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Gastelum: Bellissimo (Sept. 7)

By Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, September 6, 2012

Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

We think we’re fans. We think we know how to cheer on a team. But we have no idea. Because they were cheering on a country, whose fate rested not on a currency, but on a ball.

The colors were green, red and white, yet our shirts were blue – all of them. The newspapers say our numbers could have filled at least four Notre Dame Stadiums, maybe even six or seven. And yet we weren’t even at the game. Actually, we were over 1,400 miles and more than a few borders away from the stadium, but I bet they heard us on the pitch in Ukraine.

It was the final for Euro Cup 2012 – just a soccer tournament – and my entire country shut down. There is a famous saying that all roads lead to Rome, but surely they were all empty. From the postcard-perfect Venice canals to the winding-road splendor of the Amalfi coast, all one heard was the hum of a single commentator’s voice, echoing from the newest of plasma screen televisions into the centuries-old cobblestone streets. It was a moment known most widely in this sport, in a country known mostly for its history. And for once, the discernible image of my country wasn’t a Colosseum – it was a shirt. Blue, to be exact. And one word came to mind: Bellissimo.

Experts say as many as 500,000 Italians packed the ancient ruins of Rome, where the city placed four giant 500-square foot screens. That was not a typo. Half a million came just to watch a soccer game on a glorified television from a quarter of a mile away in a 95-degree haze. Everyone had the same idea: When in Rome.

And there we were just two kids, mixed in with young families, elderly couples and raucous teens ready to party. But at that moment, we were all the same, wearing the same shade of blue. It didn’t matter if you were a progressive student of the Information Era, a distrustful veteran of the Mussolini era or just a little kid out way past your bedtime. You were Italian, and that’s what mattered. My mother’s former home became my forever home. Their abiding, incessant pride for a shirt became mine.

Our version of pre-gaming was tying flags around our foreheads and adorning our backs with patriotic capes. Our flyover quickly became hundreds of thousands of flags flying over our tricolor crowns, fervently ripping through the scorching air.

And boy, was our anthem made national. The song I admittedly, yet proudly, know better than our own national anthem probably interrupted Mass all the way to our Basilica of the Sacred Heart that day. To say it was loud would be lying. I went from singing that very song alone in my living room in California for the 2010 World Cup to screaming past the top of my lungs (and probably still not having any effect on the volume) with 499,998 people I had never met for the 2012 Euro Cup. But with them, I shared the same language and culture since birth and the same passion since I can remember. Oh, and the same shirt too.

I was fortunate to be there in the Circo Massimo, where the ancient Romans hosted mile-long horse races, having survived being up-close and almost too personal with the widespread street riots just three days prior following a semifinal upset victory over the tournament-favorite, Germany. It wouldn’t have been the first time Rome was burned to the ground, but maybe the first time for a soccer match.

Because that semifinal match meant so much more than redemption from the infamous one-and-done performance at the 2010 World Cup, it meant hope in the threads of an azure jersey. For just one night, it served as a welcome, refreshing distraction from one of Europe’s worst economies and financial struggles that have affected everyone, including the “one percent”, for the past few years. For just one night, a goal was the country’s actual goal. And for just one night, it showed us the breathtaking power of sport, in the dazzling magic of a shirt.

And the final game hadn’t even started yet. It was… bellissimo.