By Ben Brill
1990 was my year zero as far as football is concerned. Having previously declared little interest in sport, or indeed anything that didn’t involve a complementary Hasbro toy, June 8 found me cross-legged and rapt on the floor of my parents’ lounge, watching a flickery Ferguson telly as Argentina – the holders – limped to a 1-0 defeat against Cameroon. Roger Milla’s Cameroon went on to the quarter finals of Italia ’90, laying down a marker for an entire continent that has not been emulated in the 20 years since; Argentina, inspired more by the athleticism of Claudio Canniggia than the ailing Maradona, somehow made it to the final. For the next month, these men – along with Toto Schillaci, Tomas Skhuravy, David Platt and Paul Gascoigne – were my new idols. I had embarked upon a very serious relationship with football.
Italia 90, along with Channel 4’s mid ‘90s coverage of Serie A, and its endless shots of James Richardson sipping cappuccinos in Milanese cafes, helped define my entire footballing aesthetic – less Soccer Saturday, more Style Council. As far as I’m concerned, foreign football should always be watched on small screens from high stools in hot bars, with paninis on the grill and coffee on the table. In this respect, Zilli Café’s absolutely perfect.
It’s perhaps the kind of place that could only work in Soho – nowhere else in London can claim such an enduring love affair with all things Italian, and with Group B reaching its climax amid the swelter of the hottest night of the year, and the television blaring out onto the Brewer Street, we could almost be tucked away in the shaded backstreets of Naples.
We’re down to watch Nigeria take on Korea, but there’s a small contingent of Greeks settled underneath the telly, and it would feel cruel to deprive them of the chance of watching their boys take on Diego Maradona’s Argentina.
It can’t be much fun following the Greeks. Otto Rehhagel’s side can lay claim to being the most successful Greek side ever, but they also have the dubious honour of being one of the dullest sides ever to take the international field. They’ve stuck to the template that brought them success in Euro 2004, setting up with eight men behind the ball, and Papstathopoulous sticking very, very close to Messi. They’re looking to grind out a draw, gambling on the Nigerians getting a result against Korea, but they can only hold out so long, and with 12 minutes to go, Demichlis lashes in a shot from close range. The Greeks next to us bang the table, and curse the screen, but even they must know their side doesn’t have it in them to haul themselves back into the game.
With the Nigerians doing everything except putting the ball in the back of the net in the other game, the Greeks’ World Cup dreams are dying without even a whimper. Minutes later, Messi darts towards the area, his shot’s pushed away by the Greek ‘keeper and Martin Palermo puts Argentina two up. It’s the least they deserve.
It’s a fitting end to an enjoyable evening, but it hasn’t been quite perfect. The atmosphere’s good, but the service is a little distant, and the food isn’t quite up to scratch. Tom’s spinach and ricotta ravioli with sage is restaurant quality, but in his words ‘not exactly voluminous’, and my seafood linguini is a little bland, and bulked out with overcooked salmon. Zilli’s still worth a visit though - I’ve got a hunch this place’ll be buzzing when Italy play and you could do worse than join the crowd; especially with the £4 ‘pizza & a beer’ and £4 ‘bruschetta & a beer’ World Cup deals they have going.