I walked right past the World Cup. One of the most significant items in my football-obsessed life and I nearly missed it. A gun-toting policeman pointed out that I was about to walk out the door without seeing a trophy much of my existence has revolved around. My embarrassment at my blunder was as clear as a Tuscan summer skyline.
This was 1990, in the build-up to the competition being held in the Azzurri’s homeland. As part of the preparations, the trophy was being taken on tour around the host cities. I was studying in the Florentine satellite town of Borgo San Lorenzo at the time, so a pilgrimage to see my Holy Grail in its temporary home near the River Arno was an unmissable attraction.
This was the trophy that I had tearfully watched Dino Zoff lift to the skies eight years before. It was the title we had limply failed to defend four years later. And it was the dream a whole nation hoped we could achieve once hostilities got under way in a few months’ time.
That explains my motivation for the journey but, perhaps, less so for why my poor mother was in attendance. She had come over to visit me during my time living abroad and ended up being a participant in my sporting expedition. Greater love knows no woman for her son than to be dragged to the Renaissance City to take her boy’s picture with one of football’s most famous bits of silverware. She did it without complaint, I remember, that’s the kind of character you are dealing with.
My memory of the actual location of the trophy is a bit sketchy, I confess. I think it was in a room in Palazzo Vecchio but I could not swear that was the case. It was around about Easter, I remember that much, and it must have been relatively cool as I was still wearing a T-Shirt and jumper beneath my light jacket. I was a bit nervous joining the queue of people who wanted to see the cup.
Maybe that was why I walked right past it. It really wasn’t much to look at - although you would think the bright lights shining upon it and the security glass case would have tipped me off as to its whereabouts. Instead, I was merrily on my way to another room before the Carabiniere nearby grunted something in my direction and pointed out the error of my ways.
I composed myself to try to enjoy my moment with the trophy. There it was, sitting beneath the World Cup emblem Ciao, and probably a couple of inches smaller. It did not glow or shine or glisten with any particular significance and yet, to me, it felt as if I were in the presence of greatness.
It was while in pursuit of this that long range strikes from Ernie Brandts and Arie Haan had broken my eight-year-old heart. I had joined a parade of horn-tooting cars with the Tricolore waving from their windows to celebrate its conquest four years later. And now I was brimful of optimism, like the rest of the country, that a competition on home soil could let us lift it once again.
I am laughing in the image, clutching something in my hand - maybe a train ticket, I’m not sure. My mother had probably just told me how daft I was to have made her come all that way to then nearly miss seeing the trophy. I had no idea, of course, of what that little trophy would have in store for me in the weeks, months and years to come.
My dreams of glory were reflected in Toto’ Schillaci’s enormous eyes until Diego Maradona’s Argentina forced them shut. I sank to my knees in despair as Roby Baggio’s penalty soared into the American skyline. I roared at the injustice of Byron Moreno and wept once more, as a grown man this time, when captain Cannavaro thrust this silly little trinket of sporting success in the air once more. And then, of course, the crash and burn of first round elimination.
This summer will see the 10th World Cup I can honestly claim to remember but it will be the first I can truly share with my own son - the same age I was back in 1978. He is already bursting in anticipation, knowing that he was named after two of the heroes of our last triumph - Luca Toni and Francesco Totti. Please note, my wife may dispute that version of the selection process.
Will he see a victory at his first attempt? I try to tell him it is unlikely, as if to dampen down his ardent enthusiasm. I have been lucky to see two wins but have also suffered a final defeat and elimination in the later stages. With a few exceptions, Italy have generally given a good account of themselves. But I know that a trip to South America presents great challenges.
He laughs when he sees that picture of me - I’ve got hair back then which I long since surrendered - but he also recognises the trophy. He knows what it would mean to win it, I think, and is almost uncontainably excited at the prospect. I know that the odds are against it but, at the same time, I have been able to embrace my father twice in celebration of winning that daft little World Cup. Wouldn’t it be nice if my own boy got the chance to do the same thing this summer or some time in the not-too-distant future?