The Madonna is a Bohemian | Football in a Tiny Italian Village

This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.

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In the mountains between Rome and Naples is the Valle Di Comino, a stunning valley green valley filled with vineyards and farms. The village of Settefrati is in the middle of this incredible idyll and that’s where I’m stuck: at the top of a mountain desperately trying to find out the score between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers, the last derby of the season.

My girlfriend Andrea’s granddad emigrated from Settefrati to Dublin in the 1950s and eventually opened a few chippers around the city. He wasn’t the only one as an incredible amount of Dublin chippies were set up by people from this tiny valley in Italy. But every August the families of those who emigrated, along with hordes of pilgrims, return for a religious festival: the feast of the Madonna of Canneto.

Trying to experience a taste of the local football scene is a common occurrence on our holidays, mostly out of my own curiosity, but also to try finding something that might be applicable to the League of Ireland. That such ideas are shot down in flames by an extremely patient Andrea is just as inevitable as me bringing them up. To be fair, she puts up with my asinine ramblings about Bohemians on a weekly basis.

While there couldn’t possibly be much of a football scene in this sparsely-populated mountainous valley in Italy, I sensed some hope when the holiday was being planned: The province’s local team, Frosinone, was promoted to Italy’s top flight last season, so this would be an ideal time to see my first ever Serie A game. Through some impressive translation work, 90 Minute Cynic press passes to the game was arranged, together with an interview request to speak to captain Daniel Ciofani.

But Italian football works in mysterious ways and usually with a heavy dose of controversy. When Frosinone scored a 96th minute winner in the play-off final second leg against Palermo, they instructed balls to be thrown onto the pitch to break up Palermo’s last-ditch efforts to equalise, before eventually a pitch invasion stopped the game completely. Because Frosinone had become infamous for being the Italian embodiment of ‘Hibsing it’, it seem they had been taking no chances this time.

Despite Palermo’s protestations, Frosinone only received a slap on the wrist for this behaviour: a €25,000 fine along with having their first two home games played on neutral ground in Turin, 500 miles away from Settefrati.  There went my Serie A dream and a Cynic exclusive.

In the absence of getting to see live football, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between myself and the masses of pilgrims who were descending on the typically sleepy village, eager for the big event. Barely a couple of days into our two-week stay I also found myself pining for the big event back in Dublin between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers.

When I realised that not even the omnipresence of the internet would be able to save me from my isolation, the typical derby day tension ratcheted up another few notches.  Reminiscing about my usual match day routine and not being able to perform it was driving me up the wall.

I felt like one of the pilgrims camping in a field outside the village. They know something big is about to happen, but all they want is one quick glimpse of the statue of the Madonna to put their anxiety to rest.

And despite my complaining, I eventually found serenity: In a strange way it was nice to be disconnected from the madness that was unfolding back home. Because I had no way of knowing what was going on, I realised it was futile to stress about it. Maybe the Madonna was speaking to me after all?

That evening, we made our way down to the village’s piazza, me wearing my Bohs strip of course. And since Settefrati is like a slice of Dublin in Italy, I was spotted in the piazza by the Shelbourne U-19 coach, who himself have family who emigrated from the village.

 

The chat turned to League of Ireland matters and the match being played in Dublin at that very moment. That’s when it happened. The one thing that I had been dreading the entire night: my phone vibrating in my pocket.

I didn’t have the heart to check it straight away, I was praying to the Madonna that it wasn’t what I thought it was. I tried to convince myself that maybe it was a text from someone back home, or perhaps that I had imagined the vibration. But really, it could only be one thing and, despite my pretending to not be bothered because I’m so far away, it would either make or break my night.

I finally plucked up the courage to check the notification on my phone:

@bfcdublin just tweeted: “It ends 1-0. Stokes the goal scorer and Dublin stays black and red.”

The homebrew red wine tasted even sweeter that night.

Day-to-day life in Settefrati has a decidedly relaxed vibe to it. The village begins to show signs of life towards midday, pasta from the day before is fried up and wolfed down, and all the old acquaintances convene on the piazza for a game of cards.

