Life was good when I was 11-years-old. I played hockey, football and baseball in the cul-de-sac with my best friends every day. A typical day in the summer started with an early breakfast before venturing outside for the next four hours until lunch.
We would then hike to the vacant lot behind my friend’s house and head out to the cemetery until suppertime. We usually walked to the pond to look for frogs after dinner until we were summoned inside around 9pm when the fireflies in the summer sky would light the path to our doorsteps; much the same way Polaris would gently guide weary sailors back to their ports.
We didn’t need constant supervision. We didn’t need any supervision at all. Our parents ushered us out the door in the morning and we could roam our territory freely like Gordie Lachance and Teddy Duchamp in Stand By Me. It was a different time; a glorious time. And then things changed.
It was the summer of 1990 and Italy was hosting the World Cup. The Azzurri were one of the favourites to lift the trophy as Azeglio Vicini boasted an embarrassment of riches in his squad, including the likes of Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi, Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio, Gianluca Vialli, and a certain Walter Zenga.
My father and I would watch all the big matches at the social club we simply called the bar. It didn’t need any other name. It was an enchanting place for an impressionable kid and there were countless other bars just like it in Italian communities all across North America.
There were pinball machines, arcade games and a foosball table downstairs where all the kids would hang out. The trash talking that went on at the foosball table would make Lenny Bruce blush. It was where legends were made and reputations were tarnished. The men would congregate upstairs where rickety tables would play host to a number of Scopa games that could turn so heated that some finished in the parking lot.
I later came to realise that the bar doubled as a safe haven for men who wanted to get away from their wives. I’d lost count of the amount of times angry women called looking for their stray husbands. “He’s not here,” the owner would say. “Seriously, I don’t know where he is. Look, I’m a bartender, not a marriage counsellor,” he would say as he hung up the phone. “Hey Tony, it was your wife again. You owe my big time. I’ll just add it to your tab,” and everyone would laugh.
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It was a glorious place for kids too. There was authentic gelato, aranciata, gassossa and Brio. You would spend the day grabbing change for the pool tables and hanging out with your friends and cousins with no language filter required. Like I said, life was good – until suddenly it wasn’t.
It started off positively enough for Italy. The hosts opened the tournament with three consecutive wins without conceding a goal. The bar erupted after Baggio scored his famous goal against Czechoslovakia when he slalomed effortlessly past defenders just like Alberto ‘La Bomba’ Tomba did on the Alps of the old continent.
But Salvatore Schillaci was the star of the show. ‘Toto’ was winning over the nation as he scored half of Italy’s goals in the group stage. The grappa was flowing freely at the bar as Italy brushed aside Uruguay and Ireland to set up a crunch clash with defending champions Argentina in the semi-finals.
Zenga still hadn’t conceded a goal, and with a backline consisting of Maldini, Bergomi, Baresi and Ricardo Ferri, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that the Italians could win the tournament without conceding at all.
But they would have to take care of business against Argentina in Naples. Diego Maradona was the undisputed king of the southern city and the Italians suddenly seemed vulnerable away from their Roman stronghold, where they had won their first five clashes of the tournament. All of us in the bar were nervous. Fingernails were bitten, copious amounts of brandy were consumed and tempers were flaring.
You could light up cigarettes inside of drinking establishments back then and a steady haze of smoke permeated the air as children and old men alike squinted to see the action on the big screen television.
We exploded in ecstasy when Schillaci opened the scoring in the 17th minute. He started the move by controlling a bouncing ball before dancing around three defenders. He laid the ball off to Fernando De Napoli and charged into the penalty area before finishing the move by pouncing on a juicy rebound from close range.
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This was not a case of Schillaci finding himself in the right place at the right moment. It was the least that his efforts deserved. It was a dream start and we all let out a collective sigh of relief. We then laughed at ourselves for expecting the worst. And then the worst happened.
Zenga had set a new record for keeping a clean sheet for 518 minutes in the World Cup before he made the bonehead mistake that still haunts Italians to this day. It made no sense to come all this way only to slip up near the final hurdle. It was like saving a bottle of your best cognac for 25 years only to drop it at your daughter’s wedding during your toast to the newly married couple.
Argentina caught Italy on the counter after Bergomi failed to coral a loose ball in La Albiceleste’s half of the pitch. The Argentines had the numbers but the attack seemed to stall and Julio Olarticoechea was forced to send in what looked like an innocuous looking cross into the penalty area.
Zenga then made the decision that Italians still grumble over to this day. He came off his line thinking he could beat Claudio Caniggia to the ball even though Ferri and Baresi were marking him. He failed to punch the ball in mid-flight. It would have been a routine save if Zenga had just stayed on his line, but instead it turned into the equalising goal as the Italian defenders peered back at their goalkeeper in utter dismay.
Italy went on to lose the game after Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena missed consecutive penalties in the shoot-out and the Azzurri’s dream of winning the World Cup once again on the peninsula died a sudden death.
It was too much for a kid to take. I wandered out of the bar and my father and I did not say a word on the ride home. There was no need to. The silence was deafening and little did we know that we would re-enact the same scene four years later after the loss to Brazil in the final. My mother saw our faces and didn’t have to ask us who had won. We both went straight to our rooms.
My world started to come crashing down. It was suddenly an uncertain time. Things were starting to get confusing. My voice was changing and so was my body. I dressed as a goalkeeper in the first practice after the loss. My dad was surprised. “You’re sticking by your buddy?” he said. “He cost us the World Cup.”
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I ignored the barb and went on with my normal routine. I would always suit up as a keeper during practice but my coaches would never let me play there in a competitive game. But my dad played along with this fantasy by allowing me to man the pipes in practice.
I was sticking by Zenga and that’s all there was to it. He was crucified by the press in the aftermath of the tournament and was staring straight into the abyss, but decided to trudge on. “It was the biggest disappointment of my life,” he admitted in a recent interview with The National. “After, you feel you want to take a gun and shoot yourself.”
He refused to let his mistake define him. He had an illustrious career and still holds the World Cup record for most minutes played without conceding a goal. Iker Casillas could have eclipsed the mark in Brazil in 2014 but he was overrun in the 5-1 loss to the Netherlands.
The error did not break Zenga and I wouldn’t let life break me. I wore that loss as a badge of honour, much the same way I did with Inter in the late 90s. Zenga went on to win the UEFA Cup in 1991 and 1994. He also had short stints as a manager at Catania and Palermo after hanging up his boots in 1999. He had stared adversity in the eye and came out feeling Zen.
“If I tell you to stop thinking about one pink elephant, what are you thinking about? One pink elephant. The mind all the time creates something,” he said.
The memory of the goal still surfaces without warning at the most inopportune times just like the way a missed penalty in your youth tends to haunt you later in life. It can ruin your day if you let it. Buddhists are big proponents of practising meditation to help painful thoughts vanish and Zenga sounds like he’s found peace.
I haven’t been able to master the art of mindfulness or let my thoughts dissipate into nothingness, but when memories of that game pop back into my head, I know that Zenga did not let me down. Quite the opposite actually; in my prepubescent years, he taught me how to persevere.
By Max De Luca @Massimo_DeLuca1