(While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, let's take a tour of Napoli with master photographer John McDermott.)
He is from Argentina but claimed Napoli as his spiritual home.
Diego Armando Maradona played 259 matches for SSC Napoli and scored 115 goals, the most in franchise history.
He lived on a hill in Posillipo, like an ancient prince, and he had the gall to insist Neapolitan fans should root for Argentina against Italy in the 1990 World Cup semifinal because, really, Italians do not consider Napoli to be part of Italy.
His successful penalty kick put Argentina ahead to stay in the shootout. Then Argentina sputtered in the final against West Germany, further north in Rome.
Eventually, his paranoia and dissolution forced him to leave Napoli, but in a way he has never left. His stubby young figure on paintings and posters resists the heat and humidity and grime in the ancient city.
A man of a certain age takes out an ancient clipping that recalls how Maradona declined a transfer to one of the rich clubs up north in Italy. For a mountain of money, he said, “I am Neapolitan and I do not betray my people.”
The memories of Maradona leapt out at a recent visitor, John McDermott, who covered eight World Cups, I believe. John played calcio for an Italian social club in North Beach, San Francisco, and now he and his wife Claudia live in a northeast corner of Italy. He and Claudia were on holiday recently; Diego Armando was everywhere.
But it wasn't all calcio. While John and Claudia were strolling, they saw this:
John McDermott's web site is:
(Great piece by Jason Horowitz on tristezza in Italy.)
* * *
Hoping to feel some enthusiasm for the tottering Italian soccer team, I emailed a couple of Italian friends early Monday with the message: Forza Italia!!!
“Thanks George, but I have already switched sides to Morocco.
“We do not deserve to qualify at ALL!
“Next June Italy-USA: Disappointed Cup!”
The other wrote:
“Thank you Giorgio. But we are pretty bad.”
(My two friends are journalists. Journalists know stuff.)
They were preparing me for the sodden performance in San Siro Stadium in Milan on Monday – a 0-0 return draw in the playoff, after the 1-0 defeat in Stockholm last week, which means Sweden is going to the 2018 World Cup in Russia next year. And Italy is not.
To me, a World Cup does not seem like a World Cup unless Italy is in it. They hadn’t missed since 1958. They won the first one I covered in Spain in 1982 and another one in Germany in 2006 and when I think of the World Cup I think of those beautiful azure jerseys and the merry tarantella of a national anthem.
I was in dank Milan in 1993 when Italy had to get a result to get past Portugal in a similar ansia – and they manufactured a goal out of habit to qualify for the Stati Uniti the next year.
I love Italian ansia – but not so much when they stop producing genius.
Italy had almost nothing on Monday, even though the Italian papers tried to conjure up memories of Pirlo and Baresi and Baggio and Cannavaro and Totti and Del Piero and Rossi and all the other stalwarts of World Cups past.
Ghosts don’t play. That was the real Gigi Buffon, grimacing in pursuit of his sixth World Cup, which would have been a record, but Sweden knew how to hold a one-goal differential for 90-plus minutes. Bravo.
However, there is hope for Italy, just as there is hope for other squads gearing up for their own Disappointed Cup next June when the lads will not have anything more pressing to do.
The terror of these November final play-in series will be diluted in 2026 when the actual World Cup final tournament is expanded from 32 to 48 squads.
This is the gimmick (even worse than baseball's bogus designated-hitter rule) from the masters of FIFA, the world soccer body, known for its scandals, its sweetheart TV contracts. Just as in the game on the field, the names change but the uniform numbers remain the same.
The lords of FIFA have decreed: let there be 48 teams. Good for business. More chance for even ponderous giants like the USA or stale dynasties like Italy and the Netherlands to slip through.
The more the merrier. It’s good for business. Never mind the rank fear that goes through countries like the USA, which was just getting used to qualifying, and Italy, which was tied with Germany for most appearances with 18, but now Germany, the defending champion, goes through with 19, on merit.
So the USA now tries to find a way to include its huge Latino population without families having to pay a fortune just to play the world game, and without parents having to drive children to practices at all hours, many miles away.
Meanwhile: Italy tries to rediscover the moves and passes and laser shots so blatantly missing on Monday, raising the question: Is Italy the new England? (Meaning, well past it.)
Face it: competitive decline means little in soccer, since the barons of FIFA poured rank rain water into the olive oil of the World Cup.
Meantime, pick your team: Morocco, Tunisia, Iceland. Out of 32 teams going to Russia next year, that’s pretty cool. Although the burghers of FIFA may still find a way to screw that up, in the name of democracy. Or viewers.
Roberto Baggio drew attention with public acts of great imagination but that is long over.
