It’s half time and I’m hiding in the toilets of the south stands of Rome’s Olympic Stadium.
I decided to embed myself in a group of Rome’s Ultras to report on this game, after they adopted me during the celebrations following Italy’s victory against Turkey five days ago.
They showed up at my hotel in the morning and together we had at least three lunches, drank too much and pontificated more than the Pope.
Marcello, their volatile leader with the authority of his 120 kilos, is especially fond of Lorenzo Pellegrini. He says it’s clear Pellegrini deserves to start tonight, with a teary-eyed intensity that betrays something more than fandom.
I don’t have the heart to tell him what the sports press consensus is about tonight’s line-up.
We enter the stadium in the afternoon. The group is busy with organizational stuff: the supply of recreational substances for the stands, security, counterintelligence (a rival gang of Lazio fans is rumored to be planning an attack sometime during the game).
I’m introduced as a newspaper big shot to a police lineup of thugs that greets me with dislocating backslaps and shoulder fists, while Marcello keeps on rambling about Pellegrini.
Later, as the speaker announces an Italian side identical to the first game with the sole exception of Di Lorenzo for Florenzi, I try to reason with him. I’m a bad bluffer, and he loses it: “You knew. You knew! Judas! I’ve treated you like a brother! You journo scum!”
The pack reacts instantly. I’m shoved away, cigarette butts and insults hurled at me as I scamper up the stands towards an exit. I barely manage to notice that Lichtsteiner is featured in an otherwise largely expected Switzerland starting eleven. Petkovic with the nostalgia card, I think.
I find safety behind a concrete pillar and sneak a peek of the first minutes of the game. Italy seems to have picked up where they left off against Turkey: composure and good ball circulation. Plus, this time, Chiesa is at his best rather than just aimlessly galloping around.
Fifteen minutes into the game I’m forced to leave my post as the gastronomic exploits of the day take their toll on my already overtaxed digestive tract.
I storm into the toilets. As I’m searching for the holy grail of a functioning and unoccupied stall, I get distracted by a rumble shaking the stands above us. Duty calls, so I run up and the rumble rolls into roar. When I surface I can only see the teams making it back to the centre circle. The display reads: Italy 1 - Switzerland 0 - 20’ Chiesa.
“What happened?” I ask a guy with half a sandwich in his mouth.
“Chiesa,” he belches, “one of his crazy runs, one-two with Barella and shot into the top corner. Amazing goal ...just a minute ago Bonucci intercepted a ball from...”
“Shaqiri,” says another guy passing a joint, “...in the nick of time, we were shitting ourselves there for a second.”
I can relate. Italy shows confidence and executes the game plan like pupils who did their homework and are not afraid to show it.
Switzerland are still in this game and their midfield moves the ball as fluidly as Italy’s, but an unreliable Seferovic and an isolated Shaqiri make for a toothless attack, producing only a free kick from Shaqiri that goes just wide.
At half time I spot Marcello gesturing towards me. I flee to the toilets again and into the first unlocked stall and lock the door.
It’s a bad idea: after a few seconds the doors of the stalls start banging and I recognize Marcello’s voice.
“You backstabbing hack! Where are you? Come out, you coward!”
I hold my breath, and just as Marcello’s voice gets nearer, someone shouts “Cops!” and the toilets erupt in a flurry of curses and flushing sounds. I peek out and see the last people leaving, plastic bags strewn all over the floor. I get out, wash my hands for no reason, and go back to the stands, trying to find a place away from Marcello and his gang. I have to stay down to hide and I can’t see shit.
It seems Lichtsteiner has been replaced by Mbabu, and Italy just keeps on keepin’ on.
Fifteen minutes into the second half Pellegrini relieves Immobile who, according to the “sources” around me, has “worked like a dog, but today it just wouldn't go in”.
A minute later Freuler, one of the best Swiss performers, drives a violent shot just under the crossbar, but Donnarumma tips it over with some camera-friendly acrobatics.
Later, as I’m curled up taking notes in my fort of buttcheeks and stale farts, a subdued growl rises around me. I stand up and it explodes in celebration. A ham sandwich hits me in the neck and beer showers from above as I crane my neck to make out a huddle of blue shirts. 2-0, Barella (80’), says the display.
I ask. “Insigne did one of his tricks and put a ball for Barella just outside of the box. Shot and goal.”
I’ll have to fact-check these descriptions with the highlights, I think, while Insigne goes out for Belotti after 25 minutes in which Italy has played — and scored — without a striker on the pitch.
It’s the 85th minute when I sneak discreetly out.
On the street outside the stadium, just when I think I might have made it, a Vespa climbs on the sidewalk and blocks my way.
It’s Marcello. He’s holding an Italian flag.