So, Speaking of Soccer . . .

OK, nobody actually was speaking of soccer. . . . But I’ve been away from home (and the VC) for a while (six weeks in Italy), and after a 20-hour transatlantic ordeal I come home in the midst of this firestorm about the healthcare decision (about which I have, at the moment, nothing intelligent to say).  Ordinarily, I’d hang back for a few days to gather my thoughts before returning to the blog, but important events on other fronts dictate otherwise.

I refer of course to tomorrow’s final in the Euro 2012 soccer championship (245 ET), Italy v. Spain.  Living in Italy for six weeks is a pretty extraordinary experience at any time, and I will have lots to say about the things I figured out while I was there.  But it’s particularly interesting to be there when Italy is advancing to the finals of the Euros.  The Italians were spectacularly uninterested in this tournament when it began – there was absolutely no buzz about the national team (and my italian’s good enough so I think I can pick up buzz), none of my Italian friends were talking about the tournament, it was difficult to find a cafe in Rome to watch the opening game (against Spain, no less).  When I asked people about this, I heard several theories, the most plausible being that it represented a kind of fallout from Italy’s dismal performance at the 2010 World Cup.  The azzurri — the “blues,” as the Italians refer to their national team – were truly awful in 2010: old, uninteresting, unengaged, lacking creativity or passion or much of anything else.  The country felt a little bit of humiliation as a consequence.  This time around, there was little expectation that the team could do much better, and understandably no enthusiasm about being dragged through all that bad feeling all over again.

The extent to which people around the world view their national teams as extensions of their national personalities and national character is something that can be hard to appreciate or understand, for Americans.   [That, incidentally, is  one reason why the European political confederation may be destined to fail -- but that's another story for another time].  The azzuri, slowly, won the country over.  They’ve played some terrific soccer — full of energy and invention, a little more “Latin” than we’re used to seeing from a European soccer power.   The commentary in the papers and TV was a kind of ecstatic relief — full of talk about “character” and “backbone” and “intensity” and “pride”.  The headline in one of the 2 daily sports papers in Italy, the Corriere dello Sport, after Italy’s victory over Germany in the semifinals last Thursday was:  “SIAMO NOI!” — literally, “We are Us,” or something like “We are United!”.  It’s quite intense, once it gets a head of steam on.  I was lucky enough to watch the semifinal game against Germany in front of the big screen in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, surrounded by 40,000 or so others, and I’m pretty certain I never saw or felt anything like that before.  The Italians (and the Germans) treat a game like Thursday’s as a test of national character because to them it is a test of national character — the winning and losing matters (a great deal), but so too does the manner in which you carry out your obligations to represent your country.  And the players understand that.  And it gives international soccer an edge that no other sport can come close to.

The game on Sunday should be a very good one — the Spanish team (reigning European and World Champs, and everyone’s favorite from the start of the tournament to prevail) has looked good in spurts, but beatable.  Both sides play fast, attacking soccer, the Italians having abandoned (for now at least) their usual defense-first-and-foremost philosophy in favor of a much more open and creative style.  Italy destroyed a very good German team on Thursday, and they have that “team of destiny” feel (to me).  Italy, 2-1.