THIS IS A SPECIAL POST, ON THE OCCASION OF HELLAS’S PLAY-OFF WITH SORRENTO, A REMINDER OF ANOTHER PLAY OFF YEARS AGO WITH REGINA…
The game is at 8 pm. I wait out the last hour in the bar Bentegodi where a particularly heavy-weight thug whom I have never seen before is drinking heavily. “Where are they hiding those five thousand filthy terroni?” he demands. His pretty girlfriend hangs uncertainly on his arm. “Wait till I get my hands on them.”
Standing right beside him, I remark: “Bet there won’t be more than a thousand.”
At once he picks up my accent, but is too drunk to place it.
“De che rassa sito?” he demands in dialect. What race are you? It’s the urgent question that underlies the game, the season, everything. “De che rassa sito?” he repeats, belligerent.
“Do I look Calabrian?” I ask.
His girlfriend pulls him away. Already, shamefully, I’m hoping Reggina will not be fielding any blacks. Despite the ban on bottled drinks, I pick up two bottles of beer from the fridge.
As the game kicks off, the evening is scorching, the sun still fierce and blindingly low. The sud is milling with flags, booming with noise. The ritual insults are exchanged with the Reggina fans, who apparently pulled the emergency cord on their train and tried to load their pockets with stones from between the sleepers. Someone has a banner “DIO NON SALVI LA REGGINA.” God, don’t save the Queen.
The game? I lived through it in such a state of nervousness it would be folly to imagine I could offer reasonable comment. So here, instead, is part of a long letter from my faithful correspondent Matteo, he who is combining relegation battle with girlfriend break up. Watching from the heart of the curva, Matteo picks up the game deep into the second half. It’s still nil nil. Once again, the encounter is characterised by the brilliance and antics of the opposition’s keeper, this time the charismatic if inconsistent Massimo Taibi.
“When Seric is stretchered off I sense it’s the beginning of the end. I look for comfort from the friends around me. But Piero just keeps shaking his head and saying, “Third substitution. Now we can’t bring on Cossato,” while Ernie is smoking one cigarette after another in silence. Reggina have done exactly what they came to do. After a thousand narrow escapes in the first half, they’ve finally put the game to sleep. Taibi turns from his goal towards the curva and looks at us mockingly. Everybody’s shouting, “Figlio di puttana!” He deserves it. Standing there enormous, it seems he wants to take up the whole goal with those awful hands that pushed way such great shots from Mutu and Oddo. Teodorani takes Seric’s place. With his long neck and clumsy way of running he looks more like an insurance agent than a player. And now Reggina are even attacking. The floodlights come up to full power. It’s night. They make the field look longer, endless, especially if you just have to score at all costs. Now we’ve got a corner. Mutu to take it. The cross is sharp and hard. I see Laursen’s blonde head climb up and up and up, right to the third floor. And still up. The impact is superb. He crashes the ball down. Taibi doesn’t even have the time to wonder where it’s going… Goal!!!”
The minutes blink by on the big display board. Huddled in the East Stand the Reggina fans have gone silent. Their drum is silent. Bang it now! Bang your fucking drum now, you bastards! Ferron snatches a possible equaliser from Dionigi’s feet. I smoke two, three, four cigarettes in a row. I can hardly breathe. The players are exhausted with the heat and the tension. Ferron saves again. The referee give four minutes injury time. Four fucking minutes. But Reggina are finished. The game’s over.
Afterwards, Ernie says, “One-nil. That’s okay, it’ll have to do.” I’m thinking, it’s okay about Federica too. It’s the right thing, splitting up. Only with her there won’t be a return match, no more suffering, anxiety, pain. Piero is trying to work out how much it would cost to fly down to Reggio. At least three hundred thou. I haven’t got the cash. I have to be at work Monday. We go and drink at the Bar Bentegodi till the others have to go off to their women and I feel completely superfluous. It takes three beers to put me vaguely back in tune with the world, with the songs in the bar. “Campion, Campion, campion è uno solo.” Then suddenly the place begins to fill with tear gas, the police are on the rampage and I run off down via Palladio back home where Dad’s already drunk and sticks a Heineken in my fist and a couple of cigarettes and it’s off to bed at three thinking tomorrow in the office will be awful.”
Matteo, having opted out of military service, works for the local archives of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage.