Diego Maradona died two weeks before Paolo Rossi, but they were already linked -- two scamps who hijacked separate World Cups.
Rossi got there first by four full years, more of a surprise than when Diego Armando later commandeered the 1986 World Cup. Maradona was expected to produce a World Cup in his career, but Rossi came from essentially nowhere, from Limbo, from ignominy.
I was at both World Cups, my first and second of eight. Rossi’s rampage stunned me, a Yank who had no clue about world soccer, but was curious.
Brazil was always the favorite and the experts also mentioned Argentina with El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Kid), West Germany, of course, and, reflexively, there was always England, only 16 years past its host-nation glory of 1966.
Instead….instead….Italy came roaring into the World Cup in Spain, like kids on Vespas, roaring into a genteel piazza, grabbing unattended purses from table top -- the dreaded Scippatori.
Italy, the Azzurri, came as a shock after a gambling scandal a few years before. Rossi apparently knew of the coup, but said nothing, and was suspended for two years – at the peak of his career, as an opportunistic forward who found unguarded entryways to the goal.
Rossi was reinstated – what a coincidence – only months before the World Cup because the chatty manager, Enzo Bearzot, wanted him on the squad. I had not arrived at the World Cup in Spain for the first round, and Rossi barely arrived for the three matches, rusty and so insecure that he was waiting for Bearzot to bench him. However Bearzot kept telling him to get his stuff together, he was playing.
The engine was tuned up by the second round – a bizarre three-team round robin quarterfinal. Argentina, which had won in 1978, was touted to win, this time with chunky spectacular Maradona. Brazil, the perennial darlings who played with a flare, was also touted to win, with brilliant offensive players named Socrates, Zico and Falcao.
Italy played Argentina in the first match, and a swaggering defender named Claudio Gentile, known in Italy as Qaddafi, not only because he had been born in Libya but because he tended to hurt people. Non-molto-Gentile mugged Maradona early and often, rendering him pointless, insensate. (That is Gentile, Qaddafi, shirtless, in the video above.)
Meantime, vroom, vroom, here came Italy, players operating in space they never saw in the nasty defensive-minded Serie A of Italy. They moved the ball upfield and then, out of nowhere, came Paolo Rossi – still in the starting lineup? --che sorpresa – operating in wide open lanes that could have accommodated six lanes of Italian autoroutes.
Rossi did not score, but was a threat, and Maradona hobbled off, and Gentile swaggered in victory.
Next, Italy played Brazil, which moved the ball so magically for 75 or 80 yards but then stumbled into Italy’s defensive chain – Il catenaccio.
I remember one moment. The Brazilian right back, Leandro, wanted to get into the fun of moving the ball upfield, so he took off downfield. His swath of unguarded field suddenly was invaded by 12 or 14 Vespas, motors roaring, vroom-vroom.
Italy won, and Rossi scored three goals, I was beginning to get the point. Rossi scored twice in the semifinals against Poland, whose best player was banned for too many yellow cards. Then in the finals, with West Germany’s best player hobbled with a leg injury, Rossi scored once and Italy won, 3-1.
Rossi was voted the star of the game, and while I was in Madrid, writing about the match, my friend Thomas Rogers of the Times, back home in New York, wrote a lovely Man in the News profile of the surprising Paolo Rossi:
I will always love the Brazil of 1982 – the best team ever to not win a specific World Cup – but I was now a wannabe Italian.
Other teams, other stars, come and go: Zidane’s beautiful final in 1998, the U.S. getting cheated by a blatant handball by Germany in 2002, Spain’s coming-of-age in 2010, Germany’s nearly-perfect meshing in 2014.
Now that I am retired and free to root, I wait for the United States to mature (which it is doing with magical frequency from young stars like Reyna and McKennie and Pulisic in Europe)
But I always have a second team – Italy – the blue shirts, the merry little tarantella of an anthem, the legends of maestri like Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Del Piero, and always going back to Paolo Rossi, who came from disgrace and took over a World Cup. Vroom-vroom
You always remember your first.
