In Italy, football is a religion, a Sunday ritual. The thread that binds the tapestry of a nation, the lust of blood and birth. American football is a form of rugby played in space armor. On the other side of the planet.
“Italians don’t know much about American football,” Riccardo Cesarei writes. “I would say they only know what they see in American movies.”
Burt Reynolds in “The Longest Yard.” Adam Sandler in “The Waterboy.” Puoi farlo!
“They like the show, but I guess most of them don’t even know the rules,” Cesarei continues. “It’s even worse for baseball. They know something more about rugby, quite a lot about basketball, but soccer really is king here.”
Cesarei is the among the rarest of world beasts — a Roman and a Michigan man. A veteran of the banking sector, Riccardo graduated from U-M’s Ross Business School in 1998 and serves as president of the Michigan Ross Alumni Club of Italy, an island of Maize and Blue in a sea of polite indifference.
That is, until next week. When the party, after all these years, finally comes to him.
“It’s a chance to get in touch with Ann Arbor and to show my kids the Wolverines,” Cesarei says of coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to send his alma mater’s football team to Italy April 22-30.
“We have many T-shirts and gadgets of them, but they had never really watched the team. It is a good chance to give visibility for American football to Italians as well.
“I am planning to go to the game (on April 29), if I can get the access. A Swiss alumna has already written to me that she is coming to Rome just for that. I am calling the other alums living in Rome as well.”
‘A real show’
It’ll be just like Stadium Boulevard on a Saturday, only replace the grills with marble statues. Fifty-nine of them, to be exact — the guardians to the steps of the Stadio dei Marmi in Rome, site of the Wolverines’ trip-ending public scrimmage.
Said scrimmage also happens to be one of the spring showcase events for the Federazione Italiana di American Football, or FIDAF, the country’s federation of American football and one of the Wolverines’ logistical partners for this junket.
“Looking for the best facilities for both the practice and final scrimmage program, checking the materials/technical items required, et cetera, represented some of the priorities,” explains Barbara Allaria, a press officer for FIDAF.
“Our close relationship with the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the sports and government institution we belong to, allowed us to find a way to put the Stadio dei Marmi — a historical and particularly attractive venue in Rome — at the Wolverines’ disposal for the game. We are also trying to involve all our players, coaches and supporters all over Italy to come and watch the Wolverines at work, which is an incredible opportunity to get in touch with ‘real’ high-level football.”
Allaria says FIDAF officials have been working with Michigan “very closely” for a couple of months to secure the facilities at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Centre, where the team will practice April 27 and 28, as well as Stadia dei Marmi.
The federation will provide technical support and referees for the scrimmage and have even set up an American-style tailgate — invite only — that will feature some of Rome’s “top sporting and political figures,” according to a news release, “as well as our federation’s guests.”
‘I did not know about Jim Harbaugh before he came to the Wolverines, but I remember my friends there being very happy about his coming.’
— Michigan alum and Italian Riccardo Cesarei
More than 30 American football coaches already have registered for a special clinic on Friday, while local players are looking forward to watching practices that “we consider a real show,” Allaria says.
“It’s a big event for Italy and for the city of Rome. (Earlier in the week), we obtained the official support of the Town Council — something usually not easy to get! We are alerting all the media and expect to give the whole event the visibility it deserves.”
‘Fans who know about American football know the University of Michigan’
On the plus side, both Ann Arbor and Rome have a deep and rooted history with winged helmets. Only in Italy, those wings represent Mercury, the ancient god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, communication, travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves — as well as serving as the guide for souls to the underworld.
“Fans who know about American football know the University of Michigan,” assures Luca Pietrafesa, head of communications with the soccer giant AS Roma, another Wolverines partner. “It is one of the most important football universities in the U.S. and their (games) are shown a lot here in Italy as well.
“Italians in general do not play a lot of (American) football. However, the playoffs and the Super Bowl have a very big following because the events are shown on all major TV networks. (American) football is not played in schools here in Italy, which makes it less popular than other sports, such as soccer, which are played in all schools at all ages.
“College football is followed by fans who follow football in Italy, but the NCAA championship definitely has a large appeal here because of the TV audience.”
And also because sports is, you know, the universal language. Sports and hilarious Taiwanese animations on YouTube:
“I think that this project could be a very interesting experience for the Michigan football team,” says Maria Manca, an Italian consul based in Detroit.
“Being immersed in the Italian culture; hearing a new language; possibly encouraging them to take some classes; enjoying foods that they have never tasted; seeing and visiting beautiful places and attractions; and developing friendships. I hope that they enjoy their trip to Rome and that they will bring back to Michigan good memories of Italy, and especially the desire to discover more about Italian culture and the Italian way of life.”
Big European soccer franchises routinely visit the United States for summer exhibitions and training, and AS Roma’s chairman and president is an American, James Pallotta, who’s also a co-owner of the Boston Celtics.
While an “exchange” program — Roma visiting Ann Arbor or greater Detroit and using Michigan’s facilities — hasn’t been announced, “it is certainly something that could happen in the future,” Pietrafesa says. “The relationship will be a long-term one.”
‘Probably some kid will get in love with this game’
In Cesarei’s universe, that’s the best news of all. In fact, it’s darn near perfezione.
“I did not know about Jim Harbaugh before he came to the Wolverines, but I remember my friends there being very happy about his coming,” he says. “I think this trip is a good chance for the players to visit another country and for the Italians to have a chance to meet a real team.
“I am glad they are doing this and hope they’ll like it and do it again. Romans are closer to American sports, lately, since the owner of AS Roma, the main soccer team, is American and is working to get the 2 cultures closer.”
He sends you a picture of him holding his young son, Lorenzo, the boy sporting a blue and gray Michigan T-shirt.
Then he notes that this same boy is 13 now, and that he’s never had a chance to see anything else remotely Wolverines-related up close.
“When I was in the States, it struck me how many of my classmates had never been outside of North America,” Cesarei says.
“For Italians, it will be a great show and probably some kid will get in love with this game and watch it in the future. For us, it will be great fun anyway.”
That’s the hope. And the plan. Like the city itself, that kind of love won’t be built in a day, but what the hell?
To paraphrase an old Latin chestnut, ex nihilo nihil fit — nothing comes from nothing. Or, to put it another way, there’s nowhere to go but up. And east.