Traffic Stops for World Cup

When in Rome with wealthy fans, do as partisans do: Watch, cheer, use your cellular

`THIS is the place - the one with the Italian flag hanging out the window,'' says Alessandro Focolari.

Mr. Focolari and his wife enter the apartment building of Riccardo Diotallevi, who works with Italy's national soccer federation as a kind of talent scout seeking out 10-year-olds who might one day play big time.

Together with other fans, the Focolaris were going to watch Tuesday's World Cup soccer match between Italy and Mexico.

The Italian flag, being sold here on street corners, is waving throughout the country as a show of support for Italy's national team. Italy, considered a strong Cup contender, opened with a stunning 1-0 loss to Ireland. Now it must win or tie Mexico to advance.

On his way upstairs, Focolari explains he's a strong fan of Lazio, the team favored by the neofascist allies of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. His wife, however, is a fan of the rival Roma team.

``I only found out afterward,'' jokes Focolari, the circulation director of Corriere dello Sport, one of the country's three all-sports newspapers. ``If I'd known before I married her.... ''

Focolari discovered girls and soccer at the same time, he says, ``but if it was a question of a girl or soccer, soccer won every time.''

Game time nears. About 20 men, women, and children pack the room to watch the big-screen TV. Soon the traffic outside will stop, as people go inside to watch the game.

The fans here are wealthy achievers - physicians and a former pro-soccer player among them - and the room is full of telefonini, as cellular phones are called. Whenever someone hangs up, it seems, another one rings.

The fans argue over whether to watch the private Telemontecarlo or the state-owned RAI. None of Mr. Berlusconi's three television stations are carrying the matches, although he also owns Milan, the team that contributed several players to the national squad. Telemontecarlo, which has an ex-Communist as its news director, has pointedly called its World Cup commentary program ``Italia Forza,'' to avoid any association with Berlusconi's right-wing political party, Forza Italia, named after the ``Go get 'em, Italy!'' cry at World Cup matches.

The fans decide to watch the RAI. The game begins and everyone comments at once on the play from Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. They immediately decide the Italians are not at their best today, but the players are excused because of the scorching noonday sun.

``At 40 degrees [C., 105 degrees F.], I go to sleep,'' someone says.

At halftime, the score is 0-0. But soon after play resumes, Daniele Massaro scores for Italy. Everyone leaps to his feet. The room is alive with waving hands and roars of approval.

``Great!'' Focolari cries.

``Bello!'' say others, riveted to the replay. ``Bravo!''

Ten minutes later, Mexico's Marcelino Bernal scores.

``I knew it!'' screams one man in frustration.

The mood changes considerably. There is fury at a missed goal: screaming, hand-wringing, palpable worry that victory will elude Italy. A loss would mean Italy's elimination.

But the game ends in a 1-1 tie, and these fans pour downstairs to eat in a nearby Chinese restaurant. Drivers are not blowing their horns tonight, as they did for hours after Italy's 1-0 triumph over Norway.

In the restaurant, the men furtively dial the telefonini numbers of friends seated at the other end of the banquet table. Mr. Diotallevi's wife Marina, who arranges fashion shows for designer Valentino, calls for a consensus on who the best-looking player was, but there is none. And the men argue about whether Italy still has a chance to win the coveted World Cup.

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