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(Obit of Paolo Rossi in The Guardian.)
My birth-date pal, John McDermott, ex-difensore del club Italo-Americano di San Francisco, is better known as master photographer of subjects moving and still.
Not to stereotype him, but he is at his best covering the world sport of soccer. (Yes, that is Roby Baggio's voice on his cellphone.)
John is now living in Italy, making art out of the Dolomites and the streets of Napoli. He recently put together the video above for a sports seminar he was giving in Verona. You will recognize Maradona, Baggio, Beckham, Klinsmann, Ronaldo, plus Olympic sports. Click it on, above.
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Lonnie Shalton is a financial-services lawyer in Kansas City who issues occasional sports blogs that never fail to entertain and stimulate me. (I know him through Bill Wakefield, the Kansas City kid who had a very nice 1964 season for the NY Mets.)
Lonnie's latest, in honor of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, is about Negro League Baseball, a passion of his. On this blog, he presents the history,with photographs, of the only woman selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame:
Hot Stove #90 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day (2019) - Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles
[When my law firm added Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday in 2002, I began an annual message within the firm about why we celebrate the holiday. The distribution was later expanded outside the firm, and since 2016 the message has been circulated as a Hot Stove post. Below, my 18th annual MLK message.]
One of the best ways to appreciate Martin Luther King Jr. Day is to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Not just for the memorabilia collection – although that is well worth the trip. There is also a compelling civil rights lesson. As one walks through the baseball exhibits, there is a parallel timeline along the lower edge that places Negro Leagues history in context with civil rights milestones.
In a new exhibit added last year – “Beauty of the Game” – the museum honors the contribution of women both on and off the field. The exhibit features three women who played in the Negro Leagues (Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan), plus one executive, Effa Manley.
Effa Manley is also featured in another well-known museum. She is the only woman ever inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There are 324 men. Below is her plaque at Cooperstown:
Abe and Effa: Effa Louise Brooks grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Harlem after graduating from high school in 1916. She met Abe Manley in the early 1930’s and they married in 1933. They were both baseball fans. Effa went to games at Yankee Stadium (“I was crazy about Babe Ruth”). Abe went to Negro League games when he lived in Pennsylvania and became friends with many of the players. He also once owned a semipro team. Legend has it that Abe and Effa met at Yankee Stadium during the 1932 World Series.
Effa and Abe each brought an interesting backstory. Effa’s maternal grandparents were German and Native American. Her father might have been her mother’s black husband or white boss. Whatever the correct story, Effa lived her life as a black woman married to a black man (actually four, the marriage to Abe plus three short-termers). Abe was in the numbers racket and some of his excess funds would come in handy to own a baseball team. At least two other Negro League teams were similarly capitalized – it’s not like there was a lot spare capital in the black community.
Negro National League (NNL): The original Negro National League was formed in 1920 at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City. The KC Monarchs joined the league and became one of its premier teams. The league was forced to disband during the Depression, but it was revived in 1933. However, the Monarchs did not rejoin, but instead became a member of the new Negro American League (NAL) formed in 1937.
In 1935, Abe Manley formed the Brooklyn Eagles as a franchise in the NNL. He moved the team to Newark the following year, and the team played as the Newark Eagles from 1936 to 1948. Effa became Abe’s partner in the business and soon took over the day-to-day operations. Abe liked the social side – traveling with the players and swapping stories – the team was his “hobby” according to Effa. She did almost everything else: setting playing schedules, booking travel, managing payroll, buying equipment, negotiating contracts, dealing with the press and handling publicity. She was a trailblazer on creative promotions to draw fans. She was also very active in the community and counselled her players to do the same. She became the public face of the Eagles.
