Viva Italia!

The Cup, Over Plates

Soccer aficionados gather in Little Italy for a taste of authenticity


As each Italian soccer player prepared to boot his penalty kick, the clapping inside Little Italy's Ciao Bella restaurant grew louder - culminating in cheers with each one scored.

With every shot that hit the back of the net for the Italians, men and women jumped around the restaurant, hugging friends and strangers alike. And they rejoiced as a player from the French team missed his crucial kick.

That stumble proved a key moment after nearly three hours of tension in Ciao Bella yesterday, and it opened the door for Italy to win its first World Cup title in 24 years.

"Viva Italia!" yelled restaurant owner Anthony Gambino as he strode outside to High Street. Two men on a mo-ped rode past, one waving an Italian flag joyfully as they puttered through the heart of the city's Italian enclave.

It was a brief snapshot of a celebration begun by millions of Italian soccer fans around the world, one that was modest but ecstatic in Little Italy and other soccer haunts around Baltimore where the World Cup has dominated television screens for the past month.

The win brought Italy its fourth World Cup trophy and its first in the pressure-packed penalty-kick phase, a shootout to resolve a tie at the end of overtime play.

As the tournament progressed, Italy's title chances improved, especially after it overcame Germany, the host country, in a stunning overtime finish to advance to the final.

And the Azzurri - or The Blues, as the Italian team is known - did not disappoint their fans in Baltimore, such as Lev Ryzhkov, a 42-year-old chemistry professor at Towson University who came to Little Italy to watch the game with two students. He got hooked on Italian soccer in 1982, the last time Italy won a World Cup. He also lived in Italy briefly in 1980.

"That's where I caught the Italian fever," Ryzhkov said.

Ryzhkov, who emigrated from Ukraine 26 years ago, said he was disappointed that his native country didn't make it far in the World Cup. (It lost to Italy.) But he was more angry, he said, that the United States team let fans down by not making it past the first round.

Ridwan Ahmed, a 26-year-old car salesman in Baltimore County, became a fan of Italy after attending one of its games in the 1994 World Cup, held in the United States.

Ahmed and his co-workers were so engrossed by the World Cup matches over the past month that they would invite their customers to watch the games with them in the salesroom, he said. Yesterday, he drove to Little Italy with his girlfriend, Virginia Vogt, 21, and they camped out in Ciao Bella for the afternoon. A crowd of about 50 people watched the game unfold on the flat-screen television over the bar.

The couple could have stayed in their Charles Village apartment to watch the final, but they realized they'd rather be with a crowd of other fans of Italy.

"We figured Little Italy would be the best place to watch it," Ahmed said.

Through the tournament, both teams' style of play was marked by stingy defense.

Italy had not allowed its six previous opponents to score a goal. Only the United States team scored when an Italian player accidentally hit the ball into his own net during a first-round match that ended in a tie.

For France, the run to the championship final was some vindication for a team that won the World Cup in 1998 but was embarrassingly bounced out early in the quadrennial tournament in 2002.

This time around, France's defense was almost as stout as Italy's, allowing only two goals before yesterday. Throughout the match, the crowd at Ciao Bella winced and groaned with each Italian miss and gasped each time France threatened with a shot on goal.

The scoring came early. A French player was fouled inside the penalty area, and France's star player - Zinedine Zidane - made a penalty kick. But the Italians soon charged back, scoring on a corner kick nearly midway through the first half.

Over plates of fried calamari, antipasto and Italian bread, the crowd jeered each time Zidane lost control of the ball. They erupted in celebration when, in overtime, Zidane apparently lost his cool after exchanging words with an Italian player.

Zidane, who had announced he would retire after the World Cup, head-butted an Italian player in the chest, knocking him to the ground. After consulting with players and other game officials, the referee reached into his pocket, fished out a red card and flashed it at him, expelling him from what was expected to be his final game.

"What a way to go," Ahmed remarked. "What a stupid way to go."

The tension built through 120 minutes of playing time - 90 minutes in regulation and a pair of 15-minute overtime periods that ended with the game tied 1-1. Then the teams participated in the shootout, where Italy won, 5-3.

Then Dominic Leonardi, 80, stepped out of his apartment above the restaurant for fresh air and to reflect on the nail-biting finish a continent away that he had just watched on television.

"I was never so happy in my life to see a team get beat," Leonardi said. "I was sweating up a storm."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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