I did not play soccer growing up. There were no soccer fields in my neighborhood, let alone any leagues. Like many American sportswriters, I grew up playing baseball, football and basketball. But apparently unlike many in my profession, I have no desire to dismiss or disparage the sport that is truly the world's game as only 90 million watched the Super Bowl this year, but over a billion watched the World Cup final on Sunday.
Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA call their champions World Champs, but the World's Cup is the most true world championship. All of the earth's countries playing by the same rules in one sport to determine the champion. If you truly love sports, then how can you not appreciate this sporting event? It’s the world's game played by the best players in the world.
To truly experience the World Cup Final between France and Italy, I decided to watch the game with the faithful. I called every Italian restaurant in the Westshore, but not a single one had anything planned for the game, so I headed to The Home Family Club in Parma Heights.
The Italian-American club had already scheduled their annual members, day celebration for Sunday, Forza Italia, Grazie "Italia Amoremio," (I apologize if I screwed that up), but when their beloved Azzurri football team advanced to the World Cup Final, they opened their doors to non-members as well with a projection screen television that took up most of one of the walls of their club.
Any sporting event is more fun with a die-hard crowd. Sitting with over 200 passionate Italian-Americans qualifies as just that. I would like to believe that any true sports fan would have a better appreciation for the sport just sitting among them. The crowd anticipated each potential scoring play with either an excited buzz (if Italy was on the offensive) or a worried scowl (if it was France on the move). The crowd was frustrated and angry early when they believed a French player dived to set up a goal. When Italy evened the score, they celebrated and roared with approval. But as the game headed for overtime, there was a nervous and almost defeatist attitude in much of the crowd.
Apparently it’s not just Cleveland that has poor luck in big play-off games. The Azzurri had never won a World Cup game in a shoot-out. It is how they lost to France in the 1998 World Cup and how they lost the World Cup final in 1994 to Brazil. But in overtime, France's Zinedine Zidane, considered the best player of his generation and playing the final match of his career, head butted an Italian player and was red-carded. It gave the Home Family crowd great hope heading into the penalty kicks. But still the past had many petrified, I heard one knowledgeable fan say, "It was a fun dream while it lasted. It is over."
But the Italian players, with the weight of a soccer scandal threatening their club teams back home, scored on all five penalty kicks bringing Italy their fourth World Cup title and first since 1982.
Bedlam broke out in the Home Family Club. One of the happiest fans was Rome native and current Westlake resident Marco Nivellini.
"This is a once in a lifetime experience," Nivellini said. "It has been 12 years since we lost the ‘94 final. So this is a huge deal. I was really worried heading into the shoot-out."
Nivellini said that soccer brings people together.
"Soccer unifies nations," he said. "It becomes about more than where your home city is, it unifies the entire country into one group."
Two other interested spectators were Westlake resident Pat Delvecchio and his 94-year old father Joe, who looked to the heavens in appreciation after the win.
"I waited many years for that to happen," Joe said.
His son, Pat, really enjoys the atmosphere at the club — not just for the game but for what the 76-year-old club provides year-round.
"I just found out about the club a few years ago," Pat said. "They make you feel welcome whether you are Italian or not. Everyone is friendly and the food is great. My dad loves coming here. Today for the game, they had people come as far as Akron just to watch the game with a friendly crowd."
That warm, friendly feeling is exactly what club president Joe Giuliano said the Home Family Club is about.
"We are proud to be the only active Italian-American club doing this sort of thing," he said. "And now with the win, we can forget our bad history in penalty kicks."
Well after the game ended, fans still were waving flags, cheering and hugging each other.
"Everyone should get to experience this at least once in their lifetime," Giuliano said.
I couldn't agree more. Here is hoping I don't have to wait until I am 94 years old however.