Effa was also an active participant in league matters. There, not to the pleasure of some owners, she was outspoken and demanding. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords (and, like Abe, a numbers runner), was president of the league in the early years. His initial take on Effa: “The proper place for women is by the fireside, not functioning in positions to which their husbands have been elected.” Sportswriter Dan Burly wrote that Effa was a “sore spot” with other owners “who have complained often and loudly that ‘baseball ain’t no place for no woman. We can’t even cuss her out.’”
Greenlee learned to deal with Effa, and this leads to a Satchel Paige story. In Larry Tye’s biography of Satchel, the author writes that “[Effa] also was renowned across blackball for her willingness to battle on behalf of both the Newark Eagles and civil rights, her pioneering role as the sole woman of consequence in the fraternity of the Negro Leagues, and her flirtations and more with her husband’s ballplayers.” It is that last item that lends some context to the Satchel story.
Paige had played for Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1936 and then jumped to a Dominican Republic team for 1937. He was potentially returning to the states in 1938, but Greenlee was tired of chasing him and sold his contract to the Eagles. As Effa told the story in a 1977 interview, “Satchel wrote me and told me he’d come to the team if I’d be his girlfriend…I was kind of cute then too…I didn’t even answer his letter.” Satchel’s letter was a little ambiguous: “I am yours for the asking if it can be possible for me to get there…I am a man tell me just what you want to know, and please answer the things I ask you.” Satchel instead pitched in Mexico in 1938 and never joined the Eagles. But Effa’s role was memorialized in the press:
Effa became a force in the league. She pushed for a more businesslike operation and rules to deter players from jumping teams. She argued for an outside commissioner. Her hard work and perseverance brought a grudging respect. In the end, as shown in the photo below, she was “in the room where it happens.”
Effa as Civil Rights and Community Activist: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. came to national attention in 1955 in the bus boycott in Montgomery. That was 21 years after Effa Manley led a civil rights boycott.
Effa was an influential member of the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens League for Fair Play. In 1934, she spearheaded the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign that called for a boycott of Harlem retail stores that would not hire black clerks. One of the key moments was a pivotal meeting between Citizens League leaders, including Effa, and the owner of Blumstein’s, a major department store. The result was a big success.
In April of 1939, Billie Holiday (below) released “Strange Fruit” – the protest song that reenergized the fight for anti-lynching laws. Effa took up the cause that summer with the first of her “Anti-Lynching” days at the ballpark. The ushers wore “Stop Lynching” sashes and collected money from the crowd for anti-lynching causes. [Anti-Lynching Law Update: Since 1901, some 240 attempts have been made in Congress to pass an anti-lynching law. All have failed. In 2005, the Senate issued an apology for its past legislative failures. Lynching is no longer the common form of racist killing, but symbolically, it has remained a blemish. Last month, the Senate unanimously passed an anti-lynching bill – ironically, the presiding officer during the Senate vote was Cindy Hyde-Smith who recently used the term “public hanging” as an “exaggerated expression of regard” for a campaign supporter. The bill was not brought up in the House before the session ended, so the process will need to start again in 2019.]
Other civil rights and charitable causes were regularly given fund raising nights at Eagles games. During the war, funds were raised for bonds and relief efforts. Effa recruited or shamed other teams into participating to raise funds for the NAACP, the Red Cross and community hospitals, among others. As a local paper wrote, “She was one of the few blacks who had a little money, and she put some back into the community.”
And by her actions if not her words, Effa fought for the equality of women in management long before it was fashionable.
The Eagles Players: Abe and Effa’s Eagles had three future Hall of Famers in the infield in the late 1930’s. They were referred to as the “Million Dollar Infield” although this was hyperbole – most players (black or white, stars or not) were not making big money in those days. The first baseman was Mule Suttles, one of the great power hitters in the Negro Leagues. [That’s Mule with Effa below. Effa always dressed fashionably, usually with a fine hat, even at the games. But a photographer talked her into wearing a team cap for this photo op.]
