I’m shattered. Baku to Rome is no joke, eight hours with a stop in Istanbul. And we’re already through to the second round so everyone is acting like life is a box of chocolate truffles. It’s Sunday lagers here, not Saturday shots.
I donned a very particular shirt: Goldie Lookin Chain’s Newport County shirt (google it). Why? Because it is class. But also because it references Roma’s second colour, making me the perfect neutrally accepted die-hard. And I have to be because I’m watching this with my mate Antonio. Antonio Romano. From Cardiff via Rome, and we’re among the Italians. I wouldn’t normally do this. Friends or not. But this is supposed to be relatively unexciting – winner gets Austria, loser gets Russia, or so it looks. I’d rather play Austria, but I’m not scared either way. And I need to conserve my energy for Russia. So today I can just enjoy catching up with a friend, and bonding over the beautiful game that is football.
On the pitch Giggs has wised up a touch. Only a touch. A good touch, but still, the team is very much half sensible. I can see him sticking with it for the next game, seeing it as a 1.5 team, something between the elite XI and the seconds. Though I’m not sure we want to be fucking about when it comes to knockouts.
The anthems are beautiful. There’s a lot of Italians in Wales, and I think we tend to share an energy. The Italian romanticism is stronger in Wales than the French, anyway. We’re applauding each other. I would love to beat them in Rome, though.
As ever Immobile’s proving his name is a walking irony, a running joke. Etc. As he’s bagged three shots on target in the first ten minutes, and a goal in the 12th. A simply impossible keeper-did-not-smell-it shot weaved between defenders from the edge of the box. I had to admit it was great, that he is demonstrably a genius. I wasn’t cheering, but I wasn’t in that cloudy sulk we all know going a goal down on an away day normally puts you in. The way it makes the sun feel like an alarm clock. None of that today. I’ll sip the Peroni and smile.
Wales are generally playing well. The most neutrally satisfying elements of a game, the craftsmanship, the middle-class appreciation of a playmaker, are just generally a bit boring to read. I could go on about how Ramsey is orchestrating beautifully, how he’s holding back the pass just enough to allow everyone in front of him to acknowledge space, how he waits until the defenders are just thinking about thinking of doing something, and then he pushes forward himself, causing another option for each defender to process, and as they start to do so, Bale or Moore or James push away from them, and then he passes it exactly where he needs to. It’s beautiful. But I won’t.
I could also go on about how Italy can charge down the wing seamlessly and uninterrupted, like an Olympic sprint camera, fixed and headed and destined to stop when they need to, to whip one into the box, and for nobody to connect with it, repeatedly. But I won’t go on, I know why you’re here, and it starts in the 26th minute.
Hennessey throws the ball to Ampadu, it bounces just before him, his back is turned to Jorginho. He heels it one side of him and runs the other way to meet the ball. As he does so, Verratti comes haring in, Ampadu gives him a Marseille Turn so effortless it looks as repeatable as a blink, and then chips the ball over Di Lorenzo’s sliding tackle. Ramsey has been inexplicably (visionarily) running toward goal the entire time. As soon as Ampadu lands he’s lobbed the ball down the middle of the pitch. It’s just floated over Ramsey’s head and he smacks it on the volley from about 30 yards out, he let it go very low to the floor, so the ball shoots up and is curling away from the keeper, into the left-hand side of the crossbar, a *dink* that seems to sound like world peace, and it's in. It’s Ramsey in Rome. Some of the Italians audibly don’t like this. But he doesn’t celebrate, he just holds up the Bale heart and kisses the floor beneath him. Simple.
Now that it’s still one-all at half time, I’m feeling a bit more competitive. I’m neurotically looking back to 2016. And thinking about Belgium. And thinking: hm if we win here it could parallel that later on in the tournament. Which is daft, like every other superstition in football. It is fucking daft. Like how the one matchday I didn’t wear red socks four years ago was the semi-final (I didn’t wear them because Portugal also use red). My ankles do not cause the tides to shift. So this is all silly. I’m not wearing socks today and now my feet are sweating. They weren’t while I was walking in the sun, so it can only mean one thing, they’re nervous and responsibility is weighing down on them. I’m grateful I bought two bottles because I’m very much keeping quiet unless Italy score.
Italy score. It took thirty minutes and eight shots, but it has happened, and I am relieved. I can go back to just watching the game for the final quarter of an hour. It was a good goal and I didn’t enjoy it: a sequence of passes neatly slaloming from halfway to the six yard line and a delicate dink over Hennessy from Immobile.
I am fine with it. But my stomach does feel off. I think it’s starting now. The tribal-national aspect, the need to win, the war-propelling or almost justifying aspect of territory and prosperity. I can feel it. I feel it at dinner that night with Antonio, who keeps calling Immobile the best. I feel it on my way to the hotel room. I feel it as I make sure my flight and ticket for Amsterdam are secured. Now it’s starting.