The winner of the game wins an ice cream, and then everyone heads home for their siesta. The only shop in the village closes, as does the bar. Around 8 o’clock everyone begins to emerge again, ready for a night of drinking into the wee small hours and for the big game of cards. Although this time there’s more at stake than an ice cream.

We arrived at the busiest time of the year for the village: the feast of the Madonna of Canneto. The story goes that a young girl was tending to her family’s sheep when the Virgin Mary appeared to her, asking her to take a letter down to a priest in the village. She initially refused, saying her sheep would die of thirst, so the Madonna put her hands into the ground and a flowing river appeared. This river is said to be the source of Settefrati’s drinking water and a church was built in her honour.

Every year, a celebration is held where pilgrims carry a statue of the Madonna up the mountain to Canneto, and back down to the village again. The finale of the festival is a fireworks display the likes I’ve never come across before.

It can be seen and heard across the entire valley, and in the village you can feel the shockwaves of the explosions.

When the fireworks finally ended, a blanket of smoke and sulphur fell onto the village, creating a feeling of finality to the whole event. The church bells ceased to ring and there was nothing but silence for just a second, people trying to get their head around the sensory overload they just experienced.

No sport manages to capture society’s imagination the way the beautiful game does. Sitting down one evening over a beer, I couldn’t help but hear a group of middle-aged men debating how the Serie A season would unfold. The group breakdown was a Roma fan, a Lazio supporter, a couple of Juve followers, together with a Napoli fan as well. The Roma supporter was genuinely trying to make the point that Javier Pastore would have a bigger impact than Cristiano Ronaldo. It didn’t go down well.

Trips to the Abbey of Monte Cassino and to the stunning seaside town of Gaeta broke up the day-to-day routine of relaxing around the village. The history and visuals of Monte Cassino were breath-taking and a must-see if you ever visit the area. But something struck me in Gaeta that says a lot about the current political climate.

One gift shop was advertising their finest Benito Mussolini cutlery in the front window. An opportunistic shop owner trying to sell these plates as a cheap gag? I don’t buy that excuse. It’s ignorance of this magnitude that has landed us in the shit-show of a political climate we currently find ourselves.

But, unsurprisingly, Italy has form here. Just a few days before our trip to Gaeta, in my holiday reading, Tim Parks described a similar experience in his 2002 classic, A Season With Verona, except in the north of Italy. Parks was in a bar that was selling bottles of wine with the faces of fascist and communist leaders on them. On that occasion when questioned whether they make political statements, the barman replied, “Oh no, not at all.” I think that says plenty about the attitudes that have landed us with Trump and various other local forms of ugly sentiments.

While the last few stragglers were abandoning the village until next August, I spotted the rarest creature in all of Italy: a Frosinone fan. The first I had come across thus far during my time here, this teenage boy was holding his yellow-blue scarf in one hand and his phone in the other, staring intently at the screen.

When I got closer I noticed he was watching Frosinone’s game against Bologna in Turin. Through his limited English and my few Italian phrases we had a chat about football. He described his frustration that the game was being held in Turin instead, because that meant he had to come to the boring religious festival with his parents. I tried to tell him about the trouble I had with the Bohemian-Rovers game, which seemed to cheer him up. But he probably couldn’t understand my accent and gave this odd stranger a polite smile instead.

Later at a barbeque, a man claiming to be a former Juventus ultra-crashed the party to tell his tales: apparently he was banned from every stadium the length and breadth of Italy and immensely proud of it.

It shows how football is a madhouse that can welcome everyone in society. From the typical teenager who’s infatuated with the game, to the man-child who won’t let go of his exaggerated glory days, it always amazes me how football can bring totally different people together to share their experiences about the only thing they may have in common. In Dublin, in a tiny Italian village, anywhere: people portray themselves through football and connect through it.

 

This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.

Download the magazine here:

ePub version (great for smart phone readers)

PDF version


Ryan is an university student that was born and raised on the North side of Dublin. The son of a Celtic supporter, Ryan is a devoted fan of his local club Bohemians. In his spare time he enjoys writing about John Delany's favourite "problem child" - the League of Ireland - and all the little things that make it the #GreatestLeagueintheWorld. He also enjoys collecting football jerseys and watching the Chicago Cubs play baseball.


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