In the end, the strange remote control car was a fitting curtain raiser. Italy purred like a brand new Lamborghini. Turkey stuttered like a rusty Volvo. To exhaust the vehicular analogy even further, it is often said that it’s the journey, rather than the destination, that really counts. But on a balmy June evening inside Rome’s iconic Stadio Olimpico, as Roberto Mancini steered a rejuvenated Azzurri to an impressive victory over many punters’ pick for the dark horses of Euro 2020, that notion was rather emphatically disproved.
Emphatic Italy Make Football the Talking Point
Italy Put Football Front and Centre
After 18 months of discord, a year and a half of unprecedented uncertainty, it seemed like football – football as spectacle, football as a transcendent, ethereal power – had finally returned. But as Andrea Bocelli’s spine-tingling rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ stirred the emotions and massaged the soul, the occasion felt much more poignant.
For Italy, a nation devastated during the early months of the pandemic, this felt like a moment to saviour. A time of collective celebration: the inspiring resurgence of a country that had been so tragically brought to its knees.
On the pitch, their team appear to reflect that trajectory. After failing to qualify for the World Cup three years ago, the Azzurri’s dismantling of the much-fancied Turks felt like the revival of a fallen empire. As Giorgio Chiellini, their captain and most experienced player, lunged fervently to block a shot in the final minutes, was this the sign of an Italy from a bygone era reappearing? Is this the return of a side so well-drilled, so dogged and difficult to break down that one would do well to never truly write them off?
Or is this, rather, the emergence of an Italy we’ve never quite seen before? Under Mancini, the perennial personification of suave – think poetry professor at a garden brunch – they have become much like the tailored suits worn by their staff on the side-line: a slick, stylish outfit.
Unbeaten in 28 matches, they attack with fluidity and confidence; they press with intelligence and energy. They are both expressive and tactically astute. Chiellini looks as bullish as ever. Lorenzo Insigne: tricky and incisive. And Ciro Immobile – an unfortunate name for a centre forward perhaps – seems anything but. If they weren’t already, Italy will be steadily creeping up the list of Euro 2020 contenders.
A Reminder of the Game’s Beauty
This game, however, seemed destined to be about anything but two teams and a ball. The backdrop for this weird, and quite frankly bonkers multi-city format – one with alarming disregard for the current health situation, the climate crisis and any attempts to repair the fractured relationship between fans and football’s most powerful – always threatened to overshadow anything that a bloke could do with his feet. That, and the disconcerting aversion of some spectators towards taking the knee in recent weeks, has seen the football drop rather low down the list of tournament talking points.
Thankfully, the Azzurri, if only momentarily, reminded us why it is we watch football in the first place: the football itself. It’s the sumptuous, get-up-and-applaud interplay between strikers that helps create the cherished memories. It’s the impassioned will to keep a clean sheet that helps generate the soak-it-up atmosphere. It’s the curling finish to cap off a scintillating performance that sends the beer cups flying. It’s the euphoria of what it means to score a goal for your country at a major tournament that provides the ‘where were you when?’ moments.
Mancini’s men embodied all of that. They were a joy to watch – a glossy showpiece for how great international football can be. No amount of corporate greed, no amount of ignorant booing, not even a remote control car carrying the match ball on to the pitch, as much a sign of these peculiar times as any, could detract from that fact.
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