Within hours of arriving in Palermo, I had fallen head over heels in love, and not for the last time. The city was intoxicating, and I was seduced by the sense of danger that hung heavily in the air. The small cafe table at which I was sat rocked unpredictability on the uneven street cobbles. I drank a glass of cold continental lager and watched two sweethearts deep in the throes of a lovers tiff. Never had the threat of violence sounded so beautiful as it did right there, on that medieval Sicilian street.
Several hours later I was wandering alone through unfamiliar passageways. It was late, but the heat refused to retire for the evening. Packs of scrawny dogs lined my path, young men laughed like hyenas. I was tired now, and the dust that was caked over my face had begun to clump and crack. I picked small lumps, placed them in my mouth, and nibbled. The taste of salty fish washed over my tongue as my nostrils filled with the smell of spiced, grilled meat.
I turned left down a tight lane, and narrowly ducked the web of clotheslines that hung at neck height across the passage as far as the eye could see. A prostitute pulled a knife on a punter and demanded his wallet. I laughed at the ridiculousness of this dusky siren, menacingly running her blade across the taut, leathery skin of the old African seadog’s stomach with mocking persuasion. Palermo was dangerous, exotic and unpredictable.
I needed to get to my hotel. I would have sold my soul there and then for some soap and a shower but first I needed to cleanse my palate. A toothless man grabbed my leg and cackled manically as I crossed his path. I kicked him in the face and walked into the ice cream parlour. Behind the counter, there were trays of gelato, granita and sorbet of every imaginable flavour and colour. Menacing steel scoops gleamed in the light, embedded into their wares like a surgical intrusion. The girl behind the counter was beautiful but appeared a little nervous. It was no surprise; I looked a mess. I made my order by pointing and gesturing like a deranged lunatic. The girl took pity and handed me two huge scoops of gelato; one yellow, one green, sat atop a chocolate coloured cone.
“Cyrille Regis,” she said sweetly, in precise and exaggerated English. “You are holding Cyrille Regis.”
Bright yellow, bright green, and chocolate brown. As I curiously waved the cone under the neon light, the resulting blur did indeed look like Cyrille in motion.
“Cyrille Regis!” I exclaimed, nodding with enthusiasm. “But how do you know how he is?!”
The girl explained to me that her father, who owned the shop, had been to England once and watched him play. He had been in Manchester on business and had been taken to Old Trafford by his host. It was here that he had seen the big man in action as West Bromwich Albion, featuring the famous Three Degrees, destroyed Manchester United 5-3 on their own patch. By the end of the game, her father had a new footballing hero.
“Look up behind you,” she said. “See for yourself.”
I took a large lick of the rapidly melting cream that was running down the cone, turned, and crained my neck up at the wall behind. The paint was flaking, and the plaster crumbling in large patches, but on the wall were mounted two impeccably framed pieces of artwork. One was of Saint Anthony, the other was of Cyrille in all his pomp and glory. His dark, muscular frame clearly defined, tightly wrapped in the bright iconic yellow and green of The Albion.
I was almost speechless. I turned back to the girl and asked her: “What is your name?”
“Ayla,” she replied. “My name is Ayla.”
“Well Ayla,” I said. “You have made my day. T’amu!”
Ayla blushed and her eyes shot down to the floor. Eventually, she looked back up at me, gently smiled, and said grazij before breaking into a beaming grin.
I thanked Ayla and left the shop. I returned several times over the next few days. I was smitten. Four years later we were married. Our first child was a boy. We named him Aldo Regis.
I was never lucky enough to witness Cryille play, not in the flesh; he was before my time. I never met the man, I never knew the man, but I understand the impact he made, and the way in which he drew people together; the way in which he made people talk. If football is more than just sport, and it most certainly is, then it is also art. Art is about communication, and communication is about sharing. Sharing encourages acceptance, and this, in turn, helps to nurture familiarity and warmth.
Before Ayla’s father died, during a thankfully brief period of suffering, he gave me his beloved Cryille artwork. He explained that he had commissioned an artist to capture the man in such a pose that conveyed absolutely, his power and glory.
When I think of West Bromwich Albion Football Club I think of one man in particular; I think of Cyrille Regis in the green and yellow stripes. If football is indeed modern-day religion, then let us pay rightful homage to our Gods.