“Closed for football game”. The scribbled note on the door of Smekkleysa, the only Icelandic restaurant in Munich, leaves my trusty assistant Franco with a disappointed slant on the ever-smiling moustache.
“No fermented shark, I’m afraid,” he says with a sad look. The bastard correctly predicted Iceland’s victory against Belgium and I, being on the losing end of that bet, was supposed to savour the infamously smelly treat ‘to get into the mood’ for tonight’s game.
Barely concealing my joy at having dodged the tangy bullet, I hop into the car and we speed off to the Allianz Arena through a ghost town, the locals absorbed in the broadcast of Germany’s game against Ireland, which will determine the other semi-finalist. When we arrive, Franco hands me the pass and leaves me in front of a gate. “Wait for the boys,” he says, “and get in with them. I’ll be outside.”
Five minutes later, a big blue bus arrives and the gate opens: it’s Italy. I walk in like I’m supposed to be there and attach myself to the squad, walking past security and other journalists with a solemn expression.
I’m now in the locker room with the team. I find a seat in a corner and listen to Mancini, Italy’s coach, laying out the game plan: “Listen fellas,” he says, “everyone calls these guys giant-killers, right? So I thought ‘Hey, what if there are no giants to kill? They won’t know what to do!’”
Everyone is laughing, but Mancini goes on: “I’m serious. I’m putting in the shortest line-up we have, and I want you to run circles around them.”
It feels like a bad joke, but it’s happening. Sirigu in goal (Donnarumma still injured), Florenzi, Bonucci, Chiellini, Palmieri in defence, Barella, Verratti, Sensi in midfield, Insigne, Chiesa and Orsolini in attack - no proper strikers, average height below 178 cm. I’m in shock, but the boys seem to have taken it in stride and even have a laugh walking down the tunnel next to their opponents towering menacingly over them, the tallest line-up in the tournament.
Incredibly, no one has questioned my presence yet and I sit on the bench beside the players. Someone offers me chewing gum. It’s a magnificent evening, the stadium is full, including the usual double-digit percentage of the entire Icelandic population who seem to follow their heroes across the continent. I wonder about the GDP drop. There’s almost three times as many Italian supporters, but their chants, like many other things, are not as organised or skillfully choreographed.
After 45 seconds Iceland are already taking a corner kick and Chiellini heads it out of the box. The ball’s slow descent is interrupted by Finnbogason's foot, who unleashes a portentous shot that goes over and past everyone, including a powerless Sirigu. It’s 1-0 Iceland and it feels unreal.
I look around me: Mancini gestures his players to just brush it off and start again, while the people on the bench look lost. I concentrate on the game and start exchanging comments with Pellegrini, who is sitting next to me and has a wicked sense of humor. At one point I ask him whether he knows a Marcello in Rome, but we get distracted by Barella serving the ball to Sensi just outside the box. He aims and delivers a curling shot that ends caressing the back of the net. Joy. Pellegrini hugs me. We’re back in the game.
Italy’s confidence is back and the next 20 minutes are a masterclass of agility and ball control: the diminutive Italian army effectively hides the ball from the opponents for long stretches, while cleverly occupying the pitch to reduce chances for counter-attacks. Iceland don't seem to have any Plan B besides chasing the ball and attempting horrific tackles out of frustration, but even then the Italians seem to be playing a couple of seconds in the future.
Which is why on the 44th minute no one is really surprised when Insigne finds himself alone in the box in front of Halldórsson and decides to forego his trademark chip to smash the ball in the top corner instead. It’s 1-2 and possibly smooth sailing in the second half.
As I’m sipping a cup of tea at half time and Mancini rambles about Goliath, one of the team managers gets closer and whispers to me: “And who the fuck are you?”
“Press,” I answer holding up my pass, which I now recognize to be my hotel keycard with a Panini sticker of Buffon pasted on it. Before I know it, I’m being escorted outside of the stadium, where Franco is waiting in the car.
“You lasted a whole half! I’m impressed,” he says. We drive to the first Biergarten with a big enough screen and share a table with drunk Germans who by now are an interested audience, as Germany beat Ireland earlier this evening to advance to the semi-final.
They seem to be rooting for Iceland, although speaking with them you get a sense that they would relish yet another international showdown against Italy, because the last one four years ago in France was so dramatic, and also because they won. The conversation invariably shifts towards food, and I find myself extolling the virtues of the mediterranean diet as another white Würstel finds its way to my plate.
On the giant screen the game flows on, as do my visits to the toilet. In a rare break between breaks I catch Orsolini dashing on the right wing, then cutting in to avoid a tackle and exploding a mean shot rocketing in at the far post. Halldórsson barely touches it, and it’s 3-1 Italy. When he does it again 10 minutes later we all know it’s over, and my German frenemies invite us to “the best pizza in Germany.”
We have travelled and we know that “pizza” and “Germany” don’t belong in the same sentence, but we go along anyway because we’re in no condition to drive. They bring us to a dingy place called “Amore Melodica”, where, against all odds, I am served the most delicious pizza I’ve ever had in my life - and I was the Naples correspondent in the Maradona years. It is so unbelievably good that I feel the need to shake the hand of the cook, so I sneak into the kitchen and a scrappy short kid greets me with a mischievous smile. I recognize in his eyes the light that shines when two Mediterraneans create a connection through food. I praise the pizza in Italian. He stares at me, with a puzzled expression.
“He can’t understand you, he’s from Iceland!” someone shouts behind me.