He was a relatively simple person who could stun a stadium, a nation, with sudden feats -- a gift, a blessing, like the goal from nowhere that saved Italy in the 89th minute against Nigeria in 1994.
Now, says the convert to Buddhism, life is a daily search for happiness. For his 50th birthday, he did not need glamour, but instead he made a trip to the region of Italy struck by a monstrous earthquake last Aug. 24, and brutally shocked again recently. He saw devastated buildings and disrupted people.
Baggio stood impassively when he botched his penalty kick to end the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil. That was terrible, of course, but he did not make operatic gesticulations, and did not bring up the hamstring that Bulgaria had pounded in the semifinal. The earthquakes are real life.
Baggio does not coach, does not seek the spotlight in the big cities; he gave up his familiar ponytail when his hair became predominately gray. He does not haunt his old squads like Juventus and AC Milan (where he helped win Serie A championships.)
He is a paradox – a Buddhist who likes to hunt small game. (A good friend of mine has Baggio’s voice on his cellphone, asking if a certain piece of equipment might be found in a sporting goods store in the Stati Uniti.)
And for his 50th birthday he chose to visit Amatrice. At one point he said he would like to see what can be done.The video will show an inner-directed man clearly suffering as he walks through the broken town, and then he cries and cannot speak anymore.
* * *
Of course, Baggio’s 50th birthday was not forgotten. Perhaps the sweetest tribute came from Alessandro Del Piero, who played with Baggio for two seasons at Juventus, and replaced him as artist-in-residence for the Azzurri.
What a string of brilliance, from Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) to Il Pinturicchio (an Italian painter.) They scored goals and they assisted on goals and they played for the best squads in the generation-plus when Serie A was undisputedly the best league in the world.
I don’t think I have ever read a more beautiful tribute from one athlete to another:
Baggio and Del Piero both suffered insults from the Juve owner, Gianni Agnelli:
In 1994, Agnelli described Baggio as “a wet rabbit” after a poor performance against Mexico. But Agnelli later compared the master Baggio to the young Del Piero as Raphael against a lesser painter of small stature (Il Pinturriccio.) It’s nice to be the boss.
Baggio and Del Piero had so much more in common – the No. 10, the genius, the awareness, the modesty. Seeing them photographed together gives me shivers of memory, from their long reign of artistry.
I know my friend John McDermott is a great soccer photographer because I have seen his work for over 30 years.
I also know of his fondness for Italy because of his chats, in Italian, with some of the great names in Serie A.
Recently John and Claudia moved from the western outpost of Italy -- North Beach, San Francisco, that is -- to the northeast corner of Italy where he can hear Italian and she can hear German spoken, sometimes at the same time.
John did not need to go to the Giro d'Italia this month. It came to him. He found his spots here and there -- kind of like knowing where his pal Roberto Baggio liked to poach -- and he clicked away.
This is just a sample.
Other photos can be found on his sites:
Sometimes a person is revealed in the chords as well as the relationships.
There was a memorial for Joe McGinniss in New York on Friday, two months after he passed at the age of 71.
Friends and family told their stories, revealing a man of vastly eclectic interests and ties.
Roger Ailes, the brains behind Fox, told of a warm friendship that went back to 1968, when McGinniss, a kid of 26, wrote “The Selling of the President.” They did not fight over politics, Ailes said. They just enjoyed each other’s company.
Others of the liberal persuasion told how McGinniss could write about Ted Kennedy or Sarah Palin with equal tenacity.
And Ray Hudson, the garrulous English soccer broadcaster, who does La Liga of Spain, popped in from south Florida to talk about his friend, who maintained he was actually Italian despite a name and a face that insisted he was surely not.
The four McGinniss children were very sweet with their memories and emotions.
And one of the best stories came from Joe’s lawyer, Dennis Holohan, who told of not being able to even speak of his military service in Vietnam for 20 years afterward. McGinniss had been one of the great American journalists like David Halberstam and Gloria Emerson and Mike McGrady who went there and exposed the mission for the tragic fraud it was.
Finally, Joe cajoled Holohan into joining Joe on a trip to modern Vietnam. They took different routes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, and the lawyer arrived first, taking a taxi tour of a war museum and then a Buddhist temple, where he totally lost it. Meltdown. But his driver consoled him, saying the Vietnamese people had moved on. You’re a good man, Minh said. I can tell. You need to get past it.
When McGinniss caught up with Holohan in Saigon, the lawyer told his friend what had happened at the temple with the taxi driver. McGinniss said he knew it would happen. That was why he proposed the trip. The friend is still stunned that his friend could anticipate such a breakthrough.
