Andrew Rafferty with A Celtic State of Mind – The Magician’s Spell: The Nerazzurri’s ‘67

The Magician’s Spell: The Nerazzurri’s ‘67

Part 1: Inter v Sofia

To the outsider, Café Zucco looked closed. A sign warding off potential customers hung in the door and the lights were off. No more custom was expected or wanted that evening. Despite this less than welcoming setting, seven men were to be found inside, as if some secret brotherhood or society was gathering there. And in a way there was. Four of the men were seated around a table, at the centre of which was a small transistor radio.  Another two sat close by on the next table, while the last man stood beside the telephone booth.

Dirty espresso cups, wine and beer glasses and various half-full and empty bottles were scattered around the table and booth, along with several overflowing ashtrays and cigarette packs. The men had been smoking furiously throughout the evening and a blue, smoky, fug hung in the air, adding to the mystery of the place. Tiredness showed in their faces; their body language betrayed their concern, as they hunched around a tiny transistor radio in the middle of the detritus of the evening. They strained to listen to whatever was being said. The small group were so focussed on the radio, they barely had time to chat to each other.

The radio had been crackling for a few minutes now, making it difficult to understand whatever was being said. Finally, between the static and high-pitched whining noises, it was possible to make out a disassociated voice coming through clearly, and Tuscan tones they could hear… “And the score is still one-all… not long left now.”

Quiet groans went around the room, as the men digested the news. Their team, their Inter, was still in the European Cup and could still make it to the semi-final, but so could the opposition, Red Flag. A goal either way now would be terminal to both sides’ hopes.

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“This is murder,” said the café owner, Paulo senior, shaking his head. “You can’t follow a game like this, it’s no good for my blood pressure.” A few of the men murmured their agreement. “Sandro, see if you can’t find out what’s going on now?” His brother, Allesandro, was the man poised at the telephone booth. He had been calling ‘back home’ to Barga to speak to their cousin, Pippo, who was standing in a similar café, at least able to watch the game relaying information to his family in Scozia. He imagined the scene there for a moment, with dozens of men and no doubt a few women cheering, kicking and heading every ball, willing the Nerazzurri on. Sandro nodded back to Paulo and the rest of the gathering, dropped a coin into the phone and started dialling.

“What happens if it stays like this?” asked Tommaso, one of the regulars. “I don’t know, Tommy,” replied Paolo in hushed tones. ‘’Do they toss a coin?’’ The aggregate score was balanced at 2-2 and away goals didn’t count. If neither team could find a winner, who would go through? How would they work this one out?

The men heard a “Tell me,” as Sandro’s call connected and, as one, they fell silent. “Yes… yes… ok thanks.” Sandro turned to the room and looked at the expectant faces and began to explain what he had just heard.

“We are the better team, but we can’t get a goal. The other lot are really tiring, but holding firm. Only a couple of minutes left. They are talking about a play-off if it stays like this, but no one is sure.” The men murmured and mulled over what had been said. Just then, the door swung open – it wasn’t locked after all. All the men looked round to see who was coming in.

“Hey Paulo!” exclaimed the young man’s father before lowering his voice. “Come on. Quick, come and sit down, the game is nearly over.” One of the men at the table moved across to the phone booth, offering his seat to Paolo junior who whispered his thanks as he sat down. His dad fetched a clean wine glass from the café counter and poured his son a small glass of red from the bottle. He placed it in front of Paulo and quickly clasped his hand, then offered the bottle around the table. No-one else accepted. The younger man nodded and whispered “Hello” to the various men in the room and quietly asked the score.

“Inter went one up, but the other mob scored,” growled one of the men.” It’s all square,” continued Tomasso, before his dad finished the story. “If it stays like this, no-one goes through.” He was ready to carry on when someone hushed him… ‘’I think it’s over,” said Sandro. All of them listened more intently now, all subconsciously leaning in to the radio. The younger Paolo listened keenly to the radio, as he took a long sniff of the rich red wine in his glass, before sloshing a sample around his mouth. Paolo smiled: only the best from his dad.

Paolo senior turned the volume up slightly. Through the crackle and whistle they heard a voice… “One-each is the final score… and so it looks like a play-off…”

With that, the radio signal fell away.

Andrew Rafferty

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