It’s the night between June seventeenth and eighteenth, 1970, and I’m in my room, sleeping. This coming August I’ll turn five, so I’m technically still a four-year-old. Loud voices bounce between dream and life, until I decide they’re real and open my eyes. I get out of bed, walk out of my room and down the long corridor connecting the bedrooms to the living area. It’s all dark, but I keep walking toward a light coming from the living room, on the right side at the end of the corridor. That’s no lamp or chandelier or other lighting fixture light: it’s animated, lively, and its intensity changes continuously as if someone is shadow playing over it. The voices that woke me get louder as I cautiously approach the light. They seem to mimic the light changes, alternating vivaciousness and quiet, scream and whisper, agitation and composure. I stop at the living room entrance, feeling my face splashed with that strangely irregular light, and I see mom, dad, and a bunch of others gathered in a semi-circle in front of the tv, all seated and intently watching, their faces illuminated by that same light that I now know where is from. The only light in the room.
Nobody notices me. They’re all concentrating on, and absorbed by, what’s on the screen, seemingly impossible to distract. It’s a football game, in black and white, between a team in dark jerseys and one in white. It looks like one of those games that everybody’s watching at night these days, those played all at the same place between national teams. Dad told me that it's called the World Cup and it’s played every four years, each time in a different country. They’re playing in Mexico, this year. Which is seven hours behind us. That’s why it’s night here. But this one game they’re watching seems a little more important than the others, judging by everyone’ attentiveness and trepidation. And hysteria. They all look a little hysterical in front of that tv. I stand there for a little while, maybe a few minutes, watching them nervously watch it, and then slowly go back to my room.
That’s what I can recall of Italy vs. West Germany 4-3, also known as the Game of the Century.
“The semi-final of the 1970 FIFA World Cup between Italy and West Germany has been called the "Game of the Century" [...]. It was played on 17 June 1970 at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Italy won 4–3 after five of the seven goals were scored in extra time, the record for most goals scored during extra time in a FIFA World Cup game. The result eliminated West Germany from the tournament while Italy went on to lose to Brazil in the final.”, says the game’s Wikipedia page, and I can’t find better words to replace this description.
One of my earliest memories. I guess prior to that there’s one when I was three or four and they gave me a toy guitar for my birthday and I broke it right away by sitting on it and cried for the whole day. Or maybe when uncle Giuseppe brought us a real little monkey from I don’t know where and it jumped everywhere and made a disaster and mom had to give it back after not even a day. I was probably four. But other than these, I can’t really recall anything earlier than Italy vs. West Germany 4-3.
Anybody even remotely interested in football knows about the Game of the Century, or watched it at some point. It’s a memorable event that, back then, went beyond football to touch people’s still fresh sensitivity and open wounds post-WWII, and I’m happy to have a recollection of its original occurrence. A direct memory of this game puts me officially among those who watched it live, although I didn’t really watch it and was too little to make anything out of it, to understand its meaning and impact. But I was there when it was taking place, briefly awake and lightly aware that something huge was going on. Like those who say they were there when Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the Moon was broadcast live all over the world (which I don’t have any direct memory of, although it was just a year earlier). And this makes me feel good: every time the Game of the Century gets mentioned, I recall that night of fifty-two years ago. A happy memory that for years I’ve been unable to tell from a dream, until I realized it was real.
Interestingly, that experience became a happy memory later on in life, when I finally understood the significance of what I witnessed. Until then, it was just a weird memory -- that my folks were up in the middle of the night watching a football game taking place on the other side of the world wasn’t really happiness material for (almost) five-year-old me. Besides leaving me puzzled by its weirdness, the scene that I saw didn’t spark any joyful emotions right then and there. But when I realized (or, rather, when they explained to me) that the game that kept the whole country sleepless and stuck to the tv screen was arguably the most important World Cup semi-final ever, played against Germany, our historical football rival in Europe, and that our victory (achieved in such an exciting and exhilarating fashion) meant going to play Pele’s Brazil in the final, a whole bundle of delayed emotions took possession of my being. And the memory of that night got upgraded from weird to happy for the rest of my life. That we then lost to that Brazil (probably the strongest ever) doesn’t really detract from the beauty and happiness of this memory.
Research shows that positive childhood memories can provide a sense of security, belonging, and happiness that can serve as a foundation for positive self-esteem, good mental health, and better relationships with others in adulthood. But besides what research says, happy memories just make us feel good. They just make us feel like thinking of them. Over and over again. The more they are and the more we retrieve them, the more positive their impact on our mood. They come rescue us when things aren’t exactly as we would like them to be. They are our intimate, untouchable, inaccessible, comfortable refuge. And even if we decided to open its door to someone else, it wouldn’t provide the same good it does to us.
So why then do we only remember a few of them? Memories go through a complex process where they get retained if emotions are associated with them. And intuitively, this makes sense: emotional events are often better remembered than neutral events, and the emotional content of an event can enhance memory consolidation. But my childhood (and likely everybody else’s, one way or the other) presumably had plenty of emotional content. Yet, my recollection of, say, pre-five-year-old memories is limited to just a few. Maybe it has to do with not having retrieved some of them so often? I read somewhere that practice enhances the retention and consolidation of a memory. And, again, this makes sense: as we age, many more new memories pile up in our memory repository, which evidently isn’t infinitely spacious, forcing some of the older ones to leave (maybe temporarily; maybe permanently). Practicing the retrieval of a memory increases its probability to be retained in the memory repository, even when crammed by tons of new ones, to the detriment of those that don’t get retrieved often.
Some memories get retrieved so often that they become indelible, and they get retrieved often because they evoke happiness or beauty or good company or obsolete yet pleasant ways of thinking or acting. These memories are so loaded with emotions and so detailed and crisp and colorful that we not only remember the event per se, but we also remember who we were with, what we were wearing, the words we spoke, the words others spoke, how we felt, what we ate. And they come to us effortlessly, because they’ve made us feel good countless times, and they continue to do so.
On July eleventh, 1982, twelve years after that night in June 1970, I’m technically still sixteen and the final of the XII edition of the FIFA World Cup is about to start. This time the game isn’t in black and white or in the middle of the night, as Italy and Germany are playing at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, one of Europe's temples of football. Italy and Germany, again. The never ending story. I drive my white Vespa 50 along the seafront to my friend Afro’s place, a mere four kilometers from mine, where a squad of teenagers are ready to watch Italy play a World Cup final for their first time ever. Their first time ever as football connoisseurs, and fully aware of what’s going on, that is. Nervousness is palpable; excitement unprecedented. I wear a white t-shirt with horizontal yellow stripes, a pair of blue jeans, and sneakers. Luca, who’s seated on my right, is wrapped in an Italian flag and I can’t tell what he’s wearing underneath, or whether he’s wearing anything at all. Stefania, on my left, is in a white dress. It’s hot, there’s no air conditioning, and the windows are all wide open. A surreal silence drops on the streets, no one’s around. The game starts.
The drive back home takes more than two hours, as the streets are flooded with people shouting and singing and cars honking and bikes and motorcycles and flags everywhere. More than two hours to drive four kilometers on a Vespa. Italy just won their third World Cup and we hugged and kissed and yelled and pinched ourselves to check if we were dreaming. We are not dreaming. We’ll be up all night. It’s all real and forever sculpted onto our memories.
Whenever I want to feel good, whenever I need to feel good, I “practice” this memory. Or other happy memories. Like when my kids were born. Or their first day of school. Or when dad bought me my first electric guitar. Or all the times I laughed so hard at his funny stories. Or my first Rolling Stones concert. Or when I woke that night in June 1970 and followed the light and had no idea what was going on, but I was there.
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I feel that rereading this is now a happy memory of mine. Such a delight reading a first-hand account of a friend that lived a national World Cup Championship, and all that it entailed before. Maybe we can even practice happy memories from others? So glad you lived through all these memories and now you tell us about them, Silvio!
Ah these are good memories Silvo and I'm sure many will relate to them.
For me watching Landon Donovan score the extra time winner in South Africa, 2010 was a happy memory. A friend of mine there vowed he would name his first born son after Landon. And now here we are 13 years later, my friend has a son who bears the name Landon and I get a bit of joy every time I think about that.
Though I wish I had a friend named Afro!