I never met Joe McGinniss but we became email pals two decades ago, united by our love of Italian calcio and Roberto Baggio and the language and the daily pace of Italian life. I am never jealous of other people’s talent or success or dedication or great ideas but I was tanto geloso of the time he spent in a hill town, and the book he wrote about a scandal among minor-league players he knew.
I got to know Joe McGinniss better from the music his family selected for the memorial:
And at the end, there was a slide show of Joe McGinniss’ life, frolicking with his children, out and about in the world, thoroughly engaged, enjoying himself immensely.
The background music was:
That’s how I got to know somebody I never met. Addio, buon amico.
Joe McGinniss, who died on Monday at 71, wrote about politics and scandal and hypocrisy. In his foray into Italian soccer, he found himself at that very same intersection.
In his 1999 book, “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro,” he was living in a small hill city in the Abruzzo, getting to know the players. Then he watched them blunder away a final game that allowed the team from nearby Bari to advance into Serie A. Soon he accused some of the players of throwing the game, comparing them to the Red Brigade of the ‘70’s.
“Tu non sei costretto a parlare,” one key player said. You don’t have to speak.
This was revolutionary stuff in 1999. Seven years later, the world discovered that major teams in Serie A were leaning on referees and some players were gambling on their sport. Joe was not surprised. By that time, he was back in Massa-chusetts. The beautiful game was much like the rest of life.
We had one thing in common – awe of Roberto Baggio, the wispy pigtailed Buddhist genius, who created beautiful moments, from nothing.
“Other than my sons, he's the only man I've ever truly loved,” McGinniss wrote in an e-mail.
We never met. I remember seeing a very young sportswriter with a lean and hungry look, working for the Bulletin (“In Philadelphia nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.” But not anymore, inasmuch as that paper is long defunct.)
He soon wrote “The Selling of the President,” about the Nixon campaign of 1968, and later “Fatal Vision,” about the conviction of an army doctor for killing his pregnant wife and two children.
Janet Malcolm and others have accused McGinniss of misleading the doctor by professing to believe him to keep his access. I have never fully understood that. As a reporter, I have sat and listened to politicians, business people, sports officials, religious leaders and entertainers tell me all kinds of stupidità, and usually I kept a straight face, The trick is to keep them talking.
McGinniss and I never discussed that, or his time in Alaska, living next door to the Palins. I was jealous that he had lived in the Abruzzo. I’ve got dozens of his e-mails, deploring the gun culture in America or bad soccer on the tube, but he never bemoaned his wretched medical luck – inoperable prostate cancer, 14 months ago.
“Welcome to the Hotel Carcinoma," he wrote last year. He could not hang in there for the World Cup – Pirlo and Buffon and Balotelli in Brazil. I would have loved to hear his critiques.
Buon lavoro. Buona vita. Riposate in pace.
Take it from me, since I was around a Conclave, the Vaticanologists do not know what they’re talking about when they predict the new pope.
Better you should consult a Roman housekeeper from Sardinia, named Grazia. She will know.
I discovered this in August of 1978, when I was dispatched to Rome upon the death of Pope Paul VI. (The first thing I learned is that journalists in Rome do not refer to the popes by number but by their original family name; Montini had just passed, for example.)
Every expert was talking up the most famous candidates – Baggio, Maldini, Baresi, Del Piero. (Those are actually soccer names; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. The point was, the favorites were all Italian.)
As soon as I got to Rome, the Times promptly went on strike. Our bureau chief departed for, I think, the beaches of Sardinia, lending his flat in the Piazza Navona to me and a colleague and our ladies. This gift included his Sardinian housekeeper, well under five feet tall, named Grazia. Her sister, also under five feet tall, was visiting. They wore black all the time.
Since I was the only one of our group who spoke any Italian, Grazia ran the household through me, but mostly she divulged her predictions for the upcoming conclave:
Signore Giorgio! Cardinale Luciani! Venezia! Famiglia Socialista! Uomo di Popolo!
I recited to her the names of all the Italian favorites. She wagged her index finger at me like a defender telling the referee not to give a yellow card.
Since I was on strike, my wife and I took a side trip to Vienna and Budapest. We came back when the conclave began. Grazia repeated her assertion that the Venetian cardinal would win.
Then one afternoon, while I was taking a blessed nap with the shades drawn, I could hear bells ringing all over Rome. I heard bustling in the hallway. Grazia and her sister, in their finest black, were heading off to church to pray for the new pope.
Grazia paused in the doorway and delivered her punch line:
Signore Giorgio! Cardinale Luciani! Venezia! Famiglia Socialista! Uomo di Popolo!
