Still Rooting for Home Team From Abroad

Times Staff Writer

Forza Italia or Vive la France?

Beer and spicy sausage on a bun or Perrier and creme brulee French toast?

Block party in San Pedro or prix fixe breakfast at a Melrose bistro?

Whatever your pleasure, Southland fans who watched Italy's defeat of France in Sunday's World Cup final found something to please all. Their choice of venues could not be more different, but natives of France and Italy each found compatriots and a big-screen TV to watch the event they say brings the world together.

In a residential neighborhood of San Pedro, Italian Americans crowded Cabrillo Avenue, a.k.a. "Villa Italia," to watch the game. The stucco Italian American Club was packed with some 150 blue-jerseyed fans straining in their folding chairs to watch the Italian team spar with the French.

Five minutes into the match, the crowd aaahed as a French player was fouled, giving the team a free shot at Italy's goal. Many felt the play was more deserving of an Oscar than a penalty kick and made their feelings known in fluent Italian sign language flung at the screen.

Another aaah! went up seconds later when star French midfielder Zinedine Zidane's shot hit the top post and crossed the goal line on the bounce. Undaunted, a chant of "Forza Italia!" throbbed in the room as the Spanish-language broadcast cried "Goooaaal!"

Standing in the corner was a life-size statue of St. Peter, on this day holding a soccer ball and Italy's red, white and green flag.

"He's very good with miracles, and we're very devoted," said Grace Russo, 62, as she served homemade Italian sausage on paper plates outside the clubhouse. "They've asked St. Peter for a win."

Russo, who moved to San Pedro from Palermo, Italy, in 1960, was one of five nonnas (Italian grandmothers) who were at the club late Saturday night making 150 pounds of sausage spiced with anise. Also on the menu was cotolette (beef cutlets breaded and barbecued), with watermelon and cannoli for dessert.

Russo was bragging that her grandchildren speak the Sicilian dialect when Fratelli d'Italia came on over the speaker system. Russo paused, directed a few bars of the Italian national hymn with her serving spoon and sung aloud with the crowd.

The 200 or so families that belong to the club have roots up and down the Italian boot. Many Italians came here to join San Pedro's fishing industry, and now their second, third and fourth generations number 45,000, making up the largest Italian American community in the Southland, said Joe Buscaino, a club board member who organized Sunday's event.

The club brings members together for a family dinner on the last Friday of every month, and the annual celebration of the feast of St. Peter draws a crowd, but nothing like Sunday's World Cup Final, Buscaino said.

"They left their country to feed their family. Any way they can feel that sense of home again, it's huge," he said. "It really hits home."

"It's a true tribute to everyone who came through Ellis Island," Buscaino said before being interrupted by screams and beer flying in the air. With a corner kick headed into the French net by Italian defender Marco Materazzi, Italy had tied the game, 1-1.

Celebrating the goal nearby was Joseph Agrusa, an engineering student who lives in Moreno Valley in Riverside County. Agrusa came to watch the game in San Pedro, where his grandparents moved a generation ago with their seven children to work in the local fishing industry.

"It's hard to find anything Italian out there in Riverside," Agrusa said. "Here it's spoken in the streets."

Agrusa's Italian isn't great, but he greets his male cousin with a kiss on the cheek. His family's roots gave him mixed loyalties during this year's World Cup tournament, he said.

"I was rooting for the U.S. too, but to win it, it was Italy," he said.

Across town and a world away, a few dozen French fans packed the garden patio of Cafe Marly, a Provencal bistro on Melrose Avenue. The Francophone fans nibbled on crepes of chicken, wild mushroom and gruyere cheese or French toast a la creme brulee (prix fixe three-course World Cup menu: $40) as they watched the game's second half draw to a close with Italy and France still tied.

There were no berets, and just one man was wearing a neck scarf, but an unshaven waiter with slicked hair was happy to let you know you were in the way. He delivered strawberry and creme martinis to the patrons, who nervously smoked hand-rolled cigarettes or sipped champagne.

The clock on the wall showed the time in St. Tropez, the French Riviera town that the bistro's owner, John Gabin, calls home.

"It's a service to the local community," said Gabin, who estimated there are 100,000 French in California. "It brings everyone together."

The French refer to their national soccer team as "the Foreign Legion," Gabin said, a reference to their diversity. Eight of the team's 10 starters come from former French colonies in Africa or the islands, he said.

Since its 1998 World Cup victory, the team has become a national symbol of France's slow recognition of its minority communities. But France still has a long way to go, said Gabin, who was born in Djibouti.

"That's why I left," Gabin said. "No matter what you do, people don't want you to succeed. Here, everything can happen to you." Gabin's first restaurant in Beverly Hills has been a success, and he opened the second Cafe Marly on Melrose nine months ago.

It was the first French event for Yann and Gisella Audebert, who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City a year and a half ago.

"I usually don't mix with the French," said Yann, a 33-year-old Frenchman who works in the dairy industry. "You go abroad to integrate with others, not live with those like you."

The couple had a hard time picking a single country to root for. Yann is French but lived in Mexico for seven years. Gisella was born in Mexico to a Peruvian mother and a German father. Diego, their 3 1/2-month-old son, is American, Yann said with a wink.

So, last week the couple watched Germany play at a pub in Huntington Beach's Old World Village, an entertainment area modeled on a Bavarian village. When France made it to the final match with Italy, the couple looked for someplace with a feel closer to Yann's hometown, outside Paris.

"On a day like today, you want a place where you can feel patriotic," said Yann, sporting a Le Coq Sportif T-shirt. At home, he'd be watching the game with a houseful of friends before spilling onto the Champs Elysees in the evening.

With minutes left in the game, the frustrated French star Zidane head-butted an Italian player and was tossed from the game. The crowd at Cafe Marly groaned at the egregious foul.

Gisella's cellphone rang. It was her aunt calling from Rome. Gisella handed the phone to Yann when talk turned to soccer.

"What do you mean Forza Italia?!" said Yann with mock anger. "Forza Francia!"

With the game locked in a tie, Italy and France squared off for penalty kicks. Italy was flawless and French player David Trezeguet's shot hit the crossbar, giving Italy the victory.

Their martinis only half-finished, the dejected French fans filed out. Gabin kissed each on the cheek as they left.

"It's only a game," he said cheerily.

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