The third baseman was Ray Dandridge. It was said that a train could go through his bowlegs, but that a baseball never did. Shortstop Willie Wells was so good that he was touted as a replacement for the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese who had been drafted for the war in 1942. It was the right major league team, but the wrong year – the Dodgers would break the color line with Jackie Robinson five years later.
Newark continued to add good players who helped the Eagles to mostly winning seasons in the 1940’s. The Million Dollar Infield was joined by four more future Hall of Famers: Leon Day, Biz Mackey, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. The team won the NNL pennant in 1946 and then beat the NAL Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League World Series.
The World Series glory was short lived. The good young ballplayers were being recruited by the majors and the Negro Leagues began to decline.
Effa Manley v. Branch Rickey: Even before the successful 1946 season, Effa felt the sting of losing a star to “organized” baseball. After Brooklyn’s Branch Rickey signed the Monarchs’ Jackie Robinson in 1945, his next two big signings were in April of 1946: Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants and Don Newcombe of Effa’s Newark Eagles. Robinson made it to the majors in 1947, and the other two soon followed.
Effa of course did not like losing good players, but she realized that integration of baseball was a victory for the community. But what rankled her was that Rickey was poaching players without any recognition that Negro League teams had developed the players. She thought compensation was justified, but Rickey refused. Despite some bad press for interfering with the integration of baseball, Effa would not be silenced. And her perseverance paid off. Her stars Larry Doby and Monte Irvin both had feelers from Branch Rickey, but ended up with teams who were willing to compensate the Eagles.
Branch Rickey was set to sign Doby, but backed off when Cleveland owner Bill Veeck entered the picture. Rickey knew it would be good to have a second team integrate, especially one in the American League. So Doby signed with the Indians in July of 1947. Veeck knew that Effa had no leverage to get compensation for Doby. But Veeck was no Branch Rickey. The Indians paid $15,000 to the Eagles. More importantly, Effa had established a precedent that ultimately benefitted all of the Negro League teams (as so noted on her Cooperstown plaque).
The Manleys sold the Eagles after the 1948 season, but Effa still had a connection to her star Monte Irvin: the terms of the sale provided that the Manleys and the new owners would share any money received if a major league team paid for one of the players. This was potentially a moot point when Branch Rickey signed Irvin with no intent to pay the Eagles. Effa fought back claiming that the Irvin had a contract and that she would contest the signing. Rickey backed off and Effa made a deal with Horace Stoneham of the Giants for $5,000. After paying lawyer fees and giving a share to the new owners, Effa got $1,250. She used the money to buy a mink stole.
Some Major League Highlights of Former Eagles: Larry Doby broke the color line in the American League in July of 1947. The next year, he became the first black player to hit a home run in a World Series, helping the Indians win their second title (they have not won since). Newcombe was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1949 and was both the MVP and Cy Young winner in 1956.
In 1951, Monte Irvin led the NL in RBI’s and was instrumental in the famed comeback by the Giants to catch the Dodgers to force a three-game playoff for the pennant. Irvin got a hit in each playoff game, including a homer to help win the first game. In Game 3, Newcombe started the game, but was relieved in the ninth by Ralph Branca who gave up the famous 3-run homer to Bobby Thomson. The Giants then met the Yankees in the World Series where Irvin became part of history by playing in the first all-black Series outfield alongside two fellow former Negro Leaguers (Willie Mays of the Birmingham Black Barons and Hank Johnson of the Kansas City Monarchs). Irvin ignited a Game 1 victory for the Giants by stealing home in the first inning on Yogi Berra. Irvin went on to hit .458 in the Series, but the Yankees won in six games. Irvin was on a Series winner in 1954 when the Giants beat the Indians.
After the Eagles: After the Eagles were sold, Effa continued her work in community and civil rights organizations. But her true cause was keeping alive the history of the Negro Leagues and pushing for the induction of Negro League players into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. She finally saw some movement in the early 1970’s as Satchel Paige was inducted in 1971, followed by five other players through 1975.
