As I was about to leave for the Stadio Olimpico to report on Turkey vs. Italy, the desk of my hotel delivered a message from my assistant, Franco: “Lost phone, meet me at the press entrance at 7pm. Got your pass.” So I left, crossing Rome on foot. You could sense a quiet euphoria: the shops closing early, last-minute beer runs. When I arrived Franco was missing and I was fucked.
No use pleading with the stewards, the security too tight in these terrified times. I was out.If I’ve learned anything in life, it is to make the most of the hand you’re dealt. So I turned around and walked down to the river, settling for the first bar with a big enough TV and mosquito repellent on tap, just in time for kickoff.
Lineups: no surprises. Donnarumma, Bonucci and Chiellini, flanked by Florenzi and Palmieri. Barella, Jorginho and Verratti in midfield, Insigne, Immobile and Chiesa forward.
Turkey features a miraculously recovered Demiral (out since January with a torn ACL), but is without Tosun (another ACL tear, but in March, too late for miracles). To make things spicier, pretty much every player who was censured back in December for the ‘military- salute-gate’ is starting: Gunok in goal, Meras, Celik and Demiral in defence, Tekdemir in midfield, Çalhanoğlu and Yilmaz in attack. Plus the apoliticals (or simply merely shy): Söyüncü in defense, Tufan and Yokuslu in midfield and Ünder forward.
On paper, we’re favourites: we can defend, we can pass, we can cross and we can shoot. They’re missing their best striker, but they do know how to be a pain in the neck. The game starts, I’m served a cold beer and Turkey scores. It’s the 8th minute, Ünder goes past Palmieri – for the third time already! – steers into the box and shoots with power. Donnarumma dives and manages to avoid the ball, which is almost physically impossible for someone who is 6’5”.
The Turkish players look surprised and erupt in a celebration of pure joy, no trace of military or even saluting, as officials let out a collective sigh of relief. I finish my beer too quickly and it gives me the same symptoms that Italy displays for the next twenty minutes. Brainfreeze. Disorientation. Fear. Turkey senses our terror like a shark a drop of blood in the sea. They hold the ball easily and get it back brusquely whenever we manage a couple of passes. Both Chiellini on the pitch and Mancini off are desperately pleading with the team to just calm down, but the boys in blue are shitting themselves.
Turkey tries again with two long range attempts from Çalhanoğlu: a free kick (27’), and later a fierce shot from a Yilmaz pass (32’). Donnarumma saves twice in beautiful style, the applause from the stands like a lifeline for a team currently lost at sea. Under the “bad” column in my chips-grease-stained notebook are Jorginho, unable to start any meaningful action, and Chiesa, full of misdirected energy, who always seems to be going nowhere but at least he’s always going there at great pace.
Desperation has seeped into the bar. A sketchy guy, sun-charred skin in a white tank top, leaves muttering something about Switzerland. Every tunnel has its light, though, and even if that light is not the exit but your killer with a cigarette, it gives you hope when you spot it. Our light is an ugly long ball down the middle from Bonucci (45’). Celik heads it towards the goalkeeper, without realizing that Immobile is prowling, and with a couple of touches he puts it past a powerless Gunok.
I jump, fists up, and I feel like the I’m the only one who cares. It’s time to get out of this shithole. Half time. I pay and leave. As I’m sharing a moment with a slice of pizza, Franco calls: he’s at the stadium with my pass. I run. I make my triumphant entrance in the press stands, handing out pizza and cold beers. High fives, hugs. They’re worried. “The boys are scared shitless,” the guy from the national broadcaster says, “If Mancio doesn't change something we’re fucked,” says a sweaty guy from a local TV.
The teams return from half-time. Chiesa is out and Bernardeschi is in, but more importantly ten minutes into the second half, Pellegrini relieves a lost Jorginho. Within seconds Italy’s game starts ticking like a clock. Bernardeschi takes over the right wing, allowing Florenzi to cross frequently. Pellegrini energises the playmaking and Insigne steps up his game.
In the 70th minute, after a spell of flowing possession, Pellegrini shoots after a clever dummy by Insigne and sends a screamer just under the crossbar: 1-2. Admirable self control in the press stands: we’re professionals, and superstitious ones.
Now Italy dominates, minds unburdened, while Turkey disappears. They simply can’t deal with Insigne’s trickery as he appears and disappears all over the pitch, a ghostly ferret that can’t be contained. We find our shooting boots: Gunok saves from Pellegrini (74’), Insigne (77’) and Bernardeschi (81’). Two minutes later Insigne cuts a ball back from the byline, Immobile finds space between Demiral and Bayram and aims for the far post: it ricochets in off the woodwork. Goal.
The press stand explodes. Smuggled red wine makes the rounds. There’s still time for a deserved standing ovation when Belotti comes on for the excellent Ciro Immobile (88’), tonight’s hero along with the unstoppable Insigne. Then it’s over. Turkish heads lowered, while the azzurri smile like kids who just found out they’re allowed to be with the grown-ups. It’s a long way to title-winning confidence, but not knowing one’s limits is one way to break them.
We leave the stadium like a family. To Trastevere! I stop a boy on a scooter and hitch a ride into the most shameless, premature and immature of street celebrations.
This is who we are, I think. We're hopeless, I think, waving the giant flag someone handed to me.