Albino Luciani lasted only a month. He was succeeded by a Polish prelate named Karol Jósef Wojtyla (whose name emerged from the first conclave; maybe I’ll tell that story in a day or two.)
If you want to know the identity of the next pope, ask a Sardinian under five feet tall. Or her sister.
Mario Balotelli broke down Germany – Germany! – on Thursday.
It was compelling viewing at the center-of-the-Italian universe, Mama’s of Corona, Queens, surrounded by antipasto and cannolis and friends.
Three Italophiles – a local hero named Minaya plus a Blum and a Vecsey -- watched Balotelli grow in stature before our eyes.
As soon as the big dude blasted his second goal against what had been the strongest-looking team in the Euros, his inner knucklehead could not resist, and he whipped off his jersey, the worldwide macho gesture of goal-scorer pride.
Of course, by football regulations, that cost him a yellow card, making him vulnerable to suspension for Sunday’s final against Spain.
Still, Balotelli was an impressive sight, a son of Ghanaian immigrants named Barwuah, adopted at 18 by an Italian family, displaying his rippling muscles.
“If he scores another goal, they’ll put up a statue of him in Florence,” somebody said.
“Il David Nero,” somebody added respectfully in Italian. The Black David.
The growth of Balotelli in this tournament has been impressive, a tribute to the man himself and also to Coach Cesare Prandelli, who seems to treat him with calm dignity, neither despairing nor fawning. In the quarterfinals, Prandelli sent Balotelli out first for the penalty kicks against England, and the big guy whacked one past his Man City teammate Joe Hart. If the coach thought he belonged out there….
On Thursday we gathered for the semifinal at Leo’s Latticini, also known as Mama’s, at 46-02 104th St., about a mile south and west of the ballpark I prefer to call New Shea.
Ron Blum is a football-soccer expert for the Associated Press; he takes his family to Verona and La Scala every year. I have been an Italy admirer since my first family trip decades ago. And Omar Minaya, son of the Dominican Republic, grew up in the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Corona, dropping into Mama’s when he could afford a sandwich or a biscotto. Later he played two seasons of pro baseball in Italy, and loves to speak the language.
Minaya, who now lives in leafy New Jersey, and works in the front office of the San Diego Padres, was on a short home visit for his son's graduation. He remains the favorite son of Mama’s, which has two outlets in the Mets’ ballpark. When he worked nearby, he often ducked over to Mama’s for a snack, a chat, a World Cup match. Anybody who still has a home neighborhood is a lucky person.
Although he left after the disastrous season of 2010, this is the kind of guy Omar Minaya is: last year he escorted his successor, Sandy Alderson, to Mama’s –“just to show him the neighborhood, you know,” Minaya explained on Thursday.
Mama’s remains the way it has for seven decades, with inevitable changes. The matriarch, Nancy DeBenedettis, passed late in 2009 at the age of 90, but her name lives on.
Get this: the official city street sign on the block now says: Mama’s Way.
And get this: Public School 16, a few blocks away, has been officially renamed. The Nancy DeBenedettis School. (Read more here about her inspiring American life.)
“I get tears in my eyes when I talk about it,” said Irene DeBenedettis, one of three sisters who operate the little empire on Mama’s Way.
She was showing me a montage in the window, photos of friends and celebrities who have visited Mama’s. (Half a decade ago, Mario Batali, the celebrity chef, paid the huge compliment of dropping in. (“Mama asked him, ‘Who does your hair?’” Irene said, referring to his iconic ponytail. )
Inside, we were fussed over by Marie DeBenedettis and Carmela Lamorgese, Mama’s two other daughters, and we saw Carmela’s daughter, Marie DiFeo, and her baby, Gina DiFeo, born last Sept. 23, and was wearing an Italia shirt for the Germany match. The staff, from far-flung provinces of Italy, bustled in with cheese, salami, olives, bread, plus pasta with absolutely delicious broccoli rabé, followed by roast beef and potatoes and salad. There might have been a bit of wine, too. Then came the desserts and the coffee.
Before the match, we stood and sang the Italian anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song of the Italians), the most merry anthem in the world. Perhaps we were not as passionate as Gigi Buffon, the Azzurri portiere, who bellows the anthem with his eyes closed, but we tried. Then we remained standing for the German anthem. Oranzo Lamorgese, Gina’s grandfather, is originally from Bari but lived and worked in Hamburg and Dusseldorf for a decade and played semi-pro soccer there. He spoke with great respect for modern Germany – and its football squad.
At halftime, Marie DeBenedettis came back and said their deli next door just had a customer – Dwight Gooden himself, buying a hero sandwich. She had invited him to sit with us, but Doc said he was double-parked and didn’t want to get a ticket.
