Pistoia, a medium-sized town in the heart of Tuscany. It is the summer of 1980 and after 50 years the local football team (Unione Sportiva Pistoiese) has just been promoted again to the top league, Serie A. For a 10-year old boy who fell in love with football a couple of years earlier this is potentially the pinnacle of his existence.
The summer is a magical season, school is over and the transfer market frantic. In the ’70s foreign players had been banned from playing in Italy, supposedly to strengthen the local youth. But then, at the end of the decade, it was decided that foreign players actually would add value to Italian football and should come back.
Having a foreign player in your team now adds a new dimension to the football fever, introduces an exotic variable which makes the game, if possible, even more riveting. Superstars’ names are flying round and just the sound of it makes fans feel a sharp sense of excitement. It is ground-breaking, enthralling, no risk to overstate the intensity of the emotions. Endless heated discussions take place in the bars of the peninsula.
It is within this context that I am about to try to see Luís Sílvio Danuello in the flesh. Riding the wave of the foreign players fad, Pistoiese management have flown to Brazil determined to snatch a star that will make the fans dream. Pistoia is only a small town and the budget is limited. But confidence oozes and the chairman feels he can spot a rising talent still hidden in the suburbs of some Brazilian metropolis. After all Brazil is widely recognised as the world top producer of football talent. The Chairman’s trusted man, Beppe Malavasi, following a lead lands at the Ponte Preta pitch and is transfixed in awe when he sees a 20-year old good-looking boy flying on the right wing. He has no doubt: “That’s the man!” The deal is closed quickly for 170 million Lira. Not an insignificant amount of money 34 years ago. It doesn’t matter. This is exactly what Pistoiese and its fans need.
Fast-forward a few weeks and I am at home after lunch waiting for my friend. The excitement is barely controllable. We are determined to get hold of Luís Sílvio’s autograph. In our group of friends having the autograph of a football star is more or less like possessing the graal. Something that entitles you to feel superior, that allows you to show off “Look what I have got. I have even touched him, ha ha!” And all the boys looking at the autograph incredulous and murderously envious. My friend turns up on time. We quickly devise a plan and off we go.
Luís Sílvio actually doesn’t live far from where I live. It is a hot afternoon and the sun is ruthlessly shining overhead. We know where he lives as a few days before we had followed him from the training ground. Nowadays this is called stalking. We get outside the main door. It is a block of flats and I am slightly surprised as I had always thought that players lived in supernatural houses, whereas this one is nothing special. It’s just a thought that crosses my mind for a second but that by any stretch of imagination spoils the experience. Hearts are pounding as we are now about to ring his bell. In Italy after lunch in the summer it is common courtesy not to go and visit people as families have just finished eating and parents often have a nap before going back to work. So there is a risk that Luís Sílvio might get upset (although clearly he is not Italian, but we are only small and unable to draw this conclusion).
Finally we ring. A few seconds and then the sound of the steps looms behind the door. It’s him. He looks amazing somehow, certainly handsome. His eyes emanate a dazzling light. Definitely from a different planet. A revelation as only kids can witness. We produce pen and paper and with trembling voice we ask for an autograph. It is immediately obvious that Luís Sílvio cannot believe his ears. “Young boys come all the way to my house to ask for an autograph!” he must have thought. At that point in his mind there is no difference whatsoever between Pistoia and heaven, and is profoundly moved. Tears edge forward from his green eyes. At the back we can see his wife, equally astonished, holding a small baby. If I were to depict a moment of joy for the perfect family that would be my top choice. Idyllic. He doesn’t speak Italian but it is clear what we want from our body language and equipment. He is very pleased to please us. He may be not cut out to play the hero but seems to have a good heart and smiles at us when, over the moon, we thank him and make our way back down the stairs. What an unforgettable afternoon.
Fast forward a few months. Luís Sílvio regularly sits on the stand, not even on the bench. He played the first few games but unfortunately has not impressed the manager or the fans. Rumours start circulating that he was never a professional footballer, in fact he was a barman people claim. Papers and fans can be cruelly dismissive with those who fail. We all know how volatile the world of football is. One day you are a hero and the following day you are a zero, or less if possible. Big players have broad enough shoulders to bear that, but Luís Sílvio is only a young fragile man. Needless to say that he gets terribly homesick and in April, one month before the end of the season, he is back in Brazil. All over.
Thirty-four years later the name of Luís Sílvio has become synonymous with “bidone” which literally means rubbish bin and is used in colloquial language to indicate those who have grossly failed to meet the high expectations placed on them. It is a mildly contemptuous expression that well conveys the cynicism ingrained in the Italian culture. But it doesn’t matter. When I look back at that afternoon this sad outcome totally vanishes and the heart starts pounding again as if the temporal distance was magically annulled.