SUV’s, Soccer Stars and Pasta

Trisha at Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem reporting for AP Radio – Photo by Gianfranco Stara

 In May 2009 I learned that not only food but soccer (or “calcio”–meaning “kick” in Italian) is a fundamental conversation topic for anyone spending time in Italy. It came about in a strange way. I was among the journalists on the Papal plane on Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories. Many of us on the trip were concerned that the Pope might make one of his gaffes as he shuttled between Jews, Muslims and Christians, and from mosques, to temples and churches in the Holy Land. There were the usual worries for the Pope’s safety because during his five years as Pope he had managed to offend Muslims with a comment about the Prophet Mohammed being violent, and Jews, by briefly bringing an ex-communicated Holocaust denier back into the church. But Pope Benedict XVI rose to the occasion and with immense humility, he pushed for peace without erring. I covered him as the visited the mosque at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and watched him emerge in his stocking feet and slide his shoes back on. From there he made his way to the Wailing Wall where he slipped a prayer for peace between two stones.
In Bethlehem, I stood on the roof-top terrace of a home belonging to a Palestinian family and filmed the Pope watching a performance by Palestinian children with the graffiti-covered dividing wall as a backdrop.

Pope Benedict XVI at Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. Freeze Frame of APTN Video shot by Gianfranco Stara.

As we stood on the rooftop filming the ceremony, Vic Van Brantegan, the Vice Director of the Vatican Press Office and the man who handles all the logistics for the press travelling on the papal plane, came up to the roof and called me over. He said that if my cameraman Gianfranco and I wanted to get into the pool for the last event of that day—the Pope’s final meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in Bethlehem— we should come immediately. We had already filmed enough of the ceremony so we grabbed our equipment and headed down the dark stairs of the building.

Gianfranco Stara near the dividing wall at Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Outside in the street near the dividing wall, Vik handed us over to several hefty Palestinian men. “Quick, quick, don’t waste time, go with them,” he said and headed back to the ceremony. The men opened the back door to a large black SUV with mirrored windows. Gianfranco and I slid into the back. The three big men sat up front. They were armed. The SUV pulled out of its parking spot and began swerving through the back streets of Bethlehem.

“Where exactly are we going? Where is this ceremony?” I asked the men up front. No answer. Over the years, Gianfranco has spent considerable time working in the Middle East and North Africa. He has covered conflicts and events in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, and Libya. He has also spent time covering the wars in the Balkans. He has good instincts and I trust him. So, I was slightly perturbed when he turned to me and said, “Tell me the names of some Italian soccer stars.” I didn’t get it, and I couldn’t think of any names. “Come on, Trisha, you must know at least one,” he insisted. “Ok,” I said, “ Francesco Totti, captain of the Roma team. Now why are you asking?”


AS Roma Captain Francesco Totti on a Billboard in Rome advertising a cell phone company. Photo by Trisha Thomas


The car swerved around a corner; the men up front chatted among themselves. “Because we are being kidnapped. I think Vik mistakenly handed us off to the wrong people,” Gianfranco said. Hmmm. My heart began to race. “So what do soccer stars have to do with being a hostage?” I whimpered, imagining being bound hand and foot and thrown in some rat-filled basement somewhere. I remembered AP correspondent Terry Anderson who spent six years as a hostage held by Hezbollah in Lebanon.  I remembered Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit being held by Hamas in Gaza.

“Trisha, everyone knows Italian soccer stars — your captors will like you if you can talk about soccer players,” Gianfranco continued,  “You will get better treatment. Remember the little guy with the ponytail who became a Buddhist? That’s Roberto Baggio — everyone loves him. Then there is Maldini, remember, the former captain…”

The car swerved around another corner. “Excuse me,” I said a little more loudly to our armed escort, is it going to take much longer to get there?” One of the big guys up front turned around and grunted at me and then nodded. What the heck was that supposed to mean? I turned to Gianfranco and whined, “Why do I have to talk about soccer stars? Won’t Italian food do? Everyone loves Italian food. I am really good at talking about Italian food. I am an expert: pizza, spaghetti al pomodoro, pesto, mozzarella….”

Then suddenly SUV came screeching to a halt. The armed men in black in the front jumped out and opened the back doors. We slid out to find ourselves in front of the Presidential palace gate. PHEW.

I grabbed the tripod and turned to Gianfranco and said, “Dai, su, Gianfranco, tu sai benissimo che Vik non avrebbe mai fatto un errore del genere.” (translated: C’mon Gianfranco you know perfectly well Vik would not have made a mistake like that.)

And Gianfranco answered: “Certo, ma sei tu vuoi lavorare in med-oriente e ora che tu impari qualche nome dei giocatori di calcio Italiano.” (translated: Certainly, but if you want to work in the mideast, it is time you learned the names of some Italian soccer players.)




Post in: Italiano


  1. Avatar

    Love it. What a terrific post, and Gianfranco is quite a character. I assume by now you are a soccer expert.

    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas

      Actually, I have not been studying up on my soccer stars and I should be. I just spent last weekend in Beirut where hostage-taking happens with a certain regularity, so I should study up a bit.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Avatar

    Great story. Better learn the names of some more players if you’re going to stay in the business you are!! Helps on family get-to-gethers as well!!

  3. Avatar
    Barbara Landi

    What a funny guy that Gianfranco!


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