To emphasize that many more should be inducted, Effa self-published a book with sportswriter Leon Hardwick in 1976 titledNegro Baseball – Before Integration. Included are 73 biographies of players she felt should be considered for enshrinement. Progress remained slow with only three more players being added before the special committee to add Negro Leaguers was disbanded in 1977. The 80-year-old Effa Manley still had her voice, “Why in the hell did the Hall of Fame set that committee up, if they were going to do the lousy job they did?”
She fired off letters to the Hall of Fame, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and C. C. Johnson Spink, publisher of The Sporting News: “I would settle for 30 players, but I could name 100.” Spink’s column of June 20, 1977, seemed receptive to this crusade by a “furious woman.” She liked that description and saved the clipping.
In 1978, Effa was the special honoree at the Second Annual Negro Baseball League Reunion. Monte Irvin was there and saw Effa wearing her mink stole. He asked if it was the one she got from her sale of Irvin’s contract to the Giants. “Yes, it still looks good and keeps me warm.”
It would take another quarter century, but some 35 Negro Leaguers now have plaques alongside Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and other greats in Cooperstown. Effa’s Newark Eagles are well represented. The team played from 1936 to 1948, just 13 years. But that was enough time for seven Hall of Famers to play a good part of their career in Newark. [To put this in perspective, the Royals have played 50 seasons and produced one Hall of Fame player, George Brett.]
The Eagles of course have another representative in the Hall of Fame – the team’s top executive, Effa Manley. She was inducted in 2006.
Effa’s Hall of Fame induction was a posthumous award. She died in 1981 at age 84. Inscribed on her gravestone: “She Loved Baseball.”
Lonnie’s Jukebox: Three selections today. For those of a certain age (teenagers in the 50’s/60’s), you may remember that you paid a quarter for three plays on the jukebox. These are free.
First, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I urge everyone to attend and buy a membership. When you walk through the Field of Legends, you will see two of Effa’s players, Ray Dandridge at third base and Leon Day in right field. The player she could not sign, the elusive Satchel Paige, is on the mound. This clipshows NLBM President Bob Kendrick describing the “Beauty of the Game” exhibit (2:30).
Second, the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. This is on my mind because director Penny Marshall died last month, and scenes from the movie have been popping up on social media. I have always been a fan of the movie. From Geena Davis to Tom Hanks to Madonna, the acting is superb, although I single out as my personal favorite Jon Lovitz as the hilarious baseball scout.
Joe Posnanski did a column on his 10 favorite things about the movie, and one of his points reminded me of the subtle civil rights message. The real-life “league of their own” was segregated just like its male counterpart. In a mere 15 seconds, the movie tells a very big story of the times. A black woman has left her seat – from what is obviously the segregated seating area down the right field line – to retrieve and throw back an errant ball. She does so with obvious talent, and the message is that she is not racially eligible to play in the game. See the cliphere.
In 2014, Penny Marshall announced that she planned to direct another baseball movie, this one about the life of Effa Manley. The screenplay is by writer Byron Motley, the son of Bob Motley, the Negro League umpire who this past year was honored with his own statue on the Field of Legends (behind the catcher at home plate in the NLBM photo above). I checked in with Byron, and he tells me that the project is still moving forward and to “stay tuned.” Byron’s tribute to Penny is here.
And third, the classic protest song “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. As the turbulent 1960’s were coming to an end, Gaye was reevaluating his concept of music. He was “very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home.” So Marvin was receptive when Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops brought him an untitled song that he was working on after seeing war protestors beaten by the police. Benson did not classify his piece as a protest song, “No man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what is going on.”
Gaye added some of his own lyrics and gave the song its title. He went to Barry Gordy at Motown, but Gordy said that it was really a protest song and would be bad for business. When Gaye persisted, Gordy relented because he did not want to offend his star. The single was released in 1971, and it turned out fine for business – the song went to #2 on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts for weeks.