We watched as Prandelli wisely removed Balotelli, to protect him from a second yellow card, to preserve him for the final as the Azzurri outlasted Germany, 2-1, to advance safely to the finals. Italy has long produced artful midfielders and defenders who specialize in the defensive catenaccio, the bolt. But now it has a force up front, a striker who is growing in size and tactics, match by match.
The three sisters plied the Italophiles named Minaya, Blum and Vecsey with enough love and goodies to last us until Sunday’s final. Mille grazie, amiche mie.
The United States did beat Italy, 1-0, in Genoa on Wednesday. However, that was not the Italy of four World Cup championships, and it probably was not the Italy that will play in the European championships in June.
If it had been Italy – you could say – the home team would have found some resourceful and maybe even nasty way to take the air out of the Americans’ tires to salvage at least a tie. But the Italians could not get that done. Therefore, logic dictates, that was not quite Italy out there, even with Andrea Pirlo chipping exquisite passes to all kinds of forwards.
Still, the Yanks were able to create the one sturdy goal that gave them the first victory ever against Italy, in 82 years of competition. The Americans had lost seven and drawn three until Wednesday.
Probably the best part of the victory was that Jozy Altidore did what he was not able to accomplish in 2010 in the World Cup in South Africa – that is, hunker down near the goal, control a neat centering pass from Fabian Johnson, and hold off the Italian defenders while Clint Dempsey slipped into position to take a pass and knock in the goal.
Altidore and the U.S. are still capable of playing stinkers in more important matches, as proven in the 2010 World Cup when after drawing with England they were held to a draw by Slovenia, barely survived with a last-minute victory over Algeria, and then were outplayed by Ghana in the knockout round.
It was good to see the stalwarts like Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley, Carlos Bocanegra and Dempsey play solid ball with a lead. Jurgen Klinsmann’s trio of German-born recruits – Danny Williams, Terence Boyd and Johnson – displayed the depth of soccer in German, or rather the lack of widespread development in the U.S.
There have been revolutionary victories before – over Spain in the Confederations Cup in 2009, for example, and over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, still probably the most important victory by the U.S. in half a century.
In the post-match interview Wednesday, Dempsey called the victory “ a confidence builder,” and he called the team “a work in progress.” He was right. Been there before.
Our lads – well, our German lads -- are in Genoa, about to play Italy. Why am I not in Genoa? I would find the hotel along the Ligurian Sea where I once interviewed Ruud Gullit. Best shrimp risotto I ever had, on one of the most beautiful afternoons I can remember, warm breeze along the sea.
That’s the first thing that comes to mind while waiting for the friendly at 2:30 PM on Wednesday. I have no idea what to expect from this latest makeshift lineup from Jurgen Klinsmann. He is looking at potential players; this is why they play friendlies.
Meantime, the mind wanders. Mine wanders back to 1993, when I scored a trip to Milan to watch Italy qualify for the 1994 World Cup, and arranged an interview with Gullit, who was playing for Sampdoria during their brief glory days.
But I screwed up, and took the slow train from Milan, and arrived at the Sampdoria grounds after Gullit had left. I remember Gianluca Pagliuca would not talk to me when I asked if he knew where Gullit lives, but my taxi driver extracted from his colleagues that Gullit lived in a villa in a suburb just south of Genoa. He took off down the hill and spotted the right villa and we knocked on the door and Gullit poked his jangly dreadlocks out the window and told me to have lunch at the team hotel across the street, and he would join me after his family’s lunch.
I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes wondering if I tipped the driver enough.
The aforementioned risotto was tremendous, and Gullit, true to his word, popped over from his villa. Heads turned in the restaurant as we chatted for an hour. The item I remember most from the interview was that in 1993, already an international celebrity, Gullit had never visited the United States.
I guess I exhibited chauvinistic surprise, because he quickly said, “But I have met Nelson Mandela.” That pretty much shut me up.
When Gullit scooted home, the hotel manager was evidently so impressed that he invited me for an elegant coffee in his office, and we chatted for half an hour – in Italian. This is why I love Italians: they let me speak their language, in however wretched a fashion.
Then I took a stroll along the sea, mid-November, people out for a stroll on one of those bonus autumn afternoons that you know you will remember all your life. Then I took the light rail to the Genoa station and headed back to Milan.
Haven’t been back since.
This is what I wrote back in 1993:
Now we will get a glimpse of Genoa, or at least its soccer stadium. Via good old ESPN2, we will watch our latest recruits from the academies and reserve teams and rosters of the Bundesliga.
But no shrimp risotto.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.