It’s the night before the final of the UEFO tournament. Italy and France will face each other tomorrow evening at Wembley Stadium, and I’m trying to take the edge off the tension at the hotel bar. A stranger next to me is into the second hour of bullshitting his female companion. The barman and I exchange looks and my glass gets refilled according to the frequency and egregiousness of the lies.
I’m starting to drift, thinking about the journey that brought me and my trusty assistant Franco from the opening game at the Olimpico to the final at Wembley, via a missing pass in Rome, a missed flight in Baku, a brush with the law in London and being kidnapped by Nazis in the middle of Germany.
Lost in my thoughts, I almost miss a familiar reflection glancing between the bottles in the mirror in front of me. I turn just in time to catch Franco discreetly leaving the hotel. It’s way past his bedtime, so I get up, offer a handshake and my sympathies to the woman for bravely enduring a date like that, and follow him out.
Outside the air is humid and still, strange smells waft from air vents as I trail Franco from a distance. He moves with the urgency of someone with an appointment. After a few turns we’re on the river, close to Blackfriars. There’s a construction site blocking the walkway under the bridge, and I watch as Franco looks around him quickly and then hops over the barriers. I get closer, and even before the thought of climbing myself crosses my mind, I hear Franco’s voice, somewhat muffled by the reverb under the bridge’s arch.
He’s talking with someone in Italian, although it’s hard to make out anything. I stop trying to understand the words and concentrate on the other guy’s voice: its rhythm and cadence sound familiar, it’s a voice I heard almost every day in this past month... and then it hits me: it’s Mancini, Italy’s coach.
What the fuck is going on?
When the talking stops, I climb up to street level to peek down the other side of the walkway, and I spot Mancini as he gets into a waiting black car with an Italian licence plate.
I run on the other side of the street and see Franco walking back towards the hotel. I stop a cab to beat him there, and when he steps into the lobby I’m waiting for him with a whiskey and a knowing smile.
“Take a seat. You’ve got some explaining to do, Franco.”
He smiles and sits down.
“Man, that took you a while.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been doing this for twenty years, you dunce! I’m a private consultant for football coaches, being your assistant was the perfect cover. Well, I guess it still is, unless you want to rat me out?”
“Wait a second, so you... what is it exactly that you do? Do you tell them the line-ups and the strategy?”
“Nah, not like that. It’s too much work. I have a good instinct for how a game will develop, so I just tell my instincts to the highest bidd... well, in this case my loyalty is to my country.”
“So, what did you just tell Mancini about the final?”
“If you really want to know, I told him the game will be decided on the right wings. We need to cover our collective ass on their right wing, put Palmieri on Mbappe and keep Insigne deeper and push on hard on our right wing with Bernardeschi and Di Lorenzo.”
I stare at him, as every bizarre choice I’ve witnessed a coach take over twenty years of reporting flashes in my brain.
“It was you!” I snap, “you told Mancini to put in only short players against Iceland! That didn’t make any sense!”
“But it worked, didn’t it?”
“Totti as a false nine at Roma in 2005. Was that you?”
“Can I go to sleep now?” he says getting up, “long day tomorrow, chief!”
I watch him disappear in the elevator.
The next morning I meet Franco and over breakfast he shows me a letter on official stationery of the Austrian Government.
“The Chancellor has taken a shine to you, boss,” he says reading it, “he’s inviting you to watch the game in the official gallery with him. France’s President Macron and ours, Mattarella, will be there too. He also mentions Austrian white wines, for some reason.”
“Let’s see...” I say, taking the letter from his hands, “where do I have to sign?”
Later that evening I shake hands with Sebastian Kurz, Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron, sipping an excellent Traminer while the teams are warming up.
Kurz, as an uninterested party, asks how I see the game. Trying to keep a straight face, I say that all will be decided on the right wings, and to keep an eye on Bernardeschi. Macron laughs a smug laugh and says he’ll keep his eyes on Mbappe.
The game starts and sure enough, Bernardeschi and Di Lorenzo are on the right wing, while Insigne seems to hang way further back than his usual position.
France has their all-star lineup with Griezmann, Mbappe and Giroud in attack and Pogba ready to show-off in midfield.
It’s an ugly and tense game from the start. Tight passing, tight pressing, tight tackling. No one manages to build anything of significance for half an hour, but all the action happens on the right wings. Palmieri and Insigne work hard to contain Mbappe, who looks like he’s only biding his time to show his potential. On the other side, Di Lorenzo and especially Bernardeschi become a headache for Mendy, who struggles to keep the Juventus player at bay.
On the 38th minute Mbappe finally can’t take it anymore, gets the ball in midfield and starts to run towards goal. Italian players bounce off him left and right, until he gets to Chiellini, who slides trying to get to the ball but ends on the ground between Mbappe’s legs. He instantly knows it, Mbappe knows it, the referee knows it, the whole stadium knows it.
It’s a penalty.
Macron is grinning, Mattarella says quietly that Donnarumma is very tall. Kurz drinks.
Griezmann steps up to the ball, the referee whistles. During the run up I wonder if he’s thinking about Zidane’s chip during the 2006 World Cup final. It’s certainly what I’m thinking about. He probably is, because he tries the same shot, Panenka style, only this time the ball hits the top of the crossbar and goes over.
Donnarumma, who lunged to his right and ended up almost hugging the post, jumps up and celebrates like he saved it, joined by his teammates. No one consoles Griezmann. Macron is furious. I have a silent toast with the Italian president.
The first half ends with more ball wrangling in midfield, but we can sense the French frustration growing. They should be walking all over us given the difference in class in the line-ups, but so far they have nothing to show for it.
During half-time I join the Official Light Luncheon. In honor of the two contenders, a chef who by all accounts should be in prison has created a dish that can only be described as “Pasta Abomination with Goat Cheese.” Diplomacy is the word and we all steer towards the gourmet fish and chips.
The early part of the second half sees a shift in game dynamic. Italy start keeping possession more but, seemingly deliberately, without pushing too much. They’re happy to put the game to sleep and see what happens, which delights exactly no one in the stadium.
Macron is visibly upset and every once in a while glances at us and shakes his head. Mattarella gestures to me not to worry. Kurz drinks and smiles.
The second half trudges on, both teams now settling on long range efforts as admirable as they are predictable. We’re bored.
Bernardeschi is still the most active for Italy, and on the 82nd minute receives the ball on the right and makes a surge towards the centre. When he gets to the edge of the box, and when everyone expects yet another curling shot on the far post, he flicks the ball with his heel back to the incoming Tonali, who explodes a tremendous shot. Lloris takes a step to his left for a comfortable save – the ball was struck with power but too central – but Pavard, who shouldn’t even be there, puts a foolish leg out causing a deflection that leaves Lloris looking like a statue as the ball flies through his extended arms and into the goal.
I jump from my seat, dropping gourmet chips and delicious Austrian wine on the ground. I turn and high five Mattarella. Macron bites his tie and curses in French. Kurz drinks and nods.
Italy spend the last ten minutes shielding from the fury of les bleus. Donnarumma even manages to look good a couple of times on long distance efforts from Pavard and Pogba. But as soon as we get the ball the game slows down, much to the exasperation of our opponents, who in turn try to get it back and end up committing largely avoidable fouls.
There’s no last minute rush, no coup de theatre. The match just peters out and the final whistle launches the Italians in a frenzied celebration, both on and off the pitch. I respectfully hug Mattarella and shake hands with Macron, unable to conceal an offensive grin.
The next thing I know is I somehow reached Italy’s locker room. Mattarella is there, miraculously dry as champagne jets are sprayed in all directions. Everyone listens to his wise and uplifting words, and a long applause explodes when he closes with “Viva l’Italia!”
The rest of the night only comes in flashes.
Kurz singing “Nobody Knows” in a beautiful baritone as Macron storms out of France’s locker room.
Mancini hugging Franco and slipping him a fat envelope.
The squad taking over a double decker bus and hijacking it for a drunken tour of London.
A sudden thunderstorm, the screeching of tires, shouting.
Light. A faint blur. Muffled voices.
“He woke up!”
“He woke up! Call the head doctor!”
I try to look around, but I can barely move. I’m in a hospital.
I can see Franco leaning over me, he waves. He’s wearing a nurse uniform.
I close my eyes, the light hurts.
I concentrate and slowly words start leaving my mouth. My voice comes out coarse and sputtering.
“Franco, where am I? What happened? Did I pass out at the party?”
“My name is Alberto, Mr. Marbettin, you are in the hospital in Padua. You had an accident four months ago and fell in a coma.”
“Four months? What day is it?”
“July... 13th? That’s impossible, I was just... wait, Italy won the European Championship last night, right?”
Now the room is full of people. Everyone is wearing surgical masks.