The song is a soulful anthem about war abroad and socio-economic problems at home. Some 48 years later, the lyrics of the song continue to resonate:
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see me
What’s going on
Preview YouTube video Billie Holiday Strange Fruit 1939
Billie Holiday Strange Fruit 1939
Preview YouTube video Women of the Negro Leagues
Women of the Negro Leagues
Preview YouTube video A League Of Their Own Black Woman Scene
A League Of Their Own Black Woman Scene
Preview YouTube video Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
“Bertolucci died,” my wife said, checking the pinging on her smartphone.
Immediately, we were transformed to the Baths of Caracalla, where the grand director was making “La Luna” in the Roman summer of 1978 – with two broken arms.
There was a lot going on in a month when Romans normally head for the countryside during the annual shutdown known as “Ferragosto” – taking one major Roman Catholic holy day and turning it into a one-month holiday.
Pope Paul VI had died on Aug. 6 in the summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican took an ungodly time getting the Pope to St. Peter’s for the funeral.
I was sent there by the Times, as a learn-on-the-spot religion reporter. Pretending I knew something, I speculated on who would be the next Pope. (All wrong, of course.)
Then the Times went on strike, leaving me in Rome with a borrowed friend’s apartment near the Piazza Navona. How sad. I sent for my wife, and we wandered the city.
A friend of ours had a connection to another major event in Rome that summer – the making of a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci, in the Baths of Caracalla – a film called “La Luna” with a theme of incest, starring Jill Clayburgh.
Our friend sent a limo to take us to Caracalla for the day, where Bertolucci was directing with casts on his arms. He had been carrying a camera, peering down into it, and had fallen off a step or a platform, and had broken both arms, but he persevered admirably.
Now he bravely balanced the camera on the two casts, still framing scenes as they would appear through the lens, as directors do. A cadre of assistants hovered around him as he tottered on the steps to the stage, lest he fall again. The whole project was in his broken arms.
My wife and I hung at the edge of the proceedings with our friend, whispering, perhaps even giggling a bit. Nobody seemed to mind except for Jill Clayburgh, who was gearing up for the tangled emotions of the film, wearing elegant high heels on the uneven ancient stones of Caracalla.
She shot us a look or two, and we piped down.
That’s all I remember, except for lurid jokes and set gossip we culled here and there. It was, of course, Rome. Matthew Barry, the young New Yorker who was playing Clayburgh’s son, had to preserve his pasty-white coloration for uniformity during the shooting, so they enticed him indoors, day after day -- no beach, no outdoor trattorias. I wondered how they kept him indoors.
* * *
Our friend called for the limo and a stalwart Roman driver took us toward Centro Storico.
I forgot to say, it was also a dangerous time in Italy, threatened by the Red Brigade.
The former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped and murdered in May and more violence was feared.
“Aren’t you afraid of the Red Brigade?” I asked the driver in my minimal Italian.
He tapped the solid dashboard of his limo, to signify protection of some sort, and he said, “The Red Brigade should be afraid of us.”
I took his word for it.
* * *
Several years later, my wife was walking on Madison Ave., looking in shop windows, and she spotted the reflection of an elegant woman a few feet away, looking at her, as if to say, “Who is that?”
Jill Clayburgh could not place her, and kept walking.
I never saw “La Luna,” which did not get great reviews, apparently.
That’s my only memory of Bertolucci – carrying on, with all the force of a great Italian director, in the August heat, in Caracalla.
(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.)
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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.
Had a wonderful time on the #NYTReadalong Sunday with Sree Sreenivasan and Neil Parekh, talking about the Super Bowl and the great paper where I used to work. Here’s the link to my fun time. Thanks to all the nice people who sent messages while I was babbling. The Readalong is Sunday, 8:30-10:15 AM Eastern, and the link is available after that:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: