Far from the maddening, jersey-clad, flag-waving crowd, a couple dozen Italian fans settle into the basement of Da Spago restaurant and pizzeria in the swanky centre of South Kensington. With an hour to go before the Euro 2012 quarter-final, the subterranean tifosi set about recreating the atmosphere of the San Siro. Not the San Siro of derby day, mind you, more the San Siro of a Tuesday morning when it is completely empty except for a clutch of jovial office workers who stumbled into it by accident and decided they might as well have a picnic while there.
As kick-off got closer, the atmosphere began to tingle. A polite profusion of pizzas, Peroni and pessimism. P words are more prominent than F words but other than that these Italians' big match preview does not seem so different to the usual routine of the house-bound England supporter. "It will be 0-0 and then we will lose on penalties", predicts a doleful City worker named Alberto, suggesting he may have been in England too long. "We are not patient people," explains his colleague and compatriot Carlo. "This business of going into a tournament not knowing if we can win makes us nervous. We are used to winning and we don't want to see if this new way of playing is as attractive as catenaccio." Could a fluent, attack-oriented style of play really not be as attractive as catenaccio, that asphyxiating anti-spectacle? "Hey," retorts Carlo. "Catenaccio means winning. I don't know what the new way means."
And then: a whoop! Followed by a sing-song! Mamma mia, what have they put in that Peroni?! No, it's not that. Rather the celebrations convey that good news has broken: "He's picked Mario," exults Stefano, another of the smiley banker posse. Until now they had feared that the Italy manager, Cesare Prandelli, would not deploy Mario Balotelli, and Stefano had particular reason to be aggrieved. "I come from the same village as him in Brescia," he says with almost paternal pride for a man just a few years younger than himself. "He is fantastic and while the English tabloids love to hear him talk in case he says something stupid, I like listening to him because his accent reminds me of home. And he's a great player, the sort defenders hate playing against." So Stefano does not share the English media's suspicion that the striker is unhinged and ridiculous? "No, give any 20-year-old millions of pounds and he will go a little crazy but he is a good guy," says Stefano, who, if he hangs around Kensington enough, may be in a good position to judge.
While Stefano roots for a well‑known village-mate, the chap beside him has a different link to fame: he is Marco Materazzi and he pulls out his driver's licence to prove it. But sharing a name with the man who scored for Italy in the 2006 World Cup final is not what makes him confident. "I am confident because we have Balotelli," he choruses. "We will win 1-0 thanks to him."
That faith is tested early in the match. First Daniele De Rossi claps a thunderous 25-yard shot off the post and then, in the 25th minute, Balotelli botches a glorious chance to give Italy the lead. "Aaaargggghhhh!" is the surprisingly voluble reaction of the assemblage, who may be imitating a tragic scene from an intense opera, possibly one in which several novice pirates are stabbed.
At half-time the teams are level and the tifosi's expectations are similarly balanced. "Italy are always worse in the second half so I'm afraid," says Carlo with a quiver. "But England's catenaccio is even worse than ours so I am hopeful."
The half-time analysis on Rai 1 leaves the punters unimpressed. "We have the worst pundits in the world," groans Alberto, again showcasing his successful assimilation into England.
Thereafter the atmosphere grows ever more subdued. The second half is tense, extra-time more so and besides, that pizza isn't going to eat itself. Nor those fingernails.
Balotelli blows more chances. Nocerino has a goal disallowed. English resistance frustrates for 120 minutes. "No matter what happens now, we know that the three Lions played like pussies," growls Carlo, who no longer finds catenaccio so attractive.
When Italy miss in the shootout, they sense the greatest sporting injustice not connected to match fixing. Then Ashley Young's penalty hits the bar and the tifosi hit the basement roof. When Ashley Cole's miss is followed by Alessandro Diamanti's decisive kick, manager Gio prolongs the cheers with a cry of "free limoncello for everyone!" And Alberto has a message for his adopted home: "Happy Diamanti jubilee."