As the child of an avid Italian rugby supporter, watching matches has often been a disappointing experience. The frustrated yells of my father echoed through the house as the Azzurri inevitably let another try through, and after a while, we realised that the most we could hope for were what we described as “moral victories”, where we knew the team had done their best. Loss after loss after loss, it seemed that things would never improve.
Last week, as I was wandering around Florence, I happened upon a poster for Italy vs. Australia. For years, I have been subjected to watching Italy play matches in the UK, one of the only Italian supporters, certain to come away the loser, in a sea of English, Welsh or Scottish fans. This felt like an opportunity finally to be part of an Italian crowd, finally to hear some support for the Italian team. So, I booked my ticket and eagerly headed to the Artemio Franchi stadium on the day of the match.
On the way there with my England-supporting friends, our predictions weren’t positive for the Italians. We were expecting to see a one-sided game, with the Italians trying their best, but resulting in a win for the Australians. As we arrived in our seats, most people around us were probably thinking the same thing. The faces around us, painted in red, white and green, with blue scarves wrapped around their necks, were excited, but there was also a sense of resignation.
Despite the feeling of inevitable doom, Il Canto degli Italiani was sung in a way I’ve never had the privilege of experiencing in the UK. The Italians sang their national anthem strong and loud, voices echoing with pride through the stadium. The team may not be the most successful, but they are loved, and you could hear just how much in every voice. The support was immense.
Then it was kick off, and the Italians, players and supporters alike, absolutely went for it. The cheers of Italia Italia! were deafening and the shouts of indignation even louder. The Italians made their voices heard at every mere sign of foul play from the Australians as well as good play from the Azzurri, with cries of tackle alto mingling with shouts of bravi ragazzi. The cheers reached a peak as Pierre Bruno scored Italy’s first try within the first 20 minutes. Another roar came not long after as Ange Capuozzo made an amazing run and dived over the line, scoring once again for the Italians. There was huge excitement, especially from the children in the crowd, at their new hero Capuozzo, who has become a beloved player after his debut earlier this year.
With the score at 17-8 in Italy’s favour at half time, my friends and I looked at each other in shock. Who is this team and what have they done with the Italians? We were all thinking it, because the Azzurri were unrecognisable. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric as the idea that Italy could win this match began to enter people’s minds.
The second half was more tense as Australia began to close the gap, but the Italian supporters regained their confidence as their treasured Capuozzo flew over the line a second time, scoring the Italians a third try. With the score at 25-15 with 15 minutes to go, things were looking amazing for the Azzurri, but it didn’t last for long, with an Australian try closing the gap once more. An Italian penalty meant that, with only five minutes to go, there were six points between the two teams, and all we had to do was hold out. The atmosphere in the stadium was tense, and it worsened every second as the Australians drew closer to the line. The clock hit 80 minutes. The Italians were so close to victory. Then 25 seconds later disaster struck: the Australians scored a try.
The Italians were one point ahead. The Australians now had the opportunity to get two. The whole match relied on this moment, this one conversion kick. The crowd is expected to be silent for kicks to allow players to concentrate, but for the Italians this proved impossible. The stress, the fear, the anticipation was so intense that they couldn’t help but make noise, even as the announcers asked them to settle down. I could barely stand to look. The Australian ran. He kicked. The ball flew towards the posts… and missed.
I was jumping up and down with everyone else as the crowd erupted with deafening cheers and Italy celebrated a historic victory. Adults and children looked at each other with ecstatic joy on their faces as the relief and disbelief flooded over them. This was the first time in history that Italy had beaten Australia. The players on the pitch went mad, elated with the result and absolutely loving the clamour of the crowd. Their journey around the pitch was followed by the cheers, and Capuozzo, who was hanging back slightly, got his own victory tour, stopping on the way to give a delighted small child one of his socks.
Even now, a couple of days later, I’m still excited and reeling. I can’t believe that I was so lucky. On a whim, I went to a match expecting a unifying experience of Italian rugby, and that’s exactly what I got. But I was also a part of something more, a part of history. Here’s hoping that from now on, with this strong Italian team, we will be seeing fewer “moral victories” and more historic moments.