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World Cup memories about more than just the winners and losers

Brazil's goalie Taffarel consoles Italy's Roberto Baggio after the Brazilians won the World Cup trophy with a 3-2 shootout in overtime at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday, 17, 1994 Baggio's missed shot on goal gave Brazil their record fourth world soccer title. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Luca Bruno, AP

It was a sunny but chilly July day in the Brazilian winter of 1982. Our family was gathered together in all our grandeur, preparing for the Spanish FIFA World Cup game that would decide the semifinals. The Brazilian team, with its fabulous "art" soccer, had easily won its previous game against Argentina, the 1978 World Cup champions. Now the Brazilians were ready to play Italy, whom they only needed to tie to get to the semifinals.

When I was growing up in an Italian family living in the heart of Brazil, "futebol," i.e., soccer, was a major part of our daily lives. The World Cup, which came around only every four years, was one of our greatest joys almost a religion.

For the semifinal game of the 1982 World Cup, my family gathered around the television in the living room. I was one of the kids spread out on pillows on the floor, trying to protect ourselves from the parents, aunts and uncles jumping and cheering for Brazil, while our grandparents cheered for Italy. It was pure joy mixed with high-energy insanity.

The game had barely started when Italy made its first goal. Brazil tied the game a few minutes later. Then Italy made another goal, and Brazil tied again! Everything was looking good until Italy made its third goal just a few minutes before the end of the game.

The World Cup was over, and our team had lost.

Two dozen people were left crying in our living room. A marble table lay broken because of one of my uncles' mad reactions, and popcorn was spread all over the wooden floor.

Our grandparents tried to comfort us because we were, after all, Italians, and we should not be sad over Brazil's loss. But the entire country was in mourning for weeks. Italy ultimately won the 1982 World Cup, and my family's mood brightened; but as Italians living in Brazil, we were unable to celebrate in public. The flags came down. We had lost. Life returned to normal for the green-and-yellow giant.

In the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Brazilian team wasn't the favorite and lost any hope of winning early in the tournament. The next event year, 1990, was no better. Our eager hearts had gone cold.

In 1994, after the military government fell, we had the opportunity to vote for the very first time. Our passions shifted to the achievement of freedom and democracy. Without much hope of being victorious at soccer, we cheered on a new hero, Formula One racer Ayrton Senna.

Unfortunately, on May 1, 1994, while we were celebrating Labor Day, Senna was killed in an accident during the San Marino race another dream taken from us by cruel fate. After such disappointments, our family grew apart, and our eagerness to cheer for the country for which we had developed such great love diminished.

Although the USA World Cup in 1994 brought new highs, Brazil didn't have an all-star team that year, with four coaches coming and going until just a few days before the games started. We decided not to get too excited ... until we got the news that the final game would be against Italy! Again! Seriously, did we really deserve this?

I joined my grandfather before the TV set and imagined hearing my grandmother cheering from heaven's green Tuscan gardens, as she was no longer with us by then. My mother brought together brothers, sisters, kids and grandkids for a big family reunion. We once again gathered in the living room to watch, a little hesitant but deeply hopeful, the very last game of the 1994 USA World Cup between Brazil and, of course, Italy. Fortunately, there was no marble table in the room at that point.

It was a fair game without surprises and ended 0-0. No "futebol arte" from Brazil. No big turns from Italy either. The decision would be in the penalties.

In less than five minutes, we had all stopped complaining and become patriots and excited cheerleaders again. Brazil was there! After all, we had Ronaldo. We were afraid of being humiliated again, but to pay tribute to Ayrton Senna and give some hope to the kids, we decided to give in to passion. We cheered as never before, because we knew that in the end, we would have each other no matter what.

The penalties phase started. Italy missed the first kick and defended Brazil's first kick. The other kicks went into the net, back and forth — until Italy missed another one. At the end of the game, the score was Brazil 3, Italy 2.

It had happened! It had really happened! Brazil was the champion again! We had our revenge, and our tarnished honor had been restored!

These World Cup memories are among those closest to my heart. Not because of any mere soccer game, or because of its results; after all, we were able to cheer for both sides. No, they remain times that I'll never forget because they brought us together as a family, multiple generations gathered in one room, cheering happily for the same reason.

Though we cared mightily, in the end, it didn't matter whether our team won. It didnt even matter if we all cheered for the same team. What mattered was that we were there, together, as a family in a place that couldn't help but bring us closer, at least for those few exciting hours. It's a scene repeated all over the world daily, whether the sport is soccer, American football, baseball, jai alai, auto racing or horse racing.

It's the magic of a family striving and celebrating together, win or lose, that has really stuck with me all these years.

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