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If It’s Wednesday, Then This Must Be Soccer Again

No, you dumb American, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was not painted by Michael Landon. No, you dumb American, you do not wish to order a peanut butter-and-gelato sandwich. No, you dumb American, soccer fans do not get up from their seats to take a 70th-minute stretch.

Even for someone of Italian descent, there is much to learn, much to learn. Hey, I can’t help it if I thought Maradona was a blonde woman singer on tour. I’m new around here.

World Cup journal, Week 1:

Wednesday, June 6-- Room with a view.

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Arrival in Italy. My apartment near the Ponte Vecchio was once occupied, it turns out, by the Soviet author Dostoevski, who in these very rooms composed “The Idiot.” A plaque above the doorway commemorates the event. Hundreds of years from now, I trust, some tourist will be told that back in the late 20th Century, soccer-related literature was written at this very address by The Idiot.

In Rome, Pope John Paul II suspends a Mass service early so parishioners can be on time for an exhibition. “I’ll say goodby now so as not to conflict with Italian soccer,” he says. Down the street from me, a souvenir T-shirt salesman displays a scene of The Last Supper. The last word has been scratched out and replaced with the word Soccer. Jesus is wearing a shirt that identifies him as COACH .

Not that soccer is a big deal here or anything.

Thursday, June 7-- The agony, the ecstasy.

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We have here a virtual renaissance of the Renaissance. Italian painters, builders, sculptors, engravers rush to complete their labors under severe deadlines. Artists and architects oversee their work. Edifices must still go up, and sod must still go down. More than half of the stadia under construction for the world’s greatest soccer tournament remain as unfinished as a Schubert symphony.

Worse, 24 workers have been killed, hundreds more injured while hurrying to put the finishing touches on their projects. I spy graffiti spray-painted on boulevard walls. Il Mondialismo ti uccide-- “The World Cup is killing us.” In an interview, a university professor and art-restoration expert in Florence decries as scandalous the amount of time and money spent on soccer.

Personally, what I think of as scandalous is the amount of time and money spent on spray-paint.

Friday, June 8-- Roman holiday .

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Salvador Santoro, journalist from Buenos Aires, goes to the top of Monte Mario Hill to get a better view of the beautiful city of Rome. Uh, oh. Sal falls down and almost breaks his crown. Down the hill he slides, ending up tangled in the brush. Two policemen pull Sal free by the lapels of his jacket, taking care not to further damage his broken leg. Doctors say to mend it will take 30 days, or just about the time it will take to play the World Cup.

More bad news for Sal: In the opening game of the Cup, his countrymen, the defending champions from Argentina, featuring the heroic Diego Maradona, are defeated by Cameroon, which has never won a game or even scored a goal in World Cup play. Cameroon wins with a short-handed goal and a 35-year-old goalie lured back from retirement. Without a doubt, it is the best Cameroon soccer game I have been to in a long, long time. And to think that before today, I thought Cameroon was where King Arthur lived.

Saturday, June 9-- The good, the bad, the ugly.

Hooligans. Everywhere you turn, hooligans. English hooligans. Irish hooligans. Dutch hooligans. Don’t hold me to this, but I am pretty sure there must also be hooligans from Cameroon. Anyway, hooligans are bad boys. They are looking for trouble. If there are bad girls, I haven’t spotted them yet. Most of the time when you see seven Italian cops dragging off some naked drunkard with spiked hair, it’s a boy. Of course, it’s early yet.

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Because these fans have a tendency to be unruly, and because the police prefer fans to be ruly, soccer teams from England, Ireland and the Netherlands have been exiled to the isle of Sardinia to play their first-round games. I have subsequently decided to rename this particular locale “Hooligan’s Island,” which is a joke that my new Italian acquaintances obviously have too much class to appreciate.

Footnote: English fans have found a new way to sneak past security forces who have been on the lookout for English hooligans. They put on kilts and pretend to be Scottish. This has always been an effective disguise. I once wore a kilt to fool men in uniform. Hey, got me out of the Army.

Sunday, June 10-- A fistful of dollars.

These poor people are going through money like wine. Anyone who didn’t already own a ticket to Italy’s opening match against Austria had to fork over as much as 500,000 lire to some bagginaro --scalper--who, in effect, was asking $400 for a ticket originally priced in the neighborhood of 25 bucks. Some things never change, Colosseum to Coliseum, Rome to Los Angeles.

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Anybody who pays this much to see a soccer game should be chased with an open net. I, myself, would like to buy a ticket for a friend, but have no difficulty resisting the scalpers’ demands. Long ago, I made a solemn promise never to pay 500,000 of anything for anything.

I do, however, watch the Italy-Austria game on television, since I do not wish to be the only human being in the entire Republic of Italy who is not watching the Italy-Austria game someplace. It is such an important TV event, I am amazed that during the commercials at halftime there is no contest between animated empty bottles of Chianti and Chianti Lite.

Monday, June 11-- For a few dollars more.

Speaking of drinking . . . you can’t. Just try buying some booze on game day. No can do. There is no sale of alcohol in Rome from 7 a.m. on game days until the same time the next morning. You’re cut off in Naples from 1 a.m. the day of a match.

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I hear some Cameroon fans might be trying to sneak a drink somewhere, wearing kilts.

Tuesday, June 12-- La dolce vita.

Today was an historic occasion. I actually met someone in Italy who was not smoking a cigarette. I waited one minute. Five minutes. Ten. He did not light up. Life is sweet. For the first time in a week, I breathe easy.

The World Cup is killing me. Il Mondialismo mi uccide. Smoke, smoke, smoke. There is more ash in Rome now than when Nero fiddled. The tower of Pisa keeps leaning just to get away from the smoke. I look around in a restaurant. There are 50 other people nearby, puffing away. I ask one if she is concerned about carcinoma. She says she thinks it is near Sardinia.

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