By Aaron T. Bruckart
Herald Staff Writer
IF IT WEREN’T clear before the tournament what was officially the “Group of Death,” it became crystal after the clash between world power Italy and the rising stars of the United States.
This match was a special occasion for me. One of my best friends, an old college roommate, is Italian, so we looked at this as a good chance to drink heavily and mock each other endlessly.
A group of us — Dan Scalamogna, Matt Kurczewski, Liz Greene and I — all made our way to Piper’s Pub in the South Side of Pittsburgh early Saturday morning. The U.S. vs. Italy game didn’t start until 3 p.m., but the bar opened a half hour before the first match of the day. Let’s just say, there were only two other people when we arrived at 8:30 a.m.
The first game was unimportant to us, but the second game was a big one. The Czech Republic, who smoked the U.S. 3-0 in their opener, and Ghana, who lost 2-0 to the Italians, were playing a match that could weigh heavily on the group.
By about 11 a.m., when the fans started to roll in, the Americans were heavily cheering on Ghana. And the Black Stars delivered to screams of joy from the crowd. By winning 2-0 over the aging and injured Czechs, the door was left wide open for the Yanks to move on.
The bar was packed by 11 a.m., and crude jokes about both Italian and American culture and history were flying back and forth between Dan and I. Maybe starting to drink at 8:30 a.m. for a 3 p.m. game isn’t a great idea after all.
The patrons readily segregated themselves inside the bar. The American fans, dressed in jerseys and draped in flags, crowded the front section. The Italian fans, donning their own country’s gear, found their way to the restaurant area. An imaginary line cut through the center of the pub to divide off the nations.
The American fans were smart to take over the front. That way, whenever Italian fans made their way through, they were heckled by chants of “U-S-A” and loud boos.
When two men in Italian jerseys and one in a German jersey walked in together, one overzealous U.S. fan even yelled, “Hey! It’s the Axis! Where’s Japan?”
The Italians soon mustered up enough fans and liquid courage to respond with their own chants of “Italia! Italia!”
Italy’s soccer team, however, must not have gotten my memo that they were supposed to lose. They struck first with a beautiful diving header. But the Yanks countered quickly off of a free kick from outside the box when an Italian defender tipped the ball in his own net. If he were playing for a South American team, there’s a good chance he’d be shot as soon as he gets home. But by playing in Italy, they’ll probably only throw a lit road flare at his head.
The game was easily one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere in the bar was electric. Every foul, of which there were many, brought boos and cheers, and rival chants passed back and forth between the nationalities.
Both teams played passionate, beautiful football that ended in a well-deserved draw. And Dan and I decided we could remain friends because of the result.
Although a draw wasn’t the ideal result for the Stars and Stripes, it does mean the Americans earned a little more respect from the traditional powers.
It also means the Yanks can still advance with a little help. A win over Ghana, and an Italian victory over the Czechs, will send Italy and the U.S. through to the second round.
Everyone in America should turn on ESPN at 10 a.m. Thursday and rally behind their team.
As great as a U.S. advance would be in itself, it’s even better knowing that it would make this columnist’s “Group of Death” prediction come true.
In your face, Dan.
By Aaron T. Bruckart