I am wandering wide-eyed in the VIP lobby of what must be the rich people’s section of Wembley Stadium. My trusty assistant Franco handed me a pass this morning and said with a conspiratorial tone: “Just show it to the stewards, follow instructions and don’t talk to anybody”. The pass had my picture, but the name on it wasn’t mine. “A clerical error”, Franco explained when I inquired.
And thus I am ushered to lobby after lobby, each more exclusive than the previous one. Finally the steward leaves me in front of a glass door with the words “Inequality Suite” engraved on it.
I suspend judgement and let myself in. The room - or rather, the tastefully furnished mini apartment - offers an insuperable view of the pitch. A giant TV screen touts yet-to-be-released movies and there’s a smorgasbord next to a fully stocked wine cellar. Suspicious of any unearned privilege, I sceptically sample the food and pick a bottle.
Italy arrive at this game as clear favourites, I reason from the depths of the softest sofa I ever laid my arse on; and in a show of confidence for his squad, Mancini decided to put in a lot of new faces - a risky move in a knockout game. Tonali and Sensi flank Verratti in a new, offensive midfield, while Belotti is the centre forward as Immobile’s honeymoon with goal seems to have faded away.
Austria’s line-up is largely as expected, relying on Alaba’s exceptional talents and hard work. I think about the Wunderteam, the Austria side that dominated football in the 30s and were dissolved after Germany’s annexation of Austria. What a waste. My mood darkens and when Chiellini’s header goes past Lindner after only 5 minutes I celebrate with a gulp of Traminer and a brusque jot on my notebook.
Italy are cruising now, but maybe they haven’t perfected that part of the game yet, because Sabitzer, the Leipzig talent who AC Milan are eyeing for an eye-watering 45 million euro, flicks a ball over Verratti just outside the box and volleys it into the top corner, past a powerless and for once blameless Donnarumma, who is left contemplating the celebration of the as-of-now 50 million future teammate.
I foreshadow a cursed game, and my fears become all too real when on 38 minutes, Donnarumma dives for a weak wide shot by Alaba and doesn't get up. After the medics check on him, he leaves the pitch with a limp that doesn't look like it will heal in a week, and Sirigu takes his place.
I feel more and more deflated as Italy pick up the game again and my mind wanders off. Maybe it’s the caviar, I think, and I decide to self-medicate by upgrading to hard alcohol. Which is not a good idea because it gets me brooding about Matthias Sindelar, the gem of that Austrian Wunderteam, and how he must have felt in those last games of the 1938 World Cup, knowing he would never play for his country again. He refused to join the German team afterwards and was found dead under mysterious circumstances a year later.
I’m suddenly sickened by all of this. By the food, by the booze and the luxury and the Nazis. The Nazis most of all. I can’t spend a second more here, so I grab two bottles of Traminer, stuff my pockets with mignon vodka and storm out.
Just outside I almost bump into a towering figure posing for a group of photographers. The flashes almost blind me but I recognize the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and in my rotten mood I’m ready to catch him off guard and ask about Sindelar, ask him the truth about his death, if it’s true that he was murdered. But as I get closer, three sturdy men in overalls get around him and cart away what I now realize is a wax statue of the chancellor, set up in the lobby for a publicity stunt by a well-known wax museum.
Angry and confused, I use the magical powers of my pass to get a tray of gourmet fish and chips, then sneak into the stands and find a place next to a group of German-speaking big-bellied blonde men. I lay low and nurse my foul mood with grease and the odd mignon bottle. When on the 56th minute Belotti scores with a beautiful header, I am startled by my neighbors’ cheers for Italy’s lead, and to my puzzled expression they tell me in a heavily accented Italian that they’re from South Tirol, the autonomous region of Italy which was Austro-Hungarian up until 1919.
I think of Alcide De Gasperi, the last prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy and the first of the Italian Republic after WWII, who was from South Tyrol and in his youth was an elected representative in the Austrian Imperial Council. I ask them if a vote was held tomorrow, whether they would choose to stay in Italy or join Austria. Nine out of ten pick Austria, and the tenth is actually a guy from Munich who doesn’t understand the question. Nothing really changes, I guess. Nor does my mood, or my well-being. I am now properly hammered and I barely notice Insigne slipping past two defenders, faking a direct shot and lobbing the goalie with the smoothest finish.
I partake without joy in the beer-stained celebrations around me, but I’m only waiting for the game to end. I say goodbye to my fellow countrymen and head out. My head is exploding and I have trouble placing my feet on the correct step, but I get back to the lobby and find myself again face to face with the chancellor hyper-realistic wax effigy. I slap him on the back and say: “This time we were the Wunderteam, my man!”
I only have time to see him turning towards me with a bemused look before four bodyguards pin me to the ground as a salvo of crushed mignon bottles pop from my pockets.