In 1985, the Champions League final between Juventus and Liverpool was preceded by the tragic death of 39 people (32 of whom were supporters of the Italian team; hundreds of others were also injured) in the Heysel stadium in Brussels. A group of Liverpool fans had broken through a chain link fence separating them from the fans of the opposing Turin team and, when the Juventus fans tried to escape, a wall collapsed, causing the disaster. The section where the Juventus fans sat was originally reserved for neutral Belgium supporters, but tickets for a majority of those seats were randomly sold to Juventus fans who had purchased them independently, not as club members.
Stefano Valanzuolo, director of the Ravello Festival of music and arts, asked Walter Veltroni to write a theatrical monologue to commemorate the tragedy for the 2010 installation dedicated to the theme of madness. The writer responded with a text entitled Quando cade l’acrobata, entrano i clown. Heysel, l’ultima partita (When the Acrobat Falls, Enter the Clowns: Heysel, the Last Game), published in April of this year by Einaudi. Although the subject matter did not originate with Veltroni, the monologue is a creative and intense narrative about experiencing soccer as a sport that can encompass both pure passion and ruinous rage.
For the monologue, Veltroni decided to use the intimate voice of a survivor of the disaster who, after ten years, finally feels the need to tell his wife his secret about the “last game” that soccer had offered him. A few days before their wedding, in fact, he had lied to her, saying that he was going to London to celebrate his bachelor party; but his trip took a different path, geographically and symbolically: he instead went to Brussels, a decision which changed his life drastically.
In a quiet room of a Sicilian hotel, while celebrating his anniversary with his wife, he decides to talk about the tragic day. The woman can’t hear his confession because she is asleep, but his words are his first effort to overcome many years of silence. He stares at his sleeping wife, confessing his love, then turns his eyes to a calm sea that suddenly turns to dust: a vision of the violence he experienced in Heysel. In a continuous fluctuation between past and present, the monologue alternates between the personal and the collective, love and drama, as the survivor contemplates his lying to his wife and the day that has never stopped haunting him.
The acknowledgements page reports that the words of the title, “When the acrobat falls, enter the clowns,” were initially pronounced by the player Michel Platini in his attempt to justify his exhilaration after his penalty-kick goal earned Juventus its victory. But one is left to wonder: who were the clowns in this scenario? Was Platini a clown? And who was the acrobat? Many have already pointed out the inappropriate choice of words used to describe the player’s joy following the tragedy. But if his statement remains total nonsense, though his joy over the goal might be somehow understandable, the reasons for the author’s title become very clear: the narrative device of the “clown” is used to describe a distorted stadium that is like a “circus,” and “one of the saddest places on earth”:
Entrano le squadre in campo, che magnifica allegria.
Ci vorrebbe la musica della passerella di Otto e mezzo.
Quando cade l’acrobata, entrano in scena i clown.
È la verità, siamo al circo.
Uno dei luoghi più tristi della vita.
Uno dei posti al mondo dove nessuno è libero.
[The teams take the field, what magnificent joy.
The soundtrack of the catwalk in 8 ½ should be playing.
When the acrobat falls, enter the clowns.
It is true, we are at the circus.
One of the saddest places on earth.
One of the places in the world where nobody is free.]
The violence in the stadium turns the world upside down:
Uomini grandi che piangevano come bambini.
E bambini che aiutavano uomini grandi.
Il mondo a rovescio, come un pallone che non gira.
[Adults crying like children.
And children helping like adults.
The world upside down, as a ball that cannot roll.]
The protagonist of the monologue had always perceived the field as a space of freedom and joy, a space in which to share “la più semplice e innocente delle passioni” (“the most simple and innocent passion”):
Ci andavo da bambino.
E quando salivo i gradini e vedevo quell’immenso prato verde,
Per me quello era il simbolo della libertà.
La più piena, immensa della libertà.
Quella di correre in spazi aperti
[I used to go there when I was a kid.
And when I reached the top of the steps and saw the vast green field,
That was freedom to me.
The fullest, most immense of freedoms.
The freedom to run in open spaces].
When our narrator remembers his trip to Brussels, he speaks of himself as a “bambino grande” [“big kid”] finally able to realize his dream of going to see his favorite soccer team in the final game of the Champions League tournament. He can still think that “la vita è anche gioco” (“life can also be a game”).
After the assault, everything changes: he is ”morto alla vita” (“dead to life”), his sleep is restless, he becomes scared, fragile, silent. There is no forgiveness for the violent, and the monologue never loses its focus on the “inferno” of gratuitous cruelty they created; the attacking Liverpool fans are described as “tanti, rumorosi,” “lupi di mare,” “un esercito pronto per la guerra” (“many, noisy,” “sea wolves,” “soldiers ready for war”), eager to conquer territory and transgress the borderline. The Juventus fans become lambs against soldiers, gypsies against pirates, a poultry-house against a red tide, victims against executioners.
The narrator uses words of pain to describe his life, words of brutality to emphasize the madness of the aggressors (a clear response to the theme of madness as requested by the Festival’s commission), and words of love to describe the wife who, somehow, saves him from going insane.
I don’t think that Veltroni’s text is a masterpiece, but I enjoyed the lines dedicated to the love of the sport, that love that is sparked in childhood and reserved even for its adult fans: in other words, the metaphorical space that allows one to be a grown child. I also appreciate the importance given to the act of speaking out and remembering, rejecting oblivion and silence, an especially important point in an Italy that is experiencing a period of historical revisionism.
The narrator states
Un mondo che non è capace di giocare è condannato all’infelicità.
E alla violenza.
Quella che ruba la vita e prende a bottigliate il futuro.
Un mondo senza parole, solo urla.
Un mondo di clown sguaiti.
Senza la meravigliosa leggerezza del volo di un acrobata.
[A world unable to play is condemned to unhappiness.
One that steals life and hits the future with a bottle.
A world with no words, only screams.
A world of vulgar clowns.
Without the beautiful lightness of the acrobat’s flight.]
I want to believe that the world can still play. If you happen to be in Ravello, you can go and see the monologue on July 8th (I am certain that the staging, a good actor and the music will make the presentation of this monologue much more successful than simply reading it). Otherwise, you can see real acrobats fly on the soccer field on July 11th, for the final of this 2010 World Cup.
Walter Veltroni is the former Mayor of Rome, where he served from 2001 to 2008. In 2007, he was elected as the first leader of the Democratic Party, which was defeated in the 2008 elections by Berlusconi’s coalition “Popolo della libertà” (People of Freedom). Veltroni is also a journalist and a writer. Between 1992 and 1996 he was editor-in-chief of L’unità (the newspaper of the Democratic Party of the Left). He has written books on politics and social issues, music and soccer, biographies, fiction. He loves soccer and Juventus.
Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. She works as an Italian lecturer and lives in Boston. Over the next couple of weeks, she’ll be getting World Cup updates from her father (in Italy) who remains a “small grown child” when it comes to soccer.