A Soccer Game in Sesto Fiorentino
The bar in which I sit is known as Bar Chiarlitti, or for locals, “Jolly Cafe.” Forty black chairs form an impressive line up before a 37” plasma screen hung up on the wall. Tonight, on said screen, Inter Milan is playing AC Milan in what is possibly the biggest game of the year for this boot-shaped nation. The contest boasts a Packers-Bears degree of rivalry, but on an inter-national scale. These teams are top dogs in their realm of expertise, feared and admired by contenders and enthusiasts alike . The significance of this game can be felt in the buzz running like an electric field through the air of the bar— there is no question that soccer is the dominant sport here. Italian children grow up wanting to be astronauts, rock stars, but most of all, soccer gods.
The clock reads 8:00 P.M. (which is 1:00 P.M. Madisonian time: a calculation I routinely make due to the long distance girlfriend). Only a few chairs remain empty. Most of the men are drinking Dos Equis, Corona, or Heineken; some absently lick ice cream cones, others suck on Chupa Chup lollipops (top shelf bar snacks, to be sure). There are no women in this audience. The gentlemen’s ages range from what looks to be about eleven, to the upper sixties. All, including me, enjoy a childlike, borderline Christmas sort of excitement.
Past the sports shrine consisting of plasma screen and black chairs is the bar, behind which a handsome man by the name of Angelo chats with customers and pops off beer tops. His English is eloquent, fluid, and unlike many of the gesticulating Italians I’ve endured, he knows when a conversation should naturally end. He has a serious air about him, a sort of ‘business first’ exterior, and although some patrons throw a wary glance in his direction now and then, he demands a quiet, unquestioned respect—and it doesn’t hurt that he makes good coffee. Some of my best Italian conversations have been with Angelo. Tonight, he tells me that AC Milan is going to win.
The game begins at nine. Talking is frowned upon in two Italian situations: during Sunday mass—and during soccer. Truthfully, I’m not sure which event the Italian people consider more sacred. So when do you ask for another beer? Well, the spectators can resume conversations and drink orders during stoppages and at half, which they do—loudly. These gentlemen are so familiar with the silence rule that it is practically second nature: at one point, I saw two guys abruptly end a particularly heated exchange as the game started, even though neither of them were looking at the screen. Late in the second half, however, the hallowed hush is violently broken.
Most of the audience is no longer watching the game, as their attention has been refocused on two tense gentlemen turned face to face in the standing area between the chairs and the bar, each wearing their team’s respective colors. The enemies converse in a manner more likely to be described as American than Italian: little if any arm movement, very few facial expressions, and their words lack the typical Italian vitality. Clearly, this is serious. A man’s arm limply hovers between them, timidly attempting to avert the mounting situation. The soccer announcers, bubbling with Italian animation and excitement, get louder about now, and it feels as if their volume increase is a response to what is going on in the bar. The bystanders absorb and amplify the tension building between these rigid opponents. A frozen moment overtakes the room. Neither man moves. Without warning—no shouts, no shoves—the man on the left forcefully launches his right hand, and in a single instant, shatters his Heineken on the other man’s skull. The firework of alcohol explodes, covering the nearest bystanders with a multitude of fizzy beer sprinkles. Luckily, I escape the shrapnel at ten feet away; three rows closer, two sixth graders witness the outburst up close.
Fists are thrown. A few men attempt to restrain the pugilists as Angelo slides lithely over the bar, as if he’s done it a hundred times. Although his shouts do not silence the crowd, they somehow subdue the fighters into a reprimanded lull, which is rather impressive considering the visceral effects of multiple beers and quick coursing adrenaline. The perpetrator, fuming but forcibly disengaged, power walks out—probably to avoid the cops; the victim exits a few minutes later, probably to go to the hospital. Almost as an afterthought, the game ends 3-0, AC Milan. I amble back to the villa and lay down on a wooden bench as my own epinephrine begins to dissipate. I fall asleep under the stars, and sleepwalk up to my bedroom at some point during the night.
Experiencing the peccadilloes of a foreign country felt simultaneously dangerous and safe. During my semester abroad, I became familiar with encountering the unfamiliar. This sense of sandbox exploration electrified my Italian vacation. I went into that April night simply wanting to watch some soccer, and I came out with a story that poignantly displays the level of passion that Italians have for what is, in no exaggeration, their deeply beloved sport. Of course, when in Italy one need not love soccer, or even care about it, to stumble upon surreal moments; you just have to walk around.