Just a few years ago he would angrily cut off contact with me, an acquaintance recently wrote to me. Without warning, goodbye. His brief dissatisfaction was with a picture of me that I had recently shared on a social network. Show me the Italian national team jersey.
But now, according to an acquaintance, his image of Italy has changed “fundamentally for the better.” Now he can look at the picture without getting angry at me.
My friend is not so alone. Italian footballers have reached the semi-finals of the European Championship, as Spain awaits (9pm, live tape SPIEGEL.de; TV:ARD). And if you follow the mood around the tournament, there are also many football fans in Germany who are sticking with Italy after the DFB-Elf pulled out. Or at least many who would not immediately start an uprising if Italy became European champions again for the first time since 1968.
Some think coach Roberto Mancini’s outfit is beautiful, others can enjoy the tireless defensive duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Or they are simply surprised by how well integrated the team is with each other. I also sympathize with the Italians in this tournament, which is why I buy shirts.
Roberto Mancini by Der M
Photo: Fabio Ferrari / La Presse / Imago Images / La Presse
For a long time, that was out of the question for me. In the summer of 2006, my friends and I (like all other German football fans) made a decision: We will hate Italy, forever and ever. It couldn’t be smaller and more generous. After all, they kicked us out (!) From the tournament, from the World Cup in Germany, the summer fairy tale is over. It felt like a personal disgrace to me and my friends at the time.
We were only 16 at the time and allowed to buy our first beer, completely legally, without a fake student ID. We were boys, but in our first summer of adulthood we felt like heroes.
One shot, one wound
During this time, we may have received one or two rejections from our classmates. But that didn’t matter, we just loved football anyway. It hit us all harder when a footballer must break our hearts: Fabio Grosso in the World Cup semi-final, nearly 15 years ago to this day. I never have to see Grosso’s shot again, I know it flew into the far corner. And I’m still sure today that my idol back then, Oliver Kahn, would have caught the ball. But Jens Lyman was at the gate.
Either way, it was definitely the end of our dreams and Italy was blacklisted.
It was actually a great summer spent at fan festivals in major German cities, in Berlin or Hamburg, always on the pulse of the championship, not to worry, not even the bad reports pissed us off.
The genus Lyman couldn’t hold him – Grosso’s bullet
Photo: Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images
But we stayed home in the semi-final against Italy. Celle, Lower Saxony. I felt wrong, as if we were hiding. In the evening there was a heavy thunderstorm, the TV screen at Fanfest failed shortly before kick-off, and we had to run across half the city to find a TV somewhere. We didn’t see much of the match, but we saw how the Italians took a lot of time for our tastes, and continued to play theatrically on the ground, we saw Grosso. And rejoice for Italy.
We didn’t want to forgive that at the time.
For a long time, the Netherlands was considered the archenemy of the German Football Association, but with the decisive defeat in the World Cup on its own soil, this place was occupied by Italy.
Guilty look: the author in the Italian jersey
visit to Italy
A few years later I spent the summer in Italy for the first time. It had to be: I needed money for my studies, and there is precious little money to be made from training in journalism. You only pay for it. So I became a harvest worker in the Emilia-Romagna region, between Bologna and the Adriatic Sea. Then EM 2012 started.
I only watched this tournament with tired eyes; I often slept during matches after we had dragged rye and wheat from the dry ground for hours in the sweltering heat.
In the semi-finals between Germany and Italy there was the first meeting with the old rival. Now or never! But then Mario Balotelli showed his muscles. Once again DFB-Elf is out.
We German harvest workers prepared ourselves for bad sayings from Italians at breakfast. But it was not there. It was like, “Next time it’s your turn.” Quick nod, wink. Everything is shockingly harmless. If you’re not being taken seriously as a competitor anymore, that’s not a good sign either.
Two goals from Balotelli led Italy to the 2012 European Championship final
Later, after work, we drank red wine in the house of an Italian farmer, and he offered it to us so that we would be in the final against Spain for the Italians. Brotherhood rather than hatred. And for me this red wine, one drop of which was enough after twelve hours of work in the field, was also part of the discovery of La Dolce Vita. Today Italy is always at the top of the travel list.
Since then, I have never followed the Italian national team with thoughts of 2006. There was less and less reason to do so in the years since. In the 2016 European Championship, the German federation team defeated the Italians on penalties, and in 2018, Italy should not even qualify for the World Cup. The former giant, it got smaller and smaller over time (and so did DFB-Elf). It becomes more relaxed with age.
Without arrogance but with a heart
It’s impressive how strong the Italian team is coming back after 2018, and how much they use the low point to develop a team once again that works as a unit and also plays beautiful football. Italy is of course a great football country, however it was strange at the start of the European Championship, the embarrassment of 2018 was so great, the team seemed very mediocre.
And perhaps this was precisely the secret of success and the reason for my sympathy: the Italians came without a star, without big sayings, without the arrogance with which France may have been doomed. After the third match, Mancini gifted 25 of the 26 players from his team to the minutes of the European Championship. He did not disappoint anyone, and he did not disappoint anyone. They just played and won.
Italian football has something rocky about this European championship, playing like the Italian band Måneskin who sang (and won) the Eurovision Song Contest: gritty and sexy. It’s football for the heart.
This team pushes each other and takes the audience with them, myself included. Italy shirts can be worn again.