England vs. Italy [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
When we arrived at the stadium, there was a good vibe in the air.
England fans were tentatively confident. After all, they have a mighty tradition, and the stars of their current team—Smith, Hobbes, Benthan, Locke, and Russell—have been performing exceptionally well, nearly everyone agrees.
The story coming into the match is provocative. We’ve been watching short features on TV for weeks. Remarkably, most of the English players have risen from the depths of poverty and drugs in northwestern London. Because of their intimate past, the team has had its share of scandals and near breakdowns, but with the support of their new sponsor, World TeleCom Cellular, and looking back on some of their favorite players of the past, England thinks it has a shot to go all the way.
And who are the Italians? Yes, historically, they’ve done incredibly well, which is surprising because no one remembers them. And who’s even heard of their players? Ferrante? No one sitting around me even knew what he looked like. Olga? Rumors coming in to the match are that Olga is still a bit of a wreck since Mario, the Italian coach, suddenly, without any explanation, left the team. Olga was left holding the bag, and it’s not altogether clear that she even knows what she’s been playing for anymore.
Yes, a promising match for England. They’ve studied, they’ve overcome, and they’re putting all they learned at the forefront.
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Italy scored in the first minute. Not only that, but they just looked coolly on—no fanfare, no running around the field. They simply lined up for the next play, sober, serious, and—if I’m being honest—joyless.
Here’s a replay of their opening drive:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
I don’t want to suggest that England had nothing to offer—of course it did—but the writing was on the wall from this short opening strike. Everyone knew it. The stadium was silent. It was a violent silence.
Nevertheless, England took the hit and didn’t let it get them down too much. Though quite a bit more roundabout, showed its skill in its opening possession. Intricately, the team kicked the ball around, proving to us that they belonged on the field:
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on the school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line — write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
This didn’t result in a score, but all around me people were nodding their heads in agreement: something is going on there. But at this point in the match, no one quite knew what.
All throughout, the game was a wonderful display of incredibly different playing styles, most of them from one team: England. It was hard to pin down which player for the English team was doing the most work, and whichever it was, the flow of the English possessions shifted significantly. If the opening drive was a bit abstract, a bit roundabout, they soon shifted to a more direct style as they subbed out their players, going from natural, to short bursts, back to roundabout. England was reveling in the game itself. They were clever, and they looked up at the fans often, saying with their eyes, “Do you follow?” It was impressive. They probably did have a chance if Italy’s anger drained the team of its energy. But that didn’t happen. Quite the contrary.
Throughout the match, the Italians remained direct—one is tempted to say confrontational. It was as if they blamed the English for all their hidden troubles. They didn’t appear to want to be in the stadium at all, but, hey, this is just the situation we’re all in.
With each drive, they got angrier—that poor English goalie! Brutalized! Once, Olga—obviously the central storm—scored a goal and, while the goalie lay on his side, Olga just stared him down. He had to shield his eyes. The referees wisely focused their attention on the ball.
No doubt, the English team will be analyzing this game for years, trying to express just what was going on, just what social currents were at work, just what drove the Italians to this impressive but ugly display of primeval horror. But it really might be much more simple than anything intricate analysis can capture, something the Italians showed in their playing style: simple, absolute rage.
The English, gracious in defeat, were more than happy to chat to reporters when the game ended. They were disappointed, they said, but they were thrilled just to be there, carrying on the traditions of the great teams of the past. They help up a poster of their hero, Woolf. They plan to watch the remaining matches here before returning to London, though they didn’t want to think too much about that.
Meanwhile, the Italian team was suddenly off the field. They didn’t take questions. No one saw them leave. They might be having a good cry right now. I may do the same.
Trevor Berrett created and edits The Mookse and the Gripes. He is also a co-host on The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast and The Eclipse Viewer Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter (@mookse).