The grocers across the road sells cheese, cured meat, home-made pizza bianca, fennel sausages. The proprietor is a genial chap found of recounting stories about his four months spent living on the Edgware Road. Today though he wanted to talk about something else. To his surprise, he found a willing audience.
I expect you're not interested in football, he began. No no, I assured him, on the contrary, I'm a romanista. Ah really? So guess what team I support. Er... Lazio? Ha! No, Cagliari. Oh, sez I, are you Sardinian? Nope, not really, my great grandparents were from Cagliari but it's not a direct link: I was born in Messina and have lived here most of my life. So why Cagliari?
Ah, he says, now that's a story. It was when I was doing my military service, you know it was compulsory. There were 25 of us in the barracks, it was a funny time. It was the era of Gigi Riva, do you remember him? Of course you don't, you are too young, a foreigner, but Gigi Riva was something else... [I try to interrupt to say yes, I know who Gigi Riva is, but to no avail.] Now Riva was like the Kakà of his day, he turned down all that money... but Kakà earns a fortune now, for Riva it was different, it was about loyalty, values. But that's not why I liked him... he did things on a football pitch you couldn't even understand, he was so great. I wasn't really a fan of any team in those days, I just enjoyed watching certain players.
So one of the lads in my barracks was a big Juve fan and we were talking about the game that was coming up one Sunday, and I said that he should watch out for Cagliari, Gigi Riva was such a great player, he could beat Juventus single handed. This guy was having none of it, so I suggested a little bet: a coffee, let's say. A coffee? Sod that, let's bet at least a dinner, said this cocky bugger. OK then, a dinner: Riva will beat you guys. No way, he said, and he was so sure he wanted to up the stakes. Not just a dinner for me, he said, but a dinner for the whole barracks: that's 24 dinners for the 24 other guys in here. And if Cagliari win? Well, in that case I'll buy you 24 dinners in a row, he said to me. If it's a draw, then the bet is cancelled. OK, I said. The game was in Turin, it was no small bet to take on, but Gigi Riva was something else, so....
The game began and there we all were, clustered round the radio listening hard. Not all the other guys were Juve fans, of course, but quite a few were - and they were all fans of a free dinner. Well, the first half unfolded and I didn't hear Riva's name once. Not once. It was all Juventus, Juventus, Juventus, and in the thirty-eighth minute they went 1-0 up. Of course this guy with the bet was celebrating like anything, but I was still pretty calm. Don't celebrate too soon, I said, keep your hair on. And not five minutes later, what should happen but one of those goals that lives with you forever. The Cagliari keeper passed the ball out to a defender who gave it to the right winger... damn what was his name... [pause]... che stronzo, he played for Inter after too.... never mind. The right winger, he looked up and saw Riva just perfectly positioned. Riva hadn't touched the ball all game, we'd not heard his name once, but the winger put in the perfect diagonal ball for him and he caught it on the volley, controlled it, never let it touch the ground and BANG! goal!
I knew it, I knew it, Riva was one of those players that always does the things no-one else can. 1-1 and it was half-time. And I knew then that Cagliari could win. In the second half it was all Riva, Riva, Riva, from the radio commentator and eventually they got a second, not from Riva but he made it. Brilliant. It was that Cagliari team that would win the scudetto the next year. What a player.
Well, at the end, my friend was gutted. But he kept his word: 24 dinners he bought me. Night after night after night for nearly four whole weeks, he had to buy me a dinner every evening. I ate like a king. And if I was a fan of Gigi Riva at the start, well, by the end, I was a Cagliari fan. You don't forget 24 dinners in a row.... and guess what game it is tonight? (concluded the proprietor in delight). Of course, it's Juventus-Cagliari. I'll be at home watching it on Sky. It's a long way from the radio in the barracks.
They say that you don't choose your football team, it chooses you. But sometimes it's just the intervention of fate, or food. Checking online I have found that my grocer's story is from the 1968-69 season, when Cagliari were narrowly denied the scudetto by Fiorentina, but went on to win the following season (though Riva was top scorer in '68-'69 with 21 goals). Not all the details as provided by the internet match up with the heartfelt recollections, but who is to say which is the more reliable account... and over forty years of rossoblù faith, who's counting anyway?
And tonight I see that, for the very first time since that game, Cagliari beat Juventus in Turin: Juve 2 - 3 Cagliari (Biondini (C) 16', Sissoko (J) 31', Nedved (J) 38'; Jeda (C) 54', Matri (C) 78'). Beautiful. Fiction could never be so generous.