I’m currently standing on the overpass outside the Saint-Denis Porte de Paris metro station looking directly up at the Stade de France. A full-blown panic attack has set in: I’m nauseous, I can’t breathe, and the overthinking has well and truly kicked in.
I’m two years into a marriage breakdown and between the depression, the post-traumatic stress of the separation and anxiety of being out in public, I’m seriously questioning what the hell I’m doing with my life and how I’ve ended up at this point.
Somehow, I’ve managed to plan a vacation in France, with the help of my friend Gary, following the Italian national team around Euro 2016.
The backstory, when France were vying to win the rights to host the Euros my first phone call was to my French friend Gary and I told him if France does indeed win the hosting rights, I’ll be on the first plane to watch the Azzurri.
That conversation nine years earlier it seemed like a world away from where I was now standing.
I started to question it all?
Why would I spend all this money and time, leaving my three children behind to follow the Italian football side across the country?
The players don’t care, the Italian football association doesn’t care, they don’t know I’ve travelled from Australia. If they lose, they’ll be on the first plane back to Italy and their mansions with their millions of dollars and back to their glamorous lifestyles.
I’ve got to get back to my small tiny hotel room, train four hours back to Lyon and then fly home to Australia and get back to reality.
No cares that you’re here, no one cares that you’ve given up time with your children, spent thousands of dollars to be here.
You’re alone and you’ve done this to yourself.
The overthinking and full-blown anxiety attack has well and truly set in. Why do I do this to myself?
The incredibly crowded walk from the metro station had the crowd stream off the subway into a tunnel what felt like about a kilometre long and all I could unfortunately think was we’re all sitting ducks: it’s crowded, it’s hot, there’s nowhere to go so I don’t think my approach to the stadium didn’t help my thought process.
Now I get off the train, subway, bus etc prior to arriving to the stadium, so like when I’m back in Australia, I can savour the walk to the stadium surrounded by fellow fans. One of the most under-rated features of attending live matches.
The thoughts roll around my head easier than a Jurgen Klinsmann swan-dive in Italia 90. ‘The Italian team will only let you down.” “Spain will win.” ‘You’ve lost so much money and time.” ‘They’re going to lose,” and so on and so on.
When I’m in this state I tend to look at my feet and remind myself where I am and perhaps going one further by telling myself that when and what I’m thinking about isn’t happening.
In my current state I’m struggling to breathe, I’m around $1000 over-budget extending my holiday and securing a ticket to the Round of 16 clash between Italy and Spain, as well as accommodation and travel to Paris.
After walking several laps of the overpass and trying my best to soak in the atmosphere I finally muster up the courage to walk towards the stadium and through the gates. Once inside the first check point, I’m directed towards security and I use that term loosely.
The security guard, an elderly gentleman, pats me down with the enthusiasm of someone trying to get his shift over and done with, he wants out of here as much as me.
My 90-year-old Nonna puts more energy into rolling her pasta than this steward did to run his hands through my pockets, belt, jacket etc and as for looking in my bag: “you’re good. Next!”
Before I walk to my seat I make my way to the bar on the second tier of the stadium for an espresso and as I take a seat on the veranda I look down on the crowd surrounding the stadium, my thoughts have now returned to normal.
I’m trying to savour the experience and remind myself how fortunate I am to be where I am right now, literally within half an hour I’ve turned my whole thought process and pattern around. Welcome to the world of an anxiety-suffering Italian football fan.
A couple pull up next to me, we give each a head-nod in acknowledgement, the man asks if I’m here supporting Italy.
We make some small talk in my hybrid of Australian-Calabrese-Italian, which seems passable, and within minutes they’re reliving their honeymoon in France during the Euros (how convenient?!) and their wedding earlier in the month.
They too couldn’t afford not to pass up the opportunity to watch Italy play and, going off the number of cigarettes he’s consumed within the few minutes of our conversation, I’m guessing he’s as nervous as me.
My friend Gary messages me to wish me luck, he’s still recovering from France’s 2-1 victory over Ireland the night and already planning a trip to Paris to watch ‘Les Bleus’ take on the tournament sentimental favourites Iceland.
I decide to make my way into my seat and that moment I see the field, the national flags, both sides warming up and the good, and more importantly the bad, thoughts are all forgotten.
Those moments prior to walking into the stadium are so magical, they cannot be replicated despite being repeated time and time again.
That moment when you approach your gate and you get your first view of the lights, the field, all through the perspective and the frame of your gate.
As the teams make their way out of the tunnel and line up for the anthems the Italian anthem begins, we all know that piece of music — those opening twelve bars, enough to bring a man to tears.
Which it does.
I called my Dad and held my phone in the air, I needed to share this moment with my Dad.
The opening 10 minutes see Italy on the counter and taking the game to Spain, the Azzurri the more positive of the two sides.
Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea makes a brilliant diving save low to his left to deny Graziano Pelle from an opening goal, and then the keeper goes onto deny Emanuele Giaccherini’s acrobatic bicycle kick. This is all in the opening 10 minutes.
Finally, the Spanish resistance is broken as an Eder free-kick stings the palms of De Gea who can only palm the shot and then kick the ball into the path of an incoming Giorgio Chiellini who taps the ball into an empty net giving Italy the 1-0 lead on 32 minutes.
Cue pandemonium! Perhaps the footballing gods will be kind to me today?
For all he did before and after the tournament Eder wasn’t exactly a Serie A mainstay, however he was at the peak of his short-lived powers in 2016 and Antonio Conte squeezed that lemon dry.
The same went for the likes of Giaccherini, Matteo Darmian, Marco Parolo and Pelle to name a few more. Every single drop.
