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World Cup Flashbacks


It was 1994. I had never watched “soccer” before. But the World Cup was being held here in the United States, and all of my friends from other countries told me I had to watch. So I did. And my life has never been the same since, gratefully.

Iconic heartbreak

I used to watch sports with my dad growing up. I loved basketball, and even liked American football. But none of that prepared me for watching the beautiful game. Because there is simply no other sport quite like it. Eleven players on each side, constantly moving, constantly struggling to get the ball forward or to protect and defend their goal. Goalkeepers defending a net that has a surface area five or six times their height and wingspan. As I watched each game and followed the stories of each team, I became infected with World Cup Fever.

But it was the final that sucked me in and made me a lifelong football fan. Held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a mere 40 minute drive from my home, it was Brazil vs. Italy. Italy were the underdogs going in. But I had been drawn to them as I read about their captain, Franco Baresi, who suffered a knee injury early in the tournament and had to have surgery. But he made a miraculous recovery and returned for the final. Their star was Roberto Baggio, they guy with the really ugly haircut, who did just enough to get them through each round. He almost single-handedly kept them in the tournament. They were coached by the legendary Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi, too. But my favorite was the Italy defense. I always loved defenders in every sport I watched or played. And I would later find out that Baresi, Maldini, Tassotti, and Costacurta were all AC Milan defenders, too.

The most beautiful defending I've ever seen

The day was hot and Italy struggled, but managed to meet Brazil step for step under the Southern California heat. Halftime, and it was still 0-0. Even after 90 minutes, it was still 0-0. I had never been so tense just watching a game in my life. The game went to extra time and I was even more nervous. Fifteen minutes, no goal. The players looked like they would die of heat exhaustion. Another fifteen minutes, no goal. The game would be decided on penalties, the first time in a World Cup Final. This was really strange, I had never watched a sport where a big game was decided in such a cruel manner.

And how cruel. The Italian captain who had fought to come back for this match missed the first penalty, but then Pagliuca saved the Brazilian attempt. I don’t remember ever biting my nails before this, but I’m pretty sure I did that day as the penalties went back and forth. Then, another Milan player, Daniele Massaro, missed his penalty. I could barely watch. Brazil kept their run of penalties, and now it was up to future AC Milan player, Roberto Baggio, the hero of the tournament for Italy. As he stepped up and sent his penalty kick over the bar, my heart shattered into a million pieces. Without my brain even comprehending, Italy had lost, but my heart knew it first.

Legends I fell in love with in spite of failure

And that is how I fell in love with football. Not through a win, not through glory or through trophies, but through a literal heart-breaking loss. I had never known a pain quite like it, and so I knew there would be corresponding joy, or so I hoped. But I knew from that moment that I wanted to watch more of this incredible game, where in the blink of an eye, everything could change and my heart could be stretched so much in 90 minutes, or even 120 plus penalties. Twenty-four football-filled years later, I have no regrets. Plenty of pain and sorrow, of course, but also plenty of joy as well. This year, having a World Cup without Italy is the worst pain of all, though. And it’s not even just one person or one aspect of Italian football, it’s just everything. After the fact, FIFA are going to change their seeding system, but it is way too late for this tournament. It’s just so painful to not see Italy playing in the tournament that changed my life. So I am reduced to being a neutral spectator of this World Cup, enjoying the occasional World Cup Flashbacks.


This post inspired by the music of Survivor’s “The Eye of the Tiger”


If you want to enjoy the ultimate flashbacks, read my “Quattro Stelle” series, a twelve part series that reflects on the four World Cups that Italy won to earn them their four stars