Wednesday’s semi-final match started at 9pm our time and ended almost at midnight. Immediately after the penalty kicks ended, you could hear cars blowing horns, everybody screaming on the streets and spot people walking about waving the national flag. The celebrations went on for hours. Everybody is so happy.
Football is the No. 1 sport in Italy. After so many months of lockdown last year and this year, amid the pandemic, we felt a sensation of togetherness. Indeed, this Euro is allowing us to rediscover the meaning of social life. That is something very important and allows us a little bit to forget what happened in recent months.
I watched the match in my apartment in downtown Rome, which is next to the Vatican City. Yes, you could say the Pope is our neighbour! He is now in hospital, but I think he loves football and will watch the match as well. The neighbourhood is called Prati, which means ‘field’. It’s an area built around the Vatican in the second half of the 19th century.
Celebrations on the streets of Rome and (above) at the Piazza del Popolo after Italy won the semi-final against Spain
A Football Village has come up at Piazza del Popolo, which is not far from my place. Giant television screens have been set up there as well as in places in downtown Rome, like Piazza Venezia. The pubs were full. There were crowds yelling and celebrating at the end of the match in all these places. According to statistics circulated in the media, the number of Italians watching the semi-final was around 25 million, which might not be much in India, but it is 40 to 45 per cent of the Italian population.
Roberto Mancini (the manager) has done a great job with the national team. In the previous Euro in 2016, when I was in Calcutta, we reached the semi-final but lost to Germany. Two years later, we did not even reach the World Cup in Russia. Sweden beat us in the qualifiers. That was a real disaster.
After that, Mancini took over as manager of the national team. He started to select young players, gave them a good, neat way of playing — not only with the usual Italian attitude of defending first, but playing with a high rate of ball possession, which was not our style earlier. This has yielded good results in Euro.
Spain played very well in the semi-final. They had more than 60 per cent of ball possession. For the rest of the matches, Italy played a high level of football, scoring so many goals.
Over to Wembley
There are no favourites in the final. For the first time, England are in the Euro final. That will be a good motivational push for them. Also, they will play at Wembley in front of English supporters.
The last time the two teams played against each other was in Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. It was the first match of the tournament for both teams. We beat England
2-1. I was in Rome at the time. Now you are telling me it will be the same Dutch referee (Bjorn Kuipers) officiating in this match also? I did not know that!
Now that we are in the finals, statistics of previous matches have no value when the players enter the field and start playing. Every match has a history. But regardless of whether you are Italian or English, football lovers will get to enjoy a game of good, modern football.
My favourite player Leonardo Spinazzola got injured in the quarter-final against Belgium. He raptured his Achilles tendon. Unfortunately he is out. The team dedicated the semi-final victory to him.
But the other players are also very good. The goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, made some crucial saves in the Belgium match. I also like Jorginho, the mid-fielder. We have a good defence line with the two experienced defenders from Juventus, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, who have played so many matches together. And of course there is Lorenzo Insigne, who scored two wonderful goals in the tournament. We hope he will get more chances to score on Sunday.
In the England squad, captain Harry Kane is the biggest danger to us. He has already scored four goals. I like Raheem Sterling — he can run fast — even though I have to say the penalty given to England in their semi-final against Denmark was a bit generous.
But our defenders Chiellini and Bonucci are very experienced and I am confident they will block the English attack. Italy is unbeaten for 33 matches since 2018. And it is always difficult to score a goal against Italy. I hope we will maintain that tradition.
Players of the national teams do not always play together, being on duty in different clubs. But when they play for the country they discover a way to unite. We were the best team in our group and now we are in the final. We are happy that we have a magic situation this year for Italy.
We had reached the final of Euro in 2000 and lost to France, and again in 2012 when we lost to Spain. We were the Euro champions in 1968. Italy was the host that year. The match was played in Stadio Olimpico in Rome. I was a baby then, but I grew up hearing about the victory. The final versus Yugoslavia had to be played twice as the first match had ended in a tie after extra time. There was no rule of penalty kicks.
Even the final of the World Cup in those days had no provision for penalty kicks. If the match ended in a tie, you had to play again. Of course, that never happened.
The first time there was a penalty shootout in the World Cup finals tournament was in 1982, when West Germany beat France in the semi-final. In 1990, when Italy hosted the World Cup, I remember both semi-finals were decided by penalty. Argentina beat us in one and West Germany won against England in the other. Four years later, the title itself was decided this way when Brazil beat us in the 1994 World Cup final. I hope this year’s final does not have to go that way.
None of the current national players are from the club I support, Udinese Calcio, which is based in Udine, a city in northern Italy, where I come from. Many big names played there down the years, the most famous being Dino Zoff, the goal-keeper. He was under the bar when we won the World Cup in 1982. He was also there in 1977, which was the last time when England beat Italy. That’s a long time for England not to have prevailed against us, which is awkward, huh?
I will watch the final at a friend’s place. We hope Wednesday’s celebration was an appetiser of what will happen on Sunday but let’s not say anything and just keep our fingers crossed!
As told to Sudeshna Banerjee
Damiano Francovigh is currently the first counsellor, ministry of foreign affairs of the government of Italy, and resides in Rome