The World Cup is the most popular tournament in the world, and the European Cup is a close second. Italy won its one and only European Cup 13 tournaments ago back in 1968, but all of that changed this summer.
After the embarrassment of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the team found themselves in a place they hadn’t been in 60 years, watching the World Cup from home. The memories of not qualifying were fresh in the minds of the team heading into this year’s European Cup and put them on a mission to not only win the tournament but make a statement that Italian soccer was back. In 2018, the Italian Soccer Federation hired former Italian player and coach Roberto Mancini to revolutionize Italian soccer. He changed the traditional defensive/counter-attack philosophy into a successful strategic attacking style reflected in Italy’s 33-game unbeaten streak entering the Euro Cup Final against England. Gli Azzurri became the European Cup champions once again.
For many of us, our first experience with Italian soccer was the 1982 World Cup in Spain. It was the first time Italy would win the World Cup since 1938 and was their third win in the team’s history. Two years prior to the 1982 World Cup, Italian league soccer players were suspended due to a betting scandal for influencing the outcomes of games. So when the World Cup started, the only way to prove to the world that Italian soccer was bigger than the scandal was to win. After beating Argentina, Brazil, and Poland in the knockout stages, Italy would beat West Germany in the Finals. Back then, my father announced on his Sunday Italian radio program that when — not if, but when — Italy won the World Cup, fans should meet across from his shop, Tony’s TV and Soccer Supplies, on 12th and Gaffey in the Safeway parking lot (now Vons) to celebrate, and celebrate we did. He went so far as putting up two handwritten posters in his shop window before the game that read, “Italy #1” and the other, “We salute Italy World Champions 1982.” Two thousand people showed up waving Italian flags.
We then paraded all across San Pedro, hanging out of cars, waving Italian flags, and chanting, “Italia, Italia, Italia!” Many around town knew we had won and cheered with us as we passed by. We ended up at Peck Park for an impromptu picnic. It was an incredible experience. This celebration set the tone for my generation to truly understand the deep connection to our roots back in Italy and the sacrifices our grandparents and parents made to come to this country, overcoming adversity through hard work to make a better life for us.
In 2006, scandal once again hovered over Italian soccer, this time between owners and referees being paid to determine the outcomes of games. This time, players were not involved in the scandal and entered the 2006 World Cup in Germany determined to prove that to the world by once again winning on the field. They would win their fourth World Cup by beating France in the finals. A watch party and celebration took place at the Italian American Club on 19th and Gaffey with over 1,000 people in attendance. This World Cup, just like in 1982, was the first real experience for my generation’s kids to experience with their grandparents and us a World Cup victory. It strengthened our ties to our Italian heritage even more.
After experiencing Italy overcoming the scandals and winning the 1982 and 2006 World Cup titles with my father, I had a strong sense that Italy was motivated by the disappointment of 2018 and could make the Euro Cup finals, let alone win it all. This time, though, it would be without my father, who passed away a year ago this month. It was difficult, to say the least, watching each game without him. Through it all, I always felt his presence. I could see him smiling and laughing while saying, “What are you worried about? They’re going to win.” In honor of his Italian radio program, I used my “Pirozzi Live” YouTube channel to discuss upcoming games and filmed the last one with my boys. The backdrop was my father’s San Pedro Italian soccer club flag from the ‘70s. The flag was waved at Daniels Field while cheering on his team, waved in the Safeway parking lot in 1982, and waved at the Italian American Club in 2006. My dream was to wave it in front of the Italian American Club to celebrate a Euro 2020 Championship in his honor, which I did. Soccer is like no other game and a gift from my father. It reminds me, as he used to tell me, “Don’t forget where you come from.” I never will. Forza Italia! spt