By Jason Horowitz
The eruption of sheer joy — and car honking and horn blowing and firework exploding and hugging, so much hugging — across Italy on Sunday after its national men’s soccer team defeated England to win the Euro 2020 tournament marked an extraordinary turnaround, not just for a recently beleaguered team, but also for a recently beleaguered country.
But if Italy’s scrappy, indefatigable and improbably undefeated national team lifted the country’s spirits after multiple lockdowns and incalculable suffering brought by a brutal pandemic, it was only the latest signal of a national resurgence.
Also Sunday, Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian to play for the men’s singles championship at Wimbledon. Soon before he took the court, Pope Francis showed his face for the first time since undergoing major colon surgery. In May, the Roman rock group Maneskin won the Eurovision song competition. And Khaby Lame, a 21-year-old from near Turin, has one of the world’s most followed accounts on TikTok.
Italy’s fortunes are also looking up in real, and not just symbolic, ways.
In February, a political crisis led the country to ditch its struggling prime minister and allow the accession of Mario Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank whose exalted international status helped elevate Italy from bit player on the European stage to a driving force. More than half the country has received a vaccination dose; restaurants, bars, parks and beaches have reopened. Billions of euros are headed the country’s way as part of an enormous European coronavirus bailout. Overhauls once thought unimaginable, including the paring of a paralyzing bureaucracy, now seem plausible.
Those substantive changes may have put Italy in a stronger position compared to European neighbors in which political uncertainty and tension abound, but nothing brings the country together, or touches a communal, rapturous nerve, like a big national soccer victory.
The inarticulate screams of Sunday night, its cheers for Leonardo Bonucci’s tying goal in the second half and Gianluigi Donnarumma’s two saves in the penalty shootout, its yelps from Roman balconies, Bergamo piazzas and Sicilian seasides translated into expressions of relief and of life returned.
Even before the game, the country was revved up. The Wimbledon final, in which Berrettini managed to take a set from Novak Djokovic, was a warm up to the main event. Waiters and waitresses, their faces painted with the Italian colors, served copious amounts of beer to fans waving Italian flags.
The outdoor cinema in the Trastevere section of Rome interrupted its regularly scheduled programming (“A Perfect Day” by Ferzan Ozpetek) for the game, and the turnout was considerably larger, with thousands cramming the square. Fans flooded into the big squares, nuns stood in front of televisions, and families stocked up on flags and air horns.
“She was born on the day Italy won the World Cup,” said Carlo Alberto Pietrangeli, 52, about Ester Aquilani, 15, who wore a flag draped over her shoulders. So did her cousin, Lorenzo Ciurleo, 12, who had refused to wave a flag until the finals for fear of bringing bad luck.
“If we had lost,” he said with a gulp.
But lose they did not, and if anyone expected to get any sleep in the coming days, they could basically forget about it.
If past celebrations, most recently the team’s World Cup victory in 2006, matched Sunday night’s revelry in decibel level, they did not have the emotional undercurrent and pent-up frustration.
“The national team is a symbol of a country that in difficult moments has always known how to get up again,” Roberto Mancini, the team’s coach, said before the tournament began and while Italy was still in lockdown.
That Italy’s soccer team showed the country it could pick itself up, dust itself off and surpass the rest of Europe is remarkable.
In late 2017, Italy failed for the first time in 60 years to qualify for the World Cup, which it has won four times. “National Shame” and “Apocalypse,” read headlines in a country where the game is so central to its national identity and where the humiliation prompted an existential crisis. Months later, an anti-European coalition of Matteo Salvini’s nationalist League party and the populist and anti-establishment Five Star Movement chose Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor, to lead the country.
Years of political drama, often mind-boggling incompetence, cozying up to Donald Trump and threatening the European Union followed. Coalitions shifted, but Conte remained and then, in February 2020, the first major coronavirus outbreak in the West exploded in northern Italy, turning parts of the country into a killing field, paralyzing the economy and forcing vast sections of daily life — including soccer stadiums — to close.
Under Draghi, about 58% of Italians have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and the country’s nationalists and anti-establishment forces have joined his government.
Before the team brought the title home, Draghi had sought to bring the championship game to Rome.
Last month, he sought to shift the final from Wembley Stadium in London because of the outbreak of the delta variant there. In a not-so-subtle dig at Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who supported Brexit, Draghi suggested moving the final to “a country where new coronavirus infections are not on the rise.”
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But no one really expected that Italy and its mostly young and inexperienced team would be playing in the final at Wembley, where Mancini, during his playing days, lost the 1992 European Cup final with his Sampdoria team against Barcelona.
Nonetheless, the team’s captain, veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini, had noted that the team had a “chemistry” that was “a kind of magic.” And as the team kept winning, more and more Italians started to believe.
After excruciating penalty kicks and a diving block by Donnarumma made Italy champions of Europe, England’s fans couldn’t believe it.
The men’s team had not won a major championship or even been to a major final in 55 years, but this team had promise and youth and diversity and a social conscience and seemed to reflect a complex, multicultural England that was sometimes lost in the tribal debates over Brexit. The team united a country that spent much of the past 4 1/2 years arguing with itself over its split with the European Union, and much of the past 15 months under coronavirus-driven lockdowns.
Queen Elizabeth II, who is 95, reminded the team’s manager in a letter that she was on hand 55 years ago to present the World Cup to his predecessor. More than 70% of the population of the United Kingdom was born after that championship. And many more will be born before they snap the losing streak.
Tears washed away the English flag Rosie Mayson, 25, had painted on her face.
“I’m devastated,” she said in London, “we didn’t bring it home.”
Veterans of dashed English hopes tried to console younger supporters. “Don’t be sad,” James Mcdonall, 50, told a group of English teenagers. “This is so typically English: the hope, and then to lose in the penalties on a rainy day.”
Fans in Rome needed no consoling. They tore off their shirts, exposing Italian flags on their chests. “It’s us. It’s us,” they chanted in circles, blue fire sticks illuminating their faces. “The champions of Europe are us.”
A river of fans coursed through Rome’s streets, with many climbing traffic lights, dumpsters and each other’s shoulders. Honking cars clogged the streets as if it were a joyous traffic jam. Fireworks illuminated a city that wouldn’t sleep.
“It’s the most beautiful thing of my life,” said Daniele Pace, 20, wearing Italy’s national blue jersey and a flag around his hips. “It’s the best thing that could happen to us after COVID.” He said winning against England was “even better. They are not even part of the European Union.”
The government was a touch more diplomatic.
Draghi’s press office, usually sober, sent a statement with the green, white and red Italian colors, saying that the prime minister would receive the team Monday in his office “to thank them in the name of the entire government.”
As all of Italy celebrated, the team exalted on the field, where they were joined by Berrettini, the Wimbledon finalist.
Bonucci called the victory “a dream come true.” He said that England thought the trophy was going home, but instead it was going to Rome. “I’m sorry for them,” he told Italian television after the game. “But once again, Italy gives a lesson.”