By Lila McDowell
Special to Page 2

PISA, Italy -- Well, it's the morning after the World Cup Final, and all I have to show for my night are some badly lit digital photos, about 25 mosquito bites, and three stripes of red, white and green grease paint on my left arm. I have no idea how the paint got there, but I can only imagine that in the post-match frenzy that ensued at Ponte de Mezzo and all around Pisa, I must have bumped into one of the many fans who were painted from head to toe with the stuff.

Italy fans
Domenico Stinellis/AP Photo
The celebration lasted long into the night in Italy.

My friend Francesco and I watched the match at a bar in Piazza Vettovaglie, a modest square that, because it is tucked away behind Pisa's main promenade, is mostly unknown to the tourists who come for the Leaning Tower and stay for an afternoon of shopping and a gelato or two. It was the same bar at which I watched the Germany-Portugal consolation game Saturday night, on a screen set up in front of about 10 tiny, metal tables. And last night those tables were stretched to their limits, as a hundred or so people situated themselves and started on their first of many glasses of birra. A lucky few who came especially early got to claim the chairs, but the rest of the crowd was content to get comfortable right there on the pavement, or on what looked like an extremely precarious scaffold nearby.

The crowd for the Germany-Portugal game didn't hold a candle to Sunday night's gathering, and rightly so. Forcing teams to play for third place after they've already been knocked out in the semifinal seems to me a form of cruel and unusual punishment. But watching the game made for good fun, since the only people that many Italians hate more than the French are the Germans. Regrettably, we watched the Germans cream the ill-fated Portuguese, which inspired a sympathetic round of "Povero Portogallo! Speravo per voi." Poor Portugal! I was hoping for you guys.

The bar was giving out plastic containers full of a simple pasta that someone had put together (bow ties, cut-up tomatoes and gems of mozzarella) and people were passing around whatever they had brought from home (fried shrimp, fresh fruit, bottles of supermarket champagne). The cheering started long before the game did; by 7 p.m. local time some shirtless guys with drums were stationed behind the bar crowd beating out the rhythm for some particularly colorful taunts, including one involving the French players' mothers that I am too much of a lady to reproduce here. The French team was too old to win, people were saying. A round of the Italian national anthem started. Someone next to me spilled his beer.

And the game itself? Well, you saw what happened, didn't you? Can you imagine the ruckus when Zidane scored on that totally bogus penalty kick? Middle fingers were going up at the screen in spades. But the Italians showed them, did they not? Because shortly thereafter came the corner kick that was headed into the net -- a legitimate goal for Italia and a reason for the crowd to burst into a frenzy. And I was cheering just as loud as everyone else -- until, that is, I could no longer see or hear anything because someone was very adamantly hugging my head. Hoping it was Francesco, I initiated the classic hug-and-jump -- a move that has been perfected by Italian soccer fans -- and tried to free my head from his grasp. But it wasn't Francesco after all. In fact, I'd never seen the guy who was hugging my head, but I didn't care, because Italy had scored and was back in the game, and now we could all sit back down and get to work on our third beer.

I couldn't have asked for a more suspenseful and ultimately joyous ending to the World Cup game that I got to watch in Italy. A crowd that had grown to more than 200 people sat holding hands, not daring to breathe, some unable to watch and reduced instead to staring into their beer. And the only thing more exciting than the moment the last penalty kick successfully hit the back of the French net? That would have to be the citywide party that took place afterward. People lined the streets, wrapping themselves in their Italian flags and dancing and clapping to the opening riff of the White Stripes song "Seven Nation Army" -- clapping which eventually turned into singing, which eventually turned into a chant of "OHHH bast-ardi-fran-ceeee-siii …"

A few daring (and probably very drunk) young men climbed the statue of Garibaldi himself and waved Italian flags spray-painted with the message "Noi abbiamo Grosso," staking the claim that Grosso, one of the most valuable players in Sunday night's game, is Pisano. And they cheered especially loudly for Grosso when someone projected the names of each player onto a building in the middle of Piazza Garibaldi: GROSSO! MATERRAZI! PIRLO! DE ROSSI!

By 2 a.m. the streets were full of broken glass, spilled beer, water poured from apartment windows onto the fans below, noisemakers that were broken or used up, the remains of homemade fireworks, and, of course, a few thousand Italians who would still be partying there for hours to come. I parted ways with Francesco around then, taking my chances at navigating my bicycle through the streets to get home to bed after such an exhausting night of anticipation, cheering, drinking, hugging-and-jumping and overall debauchery-filled celebration.

I leave you with one last thought -- a wise one provided to me by Francesco, my game companion: "Grazie a dio che la coppa mondiale sia ogni quattro anni," he told me. Thank God the World Cup happens only once every four years. "Fisicamente, non sopravivremmo di piu'." We wouldn't physically survive the excitement if it happened more often than that. Amen.




Lila
McDowell
VIVA ITALIA