The doormen, the concierge, the waiters and the cleaners of the Parco dei Principi hotel in Rome are used to tending to VIP guests. Never before, however, have they had so many under one roof at the same time.
For the last few days, the second and third floors have been reserved for Argentina’s national team. The fourth and fifth are occupied by Italy. Altogether Il Corriere dello Sport has estimated that there is 994 million euros worth of talent staying in its rooms.
Sharing one with Lionel Messi is goalkeeper Oscar Ustari. Upstairs Daniele De Rossi is in another with Andrea Pirlo. A Do Not Disturb sign has presumably been placed outside Erik Lamela and Lucas Biglia’s door to stop Roma and Lazio fans knocking at it and demanding that they be separated.
As with everything organised at the request of Italy coach Cesare Prandelli [and, as we’ll see, the recommendation of the Vatican], there is a meaning to the whole exercise and that’s to remind everybody - because people do forget - that rivalry can be friendly. Why not use an occasion like this to foster some Corinthian spirit?
Prandelli’s intention was a noble one. He wished to “make it understood that more important values exist in football than football itself.” So Italy and Argentina will live together and tomorrow they’ll travel as one to the Stadio Olimpico for a game that’s arguably the pick of the international calendar this midweek.
After all, the two nations have a great deal of shared heritage following the wave of Italian immigration to Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th century. Italy striker Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, for instance, was born in Buenos Aires and of course follows the long tradition of Oriundi, while nine members of Argentina’s 23-man squad play in Serie A, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to the ‘old country’.
The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, an Argentinian born to parents of Italian origin, has only strengthened that common bond and is the source of inspiration for this friendly. The promise of an audience with him at the Vatican on Tuesday led a number of players with niggling injuries to resist pulling out of international duty. Captain Messi, bothered by a muscle complaint, was one of them.
“God goes to meet the Pope,” was Olé’s headline. It’s an event nobody wants to miss, though that wasn’t always the case.
Diego Maradona was famously late when Napoli were granted a meeting with Pope John Paul II. And when he did arrive, they clashed too. “Yes, I argued with the Pope,” he admitted. “I argued with him because I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterwards I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then amigo, do something!”
It was classic Diego and very much in line with the man-of-the-people image he cultivated. There must have been relief then in Pope Francis’ quarters when he received Maradona’s blessing. It came shortly after his confirmation in the form of a photo Diego had tweeted, which showed him holding up a piece of paper. He’d written on it: “The hand of God approves of the new Pope.”
A supporter of San Lorenzo - member number 88,235 - rather than Diego’s team Boca Juniors, Pope Francis’ passion for football has not gone unnoticed. Asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport if he’d thought about what he might say to his Holiness, Prandelli revealed: “I’d like to say: ‘If tomorrow evening you don’t have anything better to do, come to the stadium with us,’ but I fear that because of the emotion I won’t be able to get the words out.”
Italy haven’t beaten Argentina since their encounter at the 1982 World Cup when Claudio Gentile was under orders to follow Maradona everywhere, even to the bathroom. He man-marked him so well that day, it was said that he managed to swap shirts with him during rather than after the game. But Argentina and Diego of course got their own back at Italia `90, breaking the hosts’ hearts by knocking them out on penalties in the semi-final in Naples.
The night before the game Maradona told reporters he felt that it was hypocritical to expect the locals to support Italy for one evening when for the other 364 days of the year they were marginalised by the rest of the country. The loyalties of Neapolitans were divided between their country and the idol of their club. “We will support Italy but respect and applaud the Argentinians,” Napoli’s capo ultra Gennaro Montuori Palumbella told Maradona. And so it was.
“When I stepped out onto the pitch, on the day of the match, July 3,” Maradona recalled, “the first thing I heard was applause. I read all the banners: ‘Diego in our hearts, Italy in our songs’; ‘Maradona, Naples loves you but Italy is our homeland’. The Argentinian national anthem for the first time in the whole World Cup was applauded from beginning to end. For me that was already victory. I smiled, I was moved: these were my people, the ones who called me Diecó, El Diego. My people.”
The last meeting between the Azzurri and the Albiceleste was in a friendly 12 years ago. Italy took the lead after Seba “He’s a f*****g great player” Veron [copyright Sir Alex Ferguson] played a backheel straight into the path of Christian Vieri who, after waiting for Pippo “He was born offside” Inzaghi [copyright Sir Alex Ferguson] to get back onside, played a wonderfully weighted through ball to Stefano Fiore. He made no mistake, placing a shot between German Burgos’s legs to open the scoring.
Veron would make amends soon afterwards, releasing Pablo Aimar on just as ruthless a counter-attack, which ended with Hernan Crespo sliding a pass across to Kily Gonzalez, a little like Sheringham to Shearer for England against Holland at Euro '96, at which point he lashed a shot into the top corner. Gonzalez then returned the favour, crossing for Crespo to edge a winner past Gigi Buffon shortly after half-time. It was a fine match.
Here’s hoping for another spectacle.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.