On the 30th anniversary of Italia ’90, there’s nothing I would enjoy more than waxing poetic about Diego dividing Italy, Milla and the corner flag skank, even Caio, that Italian futurist fever dream of a mascot (design geeks rejoice). But I’m not going to, sorry.
The truth is in 1990 I was 8 and more interested in Lego than whatever the World Cup was, I wouldn’t get into football—REALLY into it—for a few years. “Write what you know” is the adage. I didn’t experience Italia ’90, so I have to write what I know.
“My work consists of two parts: of one which is here, and of everything I have not written.
And precisely this second part is the important one.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Wait what? Admittedly, Wittgenstein was a wild guy, some interesting theories about color that make me wonder how he’d have fared as a referee. But I digress; maybe he was onto something. Maybe memory too, is about the importance of what one hasn’t experienced, what it might conjure.
Swiping through an Italia ’90 post I’d glossed over a couple times already, I froze on a photo of Toto Schillaci, defender closing in, head emerging from blue waves of an Azzurri shirt, turning on the ball like a working-class Nuryev. Zooming in on the badge I realized it was the old U.S. National Team badge. More importantly for me, the defender was black. I’d always assumed Cobi Jones and Ernie Stewart were the trailblazers .
I grew up in Philadelphia, shadowed by the “War on Drugs”, amid concerns about “welfare queens”, freebasing and teens murdered over Nikes, seemingly a world away from the Stadio San Paolo. In fifth grade I actually found myself a world away, at a lauded Philly private school, whose mind and body philosophy meant sports were mandatory. I found a spot on the middle school C team, the lowest rung of schoolboy football. Yes, we were SO shit (shout out Pat, who scored the squad's lone goal all season). No matter, seventh heaven.
The bubble burst that summer, inquiring about playing football at a sports camp a full paycheck cheaper than the soccer camp I was hoping for. “He think he white! What niggas YOU know play SOCCER?!” It wasn’t being made fun of, more that these were black kids too and I knew they were wrong, the fault didn’t lie with them. Unfortunately, my peers were far too used to the outside world pre-determining their possibilities.
It is the reason Andy Cole was my first football hero. He is the reason my first football shirt was a ‘94-‘95 United home shirt. I support City now and have no problem saying that. Good football is impartial, think Old Trafford applauding [Big] Ronaldo. Good football is raceless, genderless, without color or creed, only favoring grace, passion, power and cunning. Good football is one of the most breathtaking things I have ever witnessed. So, to see black people, beautifully playing a game I was told wasn’t for me, was powerful. It was a revolution, one that has given me indescribable joy.
I’ve reached a place in my life where I am engaging with football on my terms. There, I am thinking about its endless intersections with culture; and more simply, how it has made my life richer, given me community and focused my purpose. That wouldn’t have been possible had I let others define, limit or silence me, but I couldn’t. Football transforms into art fluidly and holistically in a way that is unique to the game, maybe all of sports—it strikes a specific cord. But why analyze? We all know that feeling, ambiguous as the time it takes a ball to cross the goal line; a vague premonition that an equalizer lies at the end of this counterattack, as unifying as the crescendo of ecstasy from 5,000 traveling supporters.
What I am saying is that there is a place in the game for all, but it is up to us to cherish and nurture that space for each other. The only way out is through.