As far as anyone knows, Italian football took root about seven years ago in Piacenza, a city in the north not far from Cremona. Restless kids, inspired by the movie The Longest Yard, which starred Burt Reynolds as a football player in a Georgia prison, began showing up at soccer fields on Sundays, cradling soccer balls to their chests. Some wore motorcycle helmets and motocross gear. Others simply pulled pots over their heads.
Enter a shrewd Milanese hotel owner named Giovanni Colombo, who had become fascinated by pro football during frequent visits to the U.S. Come to Milan, he told the kids. Play the teams from the U.S. military bases, wear the colors of my hostelry, and I'll buy you helmets. The Milan Manin Rhinos' first few games were atrocities, but today Italy's top two divisions have 24 teams each, and another 57 are awaiting word from AIFA, the Italian Association of American Football, that they've been mustered into a C league that's set to begin play next year. Football ranks a solid third among team sports in popularity in Italy, behind soccer and basketball.
AIFA registers every player, issuing each a laminated ID card called a cartolina. Problem is, the B league season follows on the heels of the A, and the A players, being older, bigger and more experienced, are banned from B ball. Yet most are worthy and willing ringers, so coaches of B teams enlist them, matching the cartoline of legit B's to those of look-alike A's in case a ref becomes curious.
Primavera has no qualms about using illegal players, partly because they accelerate the game's improvement, but mostly because everyone else uses them. "I'll say 'Hi!' to the Bollate coach," he says, "and he'll tell me how I won't believe the number of ringers the coach he played last week used. And I'll tell him sympathetically, 'I'll bet it isn't more than the number the coach I played last week used.' And next week we'll both be saying the same thing about each other."
In a year and a half, Primavera has built two teams from scratch: the Steel Tigers and the Virgilio Mantova Eccetera, an A league club 45 minutes to the east. It supplies most of Cremona's ringers. Compared to most teams, which have hundreds of cartoline to choose from, Cremona and Mantova struggle to make do, drawing green players from the sparsely populated Po Valley. "It's like taking a junior high team and sending it up against Overbrook," Primavera says, reaching back to his Philly youth for an analogy. "We have maybe 20 good players. When they're in, the team moves. When they're out, we're in trouble."
So he invites kids to practices, trying to instill in them what he calls a vivia for the game. Around his team, however, Primavera is a Lombardian Lombardi. "He's quiet," says linebacker Giorgio Galvignani, "but he teaches well, especially on defense." Primavera and Giorgio Gandolfi, a Cremonese journalist, have collaborated on a text, Manuale di Football Americano.
The team's nickname is just as makeshift as some of its plays. Among Cremona's exports are violins, steel, torrone (a crunchy, almond-based candy) and the sultry torch songs of a woman named Mina, who bills herself as the Tiger. Steel Tigers sounds better than Torrone Violins, so a tiger—borrowed from Esso—graces each Cremona helmet.
The cats—those on and off the field—could fill out the cast of a Fellini movie:
?Quarterback Marco Remondini is an accomplished cellist who can fling low spirals 70 yards. He denies that his arm strength comes from practicing the cello eight hours a day and ringing the church bells in his village, Ceresi.
?Primo Rossi, a 6'4", 305-pound former rugby player, just showed up at practice a couple of weeks ago, explaining how he'd seen football on TV and wanted to play. "We can't find a pair of shoes that fit him," Primavera says. "But if he's Primo, I hope there's a Secondo and a Terzo."