Vieri, victory, and vecchi tempi – Italy vs. Ecuador 2002

Sadly for me, there will be no jet filled with Italian superstars departing from Fiumicino to Moscow in 2018.

I haven’t decided yet if no involvement is more painful than exiting the real thing in some dramatic fashion. After all, sadness and anger are two intensely different emotions that manifest themselves in unique ways. I suspect with years under our belts, all Italian supporters will hold far greater hostility toward Luis Suarez than we will toward Gian Piero Ventura. Either way, the Azzurri won’t be involved in this World Cup whatsoever, and no matter how many silver linings I draw up, my summer Russian treat is simply a few fries short of a happy meal.

Looking ahead, the hope is that a clean slate will reap some reward in bringing through young promising talent – Federico Chiesa, Bryan Cristante, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and Alessio Romagnoli to name a few. At least for the time being, gone are the days of the national team staff holding camp with players shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or. Since trading in the castello for something a little less opulent, fans have been living a life ‘you don’t know what you got till it’s gone’. This is not to suggest that they took for granted the players previously at their disposal, it is just that at one time that was the norm – a wonderfully talented and brilliant norm.

A good illustration of what luxury the Italians had available for selection is the Japan & South Korea 2002 World Cup. Italy cruised through qualifying undefeated under Giovanni Trapattoni. They would enter the first tournament on Asian soil high on confidence with a squad of proven winners. It was a well-balanced team with no player younger than 24 years old, and only two older than 30 with one of them being captain Paolo Maldini.

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Personally, as a nine-year old boy, every one of those players were stars by sheer virtue of wearing the Azzurri blue; a lighter, baby blue Kappa version of the historic colour scheme, to be exact. I shed a small tear of great joy at the memories of those few major tournaments that coincided with my youthful summers that acted as genuine holidays – no fine coordination of sick days or switching shifts required then. You would ride your bike over to the local park days before kick-off, playing out all your hopes for the match just the way your optimistic younger self thought it. Corruption, scandal, and gamesmanship were not part of your lingo yet. The beautiful game was just that – beautiful.

In the case of Italy’s opening Group G game against Ecuador, the time difference between Japan and Toronto is 13 hours. The local 20:30 kick-off at the Sapporo Dome meant an early morning for me. A 7:30 alarm was no such struggle at this age. And much like those carefree summer months, I also long for the days where the ‘snooze’ button wasn’t something I had to battle with in order to roll out of bed. On cue, I remember being awake and glued to our old family tube television set ready to watch. Like most families, we had our game-day rituals and silly superstitions. My older brother was largely the one responsible for setting up the adornments; no flag hung imperfectly, no changes in the assigned seating arrangements and a palm sized gold Fevernova ball nestled to the right of the TV stand.

Trapattoni set out his side in a 4-4-1-1 that Roberto Mancini would salivate at the thought of having today. Gianluigi Buffon, coming off the completion of his first full season at Juventus, started in goal anchoring a simply breathtaking backline of Christian Panucci, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini. Beyond them featured a four-man midfield of Luigi Di Biagio, Damiano Tommasi, Cristiano Doni and Gianluca Zambrotta. All this star power was capped off with a front two of Francesco Totti and Christian Vieri. Scenes, I tell ya.

My father hardly had a chance to finish his espresso before Italy scored. Christian Vieri smashed home a side footed shot in the 7th minute to make it 1-0. In three touches, Italy marched the length of the pitch to find the opener. A deep ball overhead from Panucci was met by Totti, who smartly hooked it back for the on-rushing Inter Milan striker to do what he did best.

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They remained in the mood and stamped their authority in the 27th minute when Vieri bullied his way through Augusto Porozo before bettering the keeper to make it 2-0. Just the way I envisioned it on the park pitch. The team would hold that result and take full points from their opening game.

One of the difficult things about being a nine year old during a World Cup is you likely have not built the ability to master your emotional stamina. It’s a dangerous game getting high with the highs and low with the lows in a major tournament. Be an Italy supporter long enough and you will quickly come to learn that, maybe more so than any other nation, reserving your high elation for the tournament’s latter stages is a wise approach. Italy would prove this theory right in their following two matches, stuttering on both occasions. A 2-1 defeat to Croatia put our hopes for progression in jeopardy and a less than convincing 1-1 draw with Mexico saw the team squeeze through by a single point.

The highly discussed controversy regarding the corruption avalanche that was South Korea and Byron Moreno is best suited for another conversation entirely. But as a young boy, that opening match struck a chord with me and it will remain long in my memory as a particularly happy World Cup moment. As you get older, you see the game in many different ways. Some days it all comes together perfectly, and it certainly did for me on that early morning of June 3rd, 2002.

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