Into the Lions’ Den

Antonio’s mask may have concealed the grin spreading across his round, suntanned face, but it did nothing to hide the playful twinkle in his large brown eyes.
“All very simple and relaxed again” he assured Mr Blue-Shirt. “A bite to eat and a couple of drinks down at the bike club while we watch the match…”

Mr Blue-Shirt has become quite good pals with Antonio, proud owner of a classic Triumph motor cycle and leading light in the Porto Potenza Picena bike club. His day job is running the shipping company, together with his Canadian-born wife Lori, that transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s storage container over from UK. He has kindly let us store it in his yard free of charge ever since in return for Mr Blue-Shirt doing a series of maintenance and repair jobs around the place.

A couple of weeks earlier he’d invited us to a similar get-together at their ‘clubhouse’ just along the coast from Porto Potenza Picena. This turned out to be a huge customised classic caravan permanently pitched in the corner of a generous patch of grassy land enclosed within a tall hedge of crimson oleander trees. I imagine the club rents the plot from the huge pizzeria next door which throughout the evening supplied us with a steady procession of dustbin-lid-sized pizzas straight from their enormous wood-burning oven. Coming shortly after Le Marche went into the white zone when nearly all restrictions on eating, drinking and making merry were lifted, it was a very welcome evening of conviviality enjoyed around picnic tables assembled at the base of a magnificent sycamore tree strung with lights and filled with cicadas and crickets whose noisy rasping accompanied our conversation.

Consequently, we happily accepted this latest invitation – albeit with just a smidgen of apprehension. For the match Antonio had mentioned was the final of the Euros 2020* between Italy and England. Now, if there is one thing that anyone knows about Italians it is that football is practically the country’s second religion. And if we add to the mix that Gli Azzuri  -The Blues, as the national team is affectionately known – were still smarting from having failed even to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018 (practically a national disaster) it is no exaggeration to say that, with a good chance of laying that particular demon to rest at last, excitement in the run-up to the match was at fever pitch. The ever-affable Antonio convinced us, however, that he had no hidden agenda in inviting a pair of English people to come and watch a match in which everyone else present would be desperate to see Italy triumph. They were a bike club, after all; the football was just a good reason for a get together…

Ragazzi e ragazze – Guys and girls,” boomed Antonio almost as soon as we walked through the gate. Twenty or so people looked up from setting out tables and chairs, filling paper plates with portions of cheese, cured meats and porchetta, or rigging up the large-screen television, amplifier and aerial.
“Some of you met them a couple of weeks ago,” he continued with his arm draped across Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulders. “But for those who didn’t, I’d like you all to meet these two friends of ours, an ENGLISH couple who I think you will agree are being very BRAVE in joining us this evening to watch THE BLUES WIN tonight’s final!!”
Bastardo!” muttered Mr Blue-Shirt under his breath as Antonio winked mischievously at him and the assembled company broke into whoops, catcalls and applause.
“Let me introduce everyone,” he said, thrusting a cold beer into Mr-Blue-Shirt’s hand and a glass of chilled local white wine into mine.
“Are you here on holiday from England, then?” asked someone called Laura who good-naturedly looked us up and down as if searching for signs of union flags or ‘three lions’ emblems.
“No, we live in Montelupone; we’re officially Monteluponesi.”
“See? We’re all practically neighbours!” exclaimed Lori supportively.
That we were ‘locals’ certainly helped prove our pro-Italian credentials, but it was Laura’s husband Marco who asked the question that was still on everyone’s lips:
“Ah, but who are you supporting this evening?”

We knew we were bound to be asked, but also knew that as an answer, ‘it’s complicated’ wouldn’t quite cut it. For a start, neither of us actually likes football and only knew how the England team had been progressing as a result of the blanket coverage the UK media had given all their matches. In addition, we had been absolutely appalled by the way that sundry racists, xenophobes and jingoists (in government as well as on the terraces and on social media) appeared to have hijacked the tournament to further their own dubious political agendas. However, despite our love of Italy, we still couldn’t quite bring ourselves to abandon completely what is still ultimately our home nation. But then again, we didn’t want to antagonise our friendly hosts either. Like I said: it’s complicated.
“What do you think?” I responded evasively. “Look what colour we’re both wearing!”
“Blue! So it’s blue for The Blues!”
“Well, there you are then!” I declared, hoping this would be sufficiently ambiguous to let us off the hook. There was a brief pause, and then our interrogators raised their glasses in an impromptu toast to “Gli Azzuri!”
“Well done!” hissed Mr Blue-Shirt in my ear. “That was genius.”

So with everyone at least reasonably satisfied (if not totally convinced) of our loyalties, we sat down with Lori and Antonio to enjoy our apericena and watch the match.  But we were soon lost in conversation about the relative merits of Nortons versus Triumphs so only realised that England had scored two minutes into the game when twenty pairs of Italian eyes turned towards us, eager to see how we would react to this apparent catastrophe. Thankfully, as this implausibly good start for England had passed us by, our slight bafflement at the sudden excitement was, happily, interpreted as indifference and any remaining doubts as to our allegiance were assuaged.

Throughout the rest of the match, we paid as much attention to the reactions of our fellow diners as we did to what was happening on the pitch. When Italy were in the ascendant, it was all shouts of “Forza Italia!” and “Bravissimi!”, while it switched to wails of “Madonna!”, and “Porca miseria!” whenever England looked dangerous. But when Italy drew level early in the second half, had there been any roof on the place, it would have been blown off by the deafening collective roar of “G-o-o-a-a-l-l!!!” Then as the clock ticked down and the more likely extra time became, the further the volume fell, leaving just the cicadas cheering the players on by the time the final whistle blew.  Those around us quickly concluded that a penalty shoot-out would inevitably provide the climax to the tournament, so used the ensuing ‘phoney war’ to settle their nerves, clear the tables and refill their glasses in preparation for the final few minutes of exquisite agony. Then as the fuchsia-pink-clad referee signalled the start of the shoot-out and both teams went into their respective huddles on the pitch, so we all rose from our tables and huddled around the television screen.

With each penalty kick, our mini-crowd burst into a succession of whoops of joy, howls of dismay or cheers of glee depending on whose shot had gone in, been saved or had missed completely. But with one kick remaining, and the last chance for England to level the score at three-all, silence fell. Then as that final young Englishman, with the weight of his nation’s hopes on his shoulders, had his shot saved by the Italian goalkeeper, the warm night air was rent with roars of delight and a mass of fireworks – in red, white and green – exploded across the inky sky to chants of “Abbiamo vintooooo!! – We’ve wooon!!”

Even as our hearts went out to those poor young Englishmen whose penalties had not gone in, it was easy for us to be magnanimous in defeat. And not so much because of our relative lack of investment in the outcome as for our companions’ graciousness in victory. We exchanged congratulations and commiserations, fist-bumps and back-slaps with our euphoric companions, whose delight at winning contained not a single taunt or shred of Schadenfreude. While the podium was erected on the pitch for the presentation ceremony, Antonio distributed glasses of sparkling wine (which he had clearly put on ice ’just in case’) and as the huge trophy draped in green, white and red ribbons was presented to the Italian captain, we all as one raised our glasses of fizz and toasted the new UEFA Champions, ‘Gli Azzurri’.

If the evening had been a test, I think we had passed it.

* The UEFA European Football Championship postponed from the previous year.

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