Joyful Italy fans overrun North Beach

It was one word, simultaneously expressing encouragement, excitement and desperation throughout a tense World Cup final.

But in the end, after Fabio Grosso buried the penalty kick to clinch Italy’s win over France, it was simply an unbridled release of pride and exultation.

“Italia! Italia! Italia!” echoed off walls dressed up with red, white and green flags in North Beach on Sunday afternoon. Thousands of fans who had packed this Italian enclave stormed Columbus Avenue in celebration of the Azzurri’s fourth World Cup after Italy beat France 5-3 on penalty kicks. The two teams had played to a 1-1 tie through 90 minutes of regulation and two 15-minute overtimes.

“Something like this has the power to take a 60-year-old man and bring him back to his childhood,” said Alfonso Beggetti, an Italian fan from Milan. “It’s the best feeling imaginable.”

Supporters in blue with the Italian flag colors painted on their cheeks had lined the sidewalks for hours, standing on their tip-toes outside every café, bar and restaurant in hopes of catching a glimpse of the game above the crowd. One big screen in the window of the Caffe Puccini served as the viewing point for more than a thousand, as fans on the other side of the street screamed every time the Azzurri advanced the ball and booed whenever a bus or firetruck blocked their view.

“I’m glad I got to experience this once,” Italy fan Nick Cereghino said. “Anyone who wasn’t here missed out on the best time of their life.”

SFPD officers tried their best to keep supporters off the street but eventually had to yield when a group carrying large flags made a sprint from the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue.

“You’d like to hold the street, but this is a happy group,” SFPD Sgt. Ed Garcia said. “Look around. This is not a dangerous crowd right now.”

In sharp contrast to the delirious postgame scene in North Beach was Belden Place, an area in the Financial District known as the French Quarter of The City. There, thousands had come to watch a single 17-foot screen in support of Les Bleus, and after the match there was nothing left to do but take down flags, sweep newspaper off the street and talk about an opportunity that had slipped away.

“We played great all Cup, and I was sure we’d win,” Frenchman Christophe Boucher said. “But it was a beautiful game.”

Back in North Beach, fans were shaking their Peroni beers and spraying them like Champagne, while supporters formed impromptu parade lines behind snare drums, and men and women hugged and kissed total strangers in the street.

“I feel totally free and happy inside,” said Paolo, an Italian fan from Napoli. “There’s a total feeling of togetherness here. This means everything to the Italians.”

melliser@examiner.com

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