3 World Cup ‘Aha Moments’

Italy celebrates its World Cup victory in 2006. (CNS photo /Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)
Italy celebrates its World Cup victory in 2006. (CNS photo /Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)
I had never really been a soccer fan. Growing up in the 80s, I played peewee soccer like everyone else in Southern California, but I wasn’t very good. Then the 1994 World Cup came to the United States and soccer mania broke loose. Still, I kept soccer at a healthy distance. As an Italian American I’m sure my relatives across the pond were disappointed and lamented the loss of an opportunity to bond with their American cousin. But I was just not ready for soccer. That would all change in 2002.

Aha Moment #1: Every team has a story
My brother was studying abroad in Florence, and I went to visit during winter break. While there, I was inundated with soccer memorabilia and fandom. There were soccer jerseys everywhere! Scarves bearing the colors of each team were ubiquitous. I was wary, yet oddly eager to join this subculture. Would I support my brother’s adopted hometown team, the royal purple of Fiorentina? As a lover of the Vatican and the Eternal City, was Roma my team? I always had an affinity for light blue, so maybe I should support Lazio? Or was AC Milan better? Or Juventus? What was I to do? Handcuffed by too many options, I quickly bought a scarf from every team, while concluding that my team would be the national squad of Italy: Forza Azzurri. The team’s name means force or strength, and it is deeply steeped in Italian culture, transcending the sport of soccer. I was getting hooked.

Aha Moment #2: Sports are nothing without community
It wasn’t until the World Cup in 2006 that I realized the bonding power of soccer. At this point, I had become a full-fledged fan of Forza Azzurri and the obsession had spread to the rest of my family. We watched as many games as possible. We wore our Azzurri gear every day — shoes, shirts, jackets, and socks! We had become “those people” who loved all things Azzurri. As the tournament progressed and our Forza kept playing well, our hopes grew strong for an Italian victory in the final game. And guess what? Forza Azzurri, Italy, did win the World Cup that year, and we all celebrated!

But there was something greater I gained from the World Cup that year and in the years since. It is much deeper than sport and more meaningful than victory. In 2006, I bonded with my family in ways I hadn’t before. We looked forward to watching the games together, and I couldn’t have imagined being with anyone else. Watching soccer games can bring families, strangers, or even enemies together as community.

Aha Moment #3: Living life with forza
Supporting Italy in the World Cup and being a part of the forza and spirit of the country, really brought alive my Italian heritage. After my visit in 2002, I quickly elected Italian to be my minor in college. During our Azzurri viewing parties, my family made Nonna’s recipes, we shouted Italian phases, and we rejoiced heartily (not an Italian exclusive but still a strong cultural norm). The forza of my ancestors was alive in our entire family. I had found “la dolce vita” and continued to indulge in rich culinary flavors, the mastery of the opera, and always en vogue Italian fashion designers. But most of all, I discovered a part of myself I never knew. A part that rejoices in family, keeps traditions alive, and has gratitude and appreciation for the generations before me.

Whether you’ll wear the defending World Cup champion’s (Spain) rojo español, support the host country’s (Brazil) bola amarela, or cheer for my dear Italia, find your life’s forza this World Cup. Delight in the tradition and let it bring new life in the days to come.