BOSTON – There may be no better place in Boston to watch a soccer game than the North End. And with the 2012 European Championship just beginning, many soccer fans are taking advantage of the caffés and bars on Hanover Street to watch the games.
The success of the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins in the last decade has given Boston the reputation as the “City of Champions.” But the Italian national team (nicknamed “Gli Azzurri” for their blue uniforms), which kicks-off its Euro 2012 campaign on Sunday against Spain, is considered the home team of the North End. So in a sense, many in the neighborhood consider Italy – who won the 2006 World Cup – a part of the “City of Champions” conversation.
“The most popular sport in the North End is soccer,” says Adriana Di Stefano, the owner of Caffé Paradiso, as fans sip coffee and eat gelato while they watch Netherlands and Denmark square off in the first game of Group B.
“Soccer is incredible. The European Championship has started. Naturally, Italy is playing,” states Di Stefano, with a proud smile.
“There are teams in the tournament that attract many. There is a whole mix of people. But of course, (on Sunday) Caffé Paradiso will be full because of Italy.”
Caffé Paradiso, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is always full during big sporting events. Much like the rest of New England, North Enders pay close attention to mainstream Boston sports teams. Some Bruins players live in the North End and are seen daily in the neighborhood, creating a strong connection to hockey. And Di Stefano has seen a packed house for the Red Sox and Celtics on many occasions, too.
But the atmosphere is much different when soccer is on.
On Saturday, the Caffé, which sits around 150 people, had tables organized around the many plasma screens for easy viewing of the Netherlands-Denmark game. Supporters scarves of national and club teams adorn the ceiling and a Real Madrid pennant autographed by Brazilian national team star Kaka hangs on the wall. The Euro 2012 posters plastered on the Caffé’s front windows welcome the passerby to come in and watch the beautiful game.
“I’ve been coming here since 2000,” says Peter Morea, who takes beginner Italian classes in the basement of the Caffé once a week. Morea’s family is from Naples, though he was never taught as a boy to speak Italian. “For the 2006 World Cup, when Italy won, you couldn’t see anything but a sea of blue. There were about thirty thousand fans here, there were banners waving from off the roof. I think that was definitely the biggest event for Italian soccer.”
“It will be full for Italy,” continues Morea. “Coming into the knockout round, it will be absolutely out the door, people standing outside to watch the TVs on the inside.”
So what happens if Italy doesn’t make the knockout round?
“There’ll still be people here. It’s like anything else, you want to stop just to see what’s going on.”
The story isn’t much different a few doors down at Caffé Dello Sport. It’s packed in there, too. The Caffé’s logo, a player volleying a soccer ball, tells newcomers exactly where to go to see a game. And on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year, Caffé Dello Sport sets their televisions to show games from leagues all over the world. The Café’s owner, Mike Spencer, routinely sees a mix of people from all continents come in to watch games.
“I get everybody for the games,” says Spencer, who currently owns the 67-year old Caffé. “For example, when Barcelona is playing Real Madrid, the place is slammed. The Italian league is the same. You can’t get in through my door.”
At Caffé Dello Sport, every table is positioned for viewing soccer on one of the dozen televisions. Though the caffé fills up, every seat is a good seat because it’s near a television.
“Originally we had one little TV. And the satellite was as big as a building. The TV was an Italian monitor because that’s the only way you could get soccer and it had to come in through a PAL system. Now we have high definition and more channels and it makes it a lot better.”
Spencer, who is part Italian, English, and Native American, has owned the caffé for seven years. And, after witnessing the massive crowds of Italian fans during the last two World Cups, Spencer is once again ready for the bushels of fans to pour into his business once the odyssey starts for Italy.
“You probably won’t be able to get in,” says Spencer. “I’ll be at maximum capacity and I’ll be standing at the door keeping people out. That’s how busy it will be.”
Some people aren’t as enthused about watching Italy play in Euro 2012. Angelo Catanio, who once owned Caffé Dello Sport, is upset with the scandals that have rocked Italy’s soccer leagues over the last decade.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t care much for the sport anymore,” says Catanio, who came to the United States in 1962 from Bergamo, a city near Italy’s border with Switzerland. “I have a bug in my ear that whoever wins has bought the game. They sold out. And this is true in all the sports: basketball, hockey, and so forth. It’s a shame what is happening in the world.”
These are tough times to be a supporter of Italian soccer. In many stadiums across Italy, it is unsafe to attend a game because of riots. While public debt and unemployment stay high, players in Italy’s Serie A, who are paid millions of euros per year, started last season with a strike against paying their taxes.
There were also more match-fixing and betting scandals this year. At the end of the Serie A season, all twenty teams went under investigation for the fixing of 33 alleged matches. The scandal has put big names in Italian soccer under high scrutiny such as Lazio captain Stefano Mauri, Juventus coach Antonio Conte, and starting national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
In the United States, sports scandals are dealt with swiftly. The New Orleans Saints’ scandal concerning player bounties was sewn up just a few weeks after the Superbowl, with some Saints’ administrators, coaches, and players facing severe punishments.
But the Italian soccer federation does not crack the whip hard enough when situations arise. Though the federation relegated Juventus to Serie B for match-fixing scandals in 2006, it appears that lessons still haven’t been learned in the wake of this year’s troubles. What’s more, some are calling for the Federation to shut down the Serie A indefinitely.
However, even with soccer being the North End’s most popular sport, few are watching Euro 2012 with the scandals in mind. Most enter the caffés to see high quality, top level soccer, if not the Italian national team.
“I come in here every morning for coffee before work and I watch most games here on the weekends,” says Nora, an Italian soccer supporter. “I just moved to the neighborhood about a year ago.”
As she finishes that thought, Caffé Dello Sport erupts in cheers. Denmark’s Michael Krohn-Dehli finds the back of the net by shooting the ball right through the legs of Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. As the replay is shown on television, the crowd inside the caffé responds with “oohs” and “wows.”
“I love that they still reach like they want to pull their shirts off,” Nora says, not taking her eyes off the television as she awaits the next development. And the next one after that. After all, few games stay static for long, especially in a high-stakes competition like the Euros.
“I’m mostly cheering for good soccer. But I am a card-carrying Italian fan. Spain has won all the things, so the pressure is on them. No one has expectations for Italy, so I’m hoping that’s part of what motivates them to pull it out.”
Regardless of what Italy does against Spain or how far they go in the tournament, the atmosphere in the North End will always be the same.
“I feel like I’m in Italy,” Nora says. “There are a lot of people that speak Italian and I try to eavesdrop to see what I can make out. It definitely has an Italian feel.”
Of course, should Italy have a successful Euro 2012, the sea of blue that graced Hanover Street during the Italian’s World Cup win in 2006 is almost sure to return. That makes Romula, the owner Che Bella Vita, a business that sells Italian soccer jerseys on Hanover Street, very happy.
“We’ve been selling soccer stuff since 1982, when they won their third World Cup,” says Romula. “The most popular seller is the Italian national team. People just love the color blue.”
“The Euro Cup is kind of slow until the Italians start really winning. And they’re going to win,” says Romula with a smile. “They’re going to win.”
You can reach Julian at firstname.lastname@example.org