The European champions returned home at dawn Monday to the ecstatic cheers of Italians who had spent the better part of the night honking horns, setting off fireworks, and breaking all sorts of coronavirus precautions in order to celebrate their team’s 3-2 penalty shootout win over England at Wembley.
As they descended from their Alitalia charter flight at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, captain Giorgio Chiellini, his fist pumping in the air, and coach Roberto Mancini hoisted the trophy high above their heads. Defender Leonardo Spinazzola hopped down the steps on one foot, his other in a cast after injuring his Achilles tendon earlier in the tournament, to cheers from airport workers. “Grazie Azzurri,” read a banner on the tarmac, echoing the national mood after Italy won its first major trophy since the 2006 World Cup.
Later Monday, President Sergio Mattarella and Premier Mario Draghi officially honored the national team, who was joined by tennis player Matteo Berrettini, who had given Italians another reason to be proud by reaching the Wimbledon singles final on Sunday. Berrettini was defeated by Novak Djokovic, but he joined Mattarella at Wembley Stadium to watch the Azzurri draw 1-1 after extra time and then win on penalties on Sunday.
The championship represented a new beginning for Italy’s young national team and a country eager to return to normalcy after being hit hard and long by the coronavirus pandemic.
As thousands of people took to the streets in Rome, a cacophony of honking cars, fireworks, and singing fans filled the night. The noise had died down by the time the sun rose on Monday, but not the sentiment. Many Italians saw the European Championship as a relaunch for a country that had been in various stages of lockdown for the previous 16 months. Italy was the first country outside of Asia to be hit by the pandemic, and it suffered greatly, especially in the spring of 2020, when hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed with patients, and the death toll skyrocketed.
Italy has had the highest number of COVID deaths, with over 127,000, in the 27-nation European Union.
“It’s been a difficult year for everyone, but especially for us, as one of the first countries to be affected. “This is the beginning of a new era,” said Michela Solfanelli, a 30-year-old event producer based in Milan. Most virus restrictions have been lifted since the spring, and those that remain have been largely ignored by the throngs of Italian fans who danced in the streets of Rome, chanting “we are European champions.”
David Bellomo, a 23-year-old from the southern city of Bari, noted that this was Italy’s second major victory this year, following the Eurovision Song Contest victory by Italian band Maneskin in May.
“Thanks to Eurovision, this game, and soccer, we were able to return this year,” he said. “With Berrettini, we almost got a triple,” he added. Fans crowded shoulder to shoulder to watch the penalties on two large screens set up on Piazza del Popolo, an elliptical cobblestone square on the outskirts of Rome’s historic center. A deafening roar erupted as Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saved England’s final penalty kick.
Among the sea of blue shirts was a Senegalese immigrant family who had traveled from Zagarolo, an hour from Rome, to watch the final with the crowd in the piazza.
“I am not Italian, but I understand the emotions. “I feel it as if I were Italian,” Falilou Ndao, 42, said. “This is a country that we adore.”
Yankho, his 13-year-old son and a soccer fan from Italy, was impressed by the team. “They demonstrated bravery. Even when they were trailing by a goal, they never gave up,” he said. “It is richly deserved. They have been outstanding throughout the tournament. Italy, go!”
Despite the fact that masks are still required in crowded places, police made no attempt to intervene as throngs of fans poured out of the piazza, singing the national anthem and lighting flares. As supporters drove through the city waving Italian flags from their cars, fireworks exploded overhead.
Dr. Annamaria Altomare, a 39-year-old gastroenterologist, observed the spectacle from a safe distance with a friend. They were among the few people who wore masks.