I got the sense following this team around for a few weeks that Antonio Conte gave his side some very basic advice. Never stop running, never stop pressing the opposition and never stop working for the team.
The thought did cross my mind that Spain were wearing the blue jersey and Italy were defending for their lives in their traditional white away jersey, given that they were pushing everyone behind the ball to deal with the attacking onslaught of the Italians.
Seconds before the half time whistle it was Giaccherini again cutting back in from the by line to hit a shot across the face of the goal that look destined for the top corner before de Gea once again denied the Italian midfielder-wingback who was proving to be a revelation for the Azzurri.
The diminutive Italian had evolved as the tournament progressed from Serie A journeyman to a mix of Paolo Maldini and Giacinto Facchetti down Italy’s left flank, proving indefatigable.
At half time I don’t know what to do with myself and in and around the Italian section we all felt the same way. Italy could’ve gone into the half-time break leading Spain 4-0 and that’s not even an exaggerated take from a one-eyed Azzurri fan.
Stunned by Italy’s dominance and surprisingly optimistic that Italy would start the second half the way they played the first half and it was only a matter of time before they scored again, how wrong we were.
How quickly it all turns around?
Italy’s first half had Spain on the ropes and totally dominating the then-reigning European Champions and after de Gea once again denied Eder with a brilliant one-on-one save it was all Spain.
It was slowly becoming a battle of the keepers it was now Gianluigi Buffon’s time to shine.
The veteran parried away an Iniesta volley from the top of the box and minutes later blocked a Gerard Pique strike from outside the box.
As the game wore on Spain were starting to dominate proceedings as Italy grew tired.
Conte could be heard screaming at his players even from where I was seated and despite making substitutions bringing on Thiago Motta, Matteo Darmian, and Lorenzo Insigne for Daniele De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi and Eder respectively.
David Silva’s cross-turn shot went agonisingly across the face of the goal, unable to reach the ball Pedro watched as the ball rolled out and the Italian side, and near 77,000 in attendance breathed a sigh and scream of both relief and frustration.
I was a wreck at this point unable to think straight, chew my nails, rock in my seat and barely watch.
The tension was so high for some nicotine was their only solace.
The man across the aisle from me did, light up a cigarette, take a quick puff then throw the bud down to their feet extinguishing the lit cigarette.
The in the 89th minute Spain’s best chance fell to the feet of Pique, now essentially playing the last 10 minutes as a target man.
A long ball from a De Gea free kick was directed towards the box and Italian defender Andrea Barzagli, up against Sergio Ramos, mistakenly headed the ball backwards towards his own goal into the path of a free Pique who found himself alone in the box unmarked.
Now there always seems to be a moment every now and again when you attend a match where something all happens in slow motion and the noise is removed from the stadium.
For good or bad we’ve all witnessed those moments in football and for me this was my one moment. At this point in time all my pre-match nerves, my anxiety and blame, all the thoughts good and bad quickly turned into one thought, my mind processing at light speed.
Time away; my children; my friends and family watching back home; extra-time; all the money I’d spent; a penalty shootout; devastation and grief; losing to Spain – not my favourite team by any means – crying after the match. Everything all raced through my mind in a split second.
What my anxious mind didn’t take into consideration was that there was a 37-year-old Buffon right there ready to perform a miracle.
For all money Pique thought he’d scored, the Spanish bench thought he’d scored, the crowd thought he’d scored but as the defender stuck out a leg for a well hit volley Buffon dropped down to his right to show off his cat-like reflexes and push the ball away to safety before Chiellini smashed the ball into touch.
It was the greatest save of the tournament and the greatest save I’ve seen in real life and in a match where both keepers were their sides respective best, this was something out of the ordinary.
From that moment a feeling of calm washed over me, and I knew it was going to happen. Italy were going to eliminate Spain from a major tournament, and I was going to be there to witness it.
Seconds later my blink-instinct proved to be correct.
All the time and effort put into this trip, all the grief before, during and after the tournament, all the money spent, the time away from my children and family was worth it for this one moment.
With Spain pushing forward playing right into Italy’s hands in the 90th minute, Insigne played a cross field pass to find the Darmian who found Pelle free in the box to smash the ball past de Gea and score not only his second goal of the tournament but send Italy into the quarter finals.
Now cue pandemonium! All around me the stadium erupted!
Funnily enough I was directly behind the goal earlier in the tournament when the striker finished off an almost identical volley to score his first of the tournament and Italy’s second goal in their 2-0 win over Belgium in the sides opening match of the tournament.
A culmination of their Italy’s work ethic, Buffon and the tireless effort of Conte’s front three had eliminated the reigning European champions.
The Stade de France was now the Stade de Italia!
As the final whistle blew people jumped into each other’s arms, some cried and spontaneously the Italian national anthem was sung.
If this was the last football match I ever saw live I would’ve been a happy man.
I’m happy to now report I’ve worked on, and through, my anxiety and depression and those dark days are in the past. However for those that suffer we know it’s a never-ending battle.
The dark cloud will always be there shadowing me through the good and bad and if I choose to engage with it and allow it into my energy, emotion and energy it’ll consume me so I ‘actively relax’ choosing to be with my children, write, listen to music, read, cook, even playing LEGO etc anything to get me out of my own headspace and it’s easier to now wave goodbye to the dark cloud and send it on its way.
As the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us: ‘Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final’ and if ever those words were truer for me it was this one day in Paris on 27th June 2016.
In saying that I wonder if I can somehow get to Bordeaux … an Italy vs Germany quarter-final sounds tempting doesn’t it?!
If you are struggling and need help or advice, here are some places you can contact for support:
For UK. Mind Infoline (mental health info)
Tel: 0300 123 3393 or txt 86463
if you need support, please call 13 11 14.