'We All Exploded'
For local Italians, the World Cup this year was the ultimate victory -- not just over France, but for their native land.
"For four years, we are the champions of the world," said Vito Gironda of Southern Pines, co-owner with his brother Frank of Vito's Ristorante and Pizzeria.
Sunday proved a tense evening for Italians such as the Gironda family, who got together to watch the match, and Al Stratta of Southern Pines.
"It was two hours of extreme tension," Gironda said. "We take it to heart. And of course when the last penalty kick went in... we all exploded."
For Stratta, a teacher at Methodist College who is a co-owner of Sweet Basil in Southern Pines and coaches soccer in the Sandhills Youth League, watching his country's team battle for the championship was especially poignant.
"I used to play professionally in Italy, so it had special meaning to me," Stratta said.
Stratta played soccer for Italy from 1952 to 1956. He was recruited to play at the age of 14 and worked his way up to play for the Lazio first-division team.
Because at that time there were no substitutions during games, he played just a few matches. His aspirations to make the Italian Olympics team were cut short when he moved to the U.S. to study. He continued to play for Cornell University and now coaches. His experiences and love for the game made this victory sweeter.
"You know what they go through," he said.
Gironda also shared in the stress of watching his team battle France. In the back of his mind, he envisioned the 2000 UEFA European Championship match in which France beat Italy.
"The penalty kicks got us worried," he said. "Breaking that taboo was an incredible relief, and beating France out of all countries was a sweet moment to us, having lost the Euro to them in 2000."
To celebrate, Gironda and his family ran outside and set off fireworks, opening champagne bottles.
"It was a crazy moment, and we were very elated," he said. "It's just a wonderful time."
Stratta chose to celebrate before the match with a meal for some of his soccer players, the other coaches and some of his Italian friends who were in town.
"We had a big meal before," Stratta said. "I didn't know if I was going to be in a bad mood because we lost. We had a typical Italian feast: lasagna, prosciutto, that kind of thing. And we were very excited about the game, and then after the game other Italians, like Vito's son, came in with a flag."
After the match, Stratta got on the phone to share his excitement with his sons and to gloat to friends who like to poke fun at Italy.
Gironda's family had two reasons to celebrate Italy's win. July 10, 2006, marked the 26th anniversary of Vito's restaurant in Southern Pines. He said the victory is the belated present for the restaurant's 25th anniversary.
"I'm going to look at this as a gift, a great gift," he said.
Italy's last World Cup victory came in 1982 -- its first since its 1934 and 1938 wins -- two years after Vito's was founded.
"I remember where we were that day, in my brother's restaurant, downstairs in the lounge, in the bar in the basement," he said. "My brother jumped up in the air and hit the ceiling and broke the ceiling. The euphoria was incredible."
To celebrate this victory, Gironda will return to Italy in a few weeks to collect paraphernalia that wouldn't be available in the United States and share in the excitement with his friends there.
"The trip was in the back of the mind to go anyway," he said, "but this definitely makes it more special. And I'm probably going to go a little sooner because of it -- I'm going to plan in the next few weeks to go."
For Italians all over the world, the World Cup win signals redemption for a country whose leagues have been rocked by scandals, including allegations of referees accepting bribes and teams throwing games.
"I think it's a great redemption for the players," Gironda said, "because the players have been taking a beating all over the place, but the scandal was basically put together by 28 individuals... so the whole country's taking a beating for these 28 people."
Stratta is less assured that it can erase the scandal, likening it to baseball's scandals with steroid use, but he thinks it could help.
"We were all humiliated by the scandal," Stratta said. "It's like you going through baseball and those scandals: It hits the fan base and puts the record in question and all this. So this might help us overcome that hurdle."
Both Gironda and Stratta agreed the win unites Italians around the world and gives an enormous sense of pride to Italy's people.
"Well, it unites the country again," Stratta said. "We forget our political polarization, and it really unites us because we've always been kind of the black sheep of the Western World. There's always a veil of criticism about everything Italy does. We're organized chaos, they call us. But, we know how to enjoy life and this is really part of our life. And it makes us very proud."
Kirsten Beattie, an intern from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, can be reached at (919) 619-4327.
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