In that piece, I commenced by using the analogy of the 2006 World Cup success of the national football team and the jubilation we Italians all felt at the time. Ironically, at the time of writing this, Italy has managed to not qualify for the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia. For the first time in 60 years. So, the feelings I had experienced in 2006 were in complete reversal at approximately 8:45 am on Tuesday, November 14, 2017. Funny how these things work sometimes.

Seeking a way to fathom this total and utter calamity, I found both wisdom and inspiration from the great Sir Winston Churchill, who said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. Putting this into the context of the above scenario, it made me realise and appreciate that sometimes we need monumental events to instigate material positive change. So, rather than go down the path of “doom and gloom”, I have chosen to look at this situation and focus on the positives: this is an opportunity to have the Italian Football Federation (FICG) be subject to a (long overdue) comprehensive review and hopefully a significant revitalisation. Should Italy have qualified and stumbled its way into the 2018 Football World Cup, there was the potential for the deep-seeded problems to be “swept under the rug”. Given Italy is traditionally renowned for being a genuine World Cup winning contender, the performances on the big stage since 2006 have not been at the level or standard commensurate with our community’s expectations. Therefore, whilst missing out on a World Cup is truly tragic, if it causes a fundamental shift in our footballing governing strategy which results in an improvement across the board, then I will view that as a positive. I would rather throw my support behind an Italy that I have grown up and shed tears for knowing that it is competitive, rather than just accepting an Azzurri that is simply participating without any real conviction.

Now, on to the other World Cup, the one currently taking place. My duties as a FIRL Community Ambassador sadly came to a close following Italy’s brave, hard-fought loss to the impressive Fijians on Friday, November 10, 2017. Credit to Fiji for having the belief, skill, strength and execution to get the right result. As I was aware that this would be the evening in which it was all going to come to an end (given it was basically impossible for Italy to advance to the quarter finals due to their points difference), I had begun to contemplate what this actually meant and ask myself things like, “What did I accomplish?”, “Did I add any value in my time as a community ambassador?”, “Will I get a another chance to experience something like this again?”, and “What’s next?”.

I commenced writing down the things I thought I should do as part of wrapping things up (including developing this piece).

One of the things that immediately came to mind was to reach out to those who made this honorary position possible, including my zio (uncle) Domenic Pezzano (a key figurehead in the revival of interest in Italian Rugby League in Australia back in the ’90s who remains a pivotal member today), who nominated me to become an FIRL Community Ambassador during this year’s RLWC. Without his trust and belief in me, my journey would not have existed. For that, I will remain forever grateful.

Below is a chronological recap of the key activities and milestones regarding my community ambassador adventure:

  1. Nominated to be a community ambassador.
  2. Met with the Sydney-based community ambassadors for FIRL (as well as several other nations represented throughout the tournament) at the Community Ambassador Induction evening hosted at Canterbury Leagues Club.
  3. Documented a high-level plan containing my thoughts and ideas, as well as beginning a log of activities undertaken and a register of action items to keep me focused on the overarching goal (promotion of FIRL to the Italian community).
  4. Met and liaised with representatives from FIRL and RLWC community partner - Red Elephant Group - to rationalise my plan and brainstorm ideas collectively.
  5. Commenced a comprehensive campaign of developing and distributing social media promotional materials across the various platforms I am subscribed to. This was something that was maintained throughout the entirety of my time as a community ambassador, right from announcing my involvement with FIRL, the pre-tournament build-up (including squad announcement and FIRL events i.e. the official launch function), detailed promotion of attendance to the Italy vs. Fiji game in Canberra, as well as pre- and post-game materials for each of the three games.
  6. Contributed to, reviewed content for, and promoted the Official Italia Fan Club and-newsletter that was disseminated to the Italia Fan Cub subscribers.
  7. Personally contacted members within the playing and coaching group, key sponsors, club representatives of the players, respected journalists and media personnel, as well as news media outlets to share my story, and where relevant, asked for their assistance.
  8. Wrote an editorial which was shared and distributed at the start of the tournament across social media and through traditional Italian news media outlets La Fiamma and Il Globo.
  9. As part of the Italy vs. Fiji game promotion, I contributed to arranging a supporter bus, “Azzurri Express”, from Sydney to Canberra for Italy’s final match against Fiji (including myself as a proud “Bus Captain”).
  10. Worked on a post-tournament editorial.

Whilst the above is a nice overview of the core set of activities and accomplishments relating to my experiences as a FIRL Community Ambassador, what it does not shed any light on is the amount of emails, phone calls, face-to-face meetings and “coffee catch-ups” that took place during this time.

The volume of work and effort involved was largely self-inflicted and often compounded by my own passion and enthusiasm. As the job description requirements of the community ambassador role were somewhat of a “blank canvas”, there was a lot creative licence afforded to me and others. Therefore, I decided to explore as many avenues as possible and do everything within my capabilities to make the most of this rare opportunity. As it turned out, I was able to utilise my existing corporate experience and communication skills to positively contribute to the FIRL RLWC campaign whilst also giving an insight into to the marketing, promotional and event planning elements within a marquee sports tournament. Ultimately, I feel as if I have grown substantially both personally and professionally from this journey.

