on the worlds stage, and it had let him down. I didn’t care about anything else at that moment. I knew what it meant to him, and I was so proud. In that loss, he showed me for only the second time ever, that he was just a little bit human. Still mostly superhero though.
Four years earlier I had seen him cry, tears of joy, when the same matchup produced a very different result. But that time, in 1986, seemed so far away, and impossible to achieve again. It was this moment, outside of Boston, that I learned what it was like to have passion like nothing else. What is was like to be proud of where you were from. My father has since passed, and on my chest is a tattoo in his honor. Done on the 2nd anniversary of his death (because he would have kicked my ass if I got one when he was alive) The tattoo is of the Argentinian National Football Team Crest, with his initials and years of life. It is with me everywhere I go, the two most important things in his life, Argentina…and his family.
Thanks dad, our souls and mind will be together in Brazil this summer. Can’t wait.