Friday, June 14, 2024

Puebla town with Venetian roots savors Italy’s Euro Championship victory

There was really only one place in Mexico to watch the UEFA European Football Championship final between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium on Sunday: under a tent with around 500 other people on a street in Chipilo, Puebla, where a huge screen and speakers had been set up.

Chipilo is an  Italian pueblo — where the main population is of Mexicans proudly descended from immigrants from the Veneto region of Italy — and so the street was filled with people wearing the Italian team’s jerseys and bearing painted stripes of green, white and red, the colors of the Italian flag, on their cheeks.

The gathering was hosted under a tent outside Il Canton del Italiano restaurant, owned by Paolo Soliman, a well-known soccer fanatic in town. Asked about Italy’s chances as the game was about to start, he sounded surprisingly uncertain.

“Of course I want Italy to win, but England is a very good team,” he said. “I hope Italy will win.”

In Soliman’s defense, things didn’t look good early on: people had barely settled in, had just started digging into their pizzas and paninis, when England scored a goal after two minutes of play. The crowd, initially boisterous, went quiet, the energy leaking out of the tent.

Chipilo's Margarita Guridi Merlo prays during 2020 UEFA Euro Championship
Chipilo’s Margarita Guridi Merlo prays for Italy during the game’s second half.

But that only lasted a short while, as the early goal soon prompted an increase in gestures and shouts directed at the English team and at the referees anytime a call went against Italy. While some of the gestures were likely Italian, one universally recognized gesture directed at England and the refs, involving the use of an erect middle finger, proved to be very popular.

At halftime, England clung to a 1-0 lead. “The first half was bad, very bad,” said resident Ana Galeazzi during the break. “Italy had opportunities, but they did not score. I think they played well, but they did not score.”

Mariel Galeazzi disagreed — and was more succinct in her assessment. “The Italians were stupid.”

Both of them spent most of the first half on their feet, screaming encouragement. “My throat is sore,” said Ana, “but it is worth it.”

When things still weren’t looking good for Italy in the second half, viewer Margarita Guridi Merlo, who had sat quietly in front for most of the first half, decided it was time to ask for divine intervention. “I was praying,” she admitted.

Something she said must have worked because Italy tied the game early in the second half, causing the crowd to erupt in dancing, spraying beer everywhere and screaming “Italia! Italia!” as they waved Italian flags.

Chipilo resident Steffen Merlo Guridi reacts to Italy's win in UEFA Euro Championship
Steffen Merlo Guridi reacts to Italy’s win.

Merlo was certain of divine intervention: “I think God is a fan of Italy,” she said, “and he answered my prayers.”

Tension — and, somehow, the shouts’ volume — grew as the second half continued. But with neither team able to score, the game headed into overtime.

When, once again, neither team could score, it went into a shootout. During the break beforehand, residents began singing the popular Italian folk song, “Ciao, Bella,” which seemed to lighten the mood for a bit until tension ratcheted up again as the shootout began.

The crowd on the street went silent whenever an Italian stepped up to shoot — many appeared to be praying — and then exploded into cheers when he scored or when the Italian goalkeeper blocked a shot. They groaned and held their heads in their hands when an Italian player didn’t score or when their goalkeeper allowed a goal and shook their hands and yelled at the screen, hoping to jinx English players as they approached the ball to kick.

Finally, when Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma made one last save to seal his team’s victory, there was just the briefest moment of silence, as if people were in shock, before the place exploded.

To say Chipilo’s residents went berserk would be a gross understatement: they stood on chairs and on tables. They hugged and kissed. Somehow, they were screaming even more loudly than before. More beer was sprayed. When Queen’s song We are the Champions blasted out from the speakers, Soliman hoisted Julia, his daughter, on his shoulders and climbed onto a table as people sang along at the top of their lungs.

“It was a very difficult game,” said Steffen Merlo Guridi, who looked spent and relieved afterward. “England was a very strong team, and I was nervous. I had some doubts, but they did it. Italy did it. I’m very, very happy, and I’m proud of Italy.”

Almost immediately afterward, traffic backed up on Chipilo’s main street for almost a mile, full of cars and trucks with people waving Italian flags in victory. The celebration continued long into the night.

The gathering occurred when the coronavirus still poses a serious risk in Mexico. Chipilo residents seemed aware of the risks of assembling in a large crowd, but few people wore masks and with 500 people crammed under a tent, there wasn’t any social distancing. A couple of people expressed concerns although they had attended anyway.

But after a year and a half of a pandemic — the lockdowns, the quarantines and all the rest — it felt as if, for at least a little while, some joy had sneaked back into the world.

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