Although the on-field results of Italy’s three games produced mixed opinions and feelings from both the Azzurri faithful and the general rugby league community. The Azzurri boys didn’t start the tournament in the way in which they had envisaged, both on and off the field, but the positive unified response from the squad was very pleasing. In particular, as a proud Italian supporter, what matters to us is to be committed and competitive in our application. Therefore, to see the vastly improved attitude and execution (especially in defence) in such a short space of time from their first game to the second game was hugely impressive. Whilst Italy delivered a stellar performance to achieve a 46-0 victory against a spirited US team, I can comfortably say that I was even more satisfied with how they turned up five days later against a rampaging Fiji (particularly for the first 60 minutes), who were full of confidence following their dominant displays in their first two group games.

One of the proudest moments of the entire campaign from a personal standpoint was being together with the contingent of passionate Italian fans from Sydney and Canberra. Some were donning the native Toga, some dressed up in their traditional Azzurri gear, and then some were just like myself, standing there in our Italian jersey holding up our national flags, continuously chanting “ITALIA! ITALIA! ITALIA!” at each big tackle made, successful set of six defended, try scored or penalty earned. The scoreboard showed a Fiji win, but seeing the smiles and tears of pride from the Azzurri faithful that travelled near and far when the Italian players came over to personally thank them for their support as an “18th man” felt like a victory in my books. Often players are quick to be publicly criticised for their off-field indiscretions, but on occasions such as these, it was a rewarding experience to have fans and players embrace in what was the “bigger picture”, that being, standing together celebrating our culture and heritage.

Rugby league is simple, like most things, there are winners and losers. However, in the context of what the RLWC meant for the growth and development of the Italian Rugby League (as is the case with other emerging rugby league nations that competed in the tournament), the definition of “winner” extends beyond the team which has more points after the final whistle in the 80-minute spectacle. So much more.  

Whilst the on-field results are a significant barometer in terms of assessing whether this was a successful campaign for FIRL, there are other off-field factors that are arguably equally as important, such as community engagement and general public interest. Purely from a participation perspective, I believe we could have (and most likely should have) performed better, especially given the talent and potential within the squad. But as noted earlier, the collective positive response to rebound from a slow, unexpected start was very impressive and is something that will be remembered by us fans. From an all-round point of view however, and judging from the overwhelming volume of support and positive attention received from sponsors, the general Italian and rugby league communities, as well as mainstream media, I genuinely believe this tournament has proven to be a stellar success for FIRL.

In terms of the RLWC itself, one could argue that the toughest opposition didn’t actually compete in the tournament, but was watching and criticising from afar. Before a ball was kicked there was strong scrutiny aimed at the eligibility criteria and the high-profile “defectors” and “traitors” who decided to play for their heritage country instead of the well-established country they had previously represented. Whilst there is logic and merit in this scrutiny, rugby league is unique in the sense that Australia and England are the primary professional competitions and therefore second tier countries will naturally struggle to compete with attracting the necessary star quality that play in these competitions due to the financial constraints in place as well as other considerations i.e. potential to play State of Origin. There have also been some lopsided score lines throughout the tournament due to the disparity in squad quality and depth, which has not helped the image of the RLWC but I think the administrators, broadcasters and media have rightfully attempted to focus on the positive elements of each game i.e. using commentary which doesn’t emphasise the wide gap in talent, but respectfully credits the high-skill and effort on display, and also praises the notion of participation and pride for the country being represented. The format and structure of the tournament has also been subject to some attention in terms of how certain teams progressed and did not progress i.e. Ireland won two out three games yet did not advance to the quarterfinals whereas Samoa did qualify despite having one draw and two losses. There is obviously rationale in how the groups were formed based on ranking etcetera, but I believe this should be a key agenda item to be discussed at the post-tournament review and for future tournaments.

All in all however, there have been a plethora of positives which, in my opinion, far outweigh any perceived negatives, these being:

  1. The entertaining ad-lib style of footy being played.
  2. Several fast-paced, high-octane clashes that have gone right down to the wire e.g. Tonga vs. England, NZ vs. Scotland, Fiji vs. NZ, Lebanon vs. France, Tonga vs. Lebanon.
  3. Witnessing the unearthing of some young, rising prodigies e.g. Mark Kheirallah, Rhyse Martin, Abbas Miski, Joseph “Joey” Tramontana and Mason Cerrutto.
  4. Seeing the usual superstars showcase their amazing skill and talent e.g. Jason Taumololo, Valentine Holmes, Gareth Widdop, Jermaine McGillvary, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith.
  5. The wonderfully emotional and deeply meaningful pre- and post-game rituals.
  6. Seeing the players standing together proudly singing their national anthems.
  7. From a league purist standpoint, just watching the game being participated in by different cultures.

Here’s hoping that the final between my country of birth (Australia) and England produces a true international rugby league classic! Regardless of the result, the “winner” of the RLWC has already been determined: you and I as the fans.

In my previous article, which was posted at the commencement of the tournament, I used the analogy of a vehicle (rugby league) travelling on a road (RLWC) and stated that it was up to us as the fans of each respective competing nation to help “navigate the drivers on their journeys” in order to create long-lasting, positive memories. Based on what we’ve seen, it’s been a road trip to savour for a life time!

To wrap things up, when I get the chance to properly look back on this year’s RLWC, I’ll reflect on it in terms of how ultimately Italy performed, the administrative and content development aspects I was involved with, the people I had the pleasure of meeting and working with, the overall level of community engagement and interaction I contributed to (primary purpose), and, knowing that I played my small part to help promote the “greatest game of all” to my fellow Italians, here and abroad.

My journey has concluded, for now.

Forza Italia, Forza Rugby League!

*Note: opinions and views are my own